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What makes a good Academic Manager?

good

If you aspire to being an Academic Manager or have recently been promoted to the position, this has to be your first question.
Unfortunately, there's no right answer.
In some settings such as small departments and schools, the ability to work with people and support their efforts will be an essential part of being a good manager.  In other, larger, institutions, organisational skills and the ability to handle budgets and liaise with a wide range of partner institutions will be at more of a premium.
What the job involves and, therefore, the answer to our question will vary with the setting.

Unless you have been suddenly parachuted into a management role with no previous ELT experience, you will have worked with a range of Academic Managers before becoming one yourself.  It is a useful exercise to write down what skills and abilities the best of these people have demonstrated to you.  You may like to try answering these questions:

  • what are the three most important characteristics of a good Academic Manager?
  • what do I most admire about a good Academic Manager I have worked with?
  • what will I bring to the job?

As a beginning, here are a few answers.  Good Academic Managers:

  • know their role
  • plan effectively but don't constantly interfere
  • communicate
  • are available
  • are reactive and proactive

We can take these one at a time to see how you measure up.


who me?

Know your role

If your first reaction to that heading is, "Well, I know my role.  I'm the Academic Manager." then you are confusing the map with the territory.  Your job title describes your job, not your role in the job.  Simply saying that your role is your job title is akin to saying that John Wayne is an actor in this film.  Yes, Yes.  But what's his role?
Academic managers are called on to take on many roles and you should know what they are so you can select behaviours appropriate to them:

