Thoughts and reflections

Taking time out?

I’ve been quiet on here for a longish while. Today this came up on Timehop and I thought I’d give writing a try.*

It hasn’t been writer’s block, though. It’s been a new job. Around 3 months ago I started working full time in an office job, entirely unconnected to ELT. There we go; I’ve said it. I’ve tweeted the occasional (fairly) oblique reference to the new job since then, and updated my Linkedin profile, but haven’t spoken about it in detail, except to my family and some friends.

It isn’t a secret, obviously, but it *has* been a change. Primarily because of the lack of ties to English teaching – something I’ve been doing my whole working life. Or since 1997. The job is in the education sector, so it’s not as if I’ve moved on to a completely unfamiliar field, but it’s not what I’ve sort of built my professional identity around.

It’s a great job: there’s a lot to learn, it’s rewarding in many ways… what’s not to like? On so many levels it made complete sense to go for it, particularly as things have been less than ideal recently at the institution I’ve been working for over the past nine years.

Since I began teaching I’ve met countless teachers who eventually quit ELT for jobs that promised greater stability and security. When I say ‘quit ELT’ I mean quit working for private language schools – teachers working in the state sector seem to make this change less often. For a very long time I thought I was going to be one of those teachers – I wrote about this for the #YoungerTeacherSelf challenge. But then, especially over the last couple of years while I lived in Belgium, I became used to the idea of always being in ELT in some way. I suspect this feeling was encouraged by the fact that in a new country my teacher identity allowed me to hang on to something familiar. Also probably by the comforting, if possibly misguided, belief that I’ve “achieved” something in this field – feel free to interpret achievement as you like – and that it would require too much effort to start something new at this point.

I guess this is why I keep telling myself that I’m just trying this job on for size – it’s a temporary contract anyway. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back to ELT.

If you had the choice of leaving teaching after a long time in the profession, what would you do? And if you decided to stay, what do you think would be the deciding factor?

* In the interest of addressing petty concerns accuracy “today” was August 18.

Language school

Recruiting the right teaching staff

This is a very brief post – for me in any case (I think the WordPress Reader might even rate it as a 2-minute read, which has not happened yet. 😛 ). So, I was doing nothing useful clearing out my inbox, when I came across this task that we had to do in the Moodle MOOC I took in September 2013 and wrote about in more detail here.

The aim was to demonstrate how forum discussions work in smaller groups, or something of the kind. I think we had to try and get a discussion going with the other group members by explaining how a topic we (felt we) knew something about works. I ended up posting tips on hiring teachers, as at that time I still primarily saw myself as a traditional (or offline) teacher and school owner. No one ever responded – well, it was a MOOC. We had, I think, 10 people in the group and only one besides me came up with an opening post. It was something to do with cloud computing, I remember. I feel I’m about to digress again, and I do want this to be a brief post!

So here we go, I’m sharing the tips below and am not going to edit a thing. The title of this post is the title of the original discussion thread. Oh, and right, I thought I’d share these here after all this time because one of the topics I said I wanted to write about in my first ever post was – what do language schools look for in a teacher?


image: studiotdes | CC BY

What I would like to do in this discussion is share my tips for recruiting new members of teaching staff in a small language school. I can hardly claim to be an expert on the topic, but as I’ve been running a school for the last 7 years, I have had to hire new teachers quite a few times. Sometimes we were looking for full-time employees and sometimes for contractors, but generally I have found that the same principles apply if you want your business to run smoothly.

These are my five key guidelines in looking for new staff:

  1. Make sure that you advertise the vacancy at least a few days in advance, if at all possible. Ideally you want to be in a position where you have a few teachers to choose from, not to be forced to hire the first person who shows up because you need them to start teaching the very next day.
  2. Try to set aside at least 30 minutes for the interview. This is often hard in a small school where owners answer phones and send off invoices as well as teach, but it is crucial that you get the opportunity to talk to the candidate in a relaxed setting (you want to spend some time really listening to them).
  3. If you have a choice between lack of experience and a positive attitude on the one hand, and vast experience and a superior attitude on the other, I would advise you to go with the first combination. The new teacher will have a mentor and will gain experience. The one with the superior attitude will, unfortunately, not lose the attitude (at least not in my experience), which is not likely to make her/him a good team player.
  4. Try not to ask the candidate questions about their CV. Asking them things like, “So, I see you worked for X for 2 years..what did you do next?”, is not likely to give you any information that you don’t already have. Instead, ask them specific questions – how they would start a class at the beginning of a semester, how they would deal with a mixed-ability group, or what their favorite speaking activities are.
  5. It’s worth finding out how the candidate feels about CPD. If they don’t express any interest in training of any kind, I would suggest that you interview at least one more candidate. I don’t expect my teachers to spend all their time at work and work-related activities, but if they are uninterested in enhancing their teaching skills, I have doubts as to whether they will contribute much to the team.

