Thursday, September 6, 2012

Systems and Teachers

Immobilised by illness, I am driven to reflection -- as even reading proves to be beyond me, and everything invokes nothing but terrible ennui -- in desperation. My mind goes back to a few weeks back, when I was having a wonderfully wide-ranging conversation with a former teacher. After delighting in the evaluation of various novelists, and with honours duly distributed (to give a sampling: Amis fils, good, but only really came together in Money but recent stuff awful; Fitzgerald overrated, often hammered and therefore lacking control, came together in Gatsby and little else; Steinbeck, profound respect; Arundhati Roy, holds up surprisingly well still, outdoes Rushdie because she has a heart), we tackled the common and pernicious problem present in all systems of governance and management -- that of losing sight of what happens on the ground. Therefore, because those in charge are often unaware of the realities, their good intentions produce bad results. When told that their good intentions have produced bad (and sometimes horrible) results, the defence of those in charge is that they meant well; or worse, that those below bungled the implementation of these plans. Sometimes, blindness is not simply a problem at the top, but is endemic throughout the whole body of the corporation, and each person's particular blindness adds up to a tremendous detachment from reality. This teacher of mine gave me an example related to teaching in schools, the details of which I will not reproduce here. But one can imagine the sort of thing: smart chap in the Ministry has a plan with good intentions; fails to fully grapple with the conditions that surround implementation -- like the realities of teaching in a rowdy classroom; tries to implement it; many people tell him the problems; he ignores them; results are unhappy, and they mock him and his ideals. No doubt the annals of management and governance are full of such examples; I faced such an example in my time at Oxford, dealing with a particularly absurd compulsory module. 

How does one avoid such problems inherent in systems, if one is in charge? The teacher had one good piece of advice, which will seem obvious once mentioned: and that is to bypass those in the middle, and speak to the people at the very bottom of the organisation. Only they can tell you what's really happening, and what the problems of implementation might be. But as always, easier said than done. Those in the middle might hinder you, and not necessarily with bad intentions. (Sir Humphrey: 'Minister! I have warned you before about the dangers of speaking to people in the department.') One might cause stress, worry and offence. Those at the bottom might censor themselves. But it's the best we can do, and those in charge must continuously do it.

After all this talk (and not just on this somewhat abstract topic), we departed. As I made my way to another place, I thought about how things had changed between us. In school, we would never have had this conversation -- it would have seemed strangely provocative, even risky. We were limited to looks, to allusions and to the subject he was teaching. He was somehow, after all, in with them, those in charge of the school, even though he clearly wasn't. Truth be told, I wasn't grown-up enough then either; now perhaps we shall speak to each other face to face (but even then -- not quite). I hope my other friendships with my former teachers evolve in a similar manner, though just today part of this hope was shattered. Dum spiro spero.

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