Appreciative Inquiry and observation feedback

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be able to host a Q&A session with Sarah Mercer, who, amongst other things is an expert on teacher wellbeing.  (I thoroughly recommend her book on that very subject, pictured below – OUP 2020).  You can watch the video here

wellbeing sarahAnyway, among other things in the wide ranging discussion on ways to support teachers and managers in this current pandemic situation of emergency remote teaching, Sarah talked about how to give feedback to teachers in this period and she mentioned the idea of “Appreciative Inquiry” as a potential method for this.  Soon afterwards, I was training a course for department heads on “remote leadership of teaching teams”, and as a group we discussed teacher observation and feedback.  I had heard of appreciative inquiry before, through a webinar that LAMSIG had run earlier in the year presented by Ralph Rogers on the use of appreciative inquiry for change management (LAMSIG members can watch that here).  But I was intrigued by Sarah’s comments to read more into it – it’s touched upon in her book, but I was able to find quite a lot about the subject online.

The key thing that we have to note in this current online teaching/learning process is that none of us are experts.  Well, a few people are experts but most of us are not. In most organisations there is no emergency remote teaching expert on staff – either among the managers or in the teaching team. When a supervisor or an academic manager observes a lesson and provides feedback afterwards in normal circumstances there is an understanding that the observer can act, to an extent, as a mentor – an expert or guide. Even if the teacher being observed has more experience, the observer is perceived as being an expert who can offer guidance and support.  But in the current situation, the observer is a novice, just like the teacher.  Both are exploring and finding their way in this new form of teaching and learning.  As a result, the conversation between the two is more appropriately seen as a coaching interaction – helping the teacher to find ways to improve through dialogue and questioning.  (This is a very simplistic rendering of the coaching/mentoring difference – for more depth, see the website of my friend, colleague, and fellow LAMSIG committee member Loraine Kennedy)

This is where appreciative inquiry comes in.  It offers a way to structure a feedback conversation which is far more like a coaching conversation than the possibly more usual mentoring one.

Appreciative inquiry is presented as being “asset based” rather than “deficit focused”. That is to say starting the investigation with what is good and what is working well, and building from that, rather than trying to decide what is missing and what gaps need to be filled. That’s how it is used in the model for organisational change.  But what of feedback after an observed lesson?

The appreciative inquiry conversation follows the “4D” model shown here.  The headings and brief outlines here are not especially helpful to my mind, so let’s go through them.

1. Discovery

“What’s already working?” The teacher you observe will have had some successes in her online teaching. Some things that she’s tried out and that have worked and seem to have been successful.  What are those things?  Can she talk through the things that she feels positive about?  What was there in the observed lesson that is part of this success story?  This is the appreciative part of the appreciative inquiry.  As the coach, make sure you keep the teacher to this script, don’t let the conversation drift onto all the stuff that teacher is unhappy with. Build up a picture of all that is working well. Some possible other questions:

  • What is going well?
  • What do you feel confident doing?
  • What do you feel competent doing?
  • Where do you feel success in your remote teaching?
  • What positive stories from these last few weeks do you have?
  • What did you particularly like about the lesson I just observed?

2. Dream

This is the forward looking part of the process.  Asking the teacher what she wishes she could do better.   Getting her to think specifically about where she wants to develop and improve her online teaching.  Questions like

  • What are your goals for your online teaching?
  • If I observed you in one month from now, what would you want me to see that has developed?
  • Can you name TWO areas that you’d like to develop in your online teaching?
  • What do you wish you could do?

This part is “dream” but it pays to give space for specificity.  We’d all love to be delivering amazing perfect lessons every time, but we’re all beginners (did I mention that?), so choose a couple of things that in particular would be good to focus on.

3. Design

This part of the cycle is about coming up with a plan.  Given what we already have (discover) and what we want to achieve (dream) how can we get from here to there?  Ask for suggestions and ideas from the teacher as to how they can achieve what they plan to achieve. Brainstorm ideas. Share contacts and connections who might be able to help. If there are other teachers on staff who may be good at a certain area, suggest they link up and work together (perhaps by the teacher in this conversation observing the other teacher with their agreement, and seeing how it works). Again you can use specific questions, such as What are two steps you can take right now to start moving towards the “dream” we just talked about?”.  

4. Deliver

(Sometimes I’ve seen it, including in the image above, as “Destiny“).  This is the experimentation/application phase.  Trying out new approaches, applying what was learned in the previous stage.  Taking opportunities to try new things and to see what works.  As the manager here your job is to check in from time to time. “You said you were going to try out that new online vocabulary teaching activity – have you had the chance to do so yet? How did it go?”

Obviously this approach isn’t necessarily limited to observation feedback. It could be the structure of a performance management interview conversation, as well as any form of professional development or reflection.  For example, when I started reading around the subject I came across this article by Carolyn Shemwell Kaplan in “The Language Educator” on An Appreciative Inquiry Approach to Reflecting on Teaching 

And maybe, you can use it for yourself.  How have you done in managing your team over these weeks of lockdown and emergency remote teaching? What’s gone well? What have you got better at? What positive stories do you have? And, as a result, what do you wish you could do?  How are you going to make that happen?

