You Can’t Scientifically Manage Teachers, So Stop Trying!

I wrote a tweet in the last few days about a verbal feedback stamp and how they hark back to a time when teachers were not trusted but how I am hopeful for a future without such nonsense. I was saddened to receive messages from current teachers telling me they were still required to use these stamps and that they are still working in schools with a culture of distrust.

I sometimes wonder if working in a school where there has been a significant cultural shift away from such scrutiny and towards teacher autonomy means that I operate in a bubble, that I imagine all schools are like my own, or at least they are getting there. The responses I received from my tweet indicate my experience is likely to be the exception and not the rule.

As a Business teacher I often draw comparisons between the theory I teach and my experiences as an employee; specifically I find that teaching management styles and motivational theory often results in me reflecting on the way that I am managed as a teacher and how effective that style is in making me more effective at my job. The theorist whose work I would like to consider in this blog is that of Frederick Winslow Taylor.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Taylor was interested in efficiencies in the workplace and carried out ‘time and motion’ and pay experiments in order to identify the most effective way of utilising a labour workforce. In his 1909 publication “The Principles of Scientific Management.” he outlined the results of his time and motion studies.

Dover Publications

Amongst Taylor’s recommendations for managing workers the following interest me the most as I believe they can be seen in education:

  1. Workers are inherently lazy and need to be closely monitored by managers in order to maintain optimum efficiency.
  2. Workers are only motivated by money and should be rewarded with “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
  3. There is always “one right way” of completing workplace tasks.

I will take each of these points individually and consider how they have been used in education in an attempt to improve teaching but explain how I believe the approach is actually counterproductive to teacher effectiveness.

1. Workers are inherently lazy and need to be closely monitored by managers in order to maintain optimum efficiency.

Nothing quite screams ‘we don’t trust you’ like: daily learning walks or drop-ins; weekly book scrutinies; lesson observations with a different focus each week; requirements for detailed lesson plans to be submitted at the start of the week or at the drop of a hat; verbal feedback stamps – I could go on. The inference is that teachers cannot be trusted to work effectively without constant scrutiny by managers, that we wouldn’t give feedback unless we were certain that someone was going to check we were doing it or that our lessons would be poor quality if it weren’t for the fact we knew we might be seen at any point. The problem is that Taylor conducted his workplace experiments on low-skilled and manual workers and whilst this may be an effective way of improving efficiencies in manual work and on production lines it does not work for teachers. Teachers are not low-skilled workers, we are highly skilled professionals, all of us will be educated to at least post-graduate level, many of us will have higher degrees. To become educated to this point is proof in itself that teachers are not naturally lazy and therefore this constant scrutiny does not improve our work, in fact I would argue it is extremely counterproductive to our ability to perform optimally.

2. Workers are only motivated by money and should be rewarded with ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’

On the surface being paid fairly for our hard work seems entirely reasonable however the flip side of this is the consequence that if an employee does not perform a ‘fair day’s work’ that they do not deserve to be paid as much as their more effective and productive colleagues. In 2014 the Performance-Related Pay (PRP) for teachers framework came into effect and now teachers ‘performance’ is being judged against spurious targets at KS2, KS4 and KS5, this in turn impacts on their ability to move up the pay scale. I have known committed and hardworking teachers be denied their £2000 pay rise, but based on what? The fact that a specific group of students didn’t attain a result they were predicted years ago? I remember reading this article by Tom Rogers ‘Teachers can only ever have a small impact on their students’ results’ and feeling that teachers were being done an absolute injustice by being subjected to performance related pay.  Taylor’s workplace experiments were conducted on manual workers and this is where the problem lies; we are not bricklayers building a wall whereby the quality and speed of the construction can be measured easily, we are not assembling components on a production line where the same can be done, we are not working with inanimate objects such as bricks or components, we are working with human beings! Unlike bricks and components human beings are susceptible to variations in performance, they are impacted by external influences and ultimately we have no control over how they perform on a given day, at a given time and in given circumstances. So I would argue that performance related pay for teachers has absolutely no positive impact on our performance in the classroom and potentially even a negative impact for teachers who are denied a pay rise and suffer from the demotivating impacts that brings.

3. There is always “one right way” of completing workplace tasks.

The word ‘consistency’ strikes the fear of God into me because many schools equate ‘consistency’ with ‘everyone must do this because it is the best and it is the only way of doing it’. Think 6 part lessons, 20% teacher talk, group work/paired work/independent work required in every lesson, active learners, plenaries, mini-plenaries, progress checks every 20 minutes, DIRT time after each assessment, generic feedback sheets, and so on. The problem here is that what works effectively in Maths will not necessarily be the same for Biology or PE for example, and what works with one set of students will not always work well for another. I believe there is information available that helps us to become better at teaching however I also believe that imposing a very specific way of using that information in the classroom is counterproductive; teachers need to be able to take that information and adapt it to fit their context. There might be a scientifically accepted ‘best way’ to manufacture a car but as I said earlier we are not working with objects we are working with people and it is crazy to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that would work equally as effectively with a year 7 D&T class as it would with an A level Psychology class. I strongly feel that by removing teacher autonomy to teach in the way they feel works best there is a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom.

To that end I strongly believe that to get the best out of teachers you need to remember that they are highly skilled professionals working with unpredictable outcomes in a variety of different contexts and this makes it absolutely impossible to scientifically manage them, so if you are then stop!

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