Open Thinkering


Everything that’s wrong with educational management, summed up in 3 Dilbert cartoons.

Before I start, I must point out that this is not a dig at all the members of the Senior Leadership Team at my current school. Not at all. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the practices that traps people in management positions – at all levels – sometimes fall into. They’re therefore traps I’m going to do my best to avoid when I become part of the Senior Leadership Team at my next school!

Shiny Shiny

Dilbert - pie charts

I’ve seen two awful presentations in the past couple of weeks. One was just monumentally bad – the presenter couldn’t find files, sat us through ages of short video clips and sprang questions at us to fill in time – and the other was just rambling and poorly thought-out. What was common to both approaches, however, was the assumption “I’m using technology therefore this must be a good presentation.” Gah.

I take the above Dilbert cartoon in the way that I think it’s meant to be read – i.e. as an extremely sarcastic and ironic look at how easily people are impressed by things that look good. That, to some extent is true. But it’s only true when accompanied by at least some level of competence in presenting information in an interesting and engaging way. Technology does not do the presentation for you!

On a slightly tangential note, I’m also concerned about the uncritical and all-too-credulous nature of otherwise intelligent people when presented with graphics that represent statistics. It’s critical literacy and a basic understanding of statistics. A grasp of these should be a pre-requisite for a career in any professional occupation…

Surfing the status quo

Dilbert - 'good'

Hiding behind desks is something that people in management in the world over are particularly good at. In schools its especially straightforward to seem good at your job if you get the data right. Schools only have to be seen to be doing things correctly – they aren’t inspected very often, parents are often (sometimes voluntarily) left out of the everyday loop concerning their child’s interactions at school, and the status quo suits most people very well.

So if you can engineer a situation where you or your institution seem to be doing everything right, the weight of conservative opinion and social inertia are on your side. As a manager you just need to jump through the oft-renamed hoops.

What am I planning to do? Aim to be an expert. Of course, I’ll never actually achieve my goal for, in a Socratic manner, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Still, it’s the process that’s important – as Kathy Sierra pointed out back in the day on her much-missed blog:

How to be an expert - graph (Kathy Sierra)

Most managers are ‘amateurs’ on this graph. They find a way that works for them and then keep on doing it. Over time, this means inconveniencing others and distorting things to make things fit into their system.

Those who choose the ‘expert’ path and challenge themselves to keep learning become – perhaps inadvertently – leaders, as the enthusiasm for continuous learning and their own professional development attracts others like a magnet!

‘Drive-by’ management

Dilbert - drive-by management

One of the results of being an ‘average’ manager (see above) is that, by not challenging yourself to learn new things, you will have spare time. Feeling guilty about this, managers then want to make sure they look like they’re doing their job and have authority. They therefore make things up for people to do, are awkward just for the sake of it, or ‘drop-in’ on people and point out irrelevancies.

I’m going to take as a fundamental maxim that people should be trusted to be professionals and get on with their job. Yes, there should be as much appropriate communication as possible, but attempts to micro-manage and meddle usually backfire. I suppose you could say that’s a fairly laid-back approach. Fair enough, but I’ll be demanding results! I think people will respect that. 🙂

What do YOU find wrong with management in education? Share your opinions in the comments section below!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

21 thoughts on “Everything that’s wrong with educational management, summed up in 3 Dilbert cartoons.

  1. Hi Doug

    Love the comic strips! The graph particularly strikes a chord.

    I do believe that everyone in our PLN strives for the level of ‘expert’. It’s the reason why I once made a comment regarding the number of talented people out there; and how magnificent a school would be with these educators. We have many senior managers in our PLN, Heads, Assistant Heads, Heads of Department, and they indicate that its possible to get management at this level right.

    For me, a dubious senior management is one which is satisfied with itself. Satisfied that they are dealing with the minutiae of daily routines and that they are providing a scholarly experience and environment. Everything is ticking along, all good. They don’t want to look outward, see what others are doing and judge themselves by comparison. There are no ‘big’ ideas (even if only for discussion) promotions are more often than not internal, and there seems to be a culture of employing a ‘brand’ of individuals – people who senior management are comfortable with because they pose no threat.

    Perhaps this is naiive, no environment wants loud, trouble makers. But what I’m referring to is a type of comfortable, safe, lethargy, coupled with a fear and intolerance of the new, fresh and different. I like strong interaction, working with people who challenge me and have high expectations. This cannot happen unless a senior management also enforces it amongst themselves.

    Oh, and this is not a comment on my current senior management either. I’ve been a teacher for … er…a long time!

