Should Managers Tell Teachers What To Do? Part 1December 7, 2015
Every so often, for example, when I point out how heads cannot be trusted with PRP or when I describe bad management or how common it is, somebody will accuse me of believing that teachers should not be controlled by their managers. The accusation is that, given my contempt for the obstructions some SMT put in the way of teachers, I am challenging their authority rather than their competence. At times this sort of comment has comes from those on the right of the political spectrum, particularly those who have never worked in the classroom, who assume that I am complaining only about the normal practices of the workplace rather than the particular sickness of the bureaucracies that run our schools, or that I am speaking from an ideological conviction that the worker (and particularly their union) is always right and the boss is always wrong and the balance of power needs to be shifted accordingly. At other times, the accusation has come from members of SMT who, having implemented some ambitious new system and boasted about it on social media, can’t understand why there has been a hostile reaction. There is often uncertainty about how free teachers should be to criticise SMT, even when it is not necessarily their own SMT.
Some time ago, this sort of debate was touched on by the following section in a speech by Michael Wilshaw:
So – if leadership and headship is so important, especially in an increasingly autonomous system, does it receive the necessary level of support? Do heads and school leaders have the legitimacy to manage in a way their colleagues in other professions do? How many teachers not only grumble about their managers’ decisions (which is natural) but also question their right even to make them?
This is partly historical. In the past, some local authorities not only didn’t care about installing good heads, they actively undermined them if they offended vested interests. This was certainly the case in the disastrous decades of the 70s and 80s.
Even today, too many teachers still think that school leaders do not have the right to tell them how to teach or what to do. The staff room, in their minds, is just as capable of deciding the direction a school should take as the senior leadership team.
Now, I accept that some SLTs are not as good as they could be. I accept that too many implement the latest management gobbledygook without thinking things through. But I’ve come to the conclusion that many of their efforts are undermined by a pervasive resentment of all things managerial.
Some teachers simply will not accept that a school isn’t a collective but an organisation with clear hierarchies and separate duties. While it’s true that we all share a common purpose, our responsibilities are not the same.
What’s worse, far too many school leaders seem to believe that they don’t have a right to manage, either. They worry constantly about staff reaction. They hold endless meetings to curry favour. They seem to think they cannot act without their employees’ approval.
Yes, you should consult with staff. Yes, you should explain. But never confuse consultation with negotiation. We must take the staff with us at all costs, the misguided say. No, you mustn’t. Not if it means leaving the children behind.
Although there’s contentious stuff here, and inevitably some of the news reports at the time focused on it, I’m not as hostile to everything that was said as some might assume. The best heads I have worked for have been authoritarian in some respects. One had even, as I understand it, been responsible for attempting to dismiss a union rep who had publicly denounced a recently introduced school policy and, despite my natural sympathies, I cannot find any reason to think they did the wrong thing. Heads who set the rules clearly and expect people to follow them are generally a good thing and far better to work for than the sort of heads who have to be second-guessed the whole time because their instructions are unclear, inconsistent or impossible to follow or their priorities are utterly obscure. Also, if power is to be exercised it should be exercised by the legitimate authority. A school I know (but didn’t work in) backed off from changing the length of its lunch break because of the objections of a union rep. To me, this is ridiculous. Unless there are serious workload implications then union reps need not be consulted over this sort of thing, let alone hold sway. Wilshaw has a point. The head is the boss. They should be willing to tell people what to do.
However, there has to be a qualification here. Bosses should be willing to tell people what to do up to a point. All but the most crazy of free market loons accept this principle. Even in jobs where obeying orders is utterly vital then you cannot be expected to comply if you are ordered to sleep with your line manager, chop off your left hand or commit a criminal offence. The question is: where the line should be drawn? What sort of instructions should managers give teachers? What mechanisms should be in place for enforcing those instructions? What is or isn’t reasonable for managers to demand? I will explore these issues in the next few posts.