I believe that how people use power is a good measure of who they are. Some people use it for the greater good and take others' points of view on board in their decision making, even if it is at some cost to themselves. Others use power to shore up their own positions regardless of the outcomes.
You may not know which way it will go until you put it to the test.
When I was having problems at work, I first went to my line manager, but with them lacking authority to intervene directly, I decided to take things higher to my principal. My problems related to a contract that was asking far more of me than it was possible to deliver, resulting in genuine fears for my mental health.
There were other issues, too: courses had been assigned to tutors unqualified in the specific syllabus area. I was worried this could cause more trouble – the students affected had already complained about poorly planned and delivered lessons in the previous term.
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Aware that the principal was dealing with many issues relating to the coronavirus, I kept my email to him as clear and concise as possible. Looking back, I was almost apologetic in raising my concerns. It took a while to get a response but when it came I was heartened to see that someone would take the situation seriously.
The principal's short email expressed concern and promised that my message would be passed to the vice-principal, who would be in contact shortly. And so I waited.
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In the meantime, the problems I had warned of were emerging. The unqualified teacher had been signed off with long-term sickness. Meanwhile, I was weighed down with my own oppressive workload and dealing with students who expected instant email responses, even though my part-time contract provided no possibility for immediate turnarounds. But I held on in the faith that the vice-principal would soon get in touch and address things.
After weeks without hearing anything, I discussed the situation with colleagues. One of them laughed at my naivety in believing the pandemic emergency was delaying the management response. He told me that it was typical management practice to shelve teacher concerns in the hope that the complainant would fade into the background. “The trick,” he said, “is to leave you dangling and then at a later date email you and say that 'since we have not heard more from you in the past three months, we will assume all issues are now resolved and the case is closed’”.
By now I was coping with my personal stress issues, partly because the coronavirus had allowed me to work from home where it was possible to get more tasks done. However, the students whose unqualified teacher had gone off sick had been forced to accept one substitute teacher after another and were now emailing me requesting support for assignments they did not know how to complete.
I waited until the end of the summer term to give the vice-principal the further benefit of the doubt, though it was clear the appropriate time for responding to my concerns had long passed. When I wrote back to the principal and told her that no one had replied, he apologised.
I emailed to remind him that the very issues raised weeks earlier had led to the envisaged consequences – student complaints, with students threatening to quit the course, as well as staff stress. This time I received an urgent reply. The phrase “student complaints” seemed to have set the wheels turning and I was asked to explain in greater detail what the specific consequences had been. I waited a while before emailing back to suggest that he contact his own management to obtain any further details.
I don't know what was said behind closed doors but things did change quite quickly. A better-qualified teacher was brought in to teach the dissatisfied students and line managers hastily arranged committee meetings to discuss student concerns. However, in the emails that followed, emphasis was placed not on the fact that the college had failed students and its staff by failing to deal with raised concerns but that the National Student Survey satisfaction rating had taken a significant hit.
Warnings were issued that teachers must work harder and that greater monitoring controls would be put in place to safeguard quality of teaching provision in future. To myself and colleagues this was a typical self-defensive manoeuvre – highlighting a reactionary approach.
The satisfaction I take from this sorry tale is that I did the right thing in alerting bosses to what was happening. But it remains a great shame that those who should be looking after the wellbeing of staff and students sometimes appear to have a more corporate agenda: they are willing to accept collateral damage as long as it doesn't directly reflect on them. Too often, it's the staff who suffer from those bad leadership decisions.
All any teacher can do is inform those higher up of problems occurring, after which it becomes their duty of care. Let's hope those in positions of power do.
Rufus Reich is a pseudonym. The writer is a FE lecturer in England