    P.S. I like the old glasses.

  2. Managers who just will not tell their people what they need to know because they think it somehow weakens management!

    Managers who make decisions then refuse to justify them especially when it turns out that staff are deeply unhappy!

    Your Men Your Weapon Yourself is what I was taught in the Army. Management have it backwards..

    1. Indeed – it’s a weak leader or manager who needs to assert that they are in charge all the time. There’s a lot of paper-pushers in educational management. :-(

  3. Love this post Doug.

    I am currently completing post graduate work on educational leadership and this really resonates with me. Actually quoted from your post on turning the hierarchy upside down in a recent research essay, and the lecturer loved it. Thought it added colour.

    Anyway too often senior management are just that – managers. It is leadership that we need in these positions, not effecient administrators. So many DP’s seem to love to give the impression they are VERY busy. They walk around at breaknet speed, looking rather frantic, with never time to have a chat. I would argue that anyone who behaves in that way is in fact not efficient at what they do.

    Many in these positions are too autocratic and are often seen as ‘the enemy’ by staff. My last school had a real ‘them an us’ culture amongst staff. Consequently senior management found it very difficuly to implement change or anything new.

    The key for people in these positions is to get the teachers leading the school. Distributed leadership is a must for 21st century schools. Get rid of this hierarchical set up that just stifles effective relationships. Develop learning communities or communities of practice where all work together to improve the school

    Some would say that this is somewhat idealistic, but I have seen it in practice and it works damn well!

      1. In my view, truly effective schools in the 21st century must move from a hierarchical model of leadership, and become learning communities or communities of practice. Wenger defines a community of practice as “…groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.” (Wenger, McDermott, Snyder, 2002, p.4) In a community of practice, leadership takes place at the level of the community, rather than the level of individuals. “Regarding leadership as a practice helps us to see the teachers and principals as members of communities of practice within which knowledge is used and exchanged to achieve goals with little regard for roles and positions.” (Sergiovanni, 2007, p.103) When I think about leadership in this sense, I often think of a blog post I read earlier this year from Doug Belshaw.

        “What if instead of everyone being allocated to one main job within a school, there was some kind of rotation system? What do you suppose would happen if teachers had experience in working in the school office? Would teachers have their eyes opened if they were given the opportunity to be learning support assistants for a period of time?
        What if, more radically, everyone earned the same amount of money within a school and status was denoted by the amount of time spent with students? What if time with students actually meant that you ‘earned’ more rather than less? What if the traditional top-down hierarchy was bottom-up, with administrative positions explicitly supporting, rather than dictating, teaching? What would happen then?” (

        Nice to be quoted at a postgrad level?

  4. I like this post Doug.

    I am currently completing postgraduate studies in educational leadership so this really resonated with me. I actually quoted from a post of yours about turning the hierarchy in schools on it head in a recent research essay. The lecturer loved it – thought it added colour.

    We need learning communities rather than the traditional hierarchical models of organisation. Traditional structures can’t cope with 21st century learning and our staff and students suffer because of it.

    I especially dislike senior manager who run around trying to look busy. Who say they haven’t got time to chat. It’s like the only way they can justify their positon – to appear as if they are doing their job.

  5. Hi Doug,

    Great post – really hit a note!

    Two of the less desirable characteristics of SLT are their mistrust of professionalism. It seems that ‘they’ know best, for example targets can often be set at an unrealistic level that destroys both staff and pupil confidence. I wonder if the accountability culture has led to these ‘top-down’ initiatives.

    The other thing that often grates is SLT’s approach to consultation. In other words ‘we know how it’s going to be done, but we’re going to ask for your opinions anyway’. I’d rather be told than go through a false consultation process.

    To me, the sign of a good SLT is great communication and delegation or the distribution of leadership.


    1. I wouldn’t want to tar *all* senior leaders in school with the same brush, but the ‘accountability culture’ you mention certainly doesn’t help the situation, does it? Having to produce lots of data isn’t conducive to helping create a spirit and ethos of co-operating and risk-taking, unfortunately.

      False consultation processes? Shurely not… ;-)

  6. There are just so many points here from which to start a conversation, but I’ll pick up on just one point. That about technology not doing the presentation for you. One of the greatest regrets I have is that PowerPoint data files were ever named ‘presentations’. They are NOT presentations. They are the visual (and sometimes audiovisual) aids to a presentation, which is delivered by a living, breathing human being. Why do perfectly useful people turn themselves into voice-overs for PowerPoint slides? And what an insult so many of those slides are to the intelligence of the audience. Just dump the content of your presentation onto a series of slides in bullet point form and read them to your audience. That’ll do the trick. But, of course, we can always add a little zing and pizzazz with a few pie charts (as your Dilbert strip illustrates).