Good luck!

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Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay 

 

Crisis and Change – Kotter (3)

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Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Many apologies for taking so long to finish this series. Despite the lockdown I’ve been busier than ever (but a lot of what I have been busy with should make worthwhile blog posts in the next few weeks – and hopefully the busiest phase should be over).  This is the fourth and last post in this series.  The introduction is here, post 1 can be viewed here and post 2 here.

We’ve reached the end of Kotter’s model (as they are steps, I guess we’ve reached the top of the stairs.  But I’m quite sure we’ll have more steps to climb).  This is the broad stage referred to by Kotter as “implementing and sustaining for change” with steps 7 and 8 – build on the change; and make it stick.

 

 

Step 7: Build on the Change (these days I often see it as “sustain acceleration”, but I feel that is probably not the right descriptor for us here and now). The trouble with this step in our situation is that we may not be convinced that we want to build on this change.  That is if the change is purely about doing all of our teaching online. But there were other less tangible, but no less important changes that we went through.

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

We’ve succeeded in putting together this emergency remote teaching system which may have its flaws, but is OK as a temporary stopgap.  At least that’s what we hope. If online learning is how we have to operate for many months to come (and, let’s face it, that’s possible), then we will need to build on what we have done so far.  I’ll leave that for the experts in online learning.

I think though, as well, and maybe even more usefully there is a value in thinking about what was achieved and how flexible and open we all had to be to get where we are now.  And by we all, I mean all. Academic managers, principals, teachers, student support staff, students, parents, everyone.  I hope what we can build on is the openness and communication that had to happen at this time. I hope, too, that part of what happened is that communication and creativity was multidirectional, and voices of those who were most involved in this emergency remote teaching were heard and paid attention to.  While the decision to stop face to face teaching was probably one of the most top down possible (in most cases being mandated by governments), the approach and way forward from that point onwards were, hopefully, worked on by all. So, where we can build on the change, assuming that some form of face to face teaching and learning will be returning at some point this year, is to keep those lines of communication and trust open and active. It’s the organisational change that needs to be sustained rather than the actual nuts and bolts of the hopefully  temporary way of doing what we do.

So, reflect on what you were able to do, think about how people’s energy and engagement was harnessed and how people were given a voice.  How can you build on that?  How can you make your organisation a more open and more creative place in the future, based on what you have already managed?

One of the key motivators for all of us is purpose (see Drive, by Daniel Pink, among other sources).  This crisis allowed us to remind ourselves of our purpose – as nothing was routine any more, the role that we all saw was “how can we best help our students?”  (To a very real extent this was a business necessity too, but I think there was a genuine desire among all of us in LTOs to find the best ways of supporting and providing the best possible education for our students under the circumstances).  How can you keep hold of that sense of purpose?

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Image by Achim Scholty from Pixabay

Step 8: Make it stick (or sometimes “anchor change in the culture”). I think this cuts both ways.  I think we need to be looking at anchoring the change in organisational responsiveness and communication in the way we do things, retaining that sense of togetherness and purpose that I mentioned above, but also thinking about how we can retain something of what we’ve learned about remote teaching and learning through the process. As I said in an earlier post, I think what many of us are finding is that we can do a surprising amount online, but paradoxically we are also realising more and more the value of face to face teaching.  Where can we strike the balance in future, when we’re allowed back into the classroom?  What will our students be asking of us?  How can we use what we’ve gone through to build a more open, more creative, more flexible, more effective organisation that promotes teaching and learning in the most successful way that meets the needs of everyone, learners, teachers, parents, admin staff, managers, customers, and student support staff?

This wasn’t a traditional planned, carefully thought-out change. It was urgent and intense and challenging and engaging and filled with lessons. Let’s try not to forget those lessons as things slowly revert to the way they were.

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Image by stokpic from Pixabay

Crisis and Change – Kotter (2)

Please see the previous post for context and notes

The next three stages of Kotter’s model fall in the broad category of “engaging and enabling the whole organization” and are

4. Communicate the vision for buy-in
5. Empower a broad based action
6. Generate short term wins

The first of these, communicate the vision for buy-in, is sometimes also listed as get everyone on board.  My take is that anecdotally, at least, pretty much everyone did get on board. Everyone knew the need and the urgency and did what they needed to get on board.  Kotter’s model rather assumes a top-down mentality, but here I feel like this was neither top down or bottom up but simultaneous and from all sides of the organisations.  Some countries entered lockdown slower than others so there was a little more time to plan, but in the end there doesn’t seem to have been a huge difference in the way that the crisis was responded to by language schools (with the proviso given by the note on context in the previous post)

From this point onwards, I feel we are getting to the parts of the model that can tell us something about what we need to be doing right now.

