Frustrated by a pencil-shaded middle-ground?

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Some expressions are cliches but describe things that surely never actually happen. When did you last see someone slip on a banana skin? Then there's letting something "fall from nerveless fingers". In fiction, everything falls from nerveless fingers. Google it - they're all there: guns, swords, lighted candles, pipes, phones, a lute (a lute?), a camera... But in real life?

I did once really see a pencil fall from the nerveless fingers of a frustrated head of English in a comprehensive school. He'd been trying to get people to adopt a new syllabus he'd spent ages researching and writing.

Sadly, his colleagues were less committed to it. (These days, we'd be talking about "ownership".) At the meeting in question he was deep into exposition of his document, gesturing with a pencil, when his second in department suddenly stood up, looked at her watch and said, "Sorry. If I don't go now, the shops will be shut."

At that point, the department head fell silent and... well, you know the rest. He did it well, too. The trick is to appear to move nothing at all.

Expression, body, hand, all frozen. Only the pencil moves, drawing the eye, clattering to the desk, breaking the silence. Try it - used at the right moment, it's a mightily impressive management technique.

That was some time ago. The basic issue, though - of the middle-leader persuading people to follow where he or she wants them to go - is arguably even more alive today. There's Ofsted now, whole-school self-evaluation, subject-to-subject comparison of performance, and increasing emphasis on effective leadership at all levels.

It's very much a rock and a hard place for someone who runs a curriculum area. You carry the can for standards in your subject, but you have no real "do as you're told" power to make sure things are done. It's a recipe for frustration, and the dropping of objects from nerveless fingers.

The National College for School Leadership, in its report The Role and Purpose of Middle Leaders in Schools (NCSL, 2003) identified this tension, describing it as occurring "between a developing line-management culture within a hierarchical school structure and a belief in collegiality".

Does this ring any bells? Let us know.

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