Category Archives: management

Perspectives on developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD – Part 1

This is the first in a short series of blog posts inspired by Adrian Underhill’s workshop on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD, which he delivered at various locations in Australia recently. To find out more about Adrian Underhill, read his recent interview in the English Australia Journal.

AparnaAbout the author:

Aparna Jacob is a first-time Director of Studies at an LTO in Sydney. She is passionate about professional development for teachers and is keen on developing a learning culture at her organisation. She holds an IDLTM amongst other industry-related qualifications.


 

At his workshop on Developing a Learning Organisation approach to PD, Adrian Underhill highlighted a few key ideas that set me thinking about impediments to systems thinking and sharing learning that most Language Teaching Organisations (LTO) would face. Below, I examine some of the ideas from the session in the context of the LTO I work for and look at a few possible solutions.

There is no ‘arrival at quality’. It is not a rest state that you gain and retain.

Quality is an ongoing and permanent journey, driven by the constant inquiring activity of the organisation.

Like most small-medium private ELICOS providers, our LTO operates largely as an “organic organisation” (Robbins, 2011, p.451) characterised by a centralised head, the CEO, from whom all budgetary decisions flow. Vertically, there are few management tiers and departmental structures are uniformly flat with wide spans of control. Typical of an organic organisation, everybody is expected to contribute to all operational aspects and overall there is a low level of formalisation and structures, procedures and practices are flexible. Yet, within this system, largely due to what Charles Handy refers to as the dominant “person culture” (in White, Hockley, Van der Horst Jansen, & Laughner, 2008, p.36), initiative and quick decision making are the norm and any change is quick to be implemented. Profit, rather than a unifying mission and vision, is the driving imperative on which most decisions are based. Daily fire-fighting takes precedence over “systems thinking”. The LTO’s lean processes do not prioritise intangibles such as reflection, learning and investing in individuals. In such an environment, the term “quality” remains a catch phrase, an ever-elusive and mysterious state that we are constantly striving to arrive at.

How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 . . . have a collective IQ of 63?

 Peter Senge

The Academic and Marketing/Sales departments are often the two main departments at most LTOs. Conflicting priorities often mean they are at loggerheads over every issue from student recruitment, attendance monitoring to agent involvement. In the absence of a clear goal, not only do departments find it difficult to work together but it’s also not unusual for team members to compete against their teammates, focusing only on individual KPIs rather than the common goal of the team.

Such an environment serves as a hothouse for Handy’s “Person Culture” typical of small organisations. Charismatic individuals, keenly focused on self-development thrive and become indispensible to the organisation. This in turn can also breed an unhealthy “Power Culture” where the person who has the CEO’s ear has authority and can establish their own direct line of communication irrespective of hierarchy. Learning, in such an individualistic environment is not shared to benefit the team or the organisation as a whole. Such an environment instead encourages “knowledge hoarding” where knowledge is gained and not shared so that one’s own agenda and status can be furthered rather than add to the learning of the organisation. Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level.

 

Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole.

Systems Thinking begins when we see the world through the eyes of another . . . and realise that our own perspective is just a point of view.

A systemic view of your school sees how everything is interconnected, healthily or unhealthily.

The various departments in the LTO are largely autonomous and solely responsible for their functions. For instance, marketing functions are only carried out by the marketing team and teachers are divorced from these activities completely.

This also means there is no real need to interact with the other departments thus resulting in departmental and knowledge silos and thereby the isolation of each department. The traditional dichotomy between the English teachers and Marketing Officers is evident at our LTO and the physical location of the two departments within the building contributes to this lack of interaction. The marketing department is located in the reception area so that the students have easy access to their Marketing Officers. Though teachers walk past the reception on their way to class, there is practically no interaction between the two departments.

This lack of interaction or awareness of one another’s roles results in further disconnection between the two teams and even a lack of tolerance. Teachers often view trial students or agent visits to their classroom and an intrusion and interruption. Without an understanding of the various courses, teaching methodologies or classroom management techniques used in the classroom, marketing officers are unable to promote the schools products, services or teachers adequately. This then results in the marketing team focusing on superficial aspects of ELICOS products like “native teachers only” or “guaranteed IELTS results” without fully comprehending the complexity of the learning products. Teachers, on the other hand, lack the time or training to understand the cultural background of the students in their class and may choose to view them purely as learners rather than as fee paying customers.

Human capital is not just having smart people . . . It is having smart people who are connected up . . .

Recent changes at the LTO have necessitated a few frank discussions between the two departments particularly with regard to communication and identifying causes of miscommunication. Pressure from above to meet common targets has also had a unifying effect and this has forced the two teams to cooperate, understand one another’s viewpoints, compromise and arrive at solutions together. Progress is evident when meetings are solution-oriented rather than a discussion of hurdles in the way.

