Natural disasters and the LTO manager

The second in my unexpected (even to me) series about natural disasters in ELT, and to tack on to the previous post and bring us back to managing language teaching organisations…

Over the course of the last year I have met and/or worked with 3 language school managers who have recently had to deal with natural disasters.  This is not dealing with natural disasters in the same way that I had to (ie by musing while being slightly inconvenienced), these are genuine, on the spot, life- and livelihood-threatening experiences.

Last year I met the owner/director of a language school in L’Aquila, Italy, who had a school in the old city, the building of which also was her and her family’s home. Not only did she lose her home, her school, and more or less all her possessions, her husband had to dig their daughter out from under her bed using his bare hands. Somehow, by the time I met her, she had reopened in the suburbs where they were now living, and was still providing language courses to the shattered community.

Last summer I taught a group of managers (taking the IDLTM), one of whom was the Director of Studies of a language school in Christchurch, New Zealand. Between the face-to-face portion of the course, and the online work beginning, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck, sending everyone scattering for cover, and devastating the city.  David wrote asking if he might have an extension on his assignment as he was temporarily running his school out of a hotel outside the city centre. (I agreed, you will hopefully be unsurprised to learn).

And now, another student of mine, in another IDLTM  group, the Director of Studies of a language school in Brisbane’s Central Business District, will presumably have to help pick up the pieces of her probably flooded school. I haven’t yet heard from her, but I am sure that she’s fine, just trying to take care of the pressing needs of such an event.

I’m not sure if there are any management lessons to be learned from these experiences as such (well aside from “Make sure you’re properly insured!”), as we can only hope that we never have to deal with them. I’d suggest making sure that the teachers are fine, and that the students needs are taken care of as much as possible, as management tasks, but these seem less like management lessons than just natural human responses (and despite what some people think I still believe that managers are a subset of humans).

I guess the one thing that one could possibly take from such a realisation of what some DoSes or other managers are having to cope with, is that whatever crisis has happened this week – the teacher informing you by email one day before the start of the new term that he’s not coming back; the corporate client not signing a new contract; or the computer lab being hit by a virus – could always be worse.  And until you’ve had to move your entire school at a day’s notice, or wade through knee-high mud to your office, things aren’t so bad really.

[Happy Update: The website for Belinda’s LTO in Brisbane now has a pop-up window reading “XXX suffered no damage due to flooding. [We] will be open as normal from Monday 17th January]



Natural disasters and the roving trainer

After  a fair amount of consideration, I’ve decided that I’d like to use this space not only to talk about management issues but also to talk a little about some of the issues that face freelance trainers/consultants etc in our field. The former is what I teach and write about, the latter is what I live on a daily basis, I suppose. I don’t think these things are unconnected, but  suspect that they are very much connected for me, but perhaps less so for anyone reading this. Anyway, if you think I’m making a mistake in combining the two, please let me know in the comments below.

Last year I found myself trapped in the UK after a conference, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted sending ash all over Europe and grounding flights. As I sat there in Heathrow airport and latterly in various UK locations wishing I was at home with my family, I pondered how much I’d come to rely on air travel.  It became clear to me that this was not only a lot, but also that it was probably unsustainable (obviously from an environmental perspective all these airmiles are unsustainable, but also from a work/life perspective I began to conclude that it was so as well).  As I read the stories in the papers about the effects on various people of the enforced airspace shutdown, I began to wonder whether the world would be changing in the future, and we’d stop flying everywhere.  In fact the conference I’d just attended (IATEFL as it happens), was very wired and people had been able to participate in it from all over the world.  I wouldn’t have liked to have missed it, but in theory I could have “been there” from home. More and more meetings are taking place online, and I have been teaching ELT management online for ten years now in various formats (and on various platforms). Meeting people face to face is extremely useful, and possibly at times indispensable. But while it used to be the only option, increasingly it isn’t.

So, I mused on this possibility, and the idea that I might be able to cut down a lot on my travel, while I twiddled my thumbs in the UK and then as I took the long train ride to Berlin for my next engagement at the EAQUALS conference.  Would it be that this unpronounceable volcano would finally provide the catalyst for major change in our (and my) working practices?