Colleague
This is the role you take on when you are talking to teachers about teaching and learning or about students and their issues.  It is something you do frequently and the role carries no especial power or authority.  Teachers are more expert concerning their own classes and learners than you are so seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
This means listening with respect and thoughtfulness and suggesting rather than demanding.
Boss
This is the role in which you do demand some respect from others and are in authority over them.  If you have recently been promoted from the teaching team, it's often the most difficult role to play convincingly.  However, you won't get respect if you command and don't explain.  You may have many good reasons for wanting something done in a particular way.  If you have, explain the reasoning clearly and honestly.  If you can't do that, perhaps you are wrong in wanting something done this way at all.
Representative
In almost all institutions, there is a tension between controlling costs and ensuring quality.  Raising standards nearly always costs money or time (much the same thing in some philosophies).
You are the Academic not Financial Manager so never be afraid to argue your corner.  You need, of course, to be aware of the cost and material pressures that other managers have to respond to but your concerns are academic.  You need to be armed with reasons why you want to increase training, raise teaching salaries or cut teaching hours because other managers do not have your expertise and insider information.
Explain, don't reject or complain.  You may not get your way but life is like that.  You will never get your way if you don't try.
Assessor
In this role you are probably doing one of two things: observing teachers or employing teachers.
Observation, to which there is a separate guide in this section, requires you to be respectful, knowledgeable, authoritative and constructive.
Employing teachers requires you to be searching, demanding, informative and judgmental.  There is a separate guide to interviewing in this section, too.
Carer
Without slipping into the nanny role, you need to be aware that pastoral care and what are called hygiene factors are also within your remit.  Teaching is a stressful occupation, done properly, and teachers need moral support as well as material and training support.  Listening is the first step but the second step is acting.  If someone is stressed and unhappy, is there anything you can do to make life easier?
The environment in which teachers work is critical to them but often overlooked by management that is not primarily concerned with academic matters.  You are, so you can make sure that you do everything in your power to make teachers' lives more comfortable, better organised and productive.  This can involve everything from ensuring the staff room is not a slum (by cleaning it up now and then) to major equipment or new materials investment or something as simple as a well-stocked stationery cupboard.  Go to the teachers' room now, look around and find three things you can improve for no or minimal cost.
Disciplinarian
If your institution deals with younger learners, this may be an issue (and even in adult-only environments, it's not unknown).  Usually, you don't get involved until the teachers have run out of options but you may if you feel they are being too lax.
In this role, you are not the student's friend, you are the manager.  Your job is to support the teachers, not the students and especially not if a student is degrading other students' learning experience.
You need to be fair, firm and stern.  Don't make empty threats and don't shout.  Ever.  Here's a possible response procedure for behavioural discipline:
  • Personally go and take the student(s) out of class and bring them to your office.  Do not try this in corridors or public places.  You want this to be official.
  • Invite a witness if possible and sit them at the back of the room, out of the students' eye line.  They should remain silent throughout.
  • Get the student(s) to explain why you want to talk to them (they'll know).
  • Explain what effect their behaviour is having on the teachers and other students.
  • Get them to say that back to you.  You are concept checking.
  • Get the student(s) to say explicitly how they will amend their behaviour.
  • Explain what the sanctions are going to be if they don't.  Do not make any empty threats.
  • Agree a contract with the student(s) and make it clear that the matter is now closed.
Planner and checker
This is where your organisational skills come in.
If you plan a course and the teachers' roles on that course, sit back and imagine how you would feel if you were given that timetable.
Look through any plan and decide at each stage what could go wrong.  Fix it now, not when it happens.  This is especially important if you are planning testing and examination procedures.
If you have made changes to things like room allocations, the timetable and so on, remember to manage by wandering around and checking that the changes you planned have actually happened.
When you present a plan, have it on paper.  Nobody will remember anything ten minutes after a meeting, however pretty and impressive your PowerPoint presentation was.
Chair
It is often your role to chair teachers' meetings, training sessions and workshops.
If you have a meeting, have an agenda.
Have frequent meetings.
Start and finish meetings on time.  If people come late and miss something important, they will be discouraged from doing so again.
Keep a record and make it public.
Take the chair role seriously because it requires some important behaviours.  Think about the following and have:
  • Ways of including quieter participants and demanding participation: e.g., Fred.  Do you have any thoughts on this?
  • Ways of silencing the over-enthusiastic responder: e.g., Thanks, Jane.  Let's get some other questions now, huh?
  • Ways of signalling transitions: e.g., Right.  Before we go on to the reasons for all this, does anyone have anything else to add?
  • Ways of keeping the contributions on track: e.g., We are getting off the topic.  Let's go back a bit.
  • Ways of moving things on and requiring a current speaker to give up the turn: e.g., Right, let's move on.
  • Ways of closing a topic: e.g., Does anyone have anything to add before we move on?
Thinker
This is the role you have when there's nothing else to do.  Wander around your institution and make notes of anything that could be better organised, better presented or more helpful.
Think through the teaching day and see where things could flow more easily.
Listen hard and develop other people's complaints or thoughts.
Have one major improvement planned for each month in the year.
Developer
Get a piece of paper and write down the strengths and weaknesses of all the teachers on your team.  Look for commonalities and plan a development programme which involves the stronger helping the weaker (it needn't and shouldn't all come from you).
Remember that materials need developing as well as people.  Look at what you have and make a wish list.  Be prepared to explain why you want the money.
Representative
Depending on your institution, one of your roles may well be to represent the institution at conferences, meetings with sponsors, meeting with parents and so on.  The trick here is to be as thoroughly prepared as possible and exude an air of professional competence.  You may be the only point of contact between important people and your institution.  As far as they are concerned, you are the institution so be aware of the messages you send by how you behave and how you look.  How you dress matters, by the way.

intefere

Plan effectively but don't constantly interfere

Yours is a planning and management role, not an implementation role.  Implementation is for others.
If you constantly interfere (rather than checking how things are going) a number of unpleasant consequences will follow:

  1. You will send a message that you don't trust your staff to implement plans and changes effectively without constant surveillance.
  2. You will make the process of implementing plans more difficult because people will be constantly looking over their shoulders to see what you are doing.
  3. You will unsettle anyone of a slightly nervous or unconfident disposition.

