Workers and networkers

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Walter Humes says that the needs of the classroom rank higher than self-promotion.

I regard my job as consisting of three main elements: teaching, administration and research. Each of these can be "unpacked" into a series of more specific activities. Thus teaching includes preparation, curriculum development and assessment, as well as performance in the classroom. Likewise administration covers not only routine paperwork, attendance at meetings and drafting reports but also operational and strategic planning. And research involves keeping up with the literature in my field, attending conferences, presenting papers and publishing the results of my investigations.

Keeping the various elements in balance and getting the priorities right is not easy and there is always the nagging suspicion that devoting time to one activity involves neglecting the others. Nevertheless, the three components can reasonably be regarded as "core" activities. Taken together, they constitute my mainstream work and most of it - I would not claim all of it - can be justified in terms of its value to students, colleagues and the institution that pays my salary.

I have become increasingly conscious, however, that for some people employed in the educational service, working is a much less significant activity than networking. Within management circles networking, it should be said, is regarded as a perfectly respectable activity. It consists of acquiring and consolidating contacts, forming alliances to promote mutually advantageous interests, establishing lines of communication so that information can be traded, opportunities identified and action advanced. A good networker, it is argued, is well placed to make the right moves at the right time.

This philosophy has some interesting consequences. Educational events acquire significance not so much because of their intrinsic value as because of their networking potential. What happens before and after such events may be more important than the formal business. For example, I recently attended a public lecture given by a senior figure in Scottish education, the audience for which included many of the "great and good". It was noticeable that, for some at least, the prime reason for attendance - apart from simply being seen - was the opportunity to renew old acquaintances and establish new ones.

As at election times, pressing of the flesh was a feature of the post-lecture exchanges. Directors of education, headteachers and others exhibited what some of their subordinates might have regarded as an unexpected degree of bonhomie. The subtext, of course, was the maintenance of contacts which might prove professionally useful in the future. Up to a point all this can be defended. To turn down opportunities to extend one's range of contacts in the educational service might well seem perverse. Furthermore, it is often claimed that one of the advantages of Scottish education is that because many of the key players know each other quite well it is possible to reach consensus and initiate action more quickly. On this analysis, networking is a valuable part of management.

There is, however, a downside. Devoting too much attention to networking, I would suggest, can lead to a false sense of priorities, a value system that does not serve education well. I would draw attention to two undesirable consequences in particular. First, it can lead to a devaluation of the day-to-day work of teaching. Teaching comes to be regarded as a routine, low-level activity, insignificant in comparison with the high-level pursuits of those who move in networking arenas. This seems entirely unhealthy in that the central work of education, for me, is to do with the processes of learning and teaching. Second, networking can produce intellectual dishonesty. Maintaining good relations becomes more important than debating the issues.

Most schools and colleges can boast a few examples of people who acquire the reputation of never missing a chance to escape the classroom. Such individuals may develop networks of contacts outside their own institution but they are likely to lose the respect of their immediate colleagues. To make this point is not to suggest that all opportunities to meet people working in other contexts should be turned down. That would be just as undesirable as abandoning classroom responsibilities on the slightest pretext, since it would encourage a narrowness of outlook and might miss the chance of learning from other people's experiences. It is a question of forming judgments that can be defended on professional grounds.

In my own case I fairly regularly receive invitations to attend events outside my own institution. I am conscious of the need to strike a balance between internal commitments and wider responsibilities (some of which are written into my contract of employment). Some of the invitations I accept, others I decline. Often the reason for saying no is that I have a teaching commitment. Given the nature of my job, which is principally concerned with training teachers, I regard it as important to maintain my own credibility - with colleagues and students - as a teacher.

In any case, I enjoy teaching and so there is no sense of choosing a less desirable option when I decline an external invitation. I am aware, however, that such decisions to opt for working rather than networking are viewed in some quarters as politically naive. They are seen as lost opportunities, occasions which might have opened doors to new possibilities. My perception of myself as an innocent in a wicked world is strengthened by such reactions.

Flattery, glad-handing and ego massaging are the stock-in-trade of the inveterate networker. Such people cease to have views of their own: they simply reflect the views of those they perceive to be powerful. This creates a climate of conformity in which the intellectual currency becomes, at best, bland and, at worst, dishonest. Less fully socialised networkers may retain private reservations about the received wisdom but they will rarely express them in public. At the lecture I referred to above there was no dissent from the directors and headteachers present although it was evident from informal conversation afterwards that the speaker's ideas had failed to convince many of them.

An educational system that encourages such intellectual evasion is unlikely to address the pressing issues of our time. It will reward the insincere and the compliant and will fail to listen to alternative interpretations, especially if they are critical of the prevailing orthodoxies. The temptations of networking are strong. They include the prospects of generally agreeable social occasions, the possibility of enhancing one's career prospects, and the chance to mix with the power brokers of education.

The allure of high-profile, low-workload events should, however, be resisted. It represents a distortion of the true values of education, a substitution of the "ethics" of public relations and the upbeat rhetoric of the advertising world for the less visible - but ultimately much more important - work that goes on in classrooms up and down the country.

Walter Humes is director of professional studies at St Andrew's College, Bearsden.

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