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Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Number 5 of Kotter’s 8 steps is empower a broad based action (or more often enable action by removing barriers) This is where Kotter talks (to some extent) about training.  This training and support is ongoing and must be.  But there is possibly a tendency of managers to have started relaxing, or at least feeling like We’ve survived the first couple of weeks, and it’s all going OK.  A lot of LTOs that I am aware of managed to put together some form of emergency training programme helping teachers to get to grips with Zoom or Google Meet or whatever else was being used. Online, a plethora of youtube videos and webinars held teachers’ hands through the basics of running online classes. The wider community offered up support and rudimentary training. What needed to be done, was done (for the most part).  But, my sense is that a lot of what was done was logistical and technical, rather than pedagogic. Some of the immediate questions that were answered were: How can we make this work? How can we help our students? How can we, to the best of our abilities, make live online classes mirror face to face classes? How do we make testing happen online? etc

The next stage is to look at the pedagogy. Obviously some schools are already doing this and getting expert assistance. Teachers have by now worked out how to use the technology and have come up with their own creative ways to make classes function from a logistical standpoint.  Now, the question is how we can make the online classes more successful teaching and learning interactions.  This is one area where training and support is needed.  For this get in touch with experts – there are many out there. People who have been researching and practicing online teaching and learning for years, not just a few days.  Also find the members of your own staff who are seemingly doing well and see if they can and would be willing to offer something to their colleagues

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Image by Shahariar Lenin from Pixabay

The other really important area that needs to be constantly focused on is in the area of wellbeing. Teachers need support.  Not only in their teaching but in their dealing with the realities of self isolation and working in an entirely different way. Make sure you’re checking in with them.  Think about how you can support them in other ways – I’ve heard of schools opening up a virtual staffroom, where teachers can congregate through the day to chat between classes. It’s not the same as an actual staffroom, but it is something.  Be in touch – practice “management by walking around” but in this case it’s perhaps “management by surfing around”

This also leads into Kotter’s 6th step, celebrate short term wins. Have an online party to congratulate the teachers and other staff for having done so well in such trying circumstances.  Find some way to celebrate and recognize people for their efforts and for their achievements.  People have done incredible things and they need recognition.  I hope also your teachers are doing the same with their students.  It’s not easy for anyone, and people are going through a lot. And set up some milestones for the next celebration – whatever those may be. Successfully putting mid-term exams online and running them. Getting positive feedback from your students. Learning a useful new online tool.

And…you too.  Bake yourself a cake. Have a (virtual) party with old friends who you haven’t seen for 10 years. Reward yourself.  Don’t minimise everything you have done to get to this point.

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The third and final part of this series is here

Crisis and Change – Kotter (1)

I started to write a “short” blog post, and it spiralled out of control (I need an editor) so I’ve split it into 3. Here’s part 1.

A note on context:  The below is quite a generic piece, not really taking into account different contexts.  In some ways, the response of LTOs around the world to the current situation has been very similar, but there are a couple of obvious ways in which context has made a difference.  Firstly there are obviously situations in which significant numbers of students (and/or teachers) have not had any form of online access – either through lack of a device, or through lack of internet access, or both.  Secondly, there is a big difference between the contexts of onshore or offshore ELT.  Onshore provision (teaching students in their own country) has had to deal with a lot of problems, but arguably fewer than LTOs in an offshore market.  Those schools tend to have a rolling enrollment model (with all new enrollments more or less stopped), and also often need to provide a much higher level of pastoral care and other types of support to students. 

At some stage in these posts, I will look at those differences and how they have impacted the way things have gone, and how they might influence them in the future, but the below does not really get into those differences

A note on research: There isn’t any in this post. Or at least nothing formal. My understanding of what has been done and what has worked and what problems there are come purely from listening to people who are in the middle of things. Teachers, managers, others. It may well be different where you are and in your context. Please feel free to let me know in the comments  

In my introduction here, I said “I intend to look at various change management ideas to see how and if we can convert what we have created so far into something more sustainable and viable – and which works for teachers, students and schools.”… so here goes

Let’s start with one of the most widely known change models, Kotter’s 8 steps. To be honest, I think Kotter’s model doesn’t have enough focus on training and support, which I think is crucial in any change, and especially where we are now, but for this post, I’ll focus on this (and choose a more training/support based model in a future post)

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Kotter’s 8 steps

Kotter’s model is divided into 3 sections (and now so is this blog post).  The first three steps, which are described together as creating the climate for change, are about setting the conditions through which change is likely to be successful.  Arguably it is this section of the model which is the least relevant here since whether or not your organization had created a climate for change, it happened anyway.  It is worth noting though, that schools and programs which had already created this kind of change-ready culture, have probably had a slightly smoother transition.

Very briefly, then this stage incorporates 3 of Kotter’s 8 steps

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create the guiding coalition
  3. Develop a change vision
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Image by annca from Pixabay

Establish a sense of urgency – well, there’s not much to say about this. A sense of urgency was, very much, established. Not sure how many of us had heard the expression “flattening the curve” 2 months ago, but now we are all familiar with it.

Create the guiding coalition – again this is a lot about commitment and getting people on board.  But obviously there were choices we needed to make some weeks ago (and there still are).  Who are the key stakeholders here?  Make sure they’re involved in the decision making process (and that they keep feeding back).  It’s not just managers and leaders that need to be in this coalition – teachers are key to the the changes that we’ve undergone. Student support staff. IT people. Maybe not immediately but very soon, the marketing team. Did your school build such a coalition?  If not, could you now gather such a coalition to look at where you are now and where you need to go?

