Listen to teacher: An approach to people management

By Rory Duncan

As a manager, I’ve been talking to teachers about job interviews, observations, feedback sessions, professional development meetings, seminars and workshops. In 2018, I came to realise that many of these avenues and much of the literature for teachers focuses exclusively on teaching, rather than the teachers themselves.

The purpose of that observation is not to denigrate the efforts that have been made to give teachers knowledge, which is much appreciated. However, it seemed like a crucial part of the profession had been missed and, in January 2019, I began interviewing teachers and asking them about themselves, their ideas and beliefs, and how they interacted with their profession on a personal level.

There was no pattern, no agenda for or against any particular area of the job, only semi-structured discussions. I had hoped teachers would share their ideas and views from a personal place that might benefit others. I also came across something interesting and potentially very beneficial.

During the interviews, some teachers would drift away from reality and into a place where they would formulate and articulate their ideas – things they hadn’t often considered before. It seemed many were engaging in a special kind of discourse about their lives and jobs. Afterwards, these same teachers reported feeling more relaxed, clearer about their ideas, and/or feeling generally better.

I began to wonder if I had happened upon something that might help teachers develop a healthy way to conceptualise their work. Furthermore, if the process made them feel better, it would avoid burn-out, low morale and other issues associated with the profession.

Forming questions and procedures

My interviews were far removed from all the other modes of management-employee interaction. Job interviews, observations, feedback sessions, etc., almost exclusively revolve around how teachers themselves can benefit the business or organisation they work for. The stress associated with such events has been commented on. In a non-judgemental space, where one is at the heart of everything that happens, teachers are bound to feel better.

There is another reason why this beneficial effect might have occurred. Having studied psychology generally and, specifically, the work of Jordan Peterson, I took some of the ideas from his Self-Authoring Suite in terms of the general structure. I wanted contributors to feel at ease, but also to contribute to some kind of systematised discourse to make it easier for potential readers to understand the ideas commented upon. With that in mind, I divided my questions into three core areas, much like Peterson’s program: past, present and future.

I wanted to know about participants’ backgrounds (the past) as this would likely contribute to their actions in their current context (the present) and these two would combine to form ideas about the way ahead (the future). This would give as complete a picture as possible, given the freedom contributors had with their answers.

Some questions that proved the most interesting were: Why did you decide to become a teacher here and not elsewhere? What is your teaching style like? What are the most controversial things you have done in your classroom? What do you think about professional development?

How people responded was their decision since they could select what they felt was most important. It was also important that I was not entirely passive in the process. Once an answer was given, it was important to clarify parts of it.

When asked about their backgrounds, most teachers talked about qualifications, but others spoke about their families and the profound effects they had on their life choices. Both sets of contributions are equally valid and shed light on what they are doing now and why they thought it was the right thing – and why it was important.

The “why” part usually came about after I asked for clarification. For example: when I asked about who had influenced a participant’s teaching style, she mentioned her terrible university teacher had driven them to make sure no one else would suffer like she had. I openly wondered if bad role models had more of an impact than good ones and the teacher agreed whole-heartedly. That was why she invested so much in her lessons, to ensure this wasn’t what she did. It formed the very core of her approach and she appreciated all the help she could get to avoid this outcome.

Another aspect of the process was time. One hour seemed the best option as this would be enough time to provide a complete picture without getting stale. Allocating an hour seems to help people prioritise what they want to say in terms of what is most important and can be explored more thoroughly. In a world where business and academia frequently collide, it was pleasant listening to professionals speak about what they liked about work and voice an opinion on what could be improved.

An additional issue concerned privacy. Having trust and not sharing the details of such conversations in a cavalier manner is essential. I am carefully monitoring the content of my interviews that will be published. Most participants had few issues with airing their views, but some preferred pseudonyms.

The last aspect was that of non-intervention. My role in this process as an interviewer made it easier in this capacity to just question and not to advise. I didn’t want to pollute the discourse with my own ideas but explore it with questions. Since such discussions are intended to help people articulate their own ideas, it is essential that one does not interfere short of something that might pose a threat to the safety of a person.

