Disappointed in Teaching (III) – The Administrators – an HBR Classic

In 1977, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article by Abraham Zaleznik, under the title: “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  The article was republished in March 1992 and again in January 2004 as an HBR Classic.

The main idea of the article is that managers and leaders have two different types of personalities. “Managers tend to adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes toward goals. Managerial goals arise out of necessities rather than desires and, therefore, are deeply embedded in their organization’s history and culture.”

In contrast, “…leaders think about goals.  They are active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them… The influence a leader exerts in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and in establishing specific desires and objectives determines the direction a business takes. The net result of this influence changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary.” (Italics are mine).

In our day, probably the best example of such a leader – at least in the field of technology – was Steven Jobs. The iPad, iPhone and iPod were products that created a market, they were not a response to consumer desires as defined through surveys, focus groups and such.  Famously, Jobs is quoted as saying: “…customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

In my own experience, with one possible exception, all the administrators I have known were managers rather than leaders. This lack of leadership is yet another significant reason I am disappointed in teaching as a profession, and is an issue I want to examine in this post.

Zaleznik writes that “…managers act to limit choices” and this is indeed what I see happening in our educational system. Our school is a classic example.  About 18 months ago, during a staff development day, we were informed that we will all be “writing across the curriculum”. Now, this is a laudable goal, but what followed was a pure example of education management in action.

All the writing was to follow the Jane Schaffer model.  In this model there are topic sentences (TS), concrete details (CD) and commentaries (CM) – two per paragraph please – followed by a concluding sentence (CS).  Wikipedia quotes the Schaeffer paragraph requirements as :

  • It must not be written in the first person
  • Every paragraph must be five sentences long, however there can be more as long as the same ratio of two CM’s to every CD is kept
  • Each section (TS, CD, CM, CS) must be only one sentence in length
  • Each section should also avoid past tense and only be written in present tense

(Note all the “musts”)

We were all going to be trained in the Jane Schaeffer method, present it to our students and make them follow it in everything they wrote.

So, whether you were writing an essay in English, or a Biology report or something on a history topic, you were supposed to do it in the Jane Schaeffer model.  When I first heard about it, I had this image of an assembly line come to my mind. Why would we force on our students such a schematic, non-imaginative way of writing? It seems to me that there are two reasons for this.

Assembly line

First, administrators realized the low writing skills of our students and their general inability to write a decent paragraph. Therefore their thinking probably went: we will provide the students with a recipe – 4 or 5 easy steps – they will apply the recipe every time they write and, because everybody cooks by the chosen recipe, we will get a decent “meal”. Problem solved!

It is an interesting concept – you have (in general) low skilled workers, you train them to the job one way only and too bad for the creative innovators and the iconoclasts – the “yeast”.  We were told that the Jane Schaeffer method was a “distillation of good writing”. But is it? Is it the only one? Is it the best? Who made that decision? Does it lead to repetitive, boring writing?  Does it stifle creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Who cares! It is the majority that counts and since the level of writing of the majority is low, we will provide them with a template – more like a straightjacket really – and the heck with the other students – those with the creativity to perhaps become good writers. Truly, “…managers act to limit choices”.

I suspect that the second reason for enforcing a template, such as the Jane Schaffer model –perhaps the more important one – is that it looks good for management. Administrators can claim that “we are all in step, we march united, we have identified a problem, came up with a solution, and implemented it” – we deserve our jobs!  Indeed, during our recent accreditation process a great deal was made of the “school wide implementation of the Jane Schaeffer process”.  Indeed, during our recent accreditation visit, a great deal was made of the fact that we all follow the Jane Schaeffer model.

Whom are our managers responsible to? The principal is responsible to the superintendent and (especially in a small district such as ours) to the Board. The BoE is composed of elected officials – mostly local business people. None of them are trained in the field of education, or have been teachers. How much time, inclination and training do they have to delve into the Jane Schaeffer method? For that matter, what about the Superintendent? Board and Superintendent are happy that the problem was identified and their appointed managers (principal and APs) have devised a solution. Whether the solution is good or whether it may have unintended consequences – these people have neither the inclination nor the ability to evaluate.

The funny thing is that there is little attempt to monitor how the model is implemented “in the trenches”. The English department does it – mostly. Some teachers in other department do it, some don’t. Math is a laggard and some math teachers like me will never do it. But…it doesn’t seem to matter; on paper we are all doing it, we are all in step and … we have eliminated all other choices.

And wait…we have a template for teaching math also.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s