Clearer communication (IH AMT 2021)

On 18th and 23rd January I presented my talk on communication tips at the IH Academic Managers and Trainers conference. Here is the blurb:

Communication is the keystone of management, with the quality of your communication making the difference between a team that resents every change you make and one that will follow where you lead. Clear, supportive communication is something I feel very passionate about, and have worked on a lot over the past few years. In this talk, I can offer various tried and tested tips to improve the effectiveness of online and offline communication with your team, hopefully leading to a more positive, supportive environment for all of you.

This was a variation of a presentation I originally did for ACEIA in October 2020. You can see the presentation written out in full in this post. You can watch the video from the IH AMT here (and links to other talks from the event in this blogpost):

Here are my slides from the IH Bielsko-Biała Teacher Training Day, where I also did a 30-minute version of the talk:

What tips do you have for communicating more clearly with students, teachers and trainees?

Clearer communication (IH Bielsko-Biała TTD)

On 28th November 2020 I had the honour of being the opening plenary speaker for the IH Bielsko-Biała Teacher Training Day. The theme of the day was ‘From the Heart’, with speakers discussing topics they’re passionate about. For me, that’s the importance of clear communication.

This was a variation of a presentation I did last month for ACEIA. You can see the presentation written out in full in this post.

Here’s the video, including a link to the playlist for the rest of the day:

Here are my slides from Bielsko-Biała:

What tips do you have for communicating more clearly with students, teachers and trainees?

Clearer communication (ACEIA 1st virtual conference)

On Saturday 17th October I presented as part of the Asociación de Centros de Enseñanza de Idiomas de Andalucía (ACEIA) 1st virtual conference. It was a new management talk:

Communication is the keystone of management, with the quality of your communication making the difference between a team that resents every change you make and one that will follow where you lead. While I can’t promise to resolve all your communication problems, I can offer various tried and tested tips to improve the effectiveness of online and offline communication with your team, hopefully leading to a more positive, supportive environment for all of you.

This is a topic I feel very strongly about, as my experiences of bad and good managers have largely centred around the quality of their communication. In my own management experience I’ve noticed that as my ability to communicate successfully and clearly has improved, I’ve gained confidence and I feel like the people I manage trust me more. They are also very open to giving me feedback on my management in general and my communication specifically. The tips in my talk are primarily aimed at managers, but many of them would be useful for teachers and general communication in life too.

These were my slides:

Listen

Before you do any broadcasting, it’s important to listen.

Don’t interrupt. I have a tendency to finish other people’s sentences or assume I know what’s coming next and start replying. A colleague once told me this was stopping him from speaking to me properly – he suggested I use my finger to stop myself from being able to speak! This really works: when I shouldn’t interrupt, I adopt a thinking pose with my index finger on my lips and it makes it much harder to start speaking.

Pay full attention. Stop what you’re doing and really listen. Make eye contact. Listen with your brain as well as your ears – don’t just spend the time working out what you’re going to say next or how you’re going to solve the problem.

What are they not saying? Notice body language and patterns of communication (or lack of communication) which may indicate hidden messages. Perhaps the person you’re speaking to is very stressed about something but doesn’t know how to communicate this. Perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed in general. Perhaps they really don’t like communicating with you and are avoiding it (not necessarily because they don’t like you – perhaps they don’t know how to speak to somebody they perceive as an authority, or perhaps they don’t want to interrupt you because they think you’re busy, or perhaps they don’t feel like they trust you enough to talk to you yet.) There’s a lot of ‘perhaps’ there, because we never really know, but be open to hidden messages, not just the ones which are explicitly stated.

General tips

Consider your medium carefully. What is the best way to communicate your message? Options might include:

  • Face-to-face conversation
  • Online conversation e.g. via Zoom
  • Phone call
  • WhatsApp call
  • SMS
  • WhatsApp message
  • WhatsApp voice recording
  • Facebook messenger
  • Email
  • Meeting with a group of people/all of the staff
  • (Regarding students) Speaking to/Phoning/Emailing parents

We have so many options for communication now. The method we use says something about how formal or serious particular communication is, whether a written record is required (either to track information or simply so information is easy to refer back to), how much (perceived or real) time we have available, and how we might want our interlocutor(s) to respond.

