Can Teachers Be Managers?

In April 25 of this year at an event on the campus of Johns Hopkins University titled The Future of Teaching: New Standards, New Tests, and New Evaluations — What does it all mean?, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten argued that teachers, in the work they do, are managers, saying:

Teaching, I don’t care who [which kinds of students] it is, teaching is incredibly hard — you are managing, whether it is 20 kids or 40 kids…  When you are teaching, you are managing, whether it is 20, 30, or 40; or if you are a high school teacher 150 to 200 kids at a time.  Unlike adults, kids don’t have a sensor…so you really have to manage kids and engage them … particularly if you want to go deep.”

This was for me a provocative statement and opened up some questions about how the profession of teaching is constructed in policy and research; and, how data and information tools are being developed to support teachers.  In businesses and other fields that have used information and data to manage performance, managers have had a different relationship to the tools than workers.  Managers are the ones provided summary indicators. They have a job that allows them to collect and integrate different information as they analyze, diagnose, and direct.  In contrast, workers use information to be informed about their tasks and what they need to do next.  How we think of the role of teachers may have a bearing on how we design information tools to support them in practice.

Managing in and beyond the classroom

Weingarten’s comments call attention to the type of coordination of content and student preparation that teachers regularly do to ensure the moment-by-moment flow of information in the classroom works.  This is more than classroom management, which is often considered to be maintaining discipline and order.  This is instructional management that entails ensuring that students are continuously and appropriately engaged.  This involves planning of lessons and execution in a way that works for the different kids who have different aptitudes, interests, and preparation.   This is managing the classroom environment.  And, most would agree that some teachers do this better than others.

Teachers can also manage outside of the classroom.  They often coordinate with their peers to develop projects and activities for the students.  They manage relationships and expectations with parents.  Some teachers are department heads.  Some are informal leaders as the Distributed Leadership Study showed several years ago.  Some teachers have aides in their classroom and these teachers coordinate and manage the work of their aides/para-educators.

Now the value-added teacher measurement movement is creating another management opportunity for some teachers.  Some students, those in special education and English language learners (ELL), can have aides who work with them some portion of their school day.  Schools and districts that measure teachers based on student test scores will likely then need to account for the contributions of these other supporting professionals.  A straightforward way is to have one teacher designated as the teacher of record as a program funded by the Gates Foundation is exploring.  This would then give that teacher of record some managerial responsibility for coordinating the other professionals involved in that student’s learning since the teacher of record would be evaluated on the shared student’s performance.

How can teachers be managers if they are not in management?

One question that this idea of teachers as managers immediately raised for me is how they could be managers when they do not have management roles.  Teachers, after all, usually belong to labor unions and have contracts that are similar to the contracts used by other public employees who perform important functions – police officers, firefighters, and bus drivers – while not being managers.  But, in other fields there are cases where a professional manages activities and people, while part of the official management of an organization.  For example, in industries that employ contractors (construction, software development, conference management), it is common to have contractors who are professional project managers.  These individuals are hired temporarily for their ability to manage multiple tasks, prioritize, communicate, plan, and direct the work of others.  They are, however, not part of the management of the organizations they are working for.  They do not review employees or have the human resources responsibilities that members of management have.  It seems that conceptually, being a member of management is a specific role within organization.  Being a manager describes the nature of the work someone does.  Often these two occur at the same time, but not always.

Being accountable defines a manager

While there are many things managers do from developing schedules to coordinating resources to ensuring the delivery of an expected product or service, a signature characteristic of managers is that they are responsible and accountable for results.  In businesses and other organizations, managers are expected to manage to deliver results within constraints and limits.  Unlike workers, the buck stops with the manager.  Perhaps no other characteristic of a manager is so related to teaching in the current era.  If the job of teaching was less managerial before standards-based accountability, it is likely more so now.  While there are many weaknesses to the form of testing used under NCLB (and the kind that would likely be used to support value-added measures of teachers), it has provided a set of common metrics that can be used with those teachers (about a third of all teachers) in schools.  Similar types of measures are being used with many teachers in other subjects as well. These metrics provide an important metric that teachers need to manage to.  While in some cases the response is to try to cheat the system, many teachers are responding by trying to manage to these metrics.

So it seems to me that one of the big shifts that is occurring in education today is the development of managerial dimensions to the job of teachers.  Just as accountability makes instructional responsibility more shared, so does it provide more opportunities for teachers to be more responsible and manage more.  Perhaps not all teachers are interested or prepared for this part of their job.  Perhaps as new approaches to teacher evaluation are designed complementary teacher development as managers should be considered.

Dr. Piety is a national expert in educational data. He is on the faculty of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland where he teaches information and database technologies, cloud computing, and social media. He is the author of Assessing the Educational Data Movement, a book on using data to improve school success.

Posted in Big ideas & theories, Teachers and data, Top news stories, Value-added models

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