Do you think these tips could apply to any small business to some degree? Which one would be most important to you if you were hiring? Are there any tips which you find out of place or disagree with?

Thoughts and reflections

#YoungerTeacherSelf challenge

This post is part of the #youngerteacherself challenge started by Joanna Malefaki. Make sure you read the post that inspired it all and the many excellent responses Joanna has linked to below.

Special thanks go to Joanna for not giving up on my contribution, and Hana Tichá for tagging me in her post. 🙂

For a start, let’s assume that corresponding with my future self was something of an established practice of mine in 1997, so a letter like this wouldn’t have made me think someone was playing a practical joke.

Classroom of the future
Classroom of the future

Dear Ven,

Hope you’re doing okay. It’s been a while since I last wrote. Sorry, but I’ve had an incredibly busy couple of years. Did you find any of that stuff useful that I told you about focusing on English lit rather than journalism at university? I’m guessing you did, because I see you’re close to getting your degree.

So, I thought I’d tell you about the next…well…decade…or more, because I’m not really sure when I’m next going to be able to write, and anyway, when you get to where the older Ven is now you’ll see it never hurts to repeat stuff a couple of times (and probably rephrase, too), just to make sure you’ve been heard.

You’d better sit down. In 2015 you’re going to be – how can I break this gently? – a teacher! Now, please don’t do anything rash. I know that right now you can’t think of anything that feels more like a failure because none of the people majoring in English lit want to be teachers; you all want to do something more glamorous. Like you want to be a diplomat. Ain’t gonna happen. But listen to me. You’re really going to like being a teacher, and if it makes you feel any better, a lot of the others are going to wind up being teachers too. Now I think would be a good time to go away and process this. Read the rest of this letter tomorrow because I have some practical advice that you might want to take on board in a more positive frame of mind.

Back? No, my news hasn’t changed since two seconds ago – in 2015 you’re still a teacher. But I promise you won’t be disappointed…well, okay, to be completely honest, you’ll like teaching from the start, but it’ll take a good few years before you realize you don’t want to keep looking for other jobs. Anyway. Here’s the advice I was talking about.

No, being a teacher doesn’t mean you have to work with kids. In fact, pretty soon you’ll be getting a call from someone who’s going to be your boss for the next 7 years. (The first two you’ll basically be working full-time, but you won’t have a permanent contract, and you’ll be thinking it’s normal to save up during the school year so you have money over the summer. It’ll take years before the unfairness of this sinks in, so don’t worry about it now.) You’ll be teaching in-company courses all over town and you’ll do a bit of everything: general and business English, and ESP. Now for the tips:

  • You might as well not bother applying for non-teaching jobs. Or, if you must, at least don’t focus on your teaching-related experience in your CV.
  • Do translating work. Anything you can get. It’s extra work that pays, and you can do it from home. You’ll see some people claiming they make decent money teaching; what they don’t stress is that they teach 40+ hours per week. People just don’t make decent money teaching normal hours.
  • Don’t get too attached to students. To your boss they’re business, and if another full-time teacher needs her schedule filled, she’ll take over your class. No, there’s no point sobbing about it to your diary, nor will the students actually start that petition.
  • While I’m at it – students can be fickle. You’ll hear a teacher say her students love her to bits and have told her she’s the best teacher they have ever had, EVER, and they have NEVER learned as much from another teacher and then next year you’re going to take over her class and they will say the same thing to you. But maybe they’ll mean it both times?
  • Bottom line – focus on the teaching. That’s your job, and you’re going to be good at it. But it’s not a competition; you don’t need to be better than anyone, you just need to do a good job with the students you have.
  • Do the Mark Powell course (the LCCI CertTEB). In fact, do any training that comes your way – if the boss is offering to pay for it, especially, and even if she isn’t.
  • Watch the boss and the way she runs the school and take notes. It’ll come in useful when you’re running your own school.
  • There’s going to come a time when it’ll seem like everyone is leaving the school and changing professions because they don’t want to teach 30+ hours per week all over town for the rest of their working lives. What they’re saying makes sense. You don’t want this either. Find another school.