Develop a change vision – in much of the literature, change tends to be led by vision.  The aim of the leader is to articulate that vision and communicate it successfully, thereby bringing everyone along with her.  However, in this instance there is no vision. There is, for most of us, a future which is unknown and uncertain.  We are walking into the fog. In the case of language education, what does the future hold?  Will we go back to where we were before, once the crisis has passed? Will we have a slightly altered way of teaching and learning in the future with maybe a more blended approach? Will the whole way of doing our work have changed totally, with Covid19 being the big disruptor of education that we have been promised/warned of?  We simply don’t know, and therefore creating a vision, and encouraging the team to believe in it, is largely out of reach.  (Unless of course you decide that you will abandon face to face teaching altogether and make the current norm what you want to shoot for permanently – which would be a valid approach, at least from a managerial perspective, though much more debatable from a pedagogic one).

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

For what it’s worth, I suspect that the outcome of the current crisis (if it goes on for a few months only) on our thinking about teaching and learning will be that we (teachers, students, managers) will see that the following two slightly contradictory facts are true – (1) that online teaching and learning is more of an option than many of us previously thought and more can be done in this medium than we thought possible; and that (2) face to face learning/teaching is preferable (from the perspective of the interactions, the learning, and the engagement).  But of course this is my own speculative opinion and could (and probably will) be proved wrong.

So, if it is impossible to clearly visualise and articulate this future state of our LTO, is there anything to be said about “vision” as mentioned in change management literature? By now, probably people are beginning to look ahead and think about what the future will look like for our schools. The picture is unlikely to be clear, but perhaps there are a set of possibilities that seem to be the most probable. Are you prepared for them?  Or, as prepared as you can be?

Part 2 is now up and can be found here

Crisis and Change (1)

It has been an awfully long time since I put anything on this blog. But I have been drawn back to WordPress by thinking about the current situation as all of our worlds and our work has been changed beyond recognition.  This will be the first of a series of posts about change,crisis, and managing the way forward …

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about crisis management in these last few weeks. In particular I’ve been comparing it with change management and seeing how and where they differ. But I’m also interested in wondering whether we in our current situation can learn anything from change management theory.

Firstly, the obvious differences between what schools all over the world have put in place over the last few weeks and “change” as it is described in change management literature.  The first of these is planning – or in the case of the reality we all faced, a lack of planning. A last minute decision seemingly brought on by circumstance – “If the education we are providing is to continue as analogously as possible, it will have to go online”.  Obviously there are a number of flaws with this, because what we end up offering has not really been thought through or worked out very thoroughly (and that’s before we get onto the huge issue of access).  As some articles have convincingly argued, what we ended up with was not “online learning” but “emergency remote teaching”.   It may have some positive elements and it may end up forming part of a more well thought out approach to online education, but it is not (yet) anything like the best or most effective form of online learning.

The second big difference in the “emergency change” is the broad lack of resistance.  Pick up any change management book and much of what is discussed are ways of dealing with resistance. Resistance to change has many root causes, and needs to be responded to successfully.  However, in this instance (as far as anecdotal evidence I’ve encountered suggests) resistance has been minimal or even non-existent. Teachers and students and parents and other stakeholders have accepted the need for this move online and got on with trying to make it work.  That doesn’t mean that it is easy or that they haven’t needed support (all groups impacted still need and will continue to need a lot of support for a long time to come).  But imagine how things would have been if a language school or a university language centre had announced their intention to put all classes online within a year. The online learning developed in such a case may have been much more founded on good practice and online learning theory, but would everyone have unquestioningly got behind it?

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Image by klimkin from Pixabay

The upshot of this is that a huge and radical change has been implemented across the world in language schools far and wide. It’s not been well planned, it will almost certainly need to undergo much adjustment and modification, and there will be many bumps along the way. But, it’s a huge change and has been carried out with a great amount of goodwill and effort from all parties involved, and initially at least, anecdotal evidence suggests that in a number of cases, the emergency response to this point has done what was necessary, and kept schools, teachers and students afloat. This achievement may well be superficial and a sticking plaster, but that should not diminish the hard work and compassion that has gone into it.

Having said all that, as time goes on (and signs of stress in the new way are already appearing) we need to take a step back and reflect on where we are right now and where we want to be.  That is the function of this planned series of blog posts in which I intend to look at various change management ideas to see how and if we can convert what we have created so far into something more sustainable and viable – and which works for teachers, students and schools.

The rest of the posts in this series are now up and available: Kotter (1), Kotter (2), and Kotter (3)  .

Monkeying Around

monkeysIn the last post here I talked about delegating (and honestly I think of all the people skills that academic managers could profitably improve delegating would probably be number one), but there is a flip side to the idea of delegating that also needs to be addressed. This is being delegated to by someone you manage.

Now let me try and explain that, because we tend to see delegating as something which only happens from manager to subordinate (apologies for that term, which I don’t like). But in fact a lot of delegating happens the other way around, and it can cause the academic manager(or indeed any manager) a lot of problems.

