The curse of modern-day micromanagement in education
Disclaimer: This is a difficult time for us all and this piece is not about attacking individuals at all. It focuses on a collective culture that, once we reflect on, it will make education a better place for all.
Micromanagement in education is like a laxative. Without meaning to sound too crass, it is going through our education system at the rate of knots and producing, pretty shit results. Of course, like any other profession, a form of monitoring and scrutiny is required but not at the expense of retaining and recruiting the best resource in education – its teachers.
- “Your PowerPoint doesn’t have the academy trust logo on every slide.”
- “We use pink to mark but not that shade of pink.”
- “This lesson can’t be anything better than an ‘Good’ as you didn’t take the register promptly.”
- “In our school, we do it like this and so should you if you want to be successful.”
- “You cannot say ‘you can’, you have to say, ‘you should’. Teachers have been downgraded for saying ‘can’ instead of ‘should’.”
- “I was sat in a meeting and I kid you not, even the coughs were documented in the minutes.”
- “My school monitors the CCTV in the car park. They time the hours we are at work.”
- “A register is taken at staff briefings and then used in capability meetings. This is even for teachers who complete duties on briefing days.”
These are all comments I’ve heard personally from colleagues over the past few years. As teachers and our Trainees and NQTs or ‘daisies’ as I refer to them, return to school, micromanagement through various means is incredibly harmful and damaging. Whether these are non-negotiables or rigid ‘expectations’, teacher autonomy is extensively reduced. During my novice five years in the classroom, I have seen many colleagues come and go. Very few will tell you they left because they could not handle the students. They were either managed out or placed in the straitjacket of micromanagement, making their positions untenable.
What is micromanagement?
The Oxford dictionary define ‘micromanagement’ as, “the practice of controlling every detail of an activity or project, especially your employees’ work”. At all levels of the profession, teaching requires some form of standardisation, a success criteria and barometer/yardstick of success. If anything, one would assume, as educators, we have one common goal – the progress of our students. Micromanagement, for me and many others is loaded, nuanced and insidious. Teachers are aware of their responsibilities and the natural extension to their roles. We embrace the fact there are elements of our role we may not necessarily agree with but as a community, in theory, we have a common goal.
Who benefits from micromanagement? If anything, micromanagement is an evidence-collation method. A mechanism to oversee this standardisation process and ‘measure’ the ‘effectiveness’ of teachers. However, with this comes the surrender of teacher autonomy and even, as I have discovered in my own research, toxic practices and bullying. So, who benefits? With ring-binders full of paper, meaningless hours spent justifying arbitrary practice, coupled with worn down and burnt out teachers, exactly who benefits?
From my own observations and conversations, my three concerns with micromanagement are the following. Although this is not an exclusive list, it provides scope for discussion and extension.
- We need monitoring – Our league table inspired, neo-liberal performative education system means we do requite monitoring and accountability. Nobody is in disagreement here as, for example, meeting targets enables appraisals to be approved and teachers must earn their keep. Monitoring at all levels is required but does it need to be perverse? Is there monitoring for the sake of monitoring? Why not allow teachers some level of autonomy? The magnitude of policies and initiatives that are arbitrarily endorsed and after a short trend on twitter, they are made redundant. When I started my PGCE, we were at constant loggerheads about learning objectives, which were replaced by learning outcomes. Then came along learning questions which were also swiftly replaced by learning questions. My issue here is, how much learning actually went on? When teachers are working round the clock to cope with the demands of their role, where is there any evidence that sustained monitoring actually promotes student progress. The correlation between micromanagement and a lack of teacher autonomy cannot be down played. Consistent studies have shown a lack of autonomy leads to a poor morale, exhaustion, burn out and lower job satisfaction (Wilkins, 2011 and Allen and Sims, 2018). Indeed, we do need monitoring but I hope we all have better things to do than tooth and nail assess the school-wide standardisation of display boards or fonts on a PowerPoint!
