Leadership - Interfering too much? Duck out

Teachers need management interventions that genuinely help, not petty disruptions

In web design, it's called a "duck": a feature added for no other reason than to give management an opportunity to remove something, thereby stopping them from tampering with more integral aspects of the work.

The term was coined after animators of a game called Battle Chess found themselves working for incredibly picky producers, notorious for making changes simply to justify their role in the process. So an animated pet duck belonging to the queen chess piece was included in all her scenes, flapping about in a corner of the screen. This gave the producers something to do on a superficial level - get rid of the duck - which made them disinclined to start demanding changes at a structural level.

Education as yet seems to have few such stories. But despite staff wanting to get on with the real business of teaching rather than distracting the senior management team by, for example, deliberately not wearing ties or taking coffee into the classroom, the problem of unnecessary managerial tinkering remains the same.

An experience common to many teachers is the scenario in which a class is settled and working when a member of the management team enters the room to have a word. As the school leader crosses the front of the class, they scan the students' attire until they spot a child who is perhaps still wearing their jacket or has a plain sweatshirt on rather than one with the school badge. The leader breaks the flow of work of the entire class to tell the student to remove the offending garment. By doing so, he or she unsettles the whole room, leaving the classroom teacher to try and recapture the focus of the now-disgruntled students.

Leaving well alone

There are countless other examples, of course. I have heard of teachers ticked off in red ink on report cards because of split infinitives. Or those who have had their lesson plans returned because sections were highlighted in the wrong colour.

The problem here is not just that the petty interruptions and point-scoring are unnecessary and motivation-sapping, but that non-essential interventions actually prevent leaders from doing their jobs effectively. An unfortunately large proportion of the adult population finds it hard to take constructive advice, never mind superficial guidance. Too much of the latter and the result will be that valid interventions, which could improve the work of the classroom teacher, will simply be ignored.

Of course, the urge of school leaders to intervene is perfectly understandable. I don't imagine that many people go to teacher training college dreaming of being a middle-manager; anecdotes about meetings are poor cousins of the classroom stories they once dined out on. School leaders are trained, experienced teachers who now have little opportunity to use those abilities. What's more, the rewards of good teaching are more apparent than those of good management. To help a whole class pass a tricky exam must be more immediately gratifying than devising a new timetable that works on its first application. When these elements combine, a desire to put your mark on others' work must be strong.

But it should be resisted. If you are a middle leader, consider the work of your class when you were teaching. You wouldn't improve their paintings or write their essays, so why rewrite a teacher's perfectly good lesson plan?

In a situation such as the uniform example, the best course of action for the school leader is to have a quiet word with the teacher at a more convenient moment, asking them to ensure that their students are properly attired.

It is crucial that leaders self-regulate like this because they are dealing with trained, experienced professionals who, more likely than not, will end up resenting a leader's intervention. So before you decide to get involved in a member of staff's work, it is a good idea to pause and consider the following:

  • What is my motivation for intervening?
  • To what extent will my intervention improve the work of the class teacher?
  • How will the teacher react to my intervention?
    • If you are getting involved out of a genuine desire to help a colleague or improve teaching (and not simply to boost your own status), then go for it. But if the resentment created would outweigh any benefit, perhaps it would be unwise to chip in. After all, great school leadership could be defined as the humility to leave good work alone.

      Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow

      What else?

      The consequences can be extreme, so when is the right time to step in? One deputy headteacher gives his opinion.

      Profiting from peer support: staged intervention from a staffroom buddy.

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