Who Determines the Scope for Performance Goals…the teacher or the manager?

In a recent article Dr Kristine Needham shares some very helpful tips on how a coaching approach can breathe life into the performance review process. Kris makes the point that many schools ask teachers to set 3 goals:

  • One goal related to an initiative from the school’s annual improvement plan, e.g. literacy
  • One goal related to a department or stage initiative, e.g. implementation of a new topic or strategy
  • One goal related to their own teaching, e.g. a challenging class, an IT tool, a pedagogical approach such as differentiating learning

This got me thinking… are there also circumstances where a teacher can determine the scope for their performance goals, without pre-set boundaries? This is about respecting (and encouraging) the professionalism of teachers. That’s not to say that we want a situation where we have “self- employed” teachers working on disconnected goals across the school. What we are talking about here is “freedom within form” – teachers operating under the umbrella of the broader goals of the school.

The answer is yes…with a but!

Key Pre-Conditions if Self-Determined Goal Setting is the Aim

Schools that have moved to enabling teachers to self-determine the scope of their goal areas have found that some key pre-conditions are necessary. By investing time in establishing pre-conditions many (though not always all) teachers, are very able to set their performance goals without any set requirements placed on them by administration. So, what are these pre-conditions?

  • Whole School Planning is Focussed on Student Learning….and is Collaborative

    Schools that view whole school planning through the lens of evidence informed teaching strategies that have the highest impact on student learning in their context, find in many instances that they naturally refer to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and the very many accompanying resources available through AITSL. These resources such as the AITSL Continuum of Classroom Practice, become part of the reflection process when whole school focus areas are being considered. Further, when whole school planning is highly participative and collaborative, teachers have a greater level of buy-in to the school focus areas and are more likely to make use of the school plan as a relevant resource when they are being coached by their “line manager” as part of the performance development process.

    In larger schools where department or phases of learning initiatives are also established, these are far more relevant to a teacher when the overall whole school focus areas are driven by the relentless question of…will this have the greatest impact on student learning in this context?

    We are talking about a cascading level of “view” from the whole school focus areas right through to a student in a particular classroom. We have heard this referred to as the “line of sight” from the school plan, through all the levels of conversations until the ultimate impact can be seen with any given student.

    If a teacher is not paying attention to the school plan when establishing their goals….there is potentially something wrong with the planning and the plan.

  • High Trust Relationships

    As we know from research such as Bryk, A.S. & Schneider, B. (2002) schools that have a greater level of trust within all levels of relationships, have improved results than schools with low trust. Common sense will tell us this, however is it not a low trust strategy for administration to commence the performance development process requiring the teachers to set a pre-determined number of goals and around a set of parameters?

    While there will inevitably be situations where some teachers will need to show evidence that their performance goals meet administrative requirements, if this is viewed as the exception rather than the rule, then maybe we start the whole performance development process from a position of “I trust you are a professional and I trust you will be setting your goals around the needs of the students”. As mentioned, if the whole school focus areas, and where relevant, department initiatives are also established based on the learning needs of students, then do we need to tell teachers what to set their goals around? Perhaps not….for the majority of teachers at least.

    When trust is modelled from the principal right through the many levels of performance conversations that happen in a school, this can ultimately enable teachers to embrace peer observation, peer feedback and peer coaching. It is when teachers are seen as trustworthy professionals, that they are willing to open themselves to changes in their teaching practice and use the support of others like their manager and peer coaches. We know that the greatest level of change to teaching practice will happen in a true partnership (Knight, 2011), often between two peers, and we know that one of the highest impacts on student learning, is the appropriate choice of pedagogy.

    Therefore, in practice it is reasonable for a principal to be having performance conversations using a coaching approach with senior members of the school (e.g. associate principals), where their goals are around their own professional learning needs aligned with the whole school plan focus areas. The questions here could be; What would you be doing differently if you were leading this focus area as best as possible with those you manage? How would things be better for you? For the teachers you manage?

    The senior leaders in turn could be having performance conversations with middle managers with their goals and actions centred on how they will lead those they manage to implement the schools overall direction and focus areas.

    It could then be reasonable for a middle manager to be having performance conversations using a coaching approach with the teachers they manage, with the goals here being around articulating the whole school focus areas into iSMART goals relevant to the teachers levels of responsibilities (i.e. the classes and students they teach)

    In schools that have embraced peer coaching, the teachers then utilize a peer coach to support them in articulating the performance goals into actions. These actions may even directly relate to particular students. This micro level of conversation is very relational and based on partnership principles (Knight, 2011) and using data/evidence collected through peer observation, to inform the goals and actions at the classroom practice level.

    This is possible in an environment of high trust. (read more about trust here and here)

  • Performance Development is a Process NOT an Event

    As Dr Needham points out so well in her recent article, where regular check-ins are incorporated, the coaching approach to performance development breathes life into what can often be seen by teachers as a “form filling” event. While some of these check-ins may be somewhat formal, with goal progress discussed and actions for the next period (perhaps monthly) written, the real process can happen through “corridor coaching”. These random (although sometimes random looking but planned by the coach!) give the chance for 2-3 mins catch ups between the coach/leader and the coachee. These can happen as the teacher is for example walking to the staff room or while on duty. Simple check-in questions such as:

    • How are you going with that goal you established a few months ago? I think you said back then that you were at a 4/10 in achieving that goal…any progress there? What is better now?
    • (Assuming the coachee has moved at all in that scale) Wow, what is contributing to that progress? How did you do that? It seems to me that a strength you have that is a factor here is_____
    • Using that strength (affirmed from their story of progress) and what has worked so far, what are some options to move you even a little further up that scale? What else? What option can you see yourself putting into action in the next few days?
    • How will you do that? Is there a step even prior to that one?

    The key for the leader as coach is to be cognisant of the teacher’s goals and where they rated themselves at the last check-in, before they have these very informal “corridor coaching” conversations. It is also important that this information is not lost and that it can be woven into the subsequent check-ins and even into the more formal review meetings.

  • Some Things to Consider

    • So how does all of this sit with you and your context?
    • What training and support do you provide for those who will be ‘performance developers’ (leaders as coaches)?
    • To what extent is your whole school planning focused on instructional practice and student outcomes?
    • Do you have an accepted and routinely referenced set of standards, a framework, or a set of guidelines or principles that can act as a point of reference for goal setting and performance and development conversations?
    • Is there an environment of trust in the professionalism of teachers and if not, is this where to start?
    • What are the situations that would trigger a variation from enabling a teacher to be self-determining with the scope of their goals and how should this be made clear to all?


  • Bryk, A. S. & Schneider, B. L. (2002). Trust in schools: a core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Coaching Resource Library