Strategic alliances and power play

16th October 2009 at 01:00
How political skulduggery wins the day

Each school is a small political system where teachers are required to think like politicians to achieve their goals, a study has found.

Chris Turner, a senior lecturer at Swansea Metropolitan University, also reveals that strategic apologies and an ability to concede battles to win the war allow teachers to be more effective classroom tacticians.

"Power struggles take place in an effort to obtain control over resources," he said.

"Participants become political actors with their own needs, objectives and strategies."

To demonstrate this type of strategising in practice, Dr Turner interviewed teachers at two schools, one in England, the other in Wales.

He found that teachers, like wartime politicians, understand the value of strategic alliances.

For example, one teacher discussed working with a teaching assistant to manage pupils with special needs. "My TA will have better knowledge than anybody else of those students," he said.

"It's using the expertise that the TA has created."

Alliances are not only formed with other staff members. One teacher told of his decision to allow pupils to determine the content of lessons during revision classes.

"They'll put a Post-it note on my desk and say that is an area they want to go through," he said. "There is collaboration and a bit of ownership in terms of taking responsibility for their learning."

But successful politicians not only create alliances: they also assert control through tactical displays of power.

One gym teacher discussed a disagreement that arose during a gym class. Normal practice was for pupils to go barefoot, but a new staff member allowed them to wear trainers. As a result pupils protested when other teachers asked them to remove their shoes.

"I had to have a conversation with that member of staff: `These are the rules - you know that,'" he said. "He did it to avoid conflict: you can't do that as it affects others."

Control should be asserted judiciously, though: no one likes a dictator. Holding on to power is often dependent on building up goodwill over time.

"Be prepared to lose the battle in order to win the war," one teacher counselled. "With some people you can say things bluntly. With others you need to be more persuasive."

This is as true with pupils as it is with staff. One PE teacher spoke of a pupil who reacted badly when grades were read out publicly during lessons.

"He did not want to lose face in front of all the students," the teacher said.

"He said I needed to be aware of that. It's not a bad thing to apologise when you make mistakes and for students to see you are human."

Yet while teachers agree that tactical concessions can be a useful behaviour-management strategy, they insist that there are clear limits.

"You have to put boundaries on discussion," one said. "I say to pupils, `I will treat you with respect and I expect respect from you.' You will be treated as you treat others."

"Such power struggles are the stuff of classroom interactions," Dr Turner concludes.

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