Be clear about what information doesn’t exist. If you don’t have information yet, make sure the other person knows this. Otherwise, they may assume you’re keeping it from them for some reason. For example, if you know that a one-to-one student is in a teacher’s timetable, but said student hasn’t confirmed the start date of the lessons yet, tell the teacher that you don’t know the start date.

Be realistic about when communication will happen. Following on from the previous point, ensure that people know when they are likely to get any missing information and what factors will affect this. For example, when will the school contact the student to confirm the start date? Knowing when you will get information can reduce anxiety, and mean you can more easily postpone worrying about something until later.

Remind people to help you with communication. As managers, we’re normally spinning a lot of plates, and inevitably we’ll lose some of them. Get your staff on board to help you. Ask them to prod you if you don’t reply within 3 working days for example, and be clear about what is their responsibility to follow up on and what is yours.

Be open about mistakes in communication. Apologise when needed. We’re humans. We make mistakes. This is just as true in our communication as it is in any other area. Sometimes the things we do or say (or don’t do or say!) can be stressful for somebody else, or make their jobs harder. If you realise that your actions have made this happen, apologise for it. This is far more likely to build relationships of trust than brushing such mistakes under the carpet or pretending they didn’t happen.

Timing

Consider the timing of your communication carefully. What messages are you sending out about…

  • response times?
  • working hours?
  • availability?

By instantly replying to every message you receive, you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and probably interrupting your life outside work. You are also implicitly indicating that you expect instant responses from the people you work with, and are therefore adding unnecessary stress to them.

By replying to messages at unusual times, such as very early in the morning or late at night, you’re also implying that your employees should do this too.

By being available all the time, you’re losing the chance to have a life outside work, or at least drastically reducing that chance.

To help yourself to communicate more healthily, set working hours and consider what notifications you have, and pass this information on to your team. For example, our senior team have clear working hours which all the teachers know, WhatsApp notifications, but no email notifications. We have told teachers that we will respond to phone calls or WhatsApp messages as soon as possible within working hours (or I’ll respond to early morning phone calls too to arrange cover for sickness), but emails will be responded to when we get to them.

You can also make use of the scheduling function which most email providers have to ensure that your messages are sent at reasonable working hours or at the point of need, rather than when you wrote them at 6am, or 5 days before a teacher needs to see it.

GMail schedule send function

Meetings

Is it really an email? We’ve all sat in a completely pointless meeting which should have been an email. Only have meetings for things which require some form of discussion or Q&A.

What is the meeting for? Who is it (really) for? Know why you are requiring people to be in the same place at the same time. Make sure it’s not just for you, but that they are benefitting from the meeting too. Our school meetings happen every Friday for 30 minutes. They have two purposes. The first is to pass on information which is important for that point in the year and to ensure teachers know how to fulfil their responsibilities concerning things like writing reports or marking written work. The second is a social reason: it’s the only time in the week when we are a single school and a single team, all in the same place. This is why it was so important for us to continue these weekly meetings when we were all working from home too, to reduce the sense of isolation.

Do you need to say it all? At some points in a meeting, you may not need to read all of the information. Let people process information for themselves if it’ll be faster. For example, in our (deliberately fuzzy) agenda below you can see bullet points at the top. There are two sections: Please can you… for things they don’t need to hear me say, and Reminders for things like dates for their diary which I’ve already spoken about before. There is also colour coding, as suggested by our teachers at the end of last year. Orange indicates I’m telling you for the second time, red would be for the third time. [The document is titled ‘agenda’, but also acts as minutes – it’s edited during the meeting, printed out and put on the wall, and also available on Google Drive for teachers to refer back to as needed.]

