Easing the difficult conversations between IEP administrators and teachers

Sasha and Alan at the EnglishUSA Professional Development Conference, San Francisco, January 2019

At the EnglishUSA Professional Development Conference, held in San Francisco in January, Sasha Bogdanovskaya and I led a workshop in which several ‘difficult conversations’ were role played by participants. In the daily life of an intensive English program, it’s inevitable that challenges, stresses, and disagreements will arise between administrators and teachers. Our goal was to bring some of the resulting conversations out into the open for analysis, and for participants to gain insights into how to manage these difficult conversations effectively, with an emphasis on trying to understand the other person’s situation and viewpoint in order to reach a resolution. This is particularly important in schools where teachers work part-time and have other, competing life commitments.

Here are some of the insights generated by the workshop – useful for new managers to keep in mind, and helpful reminders for the more experienced.

Express appreciation 
In the first roleplay, when the administrator had to speak with a teacher about repeated lateness, he opened the conversation by immediately speaking of the teacher’s lateness. This resulted in defensiveness and a counter-criticism from the teacher. This conversation would have gone better if the administrator had begun by expressing appreciation for the teacher’s work and contribution. Doing so would likely have reassured the teacher and resulted in a more constructive, solution-oriented conversation.

Communicate expectations clearly
In the second conversation, the manager expressed concern about the part-time teacher’s failure to attend mandatory teacher meetings. It became clear that the program had not communicated this requirement to the teacher effectively. Managers need to ensure that new teachers are oriented thoroughly to the expectations of the program. Too often, new teacher orientation is rushed, perfunctory, or relies too heavily on the teacher reading and memorizing the employee handbook.

Recognize the challenges
When an administrator gave a teacher some negative observation feedback – too much teacher talking time and failure to correct student errors – the teacher responded that the class she was teaching had 19 students, several more than the program’s advertised maximum per class. Sometimes it is necessary to create a larger class rather than run two or more under-enrolled sections, and at such times the administrator needs to recognize and acknowledge the additional challenges this presents. This gives an opportunity to provide support: in this case, does the teacher have a mentor, or could she be provided with teaching assistant to help with classroom management or give individual support?

Understand how assignments affect workload
In the fourth scenario, the manager wanted the teacher to take on an extra course. The teacher entered that conversation wanting a reduction in teaching hours. Both were in a tight spot: the manager needed a teacher at short notice, but the teacher was already feeling burned out by the workload created by four different preps each day, including one for a specialized class without assigned material. It is easy to equate the number of teaching hours (on which compensation is based) with workload, but the fact is that some classes require much more preparation and grading than others, and a higher number of different preps increases the burden. If this burden cannot be eased, the manager at least needs to recognize it and not increase the load unreasonably, which can lead to further burnout and a reduction in teaching quality.

Don’t be quick to assign blame
In the final conversation the administrator criticized the teacher for not enforcing the English-only policy in class. The teacher responded that she didn’t feel she received adequate institutional support in enforcing the policy. Administrators must understand that teachers – especially part-time teachers – cannot implement institutional policies without strong backing from school management. In this case, the messaging to students about English-only in the classroom should have been communicated clearly to students before they arrived at the school, repeated during their orientation, and reinforced during their program. This was the administration’s job.

Teachers and school managers tend to live in different ‘worlds’ in an IEP. Managers may inhabit a world of policy, compliance, business considerations, and customer satisfaction, and can be removed from the direct experience of teaching and learning. Teachers are deeply involved in the details of their classes, and often don’t have the opportunity to come up for air and see the big picture. In resolving difficult situations that inevitably arise, it’s important for each to try to understand the other’s point of view and work constructively toward solutions.