The role of teachers is not to make managers’ lives easier

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“To supervise people, you must either surpass them in their accomplishments or despise them.” Benjamin Disraeli

Questions about the purpose of education divide and bedevil: there’s no real agreement about what education is for. But what about teachers? Surely, even if we disagree about what exactly teachers ought to teach we all at least agree they should be teaching children something?

And – at least in theory – I think we do, broadly, agree that teachers should teach. Whatever your ideological stripe, you probably agree that the education of children – whatever that means – is the main thing. Everything else is peripheral.

So why then are so many teachers expected, if not compelled, to do so many things which aren’t in fact teaching? It seems to me that an awful lot of teachers’ workload is for the convenience of managers rather than the education of children.

Marking, planning and data collection are all convenient proxies. Teachers’ work is scrutinised in an effort to ascertain whether it is effective: Does marking follow policy guidelines? Is planning in the form and style mandated? Is data accurate, timely and being acted on expediently? Like all proxies, these things are not the thing itself. We look at marking, planing and data because it’s hard to tell whether teachers are effective at getting students to learn the things they are required to learn. Much easier to check whether teachers are compliant.

There’s nothing wrong per se with checking whether teachers are compliant. In fact, as long as we recognise and remember that proxies and merely proxies and refuse the temptation of turning them into high-stakes accountability measures, all would probably be well. But that’s not what happens.

Teachers are routinely held accountable for the ease with which managers are able to check compliance. If managers can see at a glance that marking is in line with expectations, planning looks good and data in on time and following an upward trend then there’s no need to look in depth at what teachers are teaching and how well they’re teaching it.

If we’re serious about wanting to eliminate unnecessary workload and ensuring that the education of children is the priority of teachers then there is one clear maxim we could follow: The role of teachers should never be to make managers’ lives easier. Instead, the role of leaders should be to strip out extraneous demands so that teachers are free to consider what students are learning and how to help them learn it more effectively.

If school leaders want to spend their time checking proxies, that’s up to them. But to compel teachers to spend time making this process easier robs time away from pupils and is, I’ll go so far as to suggest, immoral.



  1. howardat58 February 29, 2016 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Crazy, isn’t it. One difficulty may be the contact of employment, list of duties section, which often has “..and anything else that may be required” tagged on at then end. If teachers’ unions were any use they would get involved in this, and demand that for example it is not the teacher’s job to enter marks or grades into a computer system. Lesson plans is another. No wonder teachers like pre-scripted lesson plans.
    ps I read and enjoyed your book “What if Everything…”

    • David Didau February 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks Howard – that’s kind of you to say so. Can I persuade you to review it on Amazon?

      • howardat58 February 29, 2016 at 10:45 pm - Reply

        I’ll have a go. I’ll need to skim through it beforehand, as I tend to read a book in a day (it may take two days).

  2. sltchallenge February 29, 2016 at 10:12 pm - Reply
    so far no member of SLT has signed up to this
    what does that tell us (apart from the fact that the site doesn’t yet have high profile)
    End the hypocrisy!

  3. Paulyb37 March 1, 2016 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    As one of those manager/leader sorts I’d agree. But is it that straight forward? What about the ‘checking for compliance’ of the managers/leaders sorts? I wasn’t one of the most compliant as I believe that if you get the fundamentals right the stuff that the external compliance checkers check looks after itself, but given the high stakes nature of inspection outcomes it takes an element of career roulette to take that approach. I was fortunate as I went into a school in turmoil so felt confident that we had legitimate reason to go ‘back to basics’ – I’m not sure how I would feel in a performing school with a parent and governing body happy with the status quo.
    It’s easy to have a pop at school leadership, and I’m sure some deserve it, but for the sake of those of us who welcome teachers who challenge us by being genuinely outstanding with little regard for school policies, please don’t ignore the pressures of compliance checking we are under and the impact it can have on our schools, jobs and lives. I’ve seen heads of ‘outstanding’ schools perversely create more paperwork in order to sustain their judgement and, in the process, crushing any ounce of genuine ‘outstanding’ in their teachers. To me that isn’t outstanding and it seems oddly self-defeating but the perception amongst paranoid managers/leaders is that this is what the external compliance checkers want.
    I’m not saying that school leadership should simply pass on the pressures to their staff, something I always battled hard to avoid, but, again, this isn’t always straight forward.
    I feel like I’m rambling and ranting now so I’ll stop but, in summary, none of this is right – which is why I’m now working in an International School in a warm tropical climate!

  4. George LILLEY March 3, 2016 at 1:40 am - Reply

    Canadian philosopher John Ralston-Saul talks about the curse of managerialism in his book “Voltaire’s Bastards”. Saul’s contrast of leadership with management is spot on – Leadership is about inspiring people, management is about people as objects of input-output processes.

    Another blogger asked, “why university administrations were so bad “— they have all the unfortunate incentives of the public service with almost none of the accountability constraints.

    Interesting that Prof Richard Boyatzis says you can remove about 70-80% of people from their leadership roles and the organisation would function more smoothly –

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but some glimmers of hope – 2 ex- PE teachers have started a process called “leading Teams” which has worked spectacularly well in Australian Professional sport and they are getting into schools. Their basic idea is really simple – the organisation gets together and defines what are their important values an behaviors (including the leaders) then everyone is rated on those defined behaviours and promoted or demoted accordingly –

    In some sense, they have borrowed from a Brazilian, Ricardo Semler who wrote a book, 20 years ago “Maverick” about his company Semco. The book talks about simple principles of distributed leadership, getting those on the factory floor to decide what is best for them – in other words the change of top down hierarchical management to something else. Well worth a read.

    Educational leadership is too hierarchical, with too much power imbalance and virtually no accountability. A great example, is the current corruption tribunal hearings of the leaders of my educational system –

  5. jamesglassecreative March 12, 2016 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Great article and so agree with it. Pointless, divisive and counter productive bureaucracy seem to be the bane of teachers’ lives now. To support #Education #savechildhood and for #HumanityInEducation please sign and retweet. Thanks.

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