Break up the info dump. As you can see, we share a lot of information during our meetings. They normally take the full 30 minutes allocated to them, sometimes a little longer. It’s impossible for somebody to focus on one person talking for all of that time and actually process the information. At one or two points in the meeting I normally have some kind of discussion, for example ‘What do you need to remember to do from the meeting so far?’ or ‘Have you picked up anything while teaching on Zoom this week which would be useful for everyone else?’ This gives me a little break, changes the pace, and allows teachers to process the information a little. It also creates a couple of extra beginnings and endings during the meeting, meaning information is a tiny bit more likely to be retained and acted on.

Are the next steps clear? At the end of the meeting, make sure everybody knows what they’re expected to do next and what the deadlines are.

Include positives/thank you. In a general meeting, include positive things too. I found that I used to feel like I just spent 30 minutes every week telling the staff off or nagging them. I still do sometimes, but ending on a positive note has reduced that feeling.

Emails

Clear subject line. Make your subject line as clear as possible to avoid guessing games and make it easier to find emails again later. If it’s new topic, start a new thread with a new subject line. Be selective about your use of the word ‘urgent’ in subject lines.

One big email? Lots of little emails? If you have lots of information to convey to the same people in a single day, it’s better to send out a single longer email than lots of short emails. This is less overwhelming in inboxes and easier to refer back to.

Signpost big emails. Use headings and highlight key points to help readers navigate the block of text. Put new topics into new paragraphs, and use bullet points to break down topics as needed.

Make it easy to use your emails. Don’t expect recipients to read between the lines. Be explicit about what kind of reply is needed and when. Include links to anything external so the recipient doesn’t have to hunt for them.

It may seem like it will take longer to write emails like this, but it will probably save you time in the long run as you’ll have to do less chasing, and won’t need to resolve issues like people filling in the wrong document because you didn’t include the link to the right one.

Here are two examples of emails I’ve sent recently:

Documents to check + creating Zoom IDs

Morning all,

Here are all of the documents you need to check your timetable against:

– Room timetable
– Level meeting timetable
– Cover timetable
– Register links (these will appear in your Google Docs later in the day – please don’t ask for them – I’ll put up a note on the door when they’re ready)

Your register links document takes you to various general links for teachers, including the Zoom IDs list. Please create meetings for all of your Zoom classes on Friday 18th. Make sure they recur until 30th June 2021 so you never have to change them through the year. Add the ID and password to the Zoom ID document so it’s available for cover and if the office need to tell a student.

When you have added all Zoom IDs to the list and checked all of your documents, reply to this email. Say ‘Fine’ if it’s all complete. List any problems if not – be as clear as possible. Please do not send the email separately – I want to keep it all in one thread so I can keep track of who’s replied.

In this email you can see:

  • a clear subject line;
  • clear instructions on how to complete the task;
  • information about how exactly they should reply and what information I need;
  • why I’m asking them to do things in this way.

Welcome to the 2020-2021 academic year (please reply by Monday 7th Sept 18:00)

[This email image is deliberately blurred.]

In this email you can see:

  • a clear subject line, including exactly when I need a reply by;
  • headings;
  • topics highlighted in blue;
  • all documents needed are attached;
  • all links to be followed are included in the email.

Keeping track

We’re managing a lot of communication, and potentially there are a lot of versions of documents flying around.

Date any documents you send out, rather than having the same file name or calling them 1, 2, 3, etc. Reverse order sorts them nicely: 2020.10.17. I normally keep all previous versions in a folder called ‘Archive’ and only the active version in the top folder to help me navigate. Here’s an example from the presentations on my personal computer:

Note any deadlines you set for replies in your diary or calendar. Follow up only with those who didn’t meet deadline, rather than sending out a blanket email to everyone. Don’t start following up until the deadline arrives – otherwise you are creating extra implicit deadlines, and causing yourself and your colleagues unnecessary extra stress.

Giving feedback

This can be one of the most challenging parts of our jobs, whether as teachers, managers or trainers, and can often be the cause of a lot of stress.