9 months down the line, and it would seem that it hasn’t really. I spent much of the latter half of last year away from home in various locations, all of which trips involved face to face training, and therefore seemed sort of indispensable (though in the same period I did also start working on a purely online course).  This morning though, I was reminded that natural disasters like the volcano that had disrupted my flight home from IATEFL didn’t necessarily confine their effects to travel and face-to-face work.  One of the IDLTM centres that I work is the Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education at the University of Queensland. In Brisbane. This morning I dragged myself from bed especially early to “meet” my class of students who are all based in various locations around Australia and New Zealand. At 6am I log on to find that the servers are down.  Hardly surprising perhaps given the fact that the UQ campus is by the river.  The Brisbane river which is currently rising very fast and swamping the city.  With many people I know in Brisbane forced to evacuate their homes and take refuge where they can, me not being able to have a class at the scheduled time was hardly a concern, but it did serve to remind me that natural disasters can also affect us even in the 21st Century with our distance this and our online that.  Food for thought I guess while I watch the waters rise from half way round the world, seeing pictures of the building in which I stayed as recently as November which now has water lapping at its doors, receiving emails from friends, colleagues and students who are affected by the rising waters.

And, I find that my friend and colleague, and flat-mate from that last course, Ron White, has already commented on his reactions to the pictures and the stream of news we are seeing, and summed it up much better than I could

Later update: The servers came back online (which is more than the planes did, back in April). I can only assume that they are housed somewhere higher up than I imagined this morning.

2011: Step up, steeply? Or La Peste?

So, now seems like as good a time as any to actually return to this too-long-dormant blog, being a New Year and all that. I’ll spare you the apologies, the excuses and the hand wringing over my long absence, but just know that they exist, bottled up.

It is the done thing in pretty much all media it seems to use the occasion of the new year to reflect upon what has gone and to look forward to what is to come. I’ve chosen to do the latter, though maybe with a bit of the former thrown in. So, what can we look forward to in the 2011 (and beyond) in the world of ELT? What are the trends? What will your school look like in a year’s time?

Rather than reading tea leaves, we can instead resort to one of the standard tools to help the manager look at external factors. That is the STEP analysis, also called by some the PEST analysis.  (Where STEP stands for Social, Technological, Economic and Political factors, and PEST stands for the same only written in a  different order. I like to think of a STEP analysis being for optimists and a PEST for pessimists. The actual analysis is the same, you just start with a different word which might sum up your suspicions about what lies ahead). I tend to go, though, with STEEP in which we add a fifth category – educational factors – to the other four, which helps it address our field a little more directly (If you want to be pessimistic you can go with the Camus-esque PESTE)

So, ELT in 2011…let’s consult the tea leaves STEEP analysis.

Social: What are the social factors that will influence your student numbers? What are the demographic trends? Is the population ageing? A lot of immigration? This will obviously vary greatly depending on where you are, what the social trends are in your country and in your town. Is your school offshore (teaching English in a non-English speaking country) or onshore? If onshore, what are the social factors in the countries where you receive many of your students from?

Technological: This one may be more globally applicable. What are the trends that will effect English teaching going forward? Mobile learning? Tablets and smart phones in the classroom? Distance learning via Moodle or other similar platform? IWBs? What will set your school apart and set it up for the way learning and teaching will adapt as we move towards the teenage years of this century? Nobody has the perfect answers to these questions, but checking out the blogs, books, and other work of Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney is a good place to start looking)

Economic: Well, much of the world continues to lurch from economic crisis to false dawn to further crisis (while some of it remains more or less recession free).  How will the ongoing situation affect your school, your business? If your students come from many different countries, what will change in the mix due to economic factors in their home countries? If your students come from just your own town, what are the economic trends looking like (and of course as you will no doubt be painfully aware – education and training tend to be the first things that get cut from family and company budgets)

Educational: What are the trends in education? There are the technological ones mentioned above, but what other ones are there? Here’s where you need to keep up with what is going on out there – whilst remembering that what the research is telling us about language learning may take a while to filter through to the students and other customers themselves. And are the new trends fads or the future? Will we live in a CLiL world in 10 years or will it have joined the ranks of other half-forgotten once fashionable experiments?

Political: What will be the political response to some of the other factors influencing matters? the ELT industry in the UK entered 2010 not knowing who would be the government by the end of the year, and what their policies would be regarding things like the British Council and foreign student market.  (Turns out of course that the BC more or less survived the axe, while the government seems to want to shoot itself in the foot over education, even going as far as asking (madly) for the public to send in suggestions to halt the influx of foreign students). What are the politics like where you are? What will happen? Austerity and cuts? Investment and support?

You cannot predict everything, but you can keep an eye on trends and look up from time to time to try and keep ahead of the game. If you plan and lead from the front you are more likely to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

So, what are the trends like where you are? Care to share your thoughts?