Friday, 24 August 2018

Does a manager in education need to have been a educator?

Over the years I have had many different managers.  Some I have thought to be good, some bad - and some downright awful.  At UEL we have just appointed a new VC - and it will be interesting to see what happens - but one of the debates that always seems to emerge when new managers are appointed, is whether an educational manager need to be an experienced educator?

Of course they should, one argument goes.  Anyone put in the position of deciding policies and practices within an educational institution needs to understand the roles, demands and challenges of those doing the actual job.  How can an educational manager have any clear understanding of the stakeholders in their business, if they have never been exposed directly to those stakeholders?

Don't be ridiculous, says the other side, surely a good manager is one who knows how to find the right information to make the most effective decisions relating to those stakeholders?  A manager with no teaching experience, who makes decisions that override the experience and understanding of those with lots of it, is just a bad manager.  There are examples of these, yes, but there are just as many examples of experienced teachers in management positions that make decisions based only on their own narrow professional experiences - and these decisions can often be equally harmful to the institution as a whole.

At some time or another I have probably held both views with equal conviction.

I experienced managers that were terrifically qualified in educational terms, but had little conventional 'business knowledge'.  This didn't matter in the slightest though, because although they drove the aim, directions and strategies of the organisation they deferred to more specifically-qualified and experienced staff to rationalise those aims.  'Bad' management tended to occur when managers assumed that their position led them to believe that they were the best qualified to make unilateral decisions without deferment to anyone at all.

Equally, I have experienced managers that were terrifically qualified in management terms, but had little conventional experience as an educator.  This didn't seem to matter in the slightest though, because they saw themselves as supplying business rationalism and validity, but deferred to the expertise of teaching staff and students for shaping the aims, directions and strategies of the organisation.  'Bad' management tended to occur when managers assumed that their job was to unilaterally impose a specific business model on an organisation regardless of its function, and treated any opposition as evidence of an unruly staff that needed to put in their place.

Now, I have never had any interest in being involved in management.  It seems to me to be a thankless job likely to take over your life and, with accumulated stress, possibly end it sooner.  I have an inherent sympathy therefore, for anyone put in such a thankless position.   I do tend to take interest in it as a spectator sport though, as (I suspect) many of us do simply because it directly impacts whether we enjoy coming to work or not.

I have started to wonder whether the key to a good manager is humility.  Humility to know that their job is to serve the needs of their stakeholders and employees - not to rule them.  Humility to know that they are dependent always on expertise that they are expected to manage, not possess.  Humility to understand that being a manager doesn't inherently mean that they know better than everyone they manage.  Humility to accept that just because something works for them, doesn't mean it should and must work for everyone. 

Managers can make bad decisions, sure: We all make mistakes.  I wonder though, whether this kind of manager will make fewer mistakes - and be more easily forgiven for those they do...?

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Luxury of Despair

I remember one class I taught - and my memory may be playing tricks with me here, but I think it was about Jameson's ideas about the cultural logic of late capitalism.  Whatever the actual topic, the basic idea was about the hidden functions of society to concentrate power and wealth.

At the end of the class a student (clearly a lot smarter than I was) came and asked perhaps the most important two questions I had ever been asked as a teacher: What can we do about it, and what do you do about it?

At the time, I was able to answer to both questions - with a reasonable degree of confidence - "teach people".

Easy for me to say.  As a lecturer in cultural theory, it was what I was paid to do.  What I had to say on the subject carried value, and my poor students were obliged to listen.

So, I taught them about Jameson.  I taught them about Marx and De Beauvoir.  I taught them about Chomsky and Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, Toril Moi and Homi Bhaba.  And at the end of all that I genuinely hoped I had persuaded them to a certain degree of both cultural criticality and moral indignation.  I genuinely wanted my students to look critically at the world around them, and to understand hidden injustices and prejudices.

I wanted them to be angry about things, and to feel that they had the capacity to do something about them.

And then I stopped teaching.

The usual tale of stress and overworking was making me pretty unwell, and I was fortunate enough to get a pretty awesome job as a 'Learning Technology Advisor'.  And I love it, I really do - but it means I have let go of all the old theories and ideas that used to get me so worked up.  For the last few years I have blocked out the news that used to make me so depressed.  Stopped reading the books.  Stopped boring people about it all, whether on Twitter or this blog, in the classroom or (worst of all) to my wife.

But now I worry that all sounds a bit too much like giving up.  All those things I believe in, and that drive me, just putting them away quietly in a drawer.  And then I made the mistake of listening to the Martyn Joseph's The Luxury of Despair, where he sings:

And if the cockerel crowed what would I deny? 
I’d hope any tyranny that met my eye 
Or the right of domain over the mind of a man 
And the lie that we cannot be equal or free

Oh bloody hell.  Thanks Martyn.

Now I have to start thinking about those questions all over again:  There is injustice in this world.  There is plenty to get angry about.  So, what can do about it?  Especially now I am no longer paid to bang on about it?

Answers on a postcard, please....

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