Use a feedback model (this one is from Manager Tools). This structure can help you to keep feedback neutral and ensure that the person on the receiving end is receptive to it (whether positive or negative). There are four steps:

  • Ask Can I give you some feedback?
  • Describe the behaviour: When you…
  • Describe the impact: …it makes me feel / …students find it difficult to… / …students are really engaged.
  • Discuss next steps: Keep it up! / What can you do about this? How can I help you?

It’s important to get the person you’re speaking to to say what the next steps are themselves, and preferably the ideas will come from them. They’re much more likely to act on the feedback if they say it rather than if you say it.

Focus on behaviour and actions, not personality. This keeps things more neutral and means feedback feels more constructive and less like a personal attack. It takes practice! If you’re not sure if your feedback does this successfully, run it by somebody else you trust and ask for help with rephrasing it as needed before you give it to the person concerned.

What expectations are teachers holding themselves / you holding teachers to? Teachers can often be their own worse critics, and beginner teachers in particular may not allow themselves to be beginners. Ensure that any expectations are realistic for the level of experience of the teacher, and that they know what you expect of them is fair.

Boost confidence and spot strengths too. Aim to give at least as much positive, confidence-boosting feedback as you do feedback on areas to improve.

Compassionate communication

Ask, don’t assume. Ask questions, rather than thinking you know why something happened or what somebody is feeling or experiencing at a given point.

Be patient and supportive. Aim for communication which helps rather than hinders or stresses out your colleagues. Keep this in the back of your mind, and don’t let your own stress or frustration at the fact this is the 18th time you’ve asked come through (easier said than done, but vital to remember!)

Provide training on your bug bears. To reduce your own stress levels, teach people how to do things which frustrate you when they do it ‘wrong’. For me this is the use of ‘Reply all’ rather than ‘Reply’ to group emails – you can also avoid this by BCCing all of the receiving emails, because then people can only reply to the sender rather than everyone!

Be on the receiving end of your own communication. Copy yourself into your group emails using your personal address, so you realise just how many emails you’re sending out. Record a meeting and sit through the whole thing without fast-forwarding it. You’ll soon send fewer emails and run shorter meetings!

Be a learning communicator

Reflect on particularly successful / unsuccessful communication. Why did that observation feedback run so smoothly? Why did that interview feel horrible throughout?

Seek out feedback. Ask for feedback on your communication. This includes when communication went wrong – wait until the emotion has gone out of the situation, then ask for advice on how you could have made the situation run more smoothly. If your staff trust you, they’ll be very willing to give you this feedback.

Choose an area to focus on. For me, this is currently all of the points in ‘listen’ at the start of this post!

Be kind to yourself 🙂 Your communication won’t always be perfect, but don’t dwell on it when things don’t work out. Model learning from problems and mistakes, seeking feedback, and moving forward rather than dwelling on the past.

What tips would you add to improve communication as a teacher, manager or trainer? Have you had any experiences of particularly good or bad communication which have helped you to become a better communicator?

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

One of my two favourite conferences each year (along with IATEFL!) happened at Devonport House in Greenwich from 10th-12th January 2019. I was surprised to realise that this year’s AMT was my 6th – time flies! I’ve blogged about some of them: 2014, 2015, 2016. If you want to see photos from this year’s conference, take a look at the IH World page. You can also watch the video here:

I decided not to live tweet this time as we were given a beautiful notebook and my iPad is getting quite old and tired! Instead here’s a summary of the things from my notes which I think were most useful and/or thought-provoking.

In the classroom

Although the conference is aimed at teachers and trainers, there are always some sessions which are directly related to what happens in the classroom.

