Saturday, January 19, 2013

# 34 One of Us, and One of Them

    It really doesn't matter which organization employs you; you will answer to a person called The Boss. For example, all corporate employees ultimately answer to a small group of people, (board of directors) who in turn, answer to a larger group of people, (the shareholders). Similarly, all public employees also respond to small group of people, (politicians) who are always indebted to the public, ( the voters). Believe it not, these two types of organizations employ almost every single person in our society.

   I tend to think of the hierarchy of bosses in education this way: The Premier gets elected by the voters, and he then appoints another elected official as the Minister of Education. This is pretty much where all of our major policies in education get the initial green light for implementation. Then, locally, a director of education is hired to manage the school board who is under the scrutiny of the more elected officials, the trustees.

   Superintendents are then hired by the board to supervise the operation of a group of schools. At the individual schools, a principal is hired by the board to manage the school. Under the school administrative team are the department heads who are both, classroom teachers and administrators. These heads play a vital role within any school, because they are a closest to both the consumers of education (students) and also the middle managers of the system. You may have noticed that within this little maze I just presented, the people with the most power are elected officials which presents its own collection of problems. That will be another discussion.

   As I mentioned above, department heads are the bridge between the classroom teacher and the administration. They attend all the meetings with school administration to discuss most educational initiatives before those policies enter the classroom. They also learn about the finances of the school, hear about promotions, resignations and various other problems before the rest of the teaching staff.  More than any other level of management, the heads play the role of, one of us and one of them.

   I estimate that I have worked with about a dozen department heads over the course of my career, some bad and some good. Usually, the bad ones are teachers who are just passing through on their way up the ladder to a middle management position.  They tend to use the headship position as a leadership proving ground, and then enter their success into a portfolio for future consideration. Unfortunately, they often do things like skim the less complicated jobs for themselves, rarely nurture healthy work relationships with department members, and essentially focus on what is good for their careers as opposed to what is good for the students and department members. They can be a nuisance for a classroom teacher.

    Personally, I have always been a more productive employee when I work with a boss as opposed to working for a boss. When I have hired people to work on building projects for me, I find there is more productivity when I lead a group toward a common goal and show them how to get there through my example.

   For me, most of the managers beyond the school don't interest me. I am most concerned with the people closely connected to my work day.  Fortunately, most days I feel like I am my own boss answering only to the concerns of my students, but there are other days when it feels like everyone wants to direct my day.

   As an English teacher, the department head I have worked with the longest (15 years I think) is my current head, Cathy. She isn't the only good boss I have worked with, but in comparison I place her at the top of the list. Unfortunately, she will retire in a couple of weeks and I know her departure will be felt within the English department as well as the entire school.

   On a broader scale she has made major contributions to the school environment over the years by acting as a supervisor for students counsel and participating in other student lead activities. In addition, she has also followed all the appropriate protocol requirements, managed the budgets, and implemented the city wide English exams each year. For these reasons alone she has played a significant role as a bridge between administration and teaching staff. Keep in mind, these tasks I mention are all huge additions to a classroom teacher's role. It requires a special skill set to be successful even it comes with a very modest pay incentive. Personally, I don't think our current administration is experienced enough to recognize the significant contributions she has made to the running of our school.

   So, what makes Cathy a unique department head?  There is a side to being a boss which is separate from just doing the administrative tasks assigned. People who just do these jobs are quite plentiful in education, so you really only need to be competent to succeed. However, if you want to be a great boss, you need to engage colleagues on a personal level too and she does this well.

    All teachers are performers and that reality brings with it a large collection of egos, skill strengths as well as various personality challenges. After working with Cathy for these past years I have watched her make Olympic efforts to engage even the most recalcitrant and cynical members of her department and always with a sense of persistent patience, and even humour. For example, many times I have witnessed her do her best to take individual preferences into account when assigning courses and departmental tasks. Believe it or not, many administrators, can't, won't, or simply do not have this ability. So, being willing to develop a productive working rapport with co-workers is a rare skill to demonstrate. 

   I think it is a difficult task to straddle the protocol requirements in education and still maintain a human face. As all teachers will attest, motivating a group of people in one direction is a difficult  task, you need to learn about people as individuals in order to know when to push and when to back off. 

   At the end of this month our school staff will watch Cathy leave the profession and I am sure many will be envious of her impending journeys down the carefree highway of retirement. However, once the envy fades and we are all left behind with our jobs to do, the significance of her contributions to the school will surly be felt. From the perspective of the board, they hired an excellent employee, but from the position of a co-worker she has proven many times to have been an excellent boss. I wish her only the best in the new roles she chooses to perform.