Involving teachers and marketers to collaborate on meaningful projects like looking at the nationality mix in a classroom and making decisions on student recruitment, or allowing marketers to sit in on classes to gain a deeper understanding of products they sell, can provide opportunities to recognise the contribution of the other team and bridge departmental silo-isation. A discussion at the Underhill workshop has also resulted in the idea of Marketing Officers sitting in on classes with a few key observation areas in mind and use their understanding from these observations to better promote the courses. A meet-and-greet for marketers and teachers will also be held in the following months where teachers will develop a better understanding of the cultural background, learning styles and expectations of certain student groups.

Learning becomes not just something that staff do for themselves or for the benefit of the clients . . . but something that everyone does for the flourishing of the system itself.

A small LTO like mine is keenly focused on short term goals and immediate gains rather than developing a sustainable long term approach that involves investing in their human capital. Knee-jerk reactions and seeking quick-fix solutions to problems is the norm and this often results in unforseen long-term costs being incurred by the company. Responding to daily crises takes precedence over Systems Thinking habits like reflecting on our actions and consequences, examining our mental models more deeply, and seeing how our structure affects our behaviour patterns. Such reflection is essential to all LTOs as it will reveal the learning opportunities that lie just below the surface of everything we already do and transform the organisation into a learning “hot-house”.

The first step towards this is harnessing in-house expertise and sharing this knowledge that has already been developed using the time and resources of the company. There are no “universal” solutions to “local” situations. Therefore we need to be guided by knowledge and experience from the people in the local situations . . .

We need to develop local knowledge that follows the contours of the setting and circumstances we are in.

Honest inter-departmental conversations about working towards our shared goal, once identified, are an excellent starting point. Clarity of where we want to be means we can recruit the right people who can join us on the journey and help us get there. Any failures encountered on the way would only be opportunities for further joint learning. This way the entire school and its activities transform into an adventure park for everyone’s learning.


 

References and further reading

NB: You can see the slides from see Adrian Underhill’s presentation by clicking here

Pickering, G. 1999. “The learning organisation: an idea whose time has come? ELT Management Number 27. Available from: http://lamsig.iatefl.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2-Pickering-The-Learning-Organisation-2.pdf

Robbins, S.P. 2011. Organizational Behaviour. 6th ed. Pearson Australia.

White, R., Hockley, A., Van der Horst Jansen, J., & Laughner, M. 2008. From Teacher to Manager: Managing Language Teaching Organizations. Cambridge University Press.

 

This post by @aparnajacob

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Things to Remember when…….Listening to colleagues complaining in the office

This is the first in a new series of monthly posts called 5 things to remember when…..  The inspiration for these has come from our experiences working in a number of different schools:  Large schools, busy schools, schools with many off-site centres, awkward split shifts and unconventional weekend patterns, disorganised schools full of the familiar faces of less experienced and more experienced colleagues we recognised but never knew the names of.  With such a range of places to work, staff rooms to work in and colleagues to work with – we realise that delivering INSETTs and meeting the full range of needs of all the teachers in your context is an insurmountable task.  Indeed, there are some things that are important – dare we say essential – to the health of the workings and mechanics of a staff room, yet may not receive the explicit attention of a full training session.  And so, it is in this vein that we embark on our monthly escapade to look at a number of areas oft neglected, forgotten, resented and possibly taken for granted.  This month, we look at 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complaining in the office (insert brass regalia here).

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

1) Stop and take two deep breaths

(Especially if they are complaining about having to go to an INSETT, which you just spent hours putting together.)

In our experience, there are 3 types of people in most offices: those who love a whinge, those who love to stick it to the whingers and those who quite simply can’t be bothered with whingers.  Regardless of where you may fall on the spectrum (we personally have a foot in each camp, depending on day/time/blood sugar level/proximity of 20 screaming children), everyone is entitled to raise their concerns, should they have any, at work.

It’s important to remember that offices are in fact professional communal spaces and there is (or at least there should be) an unwritten rule about behaving in that space in a way that minimally impacts upon others (you wouldn’t walk into somebody else’s living room, take off your dirty socks and fart loudly, would you……or, would you….?).

It’s also worth keeping in mind that in many cases, office complainers merely want to be understood (and are possibly just in need of a big warm, purely professional, hug).  There is nothing more irritating than someone chirping up from across the room, in response to a publicly voiced complaint, in a way that aggravates and feeds the complainer and gives them even more reason to spend their precious work time spinning their wheels about (insert THAT book’s name here) Pre-Intermediate.  Being reactive is one of the least helpful things you can do in conflict situations, so hold off on offering your two cents worth.  Not every argument is worth getting involved in and above all…….remember….the walls have ears (insert cheesy Kung Fu movie zoom-in with added creepy music and evil, long-bearded man chuckle here).

2) Keep some perspective.