Engagement

Sarah Mercer spoke to us about the differences between motivation and engagement, and how to keep learners’ (and teachers’!) attention in a world full of distractions. She suggested looking at how video games do it, and taking some of those principles into our classrooms. We should make sure lessons are CLARA:

  • Challenging
  • Learner-centred
  • Active (what is the learner doing?)
  • Relevant/Valuable
  • Autonomy-rich

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

  • Goals (including interim goals)
  • Options
  • Surprise (through variety, promoting curiosity)
  • Challenge
  • Hooks (emotional, through storylines, and ensuring personal relevance)

Both of these acronyms incorporate the idea that in video games you can make the choices – you are the agent, not the audience – and there are easy wins at the start, with challenge building and immediate feedback throughout. Storylines in games create curiosity and there is a clear sense of progress.

I also agree with Sarah’s observation that teachers who’ve built good relationships with students have dramatically lower levels of discipline problems.

Sarah is continuing her research in the area of engagement, and I look forward to seeing more of her findings – there are certainly lots of ideas to explore here.

Assessment

Gordon Stobart has a UK state school background. He spoke to us about assessment for learning within the UK school system, and how it could be applied to language schools. A key ingredient is clear success criteria, answering the question:

What will it look like when I’ve done it?

If students don’t know that, it’s hard for them to even start working (definitely something I remember from Delta days!) Having clear success criteria means we can help students to work out which work best meets the criteria, give them guided practice to work towards achieving it, and give them clear feedback on how many of the criteria they have met and what to do to meet the others. These criteria can, of course, be negotiated with students – they don’t have to come from the teacher.

He mentioned Geoff Petty’s ideas of giving medals and missions which I like as a way of really boiling down feedback. To push higher level students, Gordon suggested missions like ‘What would you do if you only had half of this material?’ or ‘Argue the other side.’ The goal of all of this is self-regulating learners who can think for themselves.

In an aside, Gordon mentioned that he had one group who he used to jokingly start lessons with by saying ‘Previously in this course, we’ve looked at…’ in the style of a TV series. The learners said it really helped as they had often forgotten!

Autonomy

Katie Harris blogs about language learning at joy of languages. Her talk described what learning languages has taught her about teaching. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about attending this, as I kind of felt like I’ve written about that a lot myself, but I’m glad I did. In the first half of her talk Katie covered what independent language learners like herself (and me!) do to learn, and in the second half she talked about a different way of approaching lessons that she has come up with as a result, which I definitely want to experiment with. Her suggestion is that for some or all of every class (depending on what else you have to do) you let students work on things which they are passionate about, for example TV programmes, books, or whatever else it might be. Here’s how a typical lesson might look:

  • Students share what they did and show each other the new words/grammar they found. Teacher circulates, answers questions and gives feedback.
  • Flexible productive tasks, such as mind maps, creative tasks (change the story, add a character etc), writing a diary entry from the perspective of a character, changing the language to a different register, I’m an expert on (for other learners to ask questions), etc.
  • Deal with emergent language.
  • Learner training.

The learner training is a key component, as you have to show students how to do things like access learner dictionaries and record new language. If you want to give them more structured homework, beyond just watching/reading more, you can give them questions like ‘Can you find examples of the structure XXX we studied last lesson?’ or ‘Can you find examples of new grammar which you think you’ve never seen before?’

The whole idea is that learners can follow what they are interested in, but that a qualified, professional teacher can help them get there faster than they would be able to alone. By doing this in a group with other people, they can share their interests and learn from each other.

Katie has done a webinar for Macmillan on the same topic if you want to see her talk about these ideas for yourself – I’d recommend it. I really want to experiment with this structure with one of my groups this year who I think would really benefit from it. I’ll speak to them about it in our next lesson, and will report back if I try it out!

Determination

Chloe Pakeman-Schiavone talked about the importance of helping learners to understand the reality of learning a language, while noticing the small achievements along the way. Building determination will help them to stick at it. You can do this by:

  • setting smaller, interim goals (as Sarah Mercer mentioned above)
  • making changes in support explicit – learners don’t always notice when you reduce support, for example by them doing something alone which they needed your help with before
  • helping learners spot determination in other people
  • creating a Positivitree – Chloe’s school has one in every classroom where students can add any achievements they want to, no matter how small they may seem to other.

