Are Teachers Supposed to Be Managers?

Aziz SoubaiAre Teachers Supposed to Be Managers?

by Aziz Soubai.

 

We all know that teachers do not only teach – if that was the case, it would be a nice, easy job. Teachers do several other jobs along the way. Before actual teaching begins, they first need to plan, prepare, and design their lesson plans. They also need to make sure that instructional time is not interrupted by potential troublemakers, which may often be the case especially in large classrooms full of low achievers. When (or if) that happens, teachers must find ways to bring their learners’ attention back, otherwise the class will get out of control. In short, successful teachers should be good planners, designers, psychologists, and assessors. Yet even that is not the end and there are other qualities to have and jobs to do involved in the noble teaching profession. I would like to focus on one such quality that is quite essential for the teaching process to work.

The quality or skill I will talk about is managing. The question is, “Can teachers also be managers?” I’m pretty sure that you already know the answer: they can and they very often are. However, you might as well wonder and ask how and when teachers can be managers.

In order to teach you need a classroom, a group of students, and materials. Right? But providing these does not guarantee effective teaching; you need something else. Students in the classroom form groups and alliances, those groups talk to each other, make noise, make decisions based on what they see that will affect the classroom atmosphere either positively or negatively. The social learning theory has proven that people learn from each other through observation, interaction and modeling, and that is what is happening in our classrooms every day.

If the teacher, instructor, tutor, or educator is not aware of the impact of this theory or does not have the right classroom management techniques (such as offering praise and badges, using differentiated instruction, and making eye contact), no learning will occur. In other words, teachers manage students’ behaviours and are supposed to have some influence on students’ actions and reactions. Managing behaviours is one of the non-teaching activities that all teachers do on a daily basis.

Managing in this sense means creating an environment conducive to teaching and learning. It also means addressing classroom issues in a proper fashion. The issues might involve, for example, where and how students should be seated or how to avoid or deal with possible personality clashes (this article comments in more detail on these particular challenges and more). The teacher should know exactly when to intervene and what to say. If the case is the other way around, the teacher will be a bad manager, which is bound to impact the learning process.

To finally answer the question that I posed earlier, I think teachers are already managers by nature and they are supposed to be managers for effective instruction to occur. To get the image clear in your mind, think of the teacher-manager as an orchestra maestro. Students or learners are the musicians and every one of them has a particular instrument playing a different tune. The maestro needs to arrange that chaos and turn it into beautiful music or a song, and to achieve that purpose he uses his hands, eyes, and most of all he has to master the language of conducting as you can see in this video.

Finding My Place

Peter BreretonFinding My Place

by Peter Brereton.

 

The learning curve faced by teachers when moving into a new context can be a steep one with a number of challenges to overcome, including understanding the course they’ll be working in, getting to know the learners they’ll be working with, learning the administrative ropes, and building relationships with colleagues. Provided the right conditions, the latter is not often a major obstacle for teachers, who often have a strong desire to communicate with each other and whose similar working schedules – both in terms of courses taught and the time they are at work – encourage collaboration and facilitate the forging of both professional and personal bonds.

For new academic managers, however, this is perhaps not always the case. A little over a year ago I became one of four Program Managers (PMs) of a large-scale English Discussion Program catering for almost 5,000 first-year students at a private university in central Tokyo. The main responsibilities of this role – to manage and develop the curriculum – included writing and editing the course textbook, defining and implementing assessment criteria, and managing the training and development of the 40 teachers on the program. During my first year in this role, I kept a reflective journal on my progress and found one of the strongest themes that emerged from my reflections was with regard to my relationships with the people around me.

I was hired as a manager at the same time as eleven teachers on the program and, particularly in the first few months, I often found myself comparing and contrasting my own experiences with my perceptions of how they were settling in. After we completed a week’s orientation together, we went our separate ways: I spent most of my time in the PM office, while the teachers located to the four teacher team rooms to work alongside their colleagues. From what I could see, all appeared to settle in quickly, developing professional relationships with a number of their fellow teachers, and many getting along so well that they began to arrange to spend time together outside of work, too. In contrast, I reflected in my first month that, “I’m not sure where I fit in yet”; my place seemed to be neither with the other PMs who, unlike me, were knowledgeable about the program and were able to support teachers when needed, nor with the new teachers, who had their teaching duties in common. No one else was in the same situation as me and, while I felt I settled in well to the new context and was able to carry out the basic duties of the role relatively quickly, I didn’t feel that I fit in well at first and lacked a particular sense of belonging, reflecting in my first month that my place seemed to be “somewhere between the two groups [of new teachers and managers]”.

If I felt this way, I certainly wasn’t the only one. I noted in my journal that “even some teachers seem unsure as to how to deal with, or even talk to, me – am I their boss, or am I a newbie?” Although everyone was extremely welcoming and very supportive, there were still times when people appeared unsure as to whether they could ask me questions unrelated to work or, at times, even if they could ask for professional support. A year ago I wrote in my journal that “the new teachers integrated with existing teachers [and each other] much more quickly than I did.” Reading back now, I realize that the word “integrate” is perhaps the wrong choice; it is obvious that the teacher-teacher relationship is different from that of teacher-manager.

From the first day I made it a priority to form a working relationship with all of my new colleagues as quickly as possible as I felt this was vital both to my success and my satisfaction in the role. However, I was also conscious that in my attempts to get to know my colleagues, I should try to strike a balance between actually learning more about the people I was working with and appearing to try too hard or come across as too pally; teachers may expect managers to be many things (supportive, approachable, knowledge) but ultimately I feel teachers desire a friendly manager rather than a friend for a manager.

Broadly speaking, I believe I initially put too much emphasis on teachers’ length of time on the program and allowed myself to be slightly intimidated by the idea of interacting with longer-serving teachers, who obviously had much more contextual knowledge than I did. While this was slightly nerve-wracking in the build-up to delivering training sessions, for example, it was also a motivating challenge which I enjoyed. As soon as I got to know the teachers, I realised my fears had been unfounded; they could not have been more supportive. However, this has helped me realise just how intimidating experienced teachers can be and, as I looked back on times when I have been the experienced teacher with a new manager coming into the context, I have since wondered, “could I have done more to help allay [their] concerns more?” In a similar yet slightly less anticipated vein, I was also more cautious when dealing with the people who I discovered had applied for my role. It was certainly nothing personal but, especially during my first semester, when I was perhaps less able to show why I’d been hired for the position, I found myself questioning what their perceptions of me would be. As I imagined, the learning curve may well have been less steep for someone being promoted from within and they may have even felt that they could have hit the ground running more quickly than I did.

Now, as I come to the end of my third semester in the manager role, I feel things have worked out well and I have found my place. I know I’ve made large strides up the learning curve and, although I am still very aware I am the least experienced of the four PMs and my contextual knowledge is still a few years behind those most experienced on the program, I am comfortable with that fact and confident in my ability to discuss matters with others on the program without worrying about how I may be perceived. With two new managers due to begin in our program next spring, I am already wondering in what ways I will be able to support these individuals during their own settling in period. The support of colleagues is, of course, vital in adapting quickly to a new role but this process seems to be a journey that can only be traveled alone. Reflection, as always, will help them (and anyone else in a similar situation), and I will certainly be encouraging that. It will be interesting to learn if their experiences mirror mine in any way and to see how they find their feet and their place within the program.

A Reminder that Learning is Learning

Kevin SteinA Reminder that Learning is Learning

by Kevin Stein.

 

I have been a teacher for twenty years. Over that time, I have often been given a list of program goals at the beginning of the school year. The goals are often things like an expected average increase in students’ standardized test scores, minimum acceptable results for student and parent satisfaction surveys, and class attendance rates. When I first started, I would sometimes see what was happening in my class through the lens of these goals. If a class did not go particularly well, if students wandered off task during a speaking activity, or if there were a bunch of frowning students shuffling out of the classroom at the end of a lesson, I would feel a little flutter of panic. Would my bosses think I was failing at my job? What was going to happen at the end of the year when my students all checked off boxes that stated I was a barely satisfactory teacher?

As I got used to teaching, I became much more focused on what the students were actually learning in my classes and spent less and less time thinking about those program goals. I was lucky enough to work with a team of teachers who wanted to share their own teaching experiences and did not hesitate to honestly tell me how those experiences did or did not help learning take place in their classrooms. We were, as a team, also lucky enough to work with my mentor and friend, John Fanselow. John constantly pushed us to pay close attention to what our students were doing in class and to compare and contrast the impact on learning of small changes we could make in our classroom. We all tried out simple changes, such as where we stood during an activity, or how long we waited for a student to respond after asking a question. And as we all became more adept at noticing how and when learning was taking place, students began to reach those goals which, for the most part, we no longer thought about on a daily basis.

As we worked together and worked with John, we came up with a list of ideas that we still have hanging on the wall of our staff room. These are our beliefs about what we are trying to do as teachers, the principles born out of our shared experience:

  1. Students know how to learn. They have been learning and succeeding at new things their whole lives. Our job is to remind them of this simple and amazing fact.
  2. When students are learning something new, it is not our job to replace that process of discovery by telling them what and how to learn, but to make the process as smooth as possible.
  3. Students learn best when they have a chance to see and hear HOW they are learning. When students are engaged in an activity, they are often wholly focused on completing the activity. Providing students with time to watch and listen to videos or recordings of themselves in the process of learning helps them to see how some of the things they do are effective and some are not.
  4. When provided with multiple examples of language in context coupled with enough time, students can and will (with occasional hints) notice features of that language which they want to use.
  5. Students who come to school are all motivated! If they really did not want to learn, they would find a way to avoid your class. So treat the students with the respect they deserve for wanting to learn.
  6. True goals are internally generated. Regardless of suggestions we make as teachers about what kind of score we think a student should get, or what kind of language a student should be able to use, it is the students themselves who decide what they want to accomplish. We need to help students articulate and reach those internal goals.
  7. Students have a rich and important life outside of our classrooms. When they make a decision to prioritize one aspect of their life over our classes, we should treat that decision with, at the very least, respect, and if possible help a student tie those other experiences to their learning goals.
  8. Acquiring a language is a wholly personal endeavor. We might have 10 or 20 or 30 students in our classroom, but each of those students experiences class as an individual. Our job as teachers is to create an environment where there is enough emotional and cognitive room for each student to truly participate in their OWN class.

When I became a manager three years ago, program goals, some of which I was asked to create myself, suddenly began to once again seem like the most important part of my job. I began to keep myself up at night worrying about how far behind we were in the race to reach those numbers that stretched out like a ribbon across the finish line of a100-meter dash. I would observe a teacher’s lesson and count frowning faces and empty chairs. I would nervously open emails from TOEIC or download the test results from the EIKEN site. I was miserable. I’m pretty sure I was making the teachers miserable as well. And all because I had somehow convinced myself that I was indeed in a race, a sprint to reach a set of numbers I had long ago realized were the result of an effective program and not truly the goal of teaching.

At the beginning of this academic year, I took another hard and long look at that list of beliefs and principles of what it means to be a teacher. And I realized that whether I am a teacher or a manager, my job is to help learning take place. The beliefs and principles upon which I had done my job for the past seventeen years had not changed, even if my title had. While some of the words needed changing, the spirit of what was being expressed did not need to change at all:

  • Teachers have a rich and important life outside of their jobs. When they make a decision to prioritize one aspect of their life over their work, we should treat that decision with, at the very least, respect, and if possible help our teachers tie those other experiences to their professional goals.
  • Acquiring the skills to be a teacher is a wholly personal endeavor. We might have 2 or 5 or 20 teachers working in our school, but each of those teachers experiences the process of becoming a teacher as an individual. Our job as managers is to create an environment where there is enough emotional and cognitive room for each teacher to truly become themselves as teachers.
  • When provided with multiple examples of learning happening in context coupled with enough time, teachers can and will (with occasional hints), notice features of how that learning was fostered, which they might want to use in their own practices.
  • True goals are internally generated. Regardless of suggestions we make as managers, it is the teachers themselves who decide what they want to accomplish. We need to help teachers articulate and reach those goals.
  • Teachers who come to work are all motivated! If they really did not want to teach, they would have chosen a different (and higher paying) profession. So treat the teachers with the respect they deserve for becoming a teacher.
  • Teachers learn about teaching best when they have a chance to see and hear HOW they are teaching. Providing teachers with time to watch and listen to videos or recordings of themselves in the process of learning helps them to see how some of the things they do are effective and some are not.
  • When teachers are learning something new about teaching, it is not our job to replace that process of discovery by telling them what and how to teach, but to make the process as smooth as possible.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I realized that being a manager is not about facilitating some kind of race. Becoming a teacher is not a sprint. There are no trophies, no gold medals waiting just beyond the finish line. It is a long and often difficult journey taken one step at a time. The best we can do as managers is to support and walk with our teachers whenever possible, and to help them see, with both patience and humility, that all teachers know how to learn. They have been learning and succeeding at new things their whole lives. A manager’s joy is to remind teachers of this simple and amazing fact.

[I would like to thank John Fanselow for all the support he has showed me and the program at my school over the years. Many of the ideas touched on in this article can be found in John’s writing and are also a direct result of his advice and input. I would especially like to recommend his new book, Small Changes in Teaching, BIG RESULTS IN LEARNING. It is full of insights that can help teachers both recognize and foster learning in all of their classes. It is also a book full of the warmth and spirit that I hope to bring to my classes and school.]

The Reluctant Director

Chris MaresThe Reluctant Director

by Chris Mares.

 

I am, by nature, a teacher. I enjoy people and showing people how to do things, whether it’s playing a sport or learning how to speak, read, or write in English. I’m also good at thinking on my feet and being creative. As a result, I have always loved to teach.

Administration, on the other hand, has never appealed to me. I say this having been the Director of the University of Maine Intensive English Institute for almost twenty years. Quite frankly, it was not worth the extra five thousand dollars I was paid annually as a stipend.

During my second year at the University of Maine, the Director of the Intensive English Institute gave two weeks’ notice and left. And there we were, a rudderless ship. Not wanting us to sink, I visited the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and volunteered to keep things going until a new Director was found.

Two years later I was made interim Director and two years after that, Director.  I had no background in management and no idea how the financial aspect of the job worked. The situation was compounded by the fact I was given no training. It was sink or swim.

The first thing I noticed was the change in my relationship with my former peers. I was now the boss and was viewed differently. The second thing I noticed was that I was usually the last person to hear about things concerning either students or teachers.

I’m a people person and I like to be liked so I didn’t enjoy the new separation I was experiencing.

And so my journey as Director began. Here’s a brief list of some of the things I am not good at: confrontation, giving bad news, attending to financial details, sitting through long and tedious meetings with the other chairs and directors.

Admittedly the title Director had some cache and it helped get some things done, but could I have lived without being the Director? Yes, absolutely.

I did learn some things about people. For example, if you are easy-going and cut people slack in terms of office hours, they really resent it when you try and rein things in.

The previous Director ruled with an iron fist. She was unpleasant, demanding, and lazy. She would take all the credit for things that went well and place the blame squarely on others’ shoulders when they didn’t.

This changed when I became Director and perhaps things became too relaxed. I allowed babies and children to be brought to the office. And dogs. I didn’t insist that teachers were at their desks when not teaching. The result was a complete change of atmosphere but whenever I attempted to tighten things up, I could sense a creeping resentment. I was learning that when you are the manager, you are, however good you are, the enemy.

I should say that now I am a teacher. I spend fifty percent of my time teaching in the IEI and the other fifty percent in the Honors College. I am in paradise. Teaching brings me nothing but joy and when I look at my friends who are administrators I do not see content people.

Administration requires a great deal of time and effort and a considerable number of meetings. One is viewed with a degree of suspicion when one has the power to hire and fire.

It was only out of concern for my job as a teacher that I volunteered to take the helm. In my latter years as Director I gave myself an almost full teaching load in order to minimize the amount of time I had to administrate.

My only positive observation is that the University has made efforts to hold training sessions for managers, which were quite useful.

Quite why a teacher would leave the classroom to become an administrator is beyond me. Peers of mine have become Chairs, then Deans, and even the Provost. None of them look any happier. They tend to dress more smartly and have notably larger salaries.

When my students ask me what I plan to do when I retire, I tell them that (a) I don’t plan to retire, and (b) if I was forced to retire I would volunteer to teach.
Teaching is my calling. Managing isn’t.

Ideas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

Stewart GrayIdeas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

by Stewart Gray.

 

If you ask me, I’ll tell you: the other teachers working at my current school are seasoned professionals. I believe this is true, but I must admit, I’ve intuited their professionalism from somewhat limited observations and interactions. The unfortunate reality is that the other teachers at my school teach the same chapters of the same books as I do in the classrooms next to mine, and I have no idea what they do in their classes. How do they structure their lessons? Do they have any favorite activities? You’d have to ask them. I haven’t. 

I’ve heard teaching described as the “egg-carton profession,” meaning each teacher works alone in their own niche unaware of the doings of others and not sharing what they themselves are doing. Often enough, this description has been about right for my own teaching. In retrospect, I’m horrified by the number of hours I’ve sat pondering a lesson plan in a lonely agony when someone else agonizing over the same material at the same time was a text message away. 

It’s not that my colleagues and I would necessarily refuse to discuss teaching practice with each other. It’s rather that, mostly, we just don’t. Why not? Well, on the one hand, I have to acknowledge the role of my own shyness – I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it hard to reach out. On the other hand, we aren’t encouraged to discuss. At no point in the teaching semester does our employer invite us to share ideas. Indeed, I’ve worked at a few schools, but so far never at one that provided a dedicated space for teachers to express themselves, to advise and support each other. It’s a shame, really, because whenever I have found such a space outside of work, I’ve profited tremendously by it. 

Ideas over coffee 

A good example of a space I’ve found is the Seoul reflective practice group – a small band of teachers that meets on a monthly basis. What’s wonderful about this group is that it exists for the express purpose of sharing. It represents a private space to hash out our individual professional concerns together, over coffee. We listen to each other and we share our ideas. And it’s really helpful! Over the past few years, my teaching has been shaped and reshaped by discussions I’ve had in those meetings. 

I recall, for example, talking with one of the group’s regular attendees, Brian, about difficulties I was having in teaching pronunciation. Brian possesses certain marvellous qualities: he’ll listen attentively to what you have to say, take it all in, then offer his considerable wisdom in a non-forceful manner.* On this occasion, he listened as I vocalised my vexation. I was struggling to come up with any sort of novel, engaging ways to approach pronunciation practice in my classes. As far as I could see, I’d tried everything. Brian calmly absorbed my words and then said, “You know, what I do in my class is I get my students to practice reciting dialogues from short, funny commercials.” And just like that, with that one idea, Brian kick-started a complete rethink of the way I taught pronunciation. It was a good idea. It was a simple idea. I never would have thought of it. 

*When it comes to reflective practice, people like Brian are brilliant – find them, if you haven’t already. 

Journaling together online, emotionally 

For sure, in-person discussion groups can be great. However, they aren’t always possible. Some people might have (or be able to find) compatriots willing to discuss teaching, but they live too far away to meet regularly. For people in such a position, I have a recommendation: create a shared, online Google document in which you and others can all write together. Such a document can be a shared teaching journal, in which everyone can express themselves and offer help to others. This combines the benefits of a private, purposeful, interactive discussion space with the bonus of being largely free of geographic constraints. 

I kept such a shared journal once myself with two friends, both teachers, over a period of several months. Each of us would open the journal document each week and write about our “critical incidents” for the week. Naturally, these stand-out incidents would often be challenging and distressing experiences – a conflict with students, feelings of failure at a lesson gone badly, frustration with management, and the like. I remember once after a particularly difficult week, I found myself pouring anxiety out into the journal. I had become angry in class, and though I had tried to hide it, I was certain the students had noticed. I wrote of my crushing embarrassment – I felt painfully unprofessional. And how did my two friends respond to my anxious writings? They wrote back telling me that they understood; that they’d had the same feelings and faced similar situations in their practice; and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Reading their comments, I immediately felt profoundly relieved. I felt supported, not alone. Their empathy, it turns out, was powerful stuff, and it was just what I needed. 

The need for sharing 

As teachers, we all face challenges. Some of those challenges are practical and might be tackled with some timely advice and inspiration from a peer. Other challenges are emotional. We may experience frustration, self-doubt, fear, and embarrassment in the course of our practice. In such cases, caring responses might be just the remedy. Whatever the nature of the issues at hand, talking things out with other teachers can be helpful and healthy. The alternative, the “egg carton” approach, may mean struggling alone and suffering in silence. It would be lovely if more employers would take it on themselves to provide a space for teachers to talk, share, and support each other. In the meantime, to teachers, I recommend finding or creating such a space wherever, however possible.