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When You Can't Teach, Administrate

There's a somewhat famous expression that most teachers find insulting - "He who can does. He who cannot teaches." It implies that teachers cannot function or "produce results" in the "real world" but they know enough to tell or direct others how. And this implies that education is mainly about skill building (for jobs) and not about knowledge or character. I could go on and on about this, but I wanted to discuss HL Mencken's addition to George Bernard Shaw's quote:

Those who can't teach - administrate. 

Those who can't administrate - go into politics.


I heard this quote way back in late elementary school or junior high school and it struck a chord. It especially rings loudly in my mind as I have spent the last few years of my life in administration rather than teaching in higher education. And sadly I have to confirm that many administrators can't or won't teach. Yes, it makes me sad because I am an educator and I believe that educators can and should administrate in the "business" of education because the heart of education is teaching and learning, but perhaps I am naive.

Administration is mostly about management, but some of my fellow administrators forget that education is what brings people and things together to manage. A bigger paycheck and more power distorts their sense of purpose and identity. Yes, I've had the bigger paycheck and I had the opportunity to have more power but I've observed that power distances me from the one I need to "manage"--teachers. And my observations of being a student for two decades and a teacher for two decades has shown me that a school or program usually fails when the teachers are at odds with the administration.

Assumption: Disengaged teachers lead to disengaged students, which leads to little or no learning. 

When I was reading through the literature about culturally responsive teaching, I learned that engaging and believing in your students helps improve the teaching and learning process. I argue that the same applies to the relationship between administrators and teachers because we are human. Engaging and believing in your teachers helps improve the teaching and learning process. Studies on retention have evidence that this may be true in teacher-student relationships. Is it too much of a leap to apply the same logic to administrator-teacher relationships?

I have applied the same strategies I used in my EFL and ESL classrooms to build a sense of inclusion and community for the professional development sessions I have facilitated, and I have found the results to be similar: more engaged people who are motivated to meet the outcomes. Isn't that leadership? I have always found more success working with teachers to improve the program than developing solutions independently from them and telling them what to do.

If we take a business mindset of applying problem solving to educational institutions, they main "problem" is usually customer (student) dissatisfaction with the product (curriculum) or service (teaching and extracurricular activities). The teachers work with the product and service on a daily basis and they can best identity areas for improvement. I have found that administrators and other stakeholders are too quick to blame teachers, but it's often a flaw in the product (curriculum) or service (teaching and extracurricular policies) that makes their job to engage students more difficult. The teachers can help identify these flaws. And if there the problem is a teacher or two, the evidence usually emerges during the collaborative process of improving the program. But if an administrator blames a teacher too quickly, even if the blame is warranted, the administrator works breaking the trust with all teaching faculty. Once trust is broken, the institution now has another problem, administrators cannot effectively engage teachers, and that can make current problems even worse.

Next Steps

I am interested in further exploring the weak evidence that student engagement improves learning in the English language classroom. But I am even more interested in testing my hypothesis that teacher engagement improves learning in the English language program. Furthermore, I'd like to investigate if teacher engagement directly or indirectly results in student engagement.

I'd like to supply a nice literature review on this as soon as complete my two other research projects, so perhaps I'll have add some to this blog in late summer/early fall.

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