In the training room

Intervening

Amy Blanchard investigated the role of the trainer during teaching practice (TP) on CELTA courses. She advocated interrupting TPs early on in the course if it could be beneficial to trainees, as long as both TP students and trainees know what is happening. The areas she particularly focussed on are the ones where we often find ourselves asking questions like ‘Should I be doing this right now?’ Examples might be:

  • Positioning
  • Instructions
  • Speed of speech
  • Boardwork
  • Concept checking

The benefits are that these interventions are often far more memorable than delayed feedback, which is generally at least a couple of hours and sometimes a couple of days after the lesson (if there’s a weekend in between), that trainees get immediate answers to internal questions, that you are training not just testing, and that information is given at the point of need. Caveats are that trainee and student expectations must be very clear, it requires you to read the situation carefully (it’s not suitable for every trainee), you should only intervene in ‘little’ things not big things that could change the course of the whole lesson, and that support should be withdrawn as the course progresses, so you definitely shouldn’t be intervening in this way in the final TP, and preferably not the last few. It’s also important that all interventions are followed up on in feedback, with action points reflecting the pre-intervention situation, as trainees still need to prove that they can do these things effectively without trainer intervention. Amy got very positive feedback from trainees who she used this technique with, and even months after the course they remembered it in a positive way. This was an interesting idea, and one I’d like to explore with trainees and fellow trainers on the next course I do.

Integrating training

Chris Farrell‘s talk was fast and full on – so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly get them all down, and I will be coming back to them again and again. He was talking about the work they have done at CES to support bottom-up teacher development. Some of the areas he covered were:

  • making sure that teacher development is an ethos throughout the organisation, not a separate activity (these talks from IATEFL 2018 are related to the kind of culture change that may be required) and that everyone is clear about what this ethos means and how it is communicated
  • evaluating teacher development (see below)
  • using nudges to drive cultural change, and knowing when a nudge is not enough
  • mentoring, particularly for teachers when they join the organisation, and the training needed for mentors to be effective. Senior teachers should not be forgotten here! (Please ask Chris if you want to find out more)
  • lesson aims, success criteria and assessment: making sure we know what the teachers are teaching and they do too, and that they know how to measure whether a learner and/or a lesson has been successful or not, as well as making it as easy and convenient as possible to see the links between these things (an area that bears a LOT more exploration!)

If you don’t know what the students are supposed to be doing, how can you know what you should be doing as a teacher or an organisation?

  • reflective enquiry, with different levels depending on how serious teachers are – these vary from notes and peer observation up to full-blown action research projects, and include professional development groups

Chris also mentioned that students can self-assess their ability to use particular language using a three-point scale:

  • I know.
  • I can use.
  • I do use.

Simple, but effective!

I suspect this is the talk I will come back to most from the whole conference!

Evaluating training

Silvana Richardson talked about an idea so simple that it’s never even occurred to me before: the importance of evaluating the impact of the continuous professional development you offer, both on the teacher and on student learner. I’ve never even asked for trainees to complete a ‘happy sheet’ as Silvana called them – an immediate post-session evaluation. That’ll be changing!

She talked about five levels of evaluation based on Guskey (2000):

1. Participants' reactions, 2. Participants' learning, 3. Institution's capacity to support change, 4. Participants' use of the new knowledge, 5. Students' learning outcomes

She covered a huge range of data collection techniques. Here are just a few.

Level 1 tends to just reveal the entertainment value, but is the easiest one to collect data on, including through using ‘happy sheets’. One way to make it richer is to ask ‘How are you going to apply what you’ve learnt today?’ or ‘What are you going to do with what you’ve learnt today?’

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

  • What I didn’t know before this session.
  • What I might need support with.
  • How I feel I have progressed as a result of this session.

Level 3 needs to be done at the level of the organisation, and may require institutional change. Silvana gave the example of an altered mobile phone usage policy following a session on mobile learning when they realised that phones were banned in the classroom.

