Tag Archives: Systems Thinking

Teachers as team members – How to add value

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Picture by Tina Kuo

 

After a recent training course for entry level teachers, I was sitting in a café with some of the trainees when the topic of teacher roles came up. One of them commented that I was individualistic and that it accounted for my success. I was rather taken aback as I consider myself a team player. The trainee then pointed out that my favourite sport, cricket, is in essence an individual sport played in a team and that batsmen and bowlers effectively operate as individuals: you bat alone, you bowl alone and it is your individual effort that leads to success or failure for the team. This conversation led to some reflection on the roles of teamwork in an ESL set up and this post is the result of that reflection.

Let me start by clarifying that cricket is a team sport and that there are many similarities between cricket players and the individuals that make up an LTO (Language Teaching Operation). Batsmen bat in pairs and if one batsman doesn’t rotate the strike, the pressure on the other batsman increases and the effectiveness of that batsman decreases. The top order and middle order have specific roles. Similarly, successful bowlers operate in pairs. One bowler might dry up runs, applying pressure, allowing a strike bowler to take wickets. The fielders also play a huge role here. Not only is holding onto catches important, but good catches and good fielding apply pressure, get the bowlers to have their tails up and increases morale in the team. Team management, the coaches and the selection teams also form a very important part of this team set up and contribute not only to the individual performances of ‘star’ players, but also to the morale of the team. Every single individual operates as an individual and while their individual brilliance is important, they are very much part of a team.

LTOs as cricket teams

When a teacher is planning his lesson or teaching in the classroom he is operating as an individual, much like a batsman or a bowler. But what about the role other teachers, the DOS, the Academic manager or any other administration or marketing staff play in the success of the school or of the individual teacher? The morale in the school and the LTO is probably more important to the direction and success of the school than any individual teacher, however good they are. Without realising it, teachers rely on the copy machine working, the bathrooms being clean, students being recruited and showing up for class, books being purchased and a multitude of other things that are often completely out of their control. Other staff rely on teachers to produce results that increase the reputation of the school and make their jobs as administration or marketing staff easier. As with any organisation, the individuals are important, but it is equally, if not more important to be a team player.

‘It’s not my job’

In a perfect world, each batsman in a cricket team contributes runs, but in many games, this doesn’t really happen. A number 5 batsman cannot refuse to go in to bat in the third over only because he’s a middle order batsman – he needs to contribute where needed. Similarly, situations might occur in a school where a teacher is required to do something that’s not ideal. If this consistently happens, your team has weaknesses, but this is also the time when average becomes exceptional and leadership qualities are highlighted. Helping out might increase your workload, but it will also show that you are willing to work in a team, you are flexible and you place the needs of the team above your own personal needs.

How

  • Be willing to substitute classes when you can
  • Be willing to help and mentor other teachers
  • Get to know what the other departments in the LTO has to do and how that relates to your job
  • Be flexible when situations arise that are out of the norm
  • Show that you are reliable

‘I’m just in it for a few years/It’s just a part-time job’

How long do you think the average sports person is active in his career? Cricket players practice for hours knowing that their careers as players can last around a decade, maybe a little more if they’re lucky. Is only doing something for a few years an excuse for doing it poorly? Or for not really trying to get better? Even the greats in cricket spend hours in the nets working on technique or ironing out problems. Should professional teachers not also show the same level of commitment to their trade?

Great team players compare themselves to excellence, not to other players. You don’t want to be just above the weakest link in the team. Professional development helps not only the individual, but creates a culture of excellence and a team of winners.

How

  • Attend meetings and PD sessions
  • Contribute to the culture of excellence by developing your own skills
  • Lead by example

‘How can I work if everyone else drops the ball?’

There is nothing as frustrating as seeing plans go up in smoke when someone drops the ball. There’s also nothing as debilitating for a team as when members start blaming each other for failures. People make mistakes, but as team players, we need to work past those instances when balls are dropped, get back to our marks and storm in again with ball in hand. When the blame game starts, productivity goes down. Effectiveness goes down and no one wins. Good team players play the team game, not the blame game.

How

  • Don’t blame
  • Communicate clearly and constructively if problems arise.
  • Be a problems solver
  • Be adaptable in crisis situations

‘They need me more than I need them’

Not all players are equal. Some people are more talented, some work harder, but all of these individuals make up the team and contribute to its culture. But when players start seeing themselves as bigger than the game, they no longer respect those in the game and may even lose respect for those outside of the game. They lose their commitment,stop listening to the opinions or concerns of others, and place themselves first. Your classroom may seem a one-man-show, just like a batsman playing a brilliant innings, but never forget that your classroom is part of a much larger picture, and that the  students play as big a role in the success of the LTO as fans play in the success of cricket.

How

  • Listen to the concerns and problems of other and consider their position before responding
  • Show that you see yourself as part of the team first
  • Be willing to be mentored. Even stars have coaches.
  • Share with your team
  • Respect others

‘I’m in it to win it’

Contributing to success of others is a key element in tasting success yourself, but being a great team player – or being an ambitious individual within a team set up – does not mean you have to live, eat and sleep your job. Every once in a while, remember to take a step back, enjoy your hobbies or go on vacation.

How

  • Take care of your health
  • Relax when needed
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Play hard when it’s game time!

 

This post was written by Gerhard Erasmus (@heimuoshutaiwan). Gerhard is currently the Director of Studies at a language centre in Taipei, Taiwan, and actively involved in teacher training, from entry level qualifications to tutoring on the Cambridge Delta. He has authored a Young Learners series and consulted on various curriculum and training design projects. He also co-authored the ebook Brainstorming with Hall Houston. His main area of interest in ELT is teacher development including continuous professional development.

Upcoming chat – systems thinking: an introduction to fast and slow thinking

Our next chat will take place on Thursday 6th November at 8.30pm AEDT (you can check how that corresponds to your own time zone here) and we will be talking about systems thinking. The interest in this topic was stimulated by Adrian Underhill’s recent visit to Australia where the concept of ‘fast and slow thinking’ formed the basis of his presentations on professional development in learning organisations. We look forward to exploring the topic in more depth on Thursday. The recent blog posts on Adrian’s workshops by Aparna Jacob and Tamzen Armer give a great overview and make for useful pre-reading. There’s also an article here which considers the role of fast and slow thinking in education and has a short Youtube clip narrated by Daniel Kahneman who developed the concept.

To get you thinking (fast or slow?)  here are some pre-chat questions:

  • Would you consider yourself a fast, instinctive thinker or a slower, more reflective thinker? How does your thinking style inform your approach to teaching/learning/management?
  • Is there ‘a need to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers’ these days? How would this work in a TESOL context?
  • In your organisation, does ‘daily fire-fighting take precedence over systems-thinking’? (See Aparna’s blog post)

 

This post by @Penultimate_K

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.