Be not afraid of greatness

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Some are born to lead, some achieve leadership and some have leadership thrust upon them. Sean McPartlin considers what makes a good manager

Playing word association games in the staffroom can be dangerous; the word management can provoke a range of reactions. Teachers, like any other group of workers, have their individual thoughts on those who are paid to manage.

There are those who instinctively mistrust management and anything to do with it, seeing every request as carefully crafted to gain something for nothing from the workforce. Others aspire to management and set about acquiring what they see as the necessary skills to join that happy band. Some are content to be led, while others remit all responsibility to those who are paid to handle it.

In ideal circumstances, staff and management form a more or less effective, if at times uneasy, partnership, and try to work for the common good. In schools, of course, the common good concerns the development and future success of our pupils, and that places on the management team an impetus to succeed which far exceeds the mere requirements of a balance sheet or shareholders' meeting.

Critics of management might be delighted to hear that managers do require a certain Janus-like ability to be two-faced. But I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, rather that they have to be able to balance the concerns of the school community with the demands of the local authority and the Scottish Executive. Trying to move forward while looking in all directions frequently leads to a sore head, as many have discovered. Yet compromises must often be sought and implemented in the best interests of the school.

I have worked with five headteachers in my time and all differed in temperament and style. This points to an underlying truism about management: just like teaching itself, it tends to be based on a combination of relevant skills and applicable personality traits.

Managers are seldom created that way, but neither is it possible to be highly effective merely by employing learnt management techniques. In simple language, it helps to have a feel for the task in hand. Just as there are many differing styles and techniques that lead to success in the classroom, so it is in promoted posts.

You might watch pupils in a primary school playground and find it easy to spot the future managers. They are the ones who boss everyone around, organise the games, call recalcitrants to order; they obviously have the natural talent. Maybe so, but you may, in a casual look, have ignored the other future laders: those who hang back and analyse and then make a telling contribution; those who use their friendships to influence the group's direction; and those who cover insecurity by always volunteering, forcing themselves to get involved.

So it is in school management: some lead by example, joining in with the workforce, never prepared to ask others to do anything they wouldn't do themselves. Others stay more aloof, preferring to encourage others to do the groundwork by sharing inspirational visions. There are those who are loved by their staff, those who are feared and those who seem to exist merely to puzzle them. The ideal management team consists of a blend of different styles and experiences.

Managing schools has become a complex business. Running a devolved budget requires a different set of skills from those needed for handling irate parents, supporting worried staff or propelling senior students through the higher education admissions system. Yet all of these abilities, and far more, are needed in every management team.

Clearly, though, it is not enough to generalise that management comes down to a combination of personal qualities and acquired techniques. There is a need for self awareness, confidence and people skills in every aspect of management.

In this connection, three pieces of advice have stood out for me. The first, from John MacBeath, formerly of the quality in education unit at Strathclyde University, now at Cambridge University, is angled towards guidance teachers and seems to me to have a resonance for all teaching activities, but particularly management. He states that we all need to be supportive challengers and so get the best out of people by expecting the most without threatening to undermine them if they fail to live up to the highest expectations.

A former headteacher of mine reminded me, when I was in full flow about the shortcomings of my line manager, that we always imagine we can do the job better than the person immediately above us. It is something I try not to forget in all of my dealings.

Finally, when I was appointed to my current post, the headteacher impressed upon me that the most important element for a manager was credibility among the staff, particularly as a classroom teacher.

It strikes me that the old jibe thrown at teachers, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach", might be adapted for the successful manager:

"Those who can help the others who can to do it even better".

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, West Lothian

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