Level 4 requires time to elapse: you can’t measure impact on practice instantly, and you may need to do it at several time intervals, though sometimes we forget! Silvana’s suggestion for this was learning walks, adapted from a system used in state schools. At Bell, they choose one area to focus on (student tutorials in the example Silvana gave), do some CPD based on that area, then drop in to lots of lessons to see how that CPD is being put into action. With the student tutorials, every teacher audio recorded tutorials with student permission, chose one to focus on, completed a feedback form they’d created as a team in a CPD session, had an ‘observer’ listen to the same recording and add comments, then all of the written feedback was anonymised and compiled into a single report. The organisation (it was done across multiple schools) learnt about what was and wasn’t working from their CPD sessions, and uncovered examples of best practice that had previously gone under the radar.

Level 5 is the hardest to assess, as so many factors could contribute to students’ learning outcomes. You can look at assessment scores, retention, changes in study habits, etc, or interview students, parents, teachers or managers to see this. However, it can be hard to assess cause and effect.

Evaluating your CPD programme in a range of different ways covering as many of these levels as possible is the only real way to ensure that it’s actually doing what you want it to do.

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

Monica Green encouraged us to nurture curiosity in ourselves as managers and in our teachers, inspired by this fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review. I really like this quote she finished on:

Albert Einstein on a bike: 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Developing everybody

Olga Connolly reminded us of the importance of making sure that senior staff get professional development relevant to their role, not just teachers. For new senior staff at BKC IH Moscow, they have a shadowing programme and five training sessions based on core responsibilities like observations and how to give training sessions. For more experienced senior staff, they meet regularly to have discussions based around a table, the headings of which are:

  • skill/are to develop
  • why is it important
  • how (action points)
  • support needed
  • feedback collection
  • time frame

Senior staff complete what they can by themselves, then Olga helps them with the parts they can’t complete, and works out with them what support and guidance she/the school needs to give them. Examples of areas to work on which her senior staff have looked at include:

  • setting priorities to give more focussed feedback
  • improving body language in promotional videos made by the school
  • improving computer skills to be able to watch webinars
  • noticing strengths and weaknesses when observing lessons in languages you don’t speak
  • increasing the number and variety of warmers in teacher training courses.

This system came about because previously Olga noticed that there was no clear system, no goal and no focus for the development of her senior staff. That’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of, both in my own development and that of the senior team I work with – we’ve just kind of muddled along, though some things have become a bit more systematic as I have built up my own experience. Clearer goals would definitely be useful, though for myself endless curiosity (see above) tends to deal with a lot of things!

Change

Ania Kolbuszewska talked to us about why change does and doesn’t work. The know-feel-do model was new to me:

  • What is the one thing you want me to know?
  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • How do you want me to act as a result?

I like how this boils down change communication to the absolute essentials. She also reminded us that communication is NOT the message sent, but the message received, and that perceptions are an image or idea based on insufficient information – the more information we give to people about a change, the fuller their picture will be. This can help to reduce the amount of fear associated with changes, including fear of:

  • loss of money
  • loss of social or network traditions
  • loss of power
  • loss of control
  • loss of status
  • loss of jobs
  • not having the competences to unlearn old habits or learn new things
  • (not) being involved in the change.

My favourite quote from her talk was by C.S. Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

By the way, if you’re interested in change management, I’d highly recommend reading Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson [Amazon affiliate link]. I read it when I was in my teens, and it’s always shaped how I think about change and how to respond to it. It’ll take you all of about an hour to read and will give you a whole new vocabulary 🙂

Evaluation

Giovanni Licata and Lucie Cotterill reminded us that when evaluating courses, we shouldn’t rely on immediate post-course evaluation by students, as this often focuses on the entertainment/ performance value of the course, but try to investigate the longer-term effects on learning. We should also move away from star ratings – as they said, some of the ‘best’ restaurants in the world, and McDonalds, have very similar star ratings, and yet they’re doing very different things! One model you could use is KISS:

  • Keep (what are you doing to keep doing?)
  • Improve (what do you need to improve?)
  • Start (what are you going to start doing?)
  • Stop (what are you going to stop doing?)