    My own view is that these people could be doing so many other things. And yet, here they are, taking time out to hear what I have to say. They deserve cogent reasoning, illustrated – where appropriate – with relevant graphics and or images that help them to process the information or give them a mental hook to hang it on.

    If I can’t take the time to put together a kick-ass presentation, why should they take time to attend it?

  7. People of my age (nearly 60 – 38 years at the chalkface) are leaving teaching in droves! Reason – burn out and disillusionment. Education has become THE political football. however becomes the Minister for Education policies change to encompass pet theories that have been seen on ‘jollies’ abroad. Hence the National College for School Leadership (quango) was established in Nottingham, and this institution was charged with introducing, with enthusiastic government support and backing, the National Qualification for Headteachers. Any teacher can apply! They will be accepted if they jump through various hoops. Once qualified they can start applying for headships – and eventually are successful because of the national shortage of people putting themselves forward for headship posts. It has been shown that fast tracked teachers- remember that scheme – can become a headteacher within six years from becoming qualified! Experience and the notion of lead professional seems to have no value in 21st century education leadership.There has been the introduction of ‘superheads’ – they take on several schools, drive up results (based on % 5A*-C yardstick) then leave the teachers in the schools they manage drained, and ethos damaged and move onto the next ‘challenge/ and the next inflated six figure salary. They are totally removed from the real world. I would be very wary if I was to be called ‘expert’. I remember an ex colleague who retired many years ago who spelt expert as ‘X-spurt’ and explained thus:’X’ – an unknown quantity and’spurt’ – a drip under pressure!New breed senior management teams do just that manage – move things into the box which suits them. Leadership however, is inspiring a vision that can be shared by all, and all can contribute to the developing end result. Please lead colleagues Doug!

    1. I agree, as someone who came into teaching late (in my mid 30s) from Industry, I have been shocked by the poor management in schools, the majority have shown themselves to be amateurs out of their depth, there have been two exceptions, one exception, a wonderful man with a deep experience was ‘replaced’ when the schools amalgamated, by a more ‘Dynamic’ head, who managed in a very short space of time to drive down the morale of virtually all the staff,.
      The most successful managers delegate responsiblity, and plan for the long term, I have seen very little of this, mainly a school lurched from one crisis to the next, with the staff ‘fire-fighting’ rather than planning and organising.

    2. Well, Dougsdadbensgrandpa I think you can be justifiably proud of what your son is doing for his profession! I confess that I am not a teacher, so my observation comes from outside the field. But I can’t help wondering whether being a teacher and being in management are not perhaps two different skill sets.

      Let’s look at an analogy: In commerce, one of the massive problems is in sales departments. People who are great at sales usually suck at people management. But time after time they put the best salesperson in as sales manager. I have seen this happen on so many occasions and it is such a bad idea.

      In the US, as I understand it (and I may be wrong) being a school head is a different path from being a teacher. My heart aches when we see yet another gifted practitioner moving out of the classroom and into the office. And a school doesn’t have to be very large before the demands of managing a team and running the school become too great to allow that person any classroom time any more. With the potential that he has, Doug is likely to find himself in the same position… and what a loss that would be!

      Hospitals are not run by doctors. They are run by administrators. Doctors practice medicine. Isn’t this perhaps a better option for schools, too? That teachers teach, leaving all the administration malarkey to an administrator?

      Just wonderin’

      1. “Hospitals are not run by doctors. They are run by administrators. Doctors practice medicine. Isn’t this perhaps a better option for schools, too? That teachers teach, leaving all the administration malarkey to an administrator?”

        Sadly this is how we have it now, my experience is that the best heads are good administrators, who understand what teachers do, the problem we have is when heads are ‘fast tracked’ this results in heads with poor management skills and no understanding of teaching, having the authority to set targets and policy which is impractable, sadly the best cabdidates are not promoted to headships, just the abitious, willing to jump through the hoops

          1. it sounds to me as if what we have here is a good idea poorly implemented.

            I agree, but personally think it is a poor idea poorly implemented

  8. I was struck by the discussion over Easter at one of the conferences about Stepford Heads in Primary schools – very much the model desctibed by Ben’s grandpa. High on jargon, well aquainted with the seven models of dealing with an issue but low on any emotional intelligence or humanity in dealing with real life situations. I speak as someone who has just left a Deputy Head’s post and of course exhibited none of the traits described above!!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *