29 March 2012

Ten things teachers need their managers to say - and mean

How harmonious is your staffroom?
Sheesh, what with holidays (yay) and tropical fevers (boo) I’ve not blogged for nearly a month. But something has been on my mind for the last week that I’ve really wanted to write about, and it wouldn’t be prudent to go into the reasons why, but I’ve been trying to remember all the people who’ve managed me since I became a teacher. At one end of the spectrum there was Jennie, whose warmth, humour, intellect and sense of justice were and are an inspiration; at the other there was Neil – not his real name – whose incompetence-muffling authoritarianism drove away half his staff in six months. And of course, a whole lot of people in between.

The difference in their management styles, and the work they’ve got out of me as a result, is pretty remarkable. Inside the classroom I’d like to think the quality of my teaching is more or less consistent, but for good managers I’ve happily worked 50-hour weeks and for bad ones I’ve been out of the door the second the lesson is over, satchel flying behind me. The periods of time when I’ve had good managers correlate to the periods of time when I’ve undertaken the most CPD, volunteered the most, and been the least resentful of paperwork, even submitting it on time occasionally, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

What makes a good manager? Maybe I’ve no right to speculate. I have no aspirations towards management, hairdressing or chiropody, so perhaps I’d do well not to tell managers, hairdressers or chiropodists how to do their jobs. But the impact of being managed by someone at the extreme ends of the spectrum is so significant that I’m going to say my piece anyway: here are ten things which, in my view, teachers need their managers to say – and, more importantly, to mean. (Top tips for zookeepers to follow.)

1. ‘I’ll help you’
We don’t expect you to be able to fix everything. If the projector’s broken, the projector’s broken. But we do expect you to recognise that it might be inconvenient, arrange for someone to repair it as soon as possible, let us move our class to a new location if possible or provide a temporary whiteboard/flipchart. The day-to-day stuff matters. If you think you’re too busy or too important to help out with it, something’s gone wrong.

2. ‘Let’s try something different’
It’s your way or the highway, right? After all, who’s the boss here?  Except that nearly every problem has a range of solutions, and they’re not always apparent straight away. Embrace your school’s why-guy/gal and don’t be afraid to change things when they’re not working. Listen to ideas, and not just from other managers. (What if the woman who orders the toner is the woman whose brainwave is about to save you thousands of pounds?) And absolutely, categorically banish the phrase That’s just how it is from your vocabulary. It’s not a reason, it’s an excuse for inaction.  

3. ‘Well done’
Delivered sincerely and sparingly, Well done goes a very, very long way. We’re all suckers for praise. Add it to your arsenal.

4. ‘It doesn’t matter’
In short: choose your battles. If a teacher belittles students in class, or sets homework they never look at, it matters. On the other hand, if a teacher is 10 minutes late once a year, you know it really was because of an accident en route to work. Cover the start of the class yourself if necessary and let it go. Most of us love the job and want to do it well, so trust us until we give you serious cause not to.

5. ‘I know how you feel’
There’s nothing worse than someone telling you they know how you feel when they clearly don’t – and if you're managing teachers and can’t say this truthfully there’s a problem. You need to have had extensive teaching experience yourself and ideally continue to teach alongside your managerial duties, so when I'm having one of those days when someone is sick on my laminates and my brilliant intonation activity falls on its ass and running away to join the circus seems like a viable new career path, you really do know how I feel.

'Now it says on your CV that you're TEFL-Q'
6. ‘Tell me…’
Tell me how you feel. Tell me why you think that happened. Tell me what would make things better. Tell me is a much underused invitation to speak and be heard. When we’re not listened to, we feel excluded and resentful. Sometimes we might say things you don’t want to hear, but better out than in, as just about everybody’s great aunt used to say.

7. ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’
Number of times a manager has said this to me: two or three (it was the same guy, and in my pre-teaching days). Number of times a manager probably ought to have said this to me, but didn’t: well, let’s just say, a lot. Apologising isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. We don’t expect you to get it right all the time just because you’re on a higher pay grade. If you balls up and it affects your teachers, say you’re sorry and try your best to put it right. You’ll get a lot more respect than if you refuse to take responsibility.

8. ‘Thank you’
Yes, we’re paid to do this. But the effects of uttering a simple Thank you are disproportionate to the time it’ll take you. (See also: Well done.)

9. ‘I’m with you’
We need to know that you’ve got our backs – which is not to say that if we’re caught at 2pm on a sunny Tuesday wearing only Superted underpants, waving an empty Bacardi bottle and spraying racist graffiti on the school walls, you should be beside us in court testifying to our good character. But, to use a particularly unpleasant bit of management speak, we need to be singing from the same hymn sheet. At the very least, we need you to believe that your teachers, your students and education per se are valuable things worth standing up for. And if the poop hits the fan, to be bold enough to actually do so.

10. ‘Hahahahahaha!’
OK, so written down that just makes you look a bit unhinged. But having a sense of humour is so important. Teaching is unpredictable, and the Days of Weird can either become a drama or an anecdote for next year. Yes, there are times when absolute seriousness is required, but they’re few and far between; laughing at the silliness of the world, other people and yourself is good medicine.

11. ‘I got you a Snickers'
Not really. But yes please.


  1. I'm going to have this tattooed on my supervisor's forehead while he's napping in the staffroom tomorrow afternoon. When he wakes up and gets all huffy I'll point to #10 crinkling up above his left eyebrow.

  2. Oh, lovely stuff Pterolaur. I've been on both sides of the Great Divide and it's ALL true.

    PS Kevin, make sure it's tattooed on reversed, otherwise he won't be able to read it in the mirror every morning.

  3. This is absolutely wonderful Laura! Top favorites: "Embrace your school’s why-guy/gal and don’t be afraid to change things when they’re not working."; "There’s nothing worse than someone telling you they know how you feel when they clearly don’t"; "we need you to believe that your teachers"; "having a sense of humour is so important." It feels like you've spoken out for so many of us. I would happily send this to anyone who is thinking of managing a language school. Thank you so much for writing this. Humorous and empathetic :)

  4. Why can't I post comments on my phone? Grr. Anyway, thank you very much Alan and Josette :)

  5. Great post Laura. You're so right, especially on point 5. I've had quite a few managers who don't know the foggiest about teaching or training (obviously excluding Jennie and Nancy) and I've always been very resentful of them even thinking those words let alone uttering them!