Teachers often face unachievable, unrealistic workplace goals. Here’s how to resolve the situation and motivate your staff

Teachers in the UK have a hard job. They deal with a lot of stress and have high expectations to live up to. They are expected to keep students in line, make sure their pupils are constantly learning and improving, all the while managing lofty and unattainable objectives. It has become increasingly clear that teachers are regularly assigned unrealistic targets, and this is having an impact on the performance of teachers and students alike. What solutions can performance management offer to remedy this stressful situation?

How are goals assigned in schools, and why are targets a problem?

In schools, goal setting usually begins with a meeting with the senior leadership team (SLT). During this time, teachers are given their targets for the year, and they are expected to achieve them, regardless of how flawed they may be.

According to a recent report, teachers are being given ridiculous goals. One teacher was instructed to “get 18 pupils to grade A or better”. This would be a difficult objective under ordinary circumstances, but in this case it was entirely impossible, given that the teacher only had 13 pupils in his class. Another teacher was instructed to increase his year 7 intake by 20, something he had no control over, while yet another teacher was told to “get all pupils to grade A”. When these teachers raised their concerns with management, they were told “it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to do it”.

It may be due to these unrealistic goals that one in 10 teachers take antidepressants to deal with their work stress and three-quarters of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) have already considered leaving the profession.

A career that should be uplifting and motivational has become, for many, a source of exhaustion and constant stress. But any good HR executive would tell you that it doesn’t have to be like this. There is a way schools can impress Ofsted, motivate excellent performance and keep teachers happy. The process includes the introduction of realistic, collaborative and motivational near-term goals, which can be re-addressed and revisited on a regular basis.

What happens when we are given unattainable goals?

When we set teachers unattainable goals, we are creating a culture of failure. Such a culture is hardly conducive to employee engagement and motivation. When people are presented with clearly unrealistic goals, they tend to not even try at all. This isn’t to say that goals shouldn’t be challenging. The golden rule is that they should be stretching, but achievable. Teachers should be pushed slightly out of their comfort zone to allow for growth, but they shouldn’t be asked to move mountains. Doing so will have a terrible impact on morale and motivation.

education, school and people concept - group of happy students and teacher with papers or tests

Why is motivation important?

You need employees to be motivated in order to achieve their goals. In fact, motivation has been referred to as the “psychological catalyst” that encourages people to achieve their SMART objectives. What’s more, motivated employees are more driven to do well and to perform effectively, which in a school setting is particularly important, as it has an impact on students and their achievements. Employees who are disengaged and unmotivated tend to work slower and are ultimately less productive.

How will realistic teacher goals impact students and their performance?

It’s clear that unrealistic goals create stressed teachers. But what impact does this stress have on the students they teach?

Studies have found that when teachers are highly stressed, students show “lower levels of both social adjustment and academic performance”. Stressed teachers are also less likely to bring the required levels of energy to the table, and as a result they aren’t able to develop trusting relationships with their students.

In fact, one interesting 2016 study tracked the stress hormones of more than 400 students. The results showed that the students with the highest levels of stress were taught by teachers who reported higher levels of burnout.

Why should we let teachers decide their own objectives?

One solution may be for management to collaborate with teachers during the goal-setting process. This is something many companies are incorporating into their performance management systems, as it has been shown that people are generally more likely to accomplish goals they set themselves. A collaborative process that emphasises and encourages feedback and communication is also more likely to reduce stress levels, improve morale and give teachers more control over their own careers.

Why should teachers have near-term goals to focus on?

The problem with simply allocating SMART objectives, or teaching targets, at the start of each year is that these goals are rigid and often become irrelevant over time. Instead of focusing solely on long-term goals, the process of setting and reviewing goals should be a continuous one, with regular discussions throughout the year.

Near-term goals ensure employees are moving in the right direction and won’t get overwhelmed. They are flexible and they allow teachers to celebrate and be recognised for smaller accomplishments.

Organisations around the world are moving away from annual performance reviews and the traditional yearly goal-setting process towards continuous performance management. It only makes sense that schools begin to incorporate this strategy, too, so they can reap the benefits.

Great tips for setting teacher goals

During the goal-setting process, the following golden rules should be kept in mind:

  1. Objectives should be set termly rather than annually.
  2. They should be specific, clear, measureable and ideally be stretching in some way.
  3. Employees shouldn’t be given too many goals. Keep their attention focused on a few important objectives at a time.
  4. Employees should be given all the necessary training and resources in order to achieve their objectives.
  5. Goals should be realistic and achievable given the timeframes and resources available.

For further guidance, check out our free tip sheet for setting SMART objectives.

How can performance management software help schools and teachers?

Technology can be used in order to set and track objectives. This keeps everyone updated on current progress, and with the use of performance management software, real-time feedback can be solicited and received. Management can be informed of any issues relating to goals, and regular meetings can be organised to discuss and clarify objectives. Doing so encourages open and honest communication, and it allows schools to be agile and proactive in terms of objectives.

Performance management software can be integrated into any business in order to improve performance, engagement and motivation. To find out how we can help you, get in touch for a free performance management consultation.