What happens is this: A teacher (say) comes to you with a problem. Your reaction, because you are a nice person and because you enjoy being helpful, and because you want to try and unburden your staff from problems, is to tell them to leave that problem with you.  That you will solve it.  Simple and effective. In the stroke of one act you have both demonstrated your willingness to help and also taken a burden from one of your staff.

But of course, there is a downside.  Well more than one downside  Firstly you have added to your own workload (and didn’t you already have a lot of stuff to do?); and secondly you have ensured that the staff member remains incapable of solving a similar problem the next time it arises.  It seems like you’re being helpful, but in the end you’re ensuring that you have more to do and the teacher in question doesn’t gain anything (apart from having the problem solved) .  How would you feel if the same teacher responded to a student question about the sentence transformation section of a test, by offering to do it for them?  It might be a nice thing to do, but it wouldn’t actually be very helpful.

This form of upward delegation is often referred to as Monkey Management, which is originally from this HBR article https://hbr.org/1999/11/management-time-whos-got-the-monkey

So, anyway, what should you do if someone comes to you with a problem? The first step is to sit down with that person and together think about possible solutions. Eventually, you agree on which action to take, and the teacher leaves with a clear action to take to deal with the issue.  They brought the problem (or monkey, if you want to go down the whole animal metaphor route) to you, but crucially they left still holding the problem/monkey.  They didn’t leave it behind with you.

As time goes on, they will know what to expect when they have a problem and rather than just presenting the problem, they will come to you present the problem and present what they think is the best solution. At which point you may agree and tell them to go ahead and do it, or you may have reservations and you can then have another discussion.  But slowly, the teacher is becoming more responsible for solving these problems.

Eventually, once he/she knows (a) that you trust them to solve it, and (b) that they actually trust themselves to do so,  they will react to a problem by dealing with it, and then come and tell you what the problem was and what they have done.

In going through this process you have -to all intents and purposes – coached this teacher. She has learned how best to deal with issues, and knows that you trust her. It’s not about you abdicating responsibility, it’s about empowering* people to take responsibility, which is not only a learning process but also motivating

(*Yeah, yeah, another word I can’t stand. It is the right word, but I understand how people have come to hear empowering to mean “more work for no more money”. I did management jargon on here a few years ago)

One final point to note: Sometimes the monkey is in fact your monkey.  The problem that the teacher brings to you, when you look at it, is in fact a problem you need to take care of because it is your job, and it turns out the monkey actually belonged to you in the first place.

 

Delegating

delegatingOne of the key skills of any manager is delegating tasks.  I’ve yet to meet an academic manager who doesn’t realise the value of delegating tasks, but have also met very few who actually do it as much as they should.

Why delegate?

There are a number of reasons why delegating some tasks is a good idea. Here are a few:

  1. Higher efficiency – which is to say that you are not doing tasks that could be done by someone else
  2. Increased motivation – giving people new and challenging tasks, giving them responsibility all aids in motivation.
  3. Skill development – doing new tasks develops new skills. It’s a form of professional development to take on new activities that you previously hadn’t been involved in.
  4. Better work distribution – if you (or anyone else) is overworked and has too much to do, perhaps work is not distributed evenly

However, even though the benefits of delegating are clear, many of us don’t do it.  I’ve asked a lot of managers over the years why now and the responses are always fairly similar:

  • “It’s easier to do it myself” 
  • “By the time I’ve explained what I want to be done, I could have done it myself”
  • “I still have to keep track of what people are doing, and that takes up time too”
  • “It’s not fair to ask my staff to do some of these tasks”
  • “I can do it better”

All of these may be true.  Well, at least the first 3 often are. It sometimes does take longer to explain something than to actually do it.  But that doesn’t stop you setting up short useful practice exercises in the language classroom – exercises that you know to be useful and valuable learning experiences.  And again it certainly would be easier to do that gapfill yourself in the classroom, but what would be the point?  (OK those analogies don’t entirely work, because the job still has to get done, and it is not simply a learning experience), but there is an element that does fit.  Often (not always) when I dig down and keep asking questions, it becomes clear that actually deep down, the reason for not delegating more is the reluctance to give up control.  And there is definitely a sense of lack of trust in others to do the job well.  So for many of us delegating is actually an exercise in letting go. Very zen.

How to delegate

I can’t force you to delegate tasks, but hopefully you do get why you should and how useful it is.  And perhaps by providing a model for how you can delegate more effectively I might persuade you to do it more often. Challenge yourself in the next week to delegate at least one task.

Make a list of all the tasks you regularly do (not the emergency ones that come up without notice, because probably you’ll have to do those anyway). Next to each one write K (keep), S (share) or D (delegate)  [Ricardo Semler recommends that you keep no more than 5, but this may be going a bit far – but at the very least, go through it again and see what you have put in K that really could go in S or D]. All you need to do then is to decide who to delegate the tasks to.

When you’re doing that there are a lot of factors to consider.  Who actually needs to develop the skills that doing this task will develop? Who already has those skills and can therefore be trusted to carry this out successfully and efficiently? Who might be interested in doing this?  And of course, last, but by no means least, who actually has the time?

