Saturday, 5 November 2011

Are Teachers the 'Managers' of the Classroom?

This summer, I took the opportunity to work as a local teacher for EF Language Travel. For those that have never heard of it before, EF is an international private education company that teaches English to millions of students around the world. There's an awful lot I learned from EF, but I think it's best to split what I want to talk about into separate posts because they are two very different topics.

When I first started writing this post, my first intention was to talk merely about motivation, but as I wrote more it developed into a comparison of staff management and classroom management. When teachers talk about motivation, the thing that comes to mind instantly is how to get the children motivated to work, but in this instance I wanted to talk about how staff are affected by motivation issues.

I've been working since I turned 13 and was allowed to do a paper round for the local newsagents. Since then, I've worked for a lot of different bosses, some good and some not so good. I'm aware as I type this that I am toeing a particularly narrow professional line and as such I won't go into particular detail about some of the things I mention. I think it's safe to say however, that for the last few years I have not enjoyed myself at work, which in turn lead me to perform below my own personal expectations. Now working below your own expectations isn't always a bad thing, everybody has off days, but my problem here was that I was able to justify my performance to myself because I wasn't motivated to perform better. This is very similar to what happens to children in school. If children aren't motivated to learn then it's unlikely that they will do, and more often than not it will lead to behaviour problems. Having not known any better motivation for such a long time, I took this to be the status quo and as a result of this, I had a bit of a shock waiting for me when I began teaching in school.

My first week I was a bit unsure of myself, new job, new surroundings, new people, but I felt welcomed by not just the management, but by the rest of the staff too. The cynic in me believed that sooner or later something would change, that I'd be berated for mistakes of others, spoken to like a peon or something similar, but nothing came. The point at which I really clicked what was going on was one early morning in the office. I was introducing one of the new members of staff to Mark, who I'm sure won't mind the fame of a couple of hundred more people hearing about him by name, when the phone rang. Excusing himself, I could gather from the one-sided conversation that it was someone calling in sick. What I didn't expect, however, was to hear 'No, it's ok, don't worry. Seriously, it's ok, you stay home and get some rest. Look, don't worry about it, we'll get cover! Get well soon'. 

Here's Mark in all his glory

It might seem odd that this had shocked me, but it was at this point I realised that the management genuinely cared about the people that worked for them. It went further - I came down with quite a bad chest infection halfway through the summer and instead of being made to feel guilty for asking for time off, I was repeatedly asked if I wanted the day off, without even asking for it. It totally took me aback and while on reflection I perhaps should have taken the time off (thanks for the offer though Karlie!), it had been drilled into me for so long that work comes first that I didn't even consider not turning up for work the next day. I would feel awful if I'd repeated the same classroom management mistakes so many times that my children had been drilled to accept it as the norm. I'd say this is why I have a fairly relaxed attitude in the classroom - If there is a reason for me to raise my voice then it becomes that much more effective if it's used infrequently.

It was this feeling amongst the staff that they were actually being looked out for that made us that bit happier with our jobs, and it made me realise that the methods we employ to motivate children are almost identical to how a good boss should motivate their staff, and as someone that would quite like to progress in my career I think that's something worth taking note of. Praise where praise is due, highly approachable but firm when it calls for it. One of the most important things I've noticed over the years is that the best managers are the ones that make decisions that are transparent, logical and fair. Being able to understand why a decision has been made from all perspectives is really important - it links so well with good teaching practice. If children understand why they are learning what they are learning, or why they are doing it in a certain way, they are far more likely to pick it up.

The best examples of management I have seen also provide a healthy balance of control and freedom. I remember one particular manager of mine who would micro-manage to such a degree that they might as well just do the job themselves, making me feel redundant. On the other hand, I've had managers so laid back that it didn't seem matter whether or not the job was done. These low expectations, while producing a relatively fun environment to work in, also reduced the quality of the work being done. In terms of classroom management, I would say this is akin to open-ended vs closed questions or investigations. Giving children too narrow a scope limits their visions of where the learning is going, reduces creativity and scope for individualism. But give children too much freedom and they'll lose focus, end up taking wild tangents and generally not learn as effectively as they could.

So, back to the question I use as the title of this blog. Good teachers and good managers share an awful lot of traits, as do bad teachers and bad managers. In fact, in terms of interpersonal relationships with a group of people, the role of a manager in somewhere like an office or a restaurant are very similar to that of the teacher in a classroom. Are teachers in effect the 'managers' of their class of 'employees', or are we something more? 


  1. This comment was left by Philip Selbie on the Plymouth Uni Blogs site before they linked directly to articles, so I transferred it here! (Part 1 - 4096 character limit!)

    Thanks JC, you’ve put into words something I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of decades since I made the switch from business to teaching in the 1990s. In those days ‘publishing’ thoughts through blogs was not possible and so I never got round to it when I should have but your post has inspired me to respond to you so here goes…

    Among other things, teachers ARE motivators and in that respect they do share traits with managers. Your experience of working for Mark at EL has clearly been an enlightening one and he obviously does a good job of motivating – why else would he be picked to do the promotional video in sunny locations with all those ‘pretty’ people? OK, that was unkind, but clearly if you (a) have the interpersonal skills and (b) recognise the value of those you work with then you are half way to building what we in the early years call an ‘enabling environment’; a place where those who work (and play) not only want to do their best but also enjoy giving their best. Wouldn’t it be great if this was a feature of everything known as ‘work’?