In general

Communicating more effectively

Loraine Kennedy did a three-hour workshop entitled ‘The Craft of Conversations’ to kick the conference off. Among other things, she talked about developing emotional intelligence, coaching v. mentoring, and giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative.

Here are five questions she asked us at one point which you might like to answer:

  • Why is emotional intelligence important in dealing with difficult people and situations?
  • Think about someone you think has high emotional intelligence. Why do you think this is?
  • “Know thyself.” Why is this important before judging others?
  • What can you do deepen you own self awareness?
  • What can you and your team at work do together to increase emotional intelligence?

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

If you have a problem, you are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

1. Description (what happened?), 2. Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?), 3. Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?), 4. Analysis (What sense can you make of the situation?), 5. Conclusion (What else could you have done?), 6. Action plan (If it arose again, what would you do?)
Shared by http://www.researchgate.net under a CC 4.0 license

We practised using the Gibbs reflective cycle (shown above), as well as focusing on listening and asking questions, and not giving advice. I found this process particularly useful, as it made me realise that an unsuccessful and very negative interaction I had in my first year as a DoS probably came about because I was making statements and telling the teacher about a problem situation, rather than asking questions and helping them to describe the situation themselves.

At every AMT conference, there’s at least one idea which I’ve been struggling with in my own head for a while, and then somebody gives you the answer. In this case, it was Loraine’s guidelines for a complaint conversation:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Get as much information as possible, including more feedback from the complainant. Write a list of relevant questions.
  2. Explain the reason for the meeting, e.g. student feedback.
  3. Meet in the right place, and make it as comfortable as possible. Do not rush the meeting.
  4. State your position ‘on side with the teacher’, and remind them about confidentiality (yours and theirs). Remind them of the need to agree a way forward together.
  5. Ask the teacher to talk about the class and the students. Any issues?
  6. Outline the feedback received.
  7. Invite comment and discussion. Expect anger, embarrassment, denial.
  8. Listen and use exploratory questions.
  9. Support the teacher. Empathise.
  10. Reaffirm that a way forward needs to be found. Stay focused on this.
  11. It is better if the teacher finds the way forward, but be prepared to offer suggestions. (‘Way forward’ suggests that it is negotiable, it may have various steps, and the person the complaint is about is involved in working it out. ‘Solution’ suggests that there is one answer, and you may go into the conversation thinking that you know what it is.)
  12. Agree on action, and a time to follow-up.

The most important thing to remember is that a complaint must always be responded to, including if the response is that you do not believe that the complaint requires anything to be changed. Loraine also reminded us that if we have more teacher to student feedback, we may avoid complaints in the first place! If you want Loraine to help you out with management training, coaching, and teacher development, you can find out more information on her consultancy work on her website.

In a related talk, Lisa Phillips also talked about the importance of emotional and social intelligence, and making sure we:

  • Pay attention
  • Anticipate situations (both positive and negative)
  • Explain, don’t blame
  • Accept criticism
  • Remember about how contagious emotions are
  • Are human!

Questions I want to keep asking myself

What does success look like in this situation? How will I know when I’ve achieved it? How will my learners/teachers know when they’ve achieved it?

Are we doing enough teacher-student feedback? Are we doing it in the right way?

How can we promote curiosity, not just in learners, but in teachers, trainers and managers too?

How much am I taking what I know about what works as a language learner into the classroom? Do I really give them what I know works for me and a lot of other people?

How can we make our mentoring scheme as effective as possible?

What questions am I asking? Am I asking enough of them or jumping in with advice instead? Are they clear enough?

Am I really listening?

What am I doing to make sure I reduce how much of the problem I am in any given situation?

How can we evaluate what we’re doing more effectively?