Now sometimes, you may have a good idea of who has the right skill set or of who might be interested in such a task, but other times you may not.  Let’s take timetabling for example. Now timetabling is one of those tasks that DoSs either enjoy or loathe with a passion.  I’ve met academic managers who have to lock themselves in their office for three  misery-filled days at a time in order to devote themselves to this task.  I know of one very well known ELT organisation in which their very well known academic manager who is a brilliant teacher trainer, seems to spend nearly all his time devising timetables. In short, timetabling could be a D task (or perhaps – see below, an S task).  But you probably don’t know which of your teachers would enjoy timetabling, because they’ve never been asked or they’ve never done it before.  But timetabling is like a logic puzzle – matching classes to teachers to rooms within certain detailed parameters.  The kind of logic puzzle that some people love trying to solve. Who do you see doing sudokus or crosswords in their spare time?  Those might be the people who would actually enjoy timetabling.

[I ought to point our here that while timetabling is in some ways the ideal task-to-be-delegated, it can involve a level of stress and responsibility that perhaps needs to be the manager’s job – which is to say that timetabling confers an element of power. Certain teachers want certain timetables, and giving the responsibility of doling out such things may be something you want to avoid – not that your timetabling teacher will play favourites, but that he or she will likely gain favour with some and become persona non grata with others. So tread a bit carefully and possibly be part of that process, to make it clear that the buck stops with you.]

The big danger when you start delegating tasks is that you give all the tasks to the people that you really trust and that you know will devote a lot of energy and responsibility to the task. But, if you do that, you risk burning those teachers out or at the very least irritating them a significant amount. Plus the teachers who you think need to learn the most never get the opportunity (and if there ones you perceive to be lazy, you reward them for that by allowing them to be)

Once you’ve chosen who to delegate it to, make sure you clearly explain the task. What are the deadlines? What are you expecting to be done? What is the objective of this task (why is it there at all)?  Make sure that the person you’ve given the task to understands, and also, if they need any special access to anything (databases, records, whatever) to do the task, that they are given that access.

Once they get started monitor and offer support, but don’t get too close. They probably will not do the task in exactly the same way you would have done, but that’s OK (it might even be better).  They will almost certainly take longer over it than you would have, but that’s because you’ve done this before and they are learning it.

Finally get feedback from them about how it was – whether they got everything they needed, what else you could have done to support them, whether the task was totally clear, what the person thinks about the systems that they had to interact with to get it done, and so on.  One of the hidden benefits of delegating is that other people might notice areas in which the organisation as a whole could work better.

For another good article on this, try this one from the very useful MindTools site

 

 

 

Growing Pains (2)

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“Growing” by Motiqua https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the problems of transitioning from a small LTO to a more medium sized ones with all of the changes that this implies. This is something which I’ve encountered fairly often in my work, but I was reminded of it specifically, when I read an article recently in HBR about tech start-ups facing the same dilemma.

You can read the article here – HBR allows you to read 5 articles for free every month if you register with the site, which is, I believe a great deal, as it is a fantastic resource

“Start-Ups That Last: How to scale your business” by Ranjay Gulati and Alicia Desantola

Tech start-ups tend to go through these organisational life cycle stages at a much greater speed than most other industries (going back to McNamara’s life cycles from my previous post, it feels like Facebook went from birth to maturity in a few months!) , but that doesn’t mean that the lessons are not applicable to our world.

The article outlines 4 key areas to be aware of and to work on in order to facilitate the transition into a more mature organisation.  I’ve ordered them slightly differently from the way the authors did which reflects the importance I would attach to the 4 points as I have seen them arise in the ELT industry.

Sustaining the Culture

One of the hardest areas to deal with in such a transition is what feels – to staff – like a loss of culture.  As the organisation becomes larger and somewhat more formalised something can be lost.  But this shift does not have to mean that the culture is entirely changed. I would recommend sitting down with the entire team to try and work out what it is about the current culture, the “small young organisation culture” that actually does feed people and make them feel part of something, make them feel part of a family or an organisation in which their own identity is not lost. Get staff to think about why it is they do like working for the LTO, and then once you’ve got that input, work together to see how you can grow and do what needs to be done without losing what makes the place special.

I once came in as a consultant to an LTO going through this kind of change.  The director felt it was time to change but also thought that the staff were against it.  I talked to everyone individually and then we had an all staff meeting.  From this it became entirely clear that no-one was actually opposed to the idea of growth (and in fact they felt the LTO needed to grow and expand quite dramatically as they felt they were missing out on opportunities), and everyone recognised the need for clearer procedures, but they were worried that the place they enjoyed working at would become less personal.  We worked together to find out what it was that made it a good place to work and worked on what could retain that feeling and even make it better . The point here being that the director had completely misread the staff’s resistance, and in fact they were as enthusiastic and as ready as she was to start the change process.

