10 June 2011

On a team

I was in prison the other day (just visiting for a teaching observation).

My student and I were just beginning our post-session discussion when one of his colleagues knocked on the classroom door to remind him that the morning team meeting would begin in a couple of minutes. He asked whether I wanted to attend. I wasn't sure it would be appropriate, because I was an outsider, but I needed an escort to get back to the gatehouse and no-one would be available until after the meeting, so I acquiesced.

I was so pleased I did. It only took ten minutes, and nothing exciting happened; some nagging about locking doors (of course), some reporting back on "incidents" last week which some people may not have known about, with a clarification of reporting procedures...

There were a dozen or so people present, most of them standing up, in the dingy outer office. About four or five people spoke in response to the chair's invitation for anything to share.The "manager" was not even there (and I'm sure she's not happy with her formal label--she was a student of ours several years ago) but it all happened regardless. I have no idea whether anyone took notes. I hope not, because there is nothing more toxic to teamworking than having an eye to an audit trail.

I was the outsider, and stayed physically on the periphery. But I felt totally at home.

It may be that working as a teacher, in a prison, focuses one's thinking on the clash of educational and custodial values.  (Although it does occur to me that these meetings may be part of the standard operating procedure and that the prison officers on the wings do the same thing... I don't know enough to have a view on that.)

But what really struck me was the sense of team membership. Interdependence counts in an uncertain environment (although in practice of course prison education is much less hassled than in any open environment). It's the culture I have spent most of my working life in, and although not a demonstrably sociable person, it's one I value enormously.

And it is almost totally absent in most teaching in higher education*. (Big generalisation, carefully qualified, and of course not properly evidenced... B-?) It exists in research teams, sometimes very powerfully, but not much in respect of  teaching.

I think there is probably more of a sense of being a team amongst staff teaching on a professionally-- rather than academically--oriented programme. The modules of a professional programme are jigsaw pieces rather than free-standing units**, and (apart from notorious instances where the staff are at vicious loggerheads with each other) the staff need consciously to work together. Numbers of students and of staff are probably more manageable, too.

On academic programmes, particularly those such as humanities where there are few prerequisites, the structure (and options) of the course typically follow the individual interests of the faculty. ("Fred's retired, so we'll have to drop 'Origins of the novel' this year, but Gabby needs some hours, and so we could offer 'Queer theory and early 20th century poetry' instead...")

Academe has an ambivalent relationship with teamwork. It's both a highly individualistic environment and highly mutually dependent (and the extent depends a lot on the discipline--the more equipment you need, the more you have to depend on each other). But it's a tremendous and yet little explored resource.

Incidentally, real Teamworking has absolutely no connection at all with what Human Resources departments think it is, with their obscene expenditure on external "team-building" consultants whose only impact is to unite the potential "team" in visceral hatred of HR and probably management in general. It has to be a bottom-up phenomenon (and of course as such it can--for better or for worse--interfere with top-down initiatives) but when it comes together it is transformative.

  • I first learned of its power working on a seaside evangelistic mission to children (summers 1962-67, and hugely influential on me despite reservations in retrospect, mainly theological... Just one of the reasons I missed the 'sixties!) The mission leader used to quote Isaiah 40:31, in respect of the power of the Team rather than of divine intervention; "they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; [and] they shall walk, and not faint." He had the idea that some team members could sleep on behalf of others, so those of us working (quite unnecessarily, I now realise) into the early hours of the morning could draw strength from our sleeping colleagues. There were cult-ish overtones, but the experience was powerful, and it sensitised me to the recognition of the phenomenon and its potential elsewhere.

  • My first real-world job was teaching in a technical college (68-72). But teaching the antithesis of technical and vocational studies-- so-called "Liberal Studies" (post on this in preparation), much despised by vocational colleagues but necessarily tolerated because imposed by government edict (Circular 323, 1957). Hence our group identity, despite the motley nature of the crew; varying numbers of callow recent graduates, a brain-damaged former clergyman, two alcoholics, a statuesque former milk-maid from New Zealand, and so on (there was quite a lot of  "churn" in the composition. We were lumped together as arty-farty and useless (a fair assessment, in retrospect) and so we needed each other.

  • I moved on to teach on a social work course, again with a well-defined (albeit fractious) team of practitioners solely concerned with one intensive course, physically isolated in an annexe a mile from the main college, working to a different calendar from everyone else. When I took over the course leadership from a charismatic but polarising predecessor, establishing a team identity was a major priority (not least because the students were concerned with residential care, where teamwork is of the essence, and we wanted to model effective working at that level). That had to wait for some staff turnover, and I can vividly remember some whole-course crisis meetings when support fell away from me and the team evaporated. But when it was there, the added strength from feeling that one represented something more than a puny individual was palpable.

  • And so to an amazing team fluctuating around six running a range of staff development courses, at first close to home, but latterly all over the country. Thirty years on, some of us still get together for dinner. But once again, the ridiculous work-loads we sustained (with practically no absences or sickness I can remember over a dozen or more years) came from the mutual responsibility, respect and support we experienced (most of the time).
As I look around my former Faculty, facing restructuring and redundancies, it's apparent that team membership is generally regarded with suspicion by a management class which has separated itself out from the rest of the staff, whom it mistrusts deeply and seeks to control. Not only is that ruinous to morale, but it also makes for a fragmented experience for the students, who sadly probably don't even realise that it could be any different.

That team meeting in the prison; the convention at another university where I worked part-time a while ago, that if you were on campus you would eat your lunch with colleagues (not just academics) in the main open-plan office; colleagues wandering over to my flat when I lived on campus, for coffee most mornings... those were and are both consequences and causes of a team identity, and I'm sure that is where real Quality comes from.

It's quite nice to realise how I've managed to reach retirement and retain my naivety!

* See Cornford F M (1908) Microcosmographia Academica London; Bowes and Bowes (retrieve here) OK--the reference is peripheral to the point (that's nothing new) but at least it is an entertaining read!

** In Bernstein's terms (see brilliant obituary here--much clearer than BB himself) the purely academic curriculum follows a "collection" code, whereas a professional/vocational curriculum is more likely to be "integrated"---and the same goes for the people who teach it. Simples!

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