“Speak English? Good. Got a clean(ish) shirt? Good. You’re hired!”
So goes many people’s perception of job interviews for YL English teachers in Southeast Asia, where L1 English speakers can apparently walk into teaching roles straight off the street, leaving their backpacks in the front office to pick up on their way out.
Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news to transient types who see teaching as a way to refill the coffers before tackling a new country, the times they are a’ changin’. My own role as an academic manager at a large language teaching operation (LTO) in Vietnam specialising in teaching children provides a clear indication of this. In this blog post, I will share practical ways that YL academic managers can put professionalism and qualifications at the heart of everything we do.
I’d like to share my top five tips for managing professional development with teachers working with children and teenagers.
Top Tip #1 – Keep it simple, practical and familiar
CPD shouldn’t feel like a chore for teachers, but instead should provide practical ideas that they can use in the classroom. This holds especially true when working with the unfamiliar. My LTO recently incorporated 21st century learning skills (collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, self-development and digital literacy) into our young learner classes in an effort to better prepare them for the world outside of the classroom. These are developed through project based learning, and, although not an entirely new concept, teachers initially struggled with this transition, focusing on what was different instead of the similarities between PBL and the communicative approach. Attempting to deal with the change was made even more challenging by attending to the demands of class management, mixed ability classes and digital literacy.
To support the team, we crafted a series of workshops as well as group co-planning sessions focused on practical activities, rooted in good communicative practice (student-centredness, providing functional language, setting context, proritising age appropriate pedagogy) and training the children in these new skills. By linking new ideas to previous knowledge, teachers, much like students, gain a better understanding of how to use them in the classroom environment.
Top Tip #2 – Be honest, be supportive
It’d be a bare-faced lie if I told you teachers were chomping at the bit to go into hot, crowded public school classrooms in Vietnam – convincing them it’s a good idea is one of the more difficult aspects of my job. Despite being a common reality in YL teaching worldwide, teachers often aren’t receptive to the idea of teaching 40+ students. It didn’t take me long to discover that the way forward was to sympathise with their discomfort, listen to their complaints and come up with concrete ways to address these. This is sometimes as simple as tips on class management, but also includes preparing resources for public school classes and working with the local team to ensure that books and schedules are clear and easily accessible. I also ensure that communication channels are kept open between the language school and the public school so that teacher feedback can be passed on and acted on. Taking steps to show teachers you understand their concerns and have acted to address these makes a huge difference when you’re asking them to work in difficult teaching environments.
Top Tip #3 – Give teachers ownership
Giving teachers control over their professional development is something I strongly believe in and I recently started using personalised professional development plans with all 30 teachers at our centre. These consist of different PD actions, decided by the teachers themselves, which are then monitored and supported by the academic team. The plans are stored in a shared folder on Google Drive and can be edited any time by the teachers and the manager.
Having teachers manage their own plans has really lightened the workload for my team as well as increased teacher engagement in their own professional development and in turn has had a positive impact on staff retention. To give you an idea of types of actions added to the plans, here are some examples:
- An inexperienced teacher added to their plan that they wanted to get better at using flashcard activities with early years learners. A quick search of YouTube led me to a video from Carol Read showing different activities that she recommends with flashcards. I then set up a meeting with the teacher and asked them to choose three activities from the video to try in class. We agreed that I would come and watch the activities and then we would meet afterwards to discuss the differences they noticed in terms of learner engagement.
- A more experienced teacher, given more autonomy and responsibility to come up with ideas and actions for himself, read about the value of self-reflection in teaching children, and started keeping a reflective journal. Over three months, he shared his reflections and findings with me, then I observed the class a further time and provided him with feedback based on his reflections. I noticed a marked improvement in how he responded to the children including giving them more choice around activities they did in class.
Top Tip #4 – The Internet is your friend – use it!
The Internet is awash with blogs, articles, videos and more to help you with ideas to support the CPD of your teachers with young learners. It really helped me as I worked to get to grips with the key principles behind project based learning (PBL) and 21st century teaching methodology. Traditional print sources and ELT journals are still a little light on details when it comes to teaching PBL in ELT, so blogs became my best friends in the search for information to give to teachers to help them in the classroom.
Top Tip #5 – Plan for succession
Although the global boom in YL ELT creates a relatively safe and stable job market, it is advisable to plan for succession in the event that one of your teachers decides to leave the country at the end of their contract. Identifying suitable replacements can sometimes be a challenge and needs to be planned carefully. I do this by formalising training plans for strong teachers as soon as possible, and usually set them CPD goals such as presenting workshops, co-planning with peers and informal observations of peers to give them a taste of what being in academic management can be like. These managers-in-training also become useful as buddies for less experienced teachers, who may feel more comfortable planning with a peer when running through their lesson ideas.
Knowing that there are teachers behind you who support your CPD goals and could eventually step into your shoes is encouraging and really helps to create an atmosphere of development.
I appreciate that these tips are neither groundbreaking nor exhaustive. That said, those new to YL academic management, or current YL managers looking to tweak approaches to CPD in their context may hopefully benefit from them.
Chris Storrs-Fox is a DELTA-qualified YL academic manager currently working for ILA Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is responsible for the professional development of a team of 30 English teachers. He has been working as an ELT manager for 5 years including in Spain, the UK and Vietnam.