Adding Management Structure

Perhaps one of the things that most worries everyone in a small organisation is adding more managers.  Staff worry because more managers is seen a meaning more rules, and also increasing the hierarchy and putting more distance between them and those at the “top”. Managers worry because it might mean less control.  And everyone sees it as taking away from the culture (see above). But if this doesn’t happen then everything will become increasingly slow moving and difficult to handle.  The manager’s role is not to make rules and enforce them, the manager’s role is to support people and make sure they have what they need to do the best job they can.  And one manager cannot effectively support 40 people. (yes, the manager’s job is also to make decisions, but the wider the span of control, the harder it is for that manager to find the time to make those decisions). Too much management can, it is true, mean too much bureaucracy and too much control taken away from the staff.  But it needn’t, and a well handled expansion of management can be very helpful.

I worked recently with another growing LTO (it was no longer small, but was still dealing with some “small structures”) in which the teaching team had grown to about 90 people – all of whom were being managed by a single academic coordinator.  Clearly that was unsustainable and a decision was taken to create teams of 15 teachers each with a supervisor who would act as team leader and report to the academic coordinator.  Of course there are always difficulties in adding managers – staff might feel resentful at being now “under” someone who previously was a colleague, and the new managers can struggle to cope with that and with the change in relationships. But handled well it is essential to make the organisation function well.

Planning and Forecasting with Discipline

Small organisations tend to act on hunches, improvising as they go. What makes a small organisation successful is the ability to be flexible and quick in responding to ideas or possible opportunities.  And at the same time, choosing to launch a course that doesn’t take off is not likely to be the end of the world. We feel we know the market, we have ideas about what people want and we can build courses and services that meet those needs. But as we grow our market grows too – perhaps we consider new branches or satellite schools (the example above under sustaining the culture, was one such), and perhaps we stop being experts in our possible customers.  Also, many small LTOs don’t keep good records. Files have built up in haphazard ways and we simply don’t really have the data we need to make informed decisions.

One need of the sustainable LTO, then, is to start being a little more organised with the information you collect.  Student feedback. Where applications are coming from. Where applications are not coming from.  And to create better and more effective processes for making plans for the future.  People need time for that, time to gather information, time to share it properly and time to use it as the basis for future directions. It may feel less flexible, less nimble, but once the organisation reaches a certain size making up new courses on the fly is no longer helpful . You need more clear goals and a more sustainable way of reaching them.

Defining specialised roles- generalists vs domain experts

At the beginning, as mentioned in the previous piece, everyone does everything. Teachers also answer the phones, enrol students, clean classrooms and teach every class that comes up.  We are jacks (and jills) of all trades.  And in small organisations this works very well. But it does mean people having to quickly and efficiently acquire new skills – often with a very steep learning curve. So as the organisation gets larger we tend to specialise a lot more.  One person is responsible for answering the phones, and teachers just get on with teaching (for the most part). And then people start to be hired from outside to take care of specific functions.  The LTO starts to attract a lot of young learners, and so you hire a YL expert. And away from the classroom, you might hire a marketing expert. There are many benefits with this – the YL teacher can spend her time teaching the YL classes and perhaps even training up others.  She brings her specialised knowledge to the area and this can only be beneficial.  It also allows those not specialised in this area to be freed up to do other things.  But as you can see, often these specialised posts are filled from outside, which can leave long serving staff (the generalists) feeling rather marginalised. A sense that is only exacerbated when the organisation starts becoming more departmentalised, and the YL expert becomes the head of the YL department.

It’s important to bear in mind that the generalists also offer a lot to the organisation – they are the history, they know how things function and they cross different areas.  If you do not recognise and accommodate this hugely important aspect of the organisation, you risk losing them, and ultimately you will end up with a very silo-ised organisation in which everybody just functions in their own little narrow piece of the puzzle.  So, build relationships, use the cross-departmental knowledge and skills of the generalists to ensure continuity and an organisation in which there are not only experts in specific fields but experts in the organisation as a whole, experts in working across departments. Find ways of supporting and recognising the generalists, and work to stop the LTO becoming a series of silos.

In some respects any organisation that is growing and indeed shrinking) is experiencing some of the issues associated with scaling as referred to here and in the previous post, so even if your LTO seems larger and more established than one experiencing growing pains (or if your LTO is still young and small), it’s still worth bearing these things in mind.  After all, if you look at the massive tech companies that have grown up in the large few years you will see that they are doing everything they can to try and follow these principles above – from trying to break down silos to preserving the culture that made them innovative.

The haves and the have-nots

silvana slideMany years ago, I encountered a participant on the IDLTM who had, shall we say, interesting views. She was the owner-director of a fairly successful language school in Germany, and had lots of fairly strong opinions about how management should work. I could tell a number of fairly shocking stories about her “unusual” views, but for this blog post I will just share the one which was possibly the most shocking – the one which left the rest of the group most open mouthed. This was when, during a discussion on recruitment, she revealed that she didn’t hire black teachers. I think she was taken aback by the collective gasp on this announcement, and she defended herself saying that her customers wouldn’t be happy with a black teacher. After picking my jaw off the floor, I jumped in and asked her how she knew that, and she announced that she was sure it was true, that German business people would not want a black teacher (this was an LTO which primarily worked with business English).  Now, obviously I was not in a position to claim a greater knowledge of that market and those customers (even though I found this claim hard to believe). So, instead I told her that even if what she said about attitudes were the case, that we have a duty to take a stand and make it clear that such attitudes have no basis in reality, and if there were customers that had such racist views, then it was up to us, language school managers, to educate them and not pander to that kind of thinking.

