What I’ve learned about academic management…

I have six more weeks in my current job, a post I will have held for six years and one term.  I still enjoy the role very much, and leaving a job you feel this way about is always likely to ensure happy memories.  My new job will be my fifth in teaching and I exepct it will be a real challenge. Reputations are like michelin stars: you don’t take them with you when you move.  As teachers, we need to re-prove ourselves each year – with new classes and new pupils – and it should be the same for academic managers.  The yearly genesis is a good discipline, ensuring we stay on our toes.  One doesn’t quite start from scratch, even in a new School, and what one takes with them is the memories that make us richer and experience that makes us wiser.  I have been an academic manager for over ten years, and what follows is my version of sensible advice; by that I mean it’s advice I wished I’d recevied a few years ago.

Always teach well, and lots – why should anyone listen to your talk on teaching when you don’t do any yourself?  Gain a reputation for being an excellent classroom practitioner and you’ll find it easier to gain traction for your ideas.

Make sure people know what you believe in – what is your philosophy of education?  What is education for?  What’s the point of education?  If you mention doing things becasue they are required by Ofsted/ISI, people will switch off.

Write every word of your addresses – when you talk to staff, don’t wing it.  I used to, and I left plenty to chance. It’s far easier to ad lib and go off-piste when you have a coherent speech to come back to.

Never waver from the belief that you are the best person for the job – this doesn’t mean you won’t get things wrong (and don’t try to cover your mistakes!), but you must have confidence in your ability to do the job, and better than anyone else.  Display confidence, courage and integrity.

Praise when appropriate – no-one should appreciate being praised for simply doing their job.  Likewise, when anyone goes above and beyond, make sure you are liberal with praise.  Make sure your praise means something – the worst type of praise either preceeds a request or is followed by reservation.

Don’t surround yourself with yes men – this is the real-world equivalent of only following people who agree with you on Twitter.  Yes men won’t challenge you, and all managers need that.

Retain a sense of humour – being serious about your work doesn’t mean walking around with a face like thunder.  You are allowed to enjoy what you do.

Sleep well – don’t take your work to bed with you – pretty much everything can wait until morning, and you may well have fresh perspective by then.  You don’t always need to clear the decks by the end of the day.

Write proposals (like academic reports) in stages – most documents you write will benefit from being written in several stages.  You will see things you didn’t before in what you have written, you will have new (and often better) ideas the second time you approach a paper.

Work to deadlines – don’t miss deadlines, but beating a deadline with days to spare is not ideal either.  It gives the impression of a ‘desk clearer’, someone who wants to get things out of the way as quick as possible.  The more times you return to a piece of work, the more ideas you may have on how to improve it.

Change your mind – you don’t have to, of course, but don’t be afraid to do so.  It is not a sign of weakness to be persuaded by others to a different viewpoint.  Those people immune to persuasion tend to see education in binary terms of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’.

What do you want to achieve and how can it be done – all the ideas you present should be linked to what you as a School are trying to achieve.  Don’t present ideas in isolation.  Don’t be the teacher all about varied activties, without it being obvious what the point of these activities are.  Embed good practice, not fads.  Make sure your thinking is well ahead of that of others – if you present something as a good idea, make sure you have thought it through in some detail.

Fairness is not treating everyone the same – we don’t expect pupils in the 5th XV to offer the same level of performance as those in the 1st XV, and it’s the same with teachers.  Gain some idea of the capability of those you manage, and if they are working somewhere near that level, great.

The confident/arrogant manager -confident people make those around them feel better, arrogant people make those around them feel worse.

Try to get people to debate each other in meetings – the skillful chairman is often invisible when it comes to dialogue in meetings.  If everything is fed back through the chairman, debate will always be stifled.  I find this very difficult to do.

Get out of your office – a common complaint of teachers about managers, and a very fair one.  Go and watch lessons, be visible, gain profile, be approachable.

Draw a very clear line between professional and personal – often relationships with colleagues fall clearly into one or the other camp, but sometimes you will end up with both.  There should be no problem keeping work and play apart – work disagreement should not be a matter of personal ‘like’ and ‘dislike’.

Don’t moan about how tired/busy you are – no-one cares (probably).  They are busy too.  Make time for people, not for admin – you can do your admin another time, but this person might only knock on your door once.

Cancel meetings – you don’t need to have the weekly meeting religiously – it’s not a Sunday service.  If there is no need for the meeting, don’t have the meeting.

Try your best and be happy with that – in the end, you’ll have triumphs and disasters in any job you stay in for a long time.  As long as you have very genuinely done your best, and any mistakes you made were genuine, and not for lack of effort, you can be pretty satisfied.