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Three tips for talking to teachers when their pay is higher than performance 

Pay is always a hot, emotive topic, and in teaching it’s about to get a lot hotter; performance-related pay is going to mean some difficult conversations around pay every year.  But in the first two years, 2013/14 and 2014/15, these conversations will be even more important.  Why?  Because they will set teachers’ expectations for pay and some will not be happy if their performance is deemed less than the pay they currently receive.

  • In 2013/14, expectations were set and if a teacher is not performing at the level for their pay they need to know this and how they can address the gap.
  • In 2014/15, depending on their progress over the year, the conversation will be somewhere along the spectrum with ‘well done, your performance now matches your pay’ at one end to ‘I’m sorry but your performance has not improved enough to warrant your pay’ and then capability procedures are expected to begin.

There is pressure on head teachers to get this right because Ofsted will ask, as we are increasingly seeing, how many outstanding teachers do you have and what does your pay look like for teachers?

Where the number of outstanding teachers has not matched the number paid as outstanding, and where a school has been unable to explain why there is a discrepancy and what they are doing about it, we have seen instances where the school has dropped down an Ofsted grade from what they would have achieved.

For performance-related pay, there are several key elements to these conversations:  what criteria is being used to assess performance, their current pay, your assessment of their current performance and what this means to their pay.

With all the pre-work done, all that remains is the conversation between the person setting pay and the teacher; it’s time for a difficult conversation. So, how can you make this easier on yourself and the teacher?  Here are three tips to help you.

1) Do your homework – be ready with specific evidence

You might have a teacher who fully accepts the gap in performance and pay and, once the government decides if and how this affects pay, you both agree to take the appropriate action.  But you might have a teacher who disagrees with your assessment of their performance and to reach a shared and, hopefully, agreed understanding you will need to give specific, evidence-based examples.  If you are unable to give those examples, you should question whether you can justifiably say their performance is poor in that specific way. Without evidence, what can you prove?  You will also need to be clear which part of the National Teachers Standards they are not meeting.  For example, if a lesson you observe is not appropriately differentiated and, as a result, the lesson does not stretch pupils, they will not be meeting National Teacher Standards 1.5.1 and 1.1.2.

2) Clarity of message

Clarity of message is really important, because you need to be absolutely clear about this if the conversation is going to be useful.  This sounds very straightforward, but it is often the hardest part to get right in a difficult conversation, and I’ve worked with a lot of head teachers and school leaders who will agree. It’s akin to getting off the starting blocks well; get it right and the rest of the conversation will go a lot better, get it wrong and you will be playing catch up with a high chance the conversation will go badly. 

The key to clarity of message is being clear in your outcome; what will be different as a result of this conversation?  Will they need to improve their teaching as measured by lesson observation grading, differentiate thoroughly in all lessons or manage classroom behaviour more effectively?  For situations where performance and pay do not match your outcome, the teacher will need to understand the implications for their pay and agree what areas they need to improve.  In this instance, the start of a pay conversation could be:

‘Hello ‘Fred’, I want to talk to you about your performance and pay. At present, I believe your performance is that of an established teacher (mid-range pay, M5) and you will see from our performance pay structure that your pay is at the level of an expert teacher (top pay range, UPS1).  I would like to discuss with you how we address this gap in a way that is both good for the school and good for you (this is your outcome), and I would like us to agree a way forward by the end of this meeting.’

You will have raised awareness of the issue and opened the dialogue for you both to address it.

3) Your approach in the conversation

Once into the conversation – you’ve shared your view of their performance and pay (clarity) and your reasoning (specific evidence) –  your approach will be best when it is one of helping the teacher and the school meet their aims.

For a difficult conversation to be successful there needs to be a meeting of minds, so be careful of turning into a barrister when sharing your evidence and presenting your case.  If the news is a shock to the teacher, you could allow them some time to reflect; perhaps get both of you a drink. You could ask them how they see their performance and what areas are holding them back so as to help them understand your assessment. Never be afraid to tell them what you see, the evidence for your opinion; for some people they will not understand what is missing in their performance and then it’s the role of their line manager to explain this clearly.

The benefit of using these techniques is that you are more likely to have a collegiate conversation which is better for you, better for the teacher and far less likely to result in capability procedures, the unions being brought in, being signed off for stress, and all the other hard and time consuming issues which can follow such a delicate situation. It’s no guarantee but if it did all go sour and your approach was good, you will have a better chance of resolving the issues more reasonably and with less pain.

About the Author

Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting Head Teachers and School Leaders create an outstanding school culture.  https://ukheadsup.com

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