    I remember a few years into teaching thinking ‘if only some of my ex-colleagues in business were to experience a day with thirty 5 year old children they would learn a lot more about motivation (including skills of negotiation, persuasion and reconciliation) than they ever knew existed. You are correct in your observation that too much control is de-motivating while too much freedom eventually leads to a ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude. Being able to negotiate, persuade and sometimes reconcile are essential aspects of getting that balance right and lie behind motivating children (and employees).

  2. (Part two)

    I would like to take things a step further by addressing your question ‘are we something more (than managers)? In my experience good teachers are leaders as well as managers. Now before we get into the debate about the difference between the two let me just say I think there IS a difference although there are some aspects of management that involve leadership and vice versa. Now is not the time to wrestle with this so I will just let you know what I think about teachers as leaders.

    First of all, Mark at EF was a good manager for you but he was also an inspiration (for obvious reasons) and in that respect he was also a leader. In the same way good teachers must inspire children to be good learners. Some people (especially in business) are good at managing but they are not always good at leading. They are the people who capably get on with the job, meet deadlines and come up with the goods but they are frankly, uninspiring. I expect you can imagine the type of person I am referring to. Good teachers simply can’t afford to be like that as in the end their ‘enabling environment’ will become dull and probably end up unstable (or even worse).

    Secondly, leadership involves making decisions and having the authority to act upon them. To use the business analogy again, there are those that are capable managers but have very limited ability to make decisions let alone act upon them. This is not the case for teachers. At times it might not feel like it but class teachers are automatically given loads of authority to act upon their decisions and then sink or swim depending upon the choices they make. OK, let me qualify this by reminding you of your responsibilities to your employer, professional conduct and certain levels of common sense BUT within the confines of your role as a class teacher you are the ‘boss’!

    You plan what the work (and play) will be and then you decide how, when and where it will happen. You also decide WHY it will happen according to the choices you will make and also whether your choices were successful or not (do I need to mention that Assessment word?). Furthermore, you get the satisfaction of considering whether or not you were successful and if it is worth celebrating or quietly forgetting lest anyone should think you haven’t the faintest idea of what you are doing…

    I will finish (phew) by drawing on the point you made that the management at EL ‘genuinely cared about the people that worked for them’. Yes, good management should demonstrate care for their employees and in return employees are more likely to care about the concerns of the management. In the case of business this is often harder to achieve because words like ‘money’, ‘profit’, ‘bonus’, ‘dividends’ and ‘shares’ come into play. However, in teaching these words very rarely appear in black and white terms as they are features of a world where extrinsic motivation is the norm. This is not part of the world of teaching and learning where intrinsic motivation should be commonplace.

    Intrinsic motivation is (possibly) harder to achieve however, not taking the easy route and being prepared to take risks is another quality of leadership. The more teachers can show they care to those they work with (dare I say LOVE their children?), the more likely they will be able to motivate and to manage their learning. In short, teachers ARE managers because they must be organised and able to organise but I suggest that those who ALSO demonstrate leadership are the ones that are likely to be the best. @philipselbie

  3. And my response:

    Wow! The perfect comment response! Thanks, Phil!
    I totally agree that people in the world of business have an awful lot to learn from the way that teachers manage a classroom. I think the key difference between the two is focus.
    Perhaps this is a somewhat limited view, considering my lack of experience in corporate environments vs that of a classroom, so I’m drawing on what I see and hear through the media and other people’s experiences, but here goes!
    More often than not, in a corporate environment managers are driven by results, and live and die by them. In a world of commerce dominated by facts and figures, I think this introduces a somewhat narrow-minded approach to management in so far as that there are limited routes to achieving their goals and as such the job tends to mold the manager. Teachers on the other hand, whilst also judged on results, also have the luxury of an incredible range of strategies to achieve the targets which instead allow the teachers to mold the job.
    I liked your distinction of manager/leader. Oliver directed me to a blog post of his about the subject here: I know what you mean however, in that I’ve seen managers that in all honesty aren’t leaders, they’re simply there to carry out what the people above them want done and get the result. Teachers are given a lot more freedom in this respect as they are trusted to get the job done with little interference from those higher up (that I have experienced thus far in my career at least!)
    I think the point in your penultimate paragraph was something I had in the back of my mind, but couldn’t quite put it into words. In education there isn’t such a black and white contrast of good job/bad job when it comes to results. In business it is the results of the figures that motivate regardless of process, whereas teachers are motivated by the results of the processes they employ (and I won’t say regardless of figures).
    How did I know that you’d manage to get love in the post somewhere?! I wholeheartedly agree though.
    Thank you again for the comment – it really helped me further the thoughts I had spinning around my head when I wrote the post!
    JC @JCBarrington