Another person using this kind of approach may want to change the questions based on their priorities, though for a business, knowing what your employees consider important and why might aid understanding of issues further down the line.

The advantages do not stop there...

Advantages: A bountiful realm of possibility

  1. It is common for schools to set goals and have meetings about them with teachers. This is often connected to performance reviews which can be stressful for both managers and teachers. With stress comes a narrowing in the scope of ideas as the teacher hopes to just survive the encounter and the harassed manager wants to tick the box and get on with the next task. An open conversation with zero agenda is less stressful, more exploratory and more likely to yield positive, lasting results.

  2. So much CPD is structured in terms of the transmission of knowledge from the all-knowing manager/trainer to the less-informed teacher. Sometimes this is needed, but teachers have many ideas of their own and such conversations give them space to think out loud and express themselves. All the manager needs to do is ask and clarify.

  3. In contexts where there is a high staff turnover, it is possible that such an approach will encourage staff to remain. In Peterson’s research, the Self-Authoring Program resulted in a significant university student retention rate. Admittedly, this is a result of a more in-depth and written process, but when applied consistently it’s feasible similar results could be seen.

  4. The process is also mutually beneficial. Giving teachers the floor to form ideas is important, but sometimes this happens at the least opportune moments. On several occasions, I have been working and teachers have come to my desk with their ideas and feelings. While it’s good they want to share their ideas, it’s difficult to get through a mountain of urgent emails and have a meaningful conversation at the same time. Setting aside time helps managers channel ideas and have time for their other work, and on a personal note, I felt very positive after the interviews. It was exciting to hear so many great ideas and help people clarify them.

  5. Finally, from an economic perspective, sitting down and speaking to people costs schools nothing in exchange for such positive results.

Addressing potential issues

It would be very easy to get carried away with a new idea, so I collected constructive feedback from colleagues.

  1. “I’m a manager, not a therapist or a friend!”
    By keeping questions focused on work-related ideas, this mission creep can be avoided. Managers can make this clear at the beginning if they are concerned. Having a closer relationship with staff might not always be a bad thing in terms of flagging possible issues and preventing them from becoming unmanageable. While friends are useful to vent to, managers (or people who know the business well) share an insight friends might not and may be more helpful to have such conversations with.

  2. “I don’t have the time for this!”
    I would suggest one hour a week for one staff member would make a substantial difference. The potential benefits of this approach to people management would far outweigh the time costs.

  3. “I need to see concrete results!”
    This approach may not yield instant and easily-identifiable results and it can be difficult to measure any effective factor such as motivation or attitude. However, this should become apparent over time. I would suggest a trial period of a year with feedback surveys to see how staff are engaging with the process.

  4. “I’m not a people person.”
    Then find someone who is! A good manager can delegate the task to a capable member of staff and keep an eye on things. On a personal note, before embarking on this research I was not much of an active listener. The process has definitely improved my skills in this area.

  5. “This seems like a one-off thing. How can this be made consistent without it getting stale?”
    I would recommend making a note of key points covered in meetings and scheduling three follow-up sessions in the year: the first to establish a working knowledge, the second to check in and the third at the end of the year to summarise and see how things are developing.

  6. “This seems like some New Age nonsense.”
    I concede that not every idea is right for every context. Some teachers and managers will respond positively and others will want to eschew it. It is important that such an approach is suggested and not forced on staff. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, there are alternative methods which can be tried.


The current interview project is far from finished, but is already yielding interesting results. Every week, I meet with people and talk to them about their work lives. I always learn something. It could be a new technique or a shift in perspective. Everything learned is valuable and, when the final product of my work is completed, I hope it will significantly help others.

Author's Bio: From Dundee, Scotland, Rory Fergus Duncan-Goodwillie is the Senior Assistant Director of Studies for Young Learners Aged 10-16 at BKC-International House, Moscow. Aside from Russia, he has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, East Timor, Fiji, and across the United Kingdom. When not teaching, he writes extensively, and is the author of Mission to Second Hygra and Bloody Contact.