Instead:

  1. Make careful plans and don't try to implement them until they have been discussed and assessed.
  2. Carry people with you.  Explain and justify plans.
  3. Implement them and check that what you hoped for is happening but do not get under people's feet.

communicate

Communicate

Obviously, you need to communicate.  How you communicate matters.  There are some pitfalls:

  1. Communication by memo:
    By all means use written communication, especially for complicated ideas but as support for talking to people, not a replacement.  Talk first, write afterwards.
    Sticking notes in people's pigeon holes and hoping they will read them is a recipe for non-communication not a form of communication.  It makes you seem distant and overly authoritarian.
  2. Asking too much, too often:
    You are the manager so you should only be communicating ideas to people that are properly worked out, at least in outline.  Asking questions such as
    1. Do you think the timetable's OK?
    2. Is there anything we need to do?
    3. What do you think we should do?
      Will often produce the response:
          How should I know?  You are the Academic Manager so you decide and then I'll comment on your decision if you ask me.
      Communication is not a substitute for managing things, it is part of managing things.
  3. Being divisive:
    All of us have best friends, even managers.  Be very careful, however, that what you communicate is communicated to everyone it affects.
    One of the commonest causes of complaint from teachers is that changes are made which affect them without their having had the chance to be part of the decision-making process.  You may have agreed with a student, her group representative, her sponsors or parents or whatever that she should change classes but do not do anything until you have spoken to the expert: her teacher.  Nobody likes surprises and paranoia is part of most teachers' make-ups.  If you do things that affect others without seeking their views (even if you ignore them or overrule them), you will set up questions in them concerning their competence or popularity that you don't need.
    You may also have decided that the materials need reorganising and you have a very good way to do it.  OK, now make a really clear plan of what you intend, call a meeting and see what people think.  Do not move everything around.
    Communication means involving not just telling.

office

Be available

This is how your workspace should look – empty

If you are a new Academic Manager, you will be delighted to have your own workspace.  You may even have an office with a door.
You should not be in your office or workspace if there is any chance that one of your teaching team might need to talk to you.  Not everyone feels happy knocking on doors.  Of course, you need somewhere private to talk to people but bring them to the space, do not expect them to appear.
Here are just a few reasons why you should be with people rather than waiting for them to come to you:

  1. If you are in the teachers' room, the café or the canteen when your team are there too, people will talk to you.  Someone may have something to say that seems too trivial to go knocking on office doors but may not be trivial at all.  How important it is, is often a question you are in a better position to answer.
  2. If you are with people, you can watch them.  If you are not, you may miss early signs of stress and distress.  You may miss out, too, on how relationships between team members are working and whether your decision to ask John and Peter to share a timetable was actually a very wise one.
  3. People may not ask you things or bring you their troubles but the simple fact that you are available to talk, and obviously so, is often enough for them to get on and solve their own issues.
  4. You are making it clear that the teaching team comes first.  Your desk may be piled high with things that have to be done yesterday but you can ignore it for 30 minutes or so with the earth ceasing to turn on its axis.
  5. You can find out how things are going, especially if you know there is an issue somewhere.  Asking people to come to your office to discuss something makes it a federal case.  Just chatting over coffee can be much more effective and a lot less threatening.  There may be a problem that needs to be discussed in depth and in private but assuming that all issues are of this magnitude is poor management.

check

Be reactive and proactive

Check your mirror.

A good way to solve a problem is to step in quickly with wise and decisive action.  A better and far less stressful way for all concerned is not to have a problem.
It is easy enough to know when you need to react, although reacting wisely is another matter.  It is less easy to prevent problems arising.  Here are some ideas:

