Managerial Interference and Teacher Autonomy

Brandy Bottle

The elixir which once rendered heads harmless

You don’t raise many cheers by arguing against autonomy for teachers. Autonomy is associated with professional status. A professional should be trusted to make their own decisions from day to day about how they go about their work.

In reality, however, these decisions will always be limited by many factors outside the control of the individual professional. They will not be able to choose the curriculum, especially if their school is serious about a coherent, knowledge rich approach. They are unlikely to be able to choose which classroom they use, or which pupils they teach. The resources they use will be constrained by finances or simple availability.

I’m not sure many teachers would want to control all of these things in any case. The key thing they wish to control is the day to day delivery of lessons in their classroom. They want to be able to make the daily decisions about how to operate within the constraints that are inevitably outside their control.

But this autonomy is bound to be limited early in any professional’s career. Junior doctors must be supervised by more experienced practitioners, and so must inexperienced teachers. This supervision is supposed to help the person new to the profession to develop the skills and knowledge which will later mean that they can be given more independence, and eventually help to train less experienced colleagues themselves.

There is a reasonable progression, therefore, to greater autonomy as time goes on and the professional proves that they can be trusted to operate without supervision.

But there needs to be a proper hierarchy of responsibility. Heads of department and other more experienced professionals within a department should be the only ones doing the ordinary supervision of less experienced staff. This is the normal line management method used in most companies. It would be very odd if the managing director started to wander around, poking into specialised areas of the operation and passing judgement on them. In fact, such activity would indicate that there had been a severe breakdown of trust within the organisation. It would be viewed, quite rightly, as interfering micromanagement. Even more bizarre is the practice of senior managers attempting to ape government inspectors as they conduct their ‘learning walks’, or surveillance operations, as they should be called.

Consider a software company. It has grown over the years, and the managing director, who used to do coding, now has an administrative role. But he can’t leave the coders alone, even those with many years of experience. He insists that he needs to grade their coding. So he sits behind a coder for twenty minutes, watching them work. Then he grades them on a four point scale. If they are in the lower half of the scale, he starts telling them in detail how they should perform their daily duties.

A company like that would have a high staff turnover, and there would be a mixture of fear and contempt for senior management. In contrast, a sane approach would be through line management responsibility, whereby a more experienced coder on the same team would help a new member of staff develop their knowledge and skills. The line manager could apply his superior knowledge to specific problems, and build steady, incremental improvement in a trusting relationship.

The interfering behaviour of senior management who interfere in the day to day operations of schools has given a bad name to supervision and observation in general, when really these practices should be seen as helpful and supportive elements of professional development. They would be seen that way if they were conducted in a collegiate manner, and completely separated from any capability proceedings.

There was a time when there was really only one senior manager, the head, and rather like a jolly country parson in a Trollope novel, his main duties consisted in drinking brandy, smoking cigars and making the occasional rousing speech, while his secretary took care of the administration. But as the ranks of senior management have swelled, we have reached the point where there are many highly paid and lightly timetabled people whose very raison d’etre is interference. If they gave it up, they’d have hardly anything left to do. They might have to return to working for a living instead.

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4 thoughts on “Managerial Interference and Teacher Autonomy

  1. ‘But as the ranks of senior management have swelled, we have reached the point where there are many highly paid and lightly timetabled people whose very raison d’etre is interference. If they gave it up, they’d have hardly anything left to do.’

    I suspect this is part of the reason that they are so willingly recruited into this behaviour. All other rewards in respect of material gain and control aside, heads need something to remind them that what they do is important. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of them were teachers themselves, once upon a time. and that most teachers bring with them into the profession some degree of a sense of vocation. Upon climbing the greasy pole and being whisked out of the classroom, many heads are likely to feel the need to actively seek an affirmation that they are still serving a purpose.

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