Management Column: Family Values…

by Maureen McGarvey

I grew up with Scottish parents and Irish grandparents, and a multiplicity of aunts, uncles and cousins. We were the only members of our family who had moved away from Clydebank [near Glasgow] and I had the misfortune [in my family’s eyes] of being the only one in the family who was born in England. When out playing with cousins on visits to Clydebank, my accent was always mocked, and neighbours used to ask ‘How come she doesn’t speak properly?’, to which a helpful aunt/uncle would reply ‘She was born in England’… pause….’poor wee soul.’

Like most families, mine had a number of family phrases which were trotted out regularly. However, unlike many families’ phrases, I still use mine to refer to aspects of my daily work life. Not only do they bring my family closer to me, they also often pithily sum up things which I find helpful to remember. Some of you may have come across some of these before in conversation with me at various AMT conferences, or on the online Certificate and Diploma in Academic management IH London offers. Yes, my family have even infiltrated those hallowed course pages….

I thought, in the spirit of retrospection of this issue of the IHWO Journal, that it might be fun to share some of those with you and explain how they help me at work.

1. ‘In the first six weeks in a new job, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut.’

Oh, how I wish I had listened to my father more! This was a phrase he regularly trotted out when my sister and I were faced with anything new, and it has a lot to recommend it. If you are newly promoted to an academic management role, you often feel [or are made to feel] that you need to go in all guns a-blazing and ‘sort things out’. Don’t do this! Listen to my Dad, and spend some time watching and listening. Find out what the organisational culture is; who the influencers are [they won’t always be the people in senior roles], what’s happened before, what the students are like, what the teachers are like. Spend time in the staffroom when teachers are there, just hanging about and having a coffee. Don’t think that looking efficiently busy is a better use of your time than finding out about the people, and the context, you are working in.

2. ‘Always be nice to the person who has the keys.’

As academic managers, we put our main focus on the students and the teachers; of course we do. Yet you will soon realise [I hope] the immense value and contribution of your admin staff, whom you also have a role in managing. Good admin staff can ease your working life to an amazing degree, as well as being able to orient you to the customs, values and practices of the location you find yourself in. And of course, the person with the keys is the person who will be setting up rooms for events, opening the school on a Saturday morning, staying late to clean up after Parents’ Evenings, etc. Developing and maintaining good relationships with your admin and facilities team is common sense, because they are the oil that keeps the wheels of the school turning.

3. ‘Never sit with your two hands the same length’.

My Mum, like many women of her background and generation, had a horror of idleness. She felt you should always be doing something, even after the end of your working day. Her presence was so powerful that her older sister, at age 81, once said to me, pleadingly, when I was staying with her for a visit; ‘Don’t tell your Mammy that I read a book in the middle of the day, I’ll never hear the end of it’. This stricture meant that in the evenings my sister and I had to keep our hands busy, i.e. not sit with them in our laps – ‘the same length’. The hands had to be moving, knitting, embroidering, or sewing, even if we were watching television. Yes, very Bennet sisters.

My current interpretation of this maxim is that this is where we, as managers, can often go badly wrong. We feel bad [like my aunt] if staff ever ‘catch us doing nothing’. So, we immerse ourselves in things when it might be better for us to sit for 15 minutes and just think about something. We make endless [and often, ridiculously long] To Do lists, so we can tick off what we have ‘achieved’. But for our staff, effective management isn’t always about achieving, it’s about being [Does that sound rather post-hippie?]. Spending time to talk to a teacher or parent, asking a receptionist about their child, having a chat with the cleaner; it isn’t busy work, but it’s human work. To paraphrase what Monica Green said in her plenary at the 2016 AMT conference, remembering we are people who work and co-exist with other people, is what can make a difference to our schools.

4. ‘Misery loves company’

We’ve all had that difficult class, or find that staff member tricky. How often, when a colleague expresses the same feelings that we have, do we say something like ‘Oh, thank God it’s not just me! I feel a whole lot better now knowing I’m not the only one’, etc. My family saying sums that up; if you find something difficult, it’s good to know you are not alone; and you rarely are, really. However, it can take a lot of work to move your school to a place where problems and mistakes are seen as positive engines for change, to really be a Learning Organisation. Ken Blanchard is credited with the phrase ‘Catch people doing something right, and praise them for it’ and this doesn’t have to be Something Big. Letting teachers know about positive feedback from students, recognising that a member of your customer service team has spent additional time talking to a student/company training manager, thanking your facilities team for staying late to help clear up after an event; all these are ways you can catch someone doing something right.

However, beware of the misery loves company in the staffroom. While it’s good to know that other teachers have found a particular student problematic, this can easily lead to a situation where a student ‘gets a reputation’, for example. Teachers therefore create an impression of a student based on a colleague’s relationship with them, which can affect how they work with that student. Equally, one teacher who is unhappy with school policy, and vocal about this, can set up what we used to call, in my family, a ‘whinge binge’, where other teachers can become affected and morale drops. This is another good reason for the academic manager to spend time in the staffroom rather than shut away in their office, so they can head this situation off at the pass, if it looks likely to arise.

5. ‘Hindsight gives you 20:20 vision’

It’s often easy to see where we went wrong after the event, isn’t it? But when we are in the middle of a tricky situation, our vision/perception can get a bit blurred, or we proceed along a path regardless of whether it’s the right one or not. We don’t take the time to stop and think, and perhaps regroup [see above re: taking time to think.] Once we do, the mis-steps can become blindingly obvious, and we berate ourselves. The follow on to this phrase, which my father used to utter in his strong Clydebank accent, was ‘so be sure you keep those glasses on once you’re looking ahead to the next thing!’ A lot of organisations now write/produce ‘lessons learned’ reports after any change initiative, to collate the learning points to help next time. If these are produced by all team members, individual learning can be pinpointed and collective learning points established. It’s sometimes annoying to think of having to write yet another report, but it’s a good way to see how the change is viewed from a range of perspectives, not only that of managers.

I think it’s also important to use that 20:20 vision when something goes well. As I said before, we are quite good ate beating up on ourselves, and less good at really examining why something went well. It can be difficult sometimes to ‘praise ourselves’, but if we consider ‘lessons learned’ from a positive experience, we can, at least, pinpoint where colleagues made a really positive contribution. To, retrospectively, ‘catch them doing something right’.

There are, I’m afraid, more McGarvey Maxims I could share with you, but those are the ones I use the most, and the ones which help us the most. I haven’t really explored my mother’s often puzzling statement to my sister and myself of ‘Never marry a man with strangler’s hands’……

Author’s Bio: Maureen is Programme Manager eLearning at IH London. She has been involved in online training and management training for the past 15 years, running a range of distance, face to face, and online training programmes for academic managers. She wrote the management module for the MSc in TESOL offered by Aston University, and was subject tutor and dissertation supervisor for that module for several years. She has also tutored the management module for the MA in TESOL offered by Westminster University. She is a frequent conference speaker on topics related to academic management and online training. Maureen has worked in ELT for longer than she cares to remember, and has taught in the UK, Spain and Hungary as well as on short training contracts in other locations. She has been a committee member on the Leadership and Management Special Interest Group for IATEFL, and is Co-ordinator for the IATEFL Scholarship Working Party, responsible for managing the IATEFL scholarship scheme. She line manages academic staff in IH London and also manage a team of online tutors working remotely in a variety of locations. She lives in North London with her daughter and their dog. She has a guilty addiction to reality TV programmes. Her email is