I have no idea if my words (and the support and agreement with my arguments from all of her classmates) had any effect.  Honestly I suspect not. And with hindsight I wonder if I could handled it better – by perhaps reporting her in some way (I’m quite sure such hiring discrimination is entirely illegal in Germany). But it is an incident that I suspect I will never forget.

So, why am I telling this story now? Well, I was reminded of this event very vividly last week during Silvana Richardson’s fantastic plenary about the continuing existence of prejudice against English teachers who have a language other than English as their first language (as Silvana pointed out, “Non-native English speaking teacher” is not a terribly positive description). The plenary was passionate, inspiring, and still also backed up with solid and strong research and great use of the literature to support the arguments made. It could have just been about passion and anger, but it never was, and instead was a thorough debunking of all the various reasons that are given and held such that native speakers get advantages in ELT.

I won’t review and comment on all of it, because I could not possibly do it justice, and anyway, I really think everyone should watch it for themselves, but one of the main sections of her talk is on overcoming the myth that “This is what students want”, and as I listened I was taken back to that experience mentioned above, when a similar argument was given to me for engaging in another discriminatory hiring practice.  From an academic managers perspective, then, I think it is our responsibility to get past this belief that students want native speakers.  Partly because it’s unlikely to be true (watch Silvana’s talk for the research data) but partly because even if it is true, we have the duty to change people’s perceptions – and we do that by changing our hiring practices. Fromteflequity this point forward, if anybody who has responsibility for recruitment says in one of my sessions “We have to hire native speakers, because the students expect/want it”, I will respond as I did back then, that even if that is 100% true it’s not a good enough answer.  I am also going to see how I, in my various strands of work, can support TEFL Equity Advocates. If you haven’t seen Silvana’s plenary, and you have any form of bias towards hiring native speaker teachers (as opposed to simply the best teachers), for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, I urge you to watch the video. It takes an hour, but it’ll be one of the more important professional hours you spend this year. I guarantee that.

Growing Pains (1)

Evolution of a young plant(This is the first part of a two part post)

One of the issues that I often come across when speaking with managers of language schools is the problem of managing the transition from a small organic organisation to one that is larger and more mechanistic.

To explain a little more: Many language schools grow from small beginnings, perhaps with one or two teachers. In these schools, everyone does everything – the owner teaches, answers the phone, manages the business and cleans the classroom.  Aside from the business management side of things, the teachers probably do much the same. The business is small and everyone knows what is going on. It can feel like being part of a family. Slowly the business grows, and more people are hired, more teachers, more office staff, and so on.  But still the same ethos exists, and the staff feel that they are part of something. They feel recognised, appreciated, and free to be creative in their work

At a certain point though, a tension starts to appear. A tension between this close-knit family of employees and the needs of the business to have a bit more formality. The parent of a student comes in and ask to speak to someone about a certain matter – and no-one is quite sure who they should talk to.  Some students are offered payment plans which are unusual and they tell their classmates (or they stop paying and nobody notices). Teachers complain that students who passed the previous level don’t know what they expect them to know. A part time teacher who said she only wanted ten hours teaching a week, is annoyed when a newer member of staff is given a full time contract. And so on. The list of possible signs of this tension coming into play is probably endless.

It becomes increasingly clear – to everyone – that there needs to be formalisation, some more rules and procedures. That people’s job descriptions and responsibilities have to made more explicit. And while everyone can see this need, there is of course resistance to such a change. “Will we lose the feeling of togetherness that brought us here?” “The reason I love working for this school is the freedom and creativity I have here” “We don’t need rules, we just need to make sure we keep communicating”

The transition that at some point needs to be negotiated from a small young informal organisation to one that it is larger and more formal is a very tricky one to handle. Sometimes the tension materialises slowly and is worked out slowly. It might take a few years between recognising the need to change and actually changing. Sometimes the change is more or less instant – usually in the case when a small LTO is bought by a large chain. It can be a process which is painful, sometimes with staff leaving, or it can be a relatively smooth shift.

Carter McNamara’s organisational life cycles model (which is quoted in From Teacher to Manager, and which can also be found here) shows how organisations typically develop

Birth Youth Midlife Maturity
Size small medium large very large
Bureaucratic nonbureaucratic prebureaucratic bureaucratic very bureaucratic
Division of labor overlapping tasks some departments many departments extensive, with small jobs and many descriptions
Centralization one-person rule two leaders rule two department heads top-management heavy
Formalization no written rules few rules policy and procedures manuals extensive
Administrative intensity secretary, no professional staff increasing clerical and maintenance increasing professional and staff support large– multiple departments
Internal systems nonexistent crude budget and information system control systems in place; budget, performance, reports, etc.. extensive — planning, financial, and personnel added
Lateral teams, tasks forces for coordination none top leaders only some use of integrators and task forces frequent at lower levels to break down bureaucracy

In the second part of this post, I’ll take a model of trying to best facilitate this transition  and try to apply it to the language school context