Buffers And Filters

It’s very easy, I think, to polarise discourse around management. Too easy, in fact, to draw a simple line between us and them, and it was this kind of discourse which led to me being somewhat disillusioned with the whole notion of unions.

I am going to draw a bit of a line, albeit a wavy one with many many exceptions and caveats, and that is between those who teach, and those who don’t. And on that line, with a foot in both camps, so to speak, there exists what I think of as the toughest and most challenging layer of management. In a small college these may simply be heads of department, but in larger colleges there exists a layer of a manager between head of department and teacher. I’ll call them team leader, as that is close enough to what they have been called at at least two colleges where I’ve worked, but they might be called something else in other colleges.

Essentially, all management roles in education are buffer zones: interpreting diktat from above into terms and conditions which are clear to the next layer down. The role of the next layer down is to reinterpret said diktat into palatable terms for the next layer down, and so on and so on. As the message gets handed down, as with all forms of translation, something inevitably gets lost, and even occasionally added to by an individual’s personal interpretation. Going back up the chain from here goes a succession of evidence that that drive has been implemented, that the rule has been enforced, gathering bureaucratic weight as it goes, so that a simple sentence in a senior leadership meeting carries the same heft as thirty teachers gathering various bits of data. I can only assume it is carrying all these heavy words around which justifies senior manager salaries, but I wouldn’t like to say for sure.

So anyway, at the other end of the management scale is our team leader. On one side, they are charged not only with implementing whatever policy or strategy that has been passed down to them themselves as teachers, but also with ensuring that other people do the same as them. And, as with any strategy, neither the team leader nor the teachers may necessarily agree with said strategy, which can create tensions. After all, it’s one thing to have to implement a policy or strategy you don’t agree with, but then a whole other ball game to persuade other people to implement said strategy.

In short, at this level, the team leader is stuck. They have to operate as a kind of buffer between the policy diktats and the people most directly affected by them: teachers and learners. Go much beyond the team leader level and you are at least one step removed from teaching staff, and maybe two steps removed from students as individuals: crossing a line where people become condensed into statistical data. But the team leader directly links to teachers and to students, but, and this is important, needs to be seen to be toeing the party line.

I think it’s the hardest job in a college. I sometimes get a taste of it when I run training based on cross-college priorities and strategies, or things handed down from OFSTED, where you can’t just replicate the same training as everyone else. Every group of staff you speak to, every teacher, is different and has different needs, and sometimes, as is the case in ESOL, the subject teaching simply fails to fit adequately into the standard paradigm of “best practice”. (Remember, kids, don’t get into a car with anyone who uses phrases like “disseminate best practice” and means it.)

And it’s hard. The hardest training sessions I’ve ever run have been promoting something I have doubts and questions about, and I rather suspect it shows. So I think about how hard it can be to have to be thinking in those terms all the time when you are in a role which restricts the freedom you have to question things. You can’t say “well, we just have to do this” because that’s hardly going to inspire that person to engage. You have to enthuse and engage with these things yourself, regardless of your opinions and misgivings. Yes, you can encourage discussion, but you will, at some point, very likely to have to come down on one side, and that side, very often, will have to be the official side.

Remember as well that the people in these roles are often also teachers, people who spend a significant proportion of their working week in a classroom with students. Doing, essentially, the same job as everyone for whom they are responsible, but with the added pressure that they may feel that they should be doing it right, all the time. Failure is not an option, because credibility is linked to success. Doing the same job, but getting all the pressure from those more distanced from teachers and learners, while at the same time dealing with the day to day frustrations of teachers and learners. It’s a fine line to walk, and walked for what is probably about the price of a large cappuccino and a muffin a day.

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