- The bastardisation of autonomy – For me, there remains a very odd misconception of what ‘teacher autonomy’ actually means. When we think of autonomy, there view is ‘free rein’ isn’t it? That if teachers are allowed to be autonomous, they will have free reign, fail to comply with the multi-coloured pen marking policy, our learners will lose ‘effective’ practice. Anyone who calls for greater autonomy is not asking for schools to remove tried and tested and successful policies. They are not asking for a pedagogical revolution or proverbial light bulb moment! Autonomy must be driven by context and extended through the promotion of professional trust. Educationalists must get this idea of ‘free reign autonomy’ out of their psyche. Autonomy is about allowing teachers to grow, develop their knowledge and skills, to make mistakes, to reflect and to innovate. Rather than be a mirror image of every other teacher or leader they have come in contact with, autonomy empowers teachers as professionals to lead lessons and develop a greater sense of self. In reality, autonomy promotes growth and should be part of the dialogue in every school.
- Cookie-cutter approach – I am not SLT bashing, this is merely calling out cultures and practices that are doing little to alleviate the problems around retention and recruitment. There is, albeit in a very covert way, in many schools a very arbitrary cookie-cutter view of what makes a teacher ‘effective’. Micromanagement is part of this approach. Teachers are meeting internal targets, some which have little impact on student progress, simply to appease the target setters. These target setters have their own perception of what makes a ‘good’ teacher, which of course, varies from school to school and teacher to teacher. Anyone who does not fit neatly into this view or embody its principles is made to do so through the various means of micromanagement, whether this is capability, support plans or non-negotiables. Again, the issue we have here is that there is no universal world view on what makes a teacher ‘effective’ as there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to teach. I’ll take you back to the days where Mr F, our Science teacher used an over-head projector and he was incredible. His results were great, the students loved him but once PowerPoints became the norm, we lost our favourite teacher. He was no longer smiling and the atmospheric effects of the micromanagement he faced was well documented by his widow. Mr F was a bloody incredible teacher but because he was so beautifully stubborn, he was placed in a box by the culture of management. Some people don’t like cookies, they like cake! Mr F made the most incredible Victoria sponge too! For mavericks like him micromanagement offered little to retain his incredible depth of knowledge and skills and ultimately it was us, the students who suffered.
Is it all doom and gloom?
Absolutely not! There are schools that love providing teacher with the resources, time and space to be autonomous and teach for their students and not to tick boxes. Professional trust in education is pretty fragile. As the A-level and GCSEs exam shambles illustrates so vehemently, policymakers find it difficult to trust teacher discretion, so how we do we expect school leaders to? In the right school, and yes, the right school exists for every teacher, the laxatives of micromanagement will be replaced with a proper diagnosis for the shit situation we find ourselves in. If you are a school leader and reading this, ask yourself what is the purpose of the policies you adopt? We are still amidst a global pandemic, our teachers are risking their lives returning to work. Before you plan your learning walks, book looks and make duties compulsory for all staff, glance at your wellbeing policy or charter. We have to look after one another and micromanaging every breath your teachers take increase stress and workload. We need all hands on deck, everyone needs a buoyancy aid as we paddle through rough shores in such unprecedented times.
Again, this isn’t about individuals or school leaders. They have enough to deal with during these unprecedented times and it would be wrong to to claim every school is like this, it truly isn’t. The issue isn’t individual personnel at all, it’s a culture.
What’s your solution, Khan? I’m a dreamer. Nothing beats seeing a teacher in full-flow, delivering a lesson and imparting knowledge using their pedagogical skills. It give me goose bumps just witnessing this virtuoso of skill and talent. I love it. My solution is holistic – how about we stop micromanaging and start using this valuable time to promote research-informed policies and help our teachers grow rather than be trampled on. Micromanagement must be brought to a halt with a focus shifting on helping up rather than tripping up our teachers. It is the only way.
Micromanagement in education is unnecessary. However, in its current format and trend, it is going through out education system like laxatives. We are amidst a pandemic but also a teacher retention and recruitment crisis. People leave the profession for a plethora of reasons but I can place good money on the lack of autonomy and micromanagement being a major concern. Managing other is challenging, it requires great skill but the rewards of watching others grow, at their own pace should supersede any arbitrary institutional policy.
We are knee-deep up shit creek and micro laxatives will only leave a greater mess and more rancid legacy. It is time we stopped micromanaging and started reconnecting with our purpose as educators. And, if you have lost that purpose, I hope you find it soon.
Thank you for reading,
Allen, R. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap, London, Routledge
Wilkins, C. (2011) ‘Professionalism and the post-performative teacher: new teachers reflect on autonomy and accountability in the English school system’, Professional Development in Education, Vol: 37, No: 3, 389–409