Your next job is going be a welcome change. For the next 2 years you’ll still be teaching in-company courses all over town, but your last class of the day will be over at 4 pm, and you’ll have something like 22 hours per week. (You won’t be surprised that you’ll be earning less, but on the plus side, you will have a life.) Your new boss is going to be highly supportive of CPD, encourage you to go on training courses, and will do pretty unusual things (for Croatia) like hiring a fresh CELTA grad (a NNEST) with a degree in psychology, and NNESTs (but non-Croatians) with a degree in English. This will help you see that good teachers can come from different backgrounds; they don’t necessarily need to have a degree in English lit. Nor do they need to be Croatian.

The boss will retire and she will offer to sell the school to you and a friend. At this point you’ll be feeling like you’ve gone as far as you can as a teacher. Go for it. You’ll be running the school for seven years. Some tips:

  • Get a marketing person to do the marketing. You suck at promoting your services and your preferred marketing strategy is sitting there and praying the client miraculously chooses you. There’s going to be this nightmare period that’ll eventually be called the global economic recession – not a good time for your preferred marketing strategy. If you hire a professional on time, you might save your school.
  • Make sure you do as much as you can to make life easier for your teachers. Don’t invent pointless tasks for them thinking that they only work 20 hours a week. Always remember how much work goes into prep and travelling around town, not to mention marking, observations, PD sessions on Fridays, etc. This is a good time to look over those notes you took in your first school.
  • Your teachers should go to BESIG conferences, not you. What you should definitely not pass up, however, is a course on online course design, and later, online tutoring. That is going to be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
  • You’ll be asked to teach a university class. Undergrads. EAP. Totally out of your comfort zone. (Those whining about general English coursebooks needing extra materials should try R. R. Jordan for a semester.) Do it anyway. You won’t like it at first, but that and the online course design will make sure you have something to transition to when you leave the school.
  • Don’t get too attached to teachers. (See a pattern yet?) They work for you first. Some of them may become your friends second. You’ll use the familiar ‘you’ to address them because you’ll like the way your second boss did this (as opposed to the first one), but this is probably not such a great idea. Why? Well, you’ll have to let some of them go in the recession, for a start. It’s really, really hard to tell someone they have to go; you might want to make it a little easier on yourself.
  • Grow some balls fast. You will need those to stand up to some people (no need to go into details at this point, but let’s just say that if you’re clear about what you’re not going to accept right at the start, this might save you a lot of time and headaches).
  • There’s going to come a time when you’ll realize that a school owner should be emptying bins in the classrooms and cleaning whiteboards on a regular basis if a) the business has just gotten off the ground, b) the cleaning lady is sick, or c) the owner has a cleaning fetish. It’s around this point that you’ll leave anyway (though not of your own choice), but if you were staying, I’d say this is the point at which you should cut your losses.

You’ll be teaching in a very different setting next – yes, I am absolutely sure you’ll still be a teacher, and no, I don’t need to double check. But you’ll be in Belgium (no need to go into exactly how that’s going to happen yet). For the first time ever you won’t actually have to work, if you don’t want to. You’ll see, though, that you won’t want to give up teaching, and this would be a good time to take your course for undergrads online. If anything, you’ll take more pride in being a teacher at this stage than you have in years. Last set of tips:

  • Join BELTA. It’s the Belgian Language Teachers Association, and they’ll just be starting out when you first get in touch with them. They are lovely people and will make you feel at home in your new country.
  • Be more active online. You’ll have spent the past couple of years managing the school Facebook page without creating an account of your own, for reasons that will seem pretty lame at this point. You’ll have a dormant Twitter account. Do something about it! I’m not going to go on about how useful it’ll be and how much you’ll learn; because that’s really far down the road, but you’ll love it.
  • Write more. You like writing and always have, since creative writing classes in junior high. I’m not saying it has to be a novel – you’ll figure it out.
  • Get a decent chair. Don’t spend all your time in it.

Trust me when I say you’ll be very much okay with how things will turn out.