Tuesday, January 25, 2011


It is one of those transformative aspects of writing, whether it be for blogs or books, that as you write your idea is crystallised, you yourself are persuaded, and deepened is your knowledge of self and subject. This is even truer when writing is done over time. Could your view be changed as you write? The intended conclusion is somehow reversed or dramatically altered during the organisation of one's thoughts? And over time, with the turbulence of experience, could you have hardly honestly even continue on a topic?

I will seek to write this in one go in the hope it holds my view back of the week. The week under inspection really did begin on the Saturday past and I write on the Saturday of the present. It'll start with the mundane details, forgive me, of a regrettably common part of my job, an incident report:

Kelly (name changed) breezed into work at 11:08am. She was due in at 10:30am to begin her iLab helping at 11:40am, a scheduled activity that involves helping students in the computer lab. It was an hour that staff often take as their office hour, but my boss was very serious about changing this bad habit and we were generally cracking down on tardiness, so, to be consistent, I invited her to a small meeting to fill in an incident report. I'd done these routinely in my time at the school, always in a low-key way with the person concerned and always explaining that it wasn't disciplinary, but a way of improving a situation.

During the meeting, of which I can remember fairly little of the exact words but most of the substance, I explained the situation and she explained her dilemma: she lived far away and relied on a shuttle bus that worked on a half hourly schedule; she could either come 40 minutes early or 10 minutes late. I said it was good to have it in writing (i.e. the report) so I could see if the management has any solutions. She had had an incident report (never with me) before and she seemed familiar with the drill.

The next morning a sales staff member approached me asking for Kelly.  She was booked for a 10:40am placement test with a student. It was 10:35am and she hadn't arrived yet in the office. I felt it was important to know that she was going to be able to do it on time or else I'd try to get some cover for her so I called her mobile to see when she would be in the office. She picked up, I greeted her then asked about the time she'd be in.

She answered: "You can write up an incident report, I don't care."

"It's not about that. There is a student waiting and I need to know when you'll be arriving."

"Whatever. Write an incident report!" she said and hung up on me.

I was taken aback for a moment before I saw her come into the office at 10:38am and did the test. I was irked because I felt I was only doing my job and so wrote an unCC:ed e-mail clarifying that I was only inquiring about her arrival time, had never raised the idea of writing any report and would appreciate it if she minded her tone. She wrote back and said that I should mind my tone and at that point I was just confused and left it there. I thought I might explain the incident later to the management team in case I had missed something.

As I left that night though, an e-mail went to my manager; it was a forwarded copy of my previous e-mail with my sentence "Please mind your tone," font enlarged and put in red. She said that I showed no respect for her, treated her like a child and she couldn't bear working with me anymore.

Fortunately I had a nice day off and recovered from a cold oblivious to it all until the morning before work I checked my e-mail to see there was the e-mail from my boss replying her and CC:ing me and my co-Senior Teacher saying that we'd have a management meeting called "Managing your team" to address the problem. He'd already met with her in a meeting where she had cried about the series of events.

I'll halt the narrative here because taken alone, as fair as I can be, it looks like a disaster. What did I do wrong? What advice would you give me and what way forth should I take?

The meeting was great, even if hard because it was all due to the mess I had somehow made. Fortunately my boss is great, something that I was going to elaborate on in the blog that began before this episode. We discussed the practicalities of the job, breaking my case into the steps and exposing ways to improve. We agreed on a consistent approach. Both of my colleagues had experienced something similar to the above in the past. My senior teacher colleague had it much worse, if only because her manager at the time was not as adept as our present one to know how to heal the rift. The key thing is that despite only what we recognised as one misstep (calling before she was late) and an error of judgement (following up the call with a personal e-mail), the event was not a discrete event but the culmination of an invisible antagonism.

I met with Kelly later and apologised for making her feel like a child and hurting her feelings. What came then was a surprising but enlightening outpouring. She'd been continuously irritated by me in ways I was unaware of. She went further to see that many people were annoyed by it. She listed the in detail and I asked for as much as she could give me. If I enumerated them here, you might think many of them petty, and most if I were defensive I could easily explain them away as me just being me. I said that I was new to the job, I was learning and was didn't intend anyone to feel oppressed. We shook hands at the ends with a smile and that was the end. Well, I can't say that can I. How many more inconspicuous barbs in my personality will come out in the future?

My new starting point is with that raw material she gave me. My role has changed and part of that will require me changing with it. My manner has to be one that people can work with and I need to reflect on the very way I interact on a daily basis. This has been quite invigorating.

That was just one story from the week, but the theme continued in some ways. It was first of the three big professional lessons of the week. (I'll speak only of the first for fear this will be too lengthy as a blog.)  But maybe I should reverse this blog back to where my thoughts were prior to all the excitement. That was, my boss is a great manager; and his boss is a disaster.

One of the biggest reasons for the differences between them is one that will blight this school now and limit it in the future. It is simply that great teachers are moving out of the classroom and into the manager's seat, without any succession plan or training. Few can transition easily. Few are naturally talented leaders. I'm used to managing a classroom not a staffroom. I rightly need training because my personable nature and teaching skills won't stop me from running a school into the ground.

My manager, in addition to a teaching career, has worked in Exxon Mobil as a manager. He has managed before and received training in it. His model for both of us Senior Teachers is to prepare us for succession. Much of his job he isn't meant to show but he does because "if I were to get hit by a bus, who would know where anything is?" He is highly critical of the lack of succession planning and training. In a word, we're lucky to have him.

At my last school there was a fallen dragon. He was the first local (i.e. Chinese) Director of Studies in Guangzhou. He was succeeding from a high flying Director who had received a more pivotal position elsewhere. He was promised support but received none. His school failed as he couldn't manage the team, contend with a powerful (apparently, corrupt) central operations manager and then was humiliated by the regional director of the time. He was given a haven at my previous school, not a step down to senior teacher, but plunge to being an ordinary teacher. The humility of the man is that he doesn't show any of that pain and is a dedicated passionate teacher.

It is a salutary story. It could have been me. I could be me: There is a chance I'll be the sole manager at a new branch school shortly. How much I learn in the next few weeks will be crucial to my success if given the chance.


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