Sometimes (often…usually…delete as appropriate depending on your current context) complaints are genuine, and there’s something quite annoying going on at work. Let’s think of a purely hypothetical example, say, gosh, you find yourself teaching a class in the DOS’s office, as the school’s opened more classes than has classrooms and the students are balancing photocopies of a book on their laps as the books haven’t been delivered because the previous books haven’t been paid for and the distributors are withholding new stock. You are concerned about the level of professionalism at play. Purely hypothetical, of course, as no school would really let this happen, right? Riiiiiight. (tumbleweed)

Genuine concerns deserve to be voiced, as long as they are done so with the intention of precipitating change/improvement in some way.  And the hypothetical teacher in the above hypothetical situation certainly got their hypothetical whinge on. But when you’ve got through that sort of debacle, hearing the uproar from across the room that printer number 12 is out of order, and the inevitable question asked, “How can we be expected to maintain professional standards in this office without access to resources?!” (even though the massive and amazing printers 13-16 are in fact still working just fine!!) – just hang on to your sense of perspective – even if the complainer has lost theirs. Tell yourself quietly that one day this teacher will move on to a school with one mouse-powered photocopier squirreled away under the back stairs which breaks down every other day and is shared by sixty teachers. Console yourself that one day said whinger will understand how good they had it.

3) Don’t be dismissive….at first.

Along with being reactive, being publicly dismissive is antagonistic and not really constructive. Ultimately, we’re all entitled to our grievances – some of us find more appropriate ways  to air those grievances than others.

Sometimes I wonder if TEFL staff room design principles 101 ought to be a compulsory unit for anyone taking postgraduate management qualifications – a course which ought to be assessed by a candidates ability to recognise and complete appropriate staffroom conflict resolution lexis:

“That’s really……”   (interesting…..not trivial)

“What do you….” (mean by that….not think you’re achieving by involving the entire office floor in your disgruntled attitude towards the ambient temperature of the water cooler?)

“I’m really….” (sorry to hear you feel like this….not looking forward to the moment the lift doors close to take me home, thereby muffling the sound of your piercing voice and placing 3 levels of industrially reinforced concrete between you and I)

All said phrases ought to be drilled at induction, and permanently on display on the central staff noticeboard.  Remember that inviting the person to explain a little more about what they mean and why they are disgruntled may:

1) Give them the perception that you’re even the slightest bit sympathetic

2) Avoid direct confrontation

3) Bring the conversation that little bit closer to the point at which it is actually appropriate to say “I really need to get on with my work now, and by the sounds of it, so do you”.  And as always, beware the serial whinger….sometimes it IS actually ok to slap someone in the face with a wet fish.

4) Whose job is it, anyway?

Wouldn’t it be nice, if every time you had a question or issue, there was someone whose job it was to deal with and resolve that specific problem? Chances are it’s highly likely that someone in the building will be able to help.  Be it a senior teacher, manager, technician, cleaner or resident expert – perhaps the simplest solution to helping your colleague in need is to point them in the right direction?

If there were a motto we’d like to see printed on the footer of every TEFL certificate ever issues, it would be…..”Be an enabler”.  Help when and where you can (unless your colleague is complaining for the sake of complaining….in which case be a wet-fish-slapper.  Or unless they are complaining about you not having done something which actually is your job…in which case do your job.)

One of the more common complaints we have come across is the situation where teachers take issue with terms of employment that are actually clearly stated in contracts and job descriptions (and yes, we are totally guilty of this ourselves – 6am starts and late night weekend finishes….sound familiar to anyone?).  It is important to make a distinction between complaints that can be solved (i.e. when a person is asking for help) and when complaint cannot be solved (i.e. when someone is complaining for the sake of complaining, even though there may be a very clear and reasonable solution).  While one of these scenarios deserves attention, smiles and a friendly follow-up, the other one deserves – now we won’t say this is the most professional thing to do, but your discretion may indicate that the situation warrants it – a smile, patronising look of concern and a poignant rendition on the world’s smallest violin.

5) Stand up, when the time is right

Ultimately, there are things that are worth fighting for, comments that ought to be publicly challenged and contributions that deserve further explanation.

“God, I LOVE The Silent Way”……(please….tell me more…)

“I simply don’t have time to correct the mistakes I find in shared documents and materials”……(but somehow you manage to find the time to soap box about it!)

“We’re planning to change the terms of our contracts to allow administration the flexibility to pay teachers up to 3 weeks’ late”…..(rather than……….?)

The truth is that we are, by and large, all guilty of falling into the trap of simply feeling like a bit of a whinge – and given the fact that the TEFL industry generally doesn’t pay enough for its employees to necessarily feel like going the extra mile is really worth their time or effort, it’s hardly surprising. On an individual level, however, we can each make a small difference to the way we listen, show compassion towards each other, and above all, exercise the judicial implementation of wet fish.  Collectively, and cumulatively, small changes make a big difference.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia