In My Words: Folktales and Fairytales – how teachers’ stories challenge the Grand Narrative of Teaching

  • Blog
  • 02 March 2016

Finalist in the Indigogold Work Psychology Innovation Award 2015, Steve Abrams, of Kingston University, London, explains the background to his education-centric MSc project and how the Award cultivated a platform to discuss his work with peers as well as HR practitioners.

In UK state education, teacher attrition is a growing crisis. The Department for Education (DfE) propagates fairytales of awestruck pupils and passionate teachers through its website, however a significant number (of both teachers and pupils) are becoming disenchanted, with many teachers burning out and eventually quitting the profession.

The current overarching educational strategy to deal with this appears to primarily be a turnover of teachers where ‘broken’ ones are swiftly replaced by newer models. In an increasingly complex environment this leads to what Ritzer refers to as the irrationality of rationalisation; a state where efficiency is no longer analogous with effectiveness. Overly simplistic and superficially plausible strategies such as the DfE’s no longer work and create a multitude of new problems.

Generally, when employees experience issues that negatively impact on an organisation’s effectiveness, leaders often centrally determine the problem’s causes, devise a solution and implement it top-down. This invariably involves the creation – to varying degrees – of managerial fiction, often far removed from reality, much like the aforementioned fairytale. These fairytales form dominant ‘happily-ever-after’ narratives, with those who contest them cast as dissenters, who are no longer aligned with the organisation’s values.

The logic is that consensus of belief in organisational fairytales validates them and they become regarded as truth. Conversely, this often results in high employee turnover, as the underlying causes of the problem remain unattended and unresolved. Successive waves of employees come and go, with those unhappy for legitimate reasons mistakenly identified as ‘problem workers’.

The alternative to promoting fairytales is for leaders to constructively engage employees to define and clarify the causes of their problems by becoming the narrators – sharing their own ‘folktales’. This acknowledges that employees are subject matter experts within their particular environment. Their unscripted stories account for context and provide rich, complex and subtle organisational information. Importantly, they contain variety, differing from – and challenging to – simplistic organisational fairytales.

Within the folktales’ subtle moral narrative there is the potential to find creative solutions to persistent problems. However, it is imperative to listen to stories without prejudging them, which requires courage and vision from leaders who may be under pressure to achieve short-term goals and produce quantifiable data.

Organisations such as Indigogold foster this approach by creating platforms and forums, such as the recent MSc Award that I was pleased to be part of, which encourage and facilitate new and challenging discourses to develop. It is within such forums that innovative, effective and sustainable solutions to a variety of structural problems can be discovered, and they should be heralded as the way forward for many organisations, regardless of sector.

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