  1. On Friday afternoon (or whenever the working week is almost finished where you are), sit somewhere comfortable where you won't be disturbed.
    Now visualise how next week is going to pan out.  Do you have new arrivals, tests, an examination to organise, a teacher on holiday etc.?
    Write down all the things that could go wrong and, instead of thinking about what you will do if they do, make a plan now for how to stop them arising.
    For example, you have a public examination next Wednesday and people could a) make too much noise in the corridor or b) forget to bring their ID papers.  You may also have a visit from the accrediting body or need to find an invigilator if yours goes sick.
    Right now, make and implement a plan to keep noise down.  Arrange for someone to be outside the room to remind people to be quiet, put up loud notices, make sure every candidate gets a note reminding them about ID papers and the awful consequences of forgetting them, phone your second-choice invigilator and make sure they will be available at short notice.
    Relax and think of the next thing that could go wrong.
    When you are done, you should have more than a list of possible problems; you should have a ticked list of all the problems you have pre-empted.
  2. If you took the advice above about being with your teachers whenever you can and not sequestering yourself in an office somewhere, you will already be alert to the need to watch people and observe their behaviours.  Inexperienced teachers (and not only them) can become stressed quite quickly so you need to be alert to the signs of potential breakdown.  It is better to act now, by, say, reducing their hours or providing more support than to wait for the telephone call telling you they aren't coming any longer.
    Here are four signs to look out for.  Any of these requires action from you now or you will have a problem sooner or later that you could have prevented by timely intervention:
    1. staying in the teachers' room and preparing during breaks and for a long time after lessons
    2. being withdrawn and non-contributory at meetings
    3. looking harassed
    4. standing and clock watching rather than relaxing and waiting for time to go to class
  3. Investigate mysteries.
    For example:
    1. A normally bubbly and enthusiastic teacher has become silent and withdrawn.
      You need to find out what the issue is and the best way to do that is to find somewhere non-official but private to have a chat.  Explain your concerns and listen.  Try to be more than sympathetic.  It may be that simple action from you can alleviate whatever is troubling the teacher.  Just showing that you are aware and care may be enough.
    2. None or only a few of your teachers has put up a weekly work plan in the teachers' room.
      This could well be your fault for failing either to make it clear that it is required of them or what its purposes are (so people haven't taken it seriously).  It isn't a problem yet but it is something of a mystery.
      At your next meeting rectify the omission.  Don't insist that things are put right instantly and don't blame anyone.  You are asking for cooperation, not laying down the law.  Whatever you, do, don't issue a memo.  Make a note of what was said in the normal way.
    3. A teacher has told you, because you invited her to, that one of her students is sullen, disconnected and disruptive.
      Before you play disciplinarian, you need to get some data to work with.
      Has he always been like this or it is a sudden change in character?
      Have you recently changed the make-up of the group?
      Does anyone else know the student well enough to give you some background?
      Once you have a few bits of data, try to encounter the student before or after lessons and explain what's been said to you.
      Find out what his problem is before you act.
  4. Think proactively.
    Don't wait for complaints and moans.  Do something now.  This is part of your thinking role.  Here's what to think about:
    • After classes have finished for the day, or before they begin, take the time to wander the empty corridors and classrooms.  You are looking for anything that is looking tired or old: notices, furniture, walls, equipment.  Anything at all.  Make a list of improvements.  It doesn't matter, at this stage, how much improvement will cost.
    • Now do the same in the teachers' room.  What's missing?  What could be better?  What do we need more of?  Would a new teacher be able to find everything?  Ignore costs – you are writing a wish list.
    • Now go back to your office / workspace and make a list of all the things that are in your control.  This will include timetables, systems for placement, tests, the syllabus, course plans, record keeping systems and much more.
      Against every item on the list put a score against it out of 10 showing how perfect you think it is.
      Now think of how to make everything that scores below 9 better.  Ignore costs – this is wish list.
    • Now take your three lists and divide them into those improvement that cost nothing, those that cost a little and those that will be expensive.
    • Implement changes that cost nothing and make things better but make sure you involve people whose lives may be adversely affected.  Make one change a week until the list is exhausted.  Then make a new list.
    • Now prioritise the items for which an improvement has a cost implication.  Look at the top two items on each list and come up with a good argument why the institution should invest here.
    • Ask for a meeting with whomever holds the purse strings and makes financial decisions.
      Start with the most expensive ideas and work your way down.  You won't get everything you want (probably) but it's a long list and you are patient.
      If management agree to one cheap idea a week and one expensive idea every six months, you are well on the way to making things better and being a very good Academic Manager.