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?