Category Archives: For Schools

I can advise on program management, curriculum, faculty issues, and business development.

Keep Calm and Dance

Jerome Murphy of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has made a career of educational leadership, and has first-hand experience of the stress, burnout, and even despair that can come with a lifetime of trying to satisfy the needs and demands of faculty, staff, students, and a host of other stakeholders. “Honking and hissing like geese,” goes Murphy’s goose theory of leadership, “faculty and staff members will cruise into the boss’s office, ruffle their feathers, poop on the rug, and leave” (p. 44), expecting a solution to whatever problem they brought in. The unskillful response of many leaders under these conditions is to obsessively ruminate, resist the discomfort and try to escape it, and rebuke themselves for not measuring up. The more they try to escape their discomfort, the more entangled they become in it. Can anyone relate yet?

Murphy’s answer in Dancing in the Rain: Leading with Compassion, Vitality, and Mindfulness in Education, is learn to live with the emotional discomfort and get it to work for you. When it rains, don’t run for cover; learn to dance in it. His formula for doing this, developed over a career, is summed up by the acronym MYDANCE:

Mind your values: Take action inspired by what matters most to you
Yield to now: Slow down and focus on the present moment
Disentangle from upsets: Mentally step back, observing and making room for upsets
Allow unease: Open up to upsets even if you dislike them
Nourish yourself: Engage in activities that replenish your energy and restore your perspective
Cherish self-compassion: Give yourself the kindness you need and deserve
Express feelings wisely: Carefully reveal your human side so that you can build trusting relationships (p. 41)

Murphy takes the reader through these Buddhist-inspired precepts chapter by chapter, and includes many easy-to-do exercises. For example in the Mind Your Values chapter, we are invited to call to mind a favorite leader, reflecting on the person’s values and how the person makes us feel. In Yield to Now, a 5-minute exercise suggests focusing in turn on the five senses, bringing attention back gently each time the mind wanders.

This definitely isn’t your typical educational leadership book. It’s more of a handbook on surviving and thriving amid the slings and arrows of academic administration. If your professional life seems to be a constant struggle, this may be the therapy you need.

(This review was also posted on Amazon)

Why language is best assessed by real people

“Classroom decoration 18” by Cal America is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What is the most effective way to assess English learners’ proficiency?

It has become accepted in the field to rely on psychometric tests such as the iBT (Internet-Based TOEFL) and the IELTS for college and university admissions. Yet these and most other language tests are an artifice, a device that is placed between the student’s actual proficiency and direct observation of that proficiency by a real human being. Students complete the limited set of tasks on the test, and based on the results, an algorithm makes an extrapolation as to their broader language abilities.

When you look at a TOEFL score report, it does not tell you that student’s English language ability; what it tells you is what a learner with that set of scores can typically do. And in the case of the TOEFL, this description is an evaluation that is based largely on multiple choice answers and involved not one single encounter with an actual human being. Based on this, university admissions officers are expected to make an assumption about the student’s ability to handle the demands of extensive academic reading and writing, classroom participation, social interaction, written and spoken communications with university faculty and staff, SEVIS regulations, and multiple other demands of the U.S. college environment. (Although the IELTS includes interaction with the examiner and another student, these interactions are highly structured and not very natural. TOEFL writing and speaking tasks are limited, artificial, and assessed by a grader who has only a text or sound or text file to work with.)

Contrast that with regular, direct observation of students’ language proficiency by a trained and experienced instructor, over a period of time. The instructor can set up a variety of language situations involving variation in interlocutors, contexts, vocabulary, levels of formality, and communication goals. In an ACCET or CEA accredited intensive English program, such tasks are linked to documented learning objectives. By directly observing students’ performance, instructors are able to obtain a rich picture of each student’s proficiency, and are able to comment specifically on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider this a call, then, for colleges and universities to enter into agreements with accredited intensive English programs to waive the need for a standardized test such as the TOEFL. Just as those colleges and universities don’t use a standardized test to measure the learning of their graduates, they should be open to accepting the good judgment of teachers in intensive English programs – judgment based on direct observation of individual learners rather than the proxy scores obtained by impersonal, artificial tests.

Goodhart’s Law and the Measurement of English Proficiency

Goodhart’s Law was first proposed by the British economist Charles Goodhart. In essence it states that, “When a measure becomes the goal, it ceases to be a good measure.” Measurements are often used as a proxy for performance. For example, it’s sometimes reported that in Soviet Russia, when the success of nail production was measured by quantity of nails, many tiny nails were produced. When it was measured using weight of nails, smaller numbers of large nails were produced. The measure became the target, and gaming the system created the illusion of success.

In U.S. university admissions, the TOEFL is the most common measure of the English proficiency of international applicants. It’s easy to understand why the complexity of language proficiency needs to be reduced to a small set of numbers when large quantities of applications have to be evaluated. Unfortunately, TOEFL preparation is very often a great example of Goodhart’s Law in action: many students focus on attaining the necessary score rather than comprehensively working on the cognitive-academic language skills and cultural skills they need to succeed in the U.S. university, and this can result in serious challenges for those students. Once matriculated, as those students seek to earn good grades – a proxy measure for learning – they may wind up trying to game the system by plagiarizing, using online essay services, cramming at the last minute, or begging the instructor for a better grade.

Although it would present practical difficulties, it would serve everyone better – schools and students – if the schools used a broader set of mechanisms to determine English proficiency. These might include evidence of English (not just test prep) study, Skype, phone, and in-person interviews, recorded presentations by applicants, synchronous online discussion groups, and reports from instructors in intensive English programs who have first-hand – not proxy – knowledge of the students’ English.

Hourly teaching rates in IEPs – reflection

In my last post, I questioned the hourly rates for ESL teachers in intensive English programs. I looked at the rates themselves, which can be very low, and the practice of counting class-hours as the basis for the hourly rate, which neglects the time that teachers put in on preparation, grading, and other duties.

There is no simple solution to this, since institutions and programs vary in their expectations of teachers for out-of-class work, and teachers themselves spend very different amounts of time preparing and following up on their lessons. Early-career ESL teachers may burn themselves out with over-preparation (as I almost did), or impose time constraints on themselves (knowing that their salary doesn’t justify an enormous amount of preparation) – which can lead to greater spontaneity in the classroom and can therefore  be a useful discipline to learn. Offering an hourly rate that teachers must work within may be the fairest and most workable way to manage all this variation.

Keep in mind, too, that proprietary English language schools are often the first stepping stone into a teaching career for newly-minted ESL teachers, who may have completed only a one-month certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree. This is a low bar for entry into a teaching job, yet student satisfaction surveys indicate that such teachers can perform well, and the school can be seen as a kind of apprenticeship and nurturer of teaching talent. One teacher I employed did great work before deciding to complete his master’s degree and going on to become a business English professor at a prestigious English language program in Tokyo.

In the end, schools employing hourly-paid teachers should do their best for their teachers, providing resources and programs to develop the skills of their teachers, who may well leave for greener pastures when the time comes.  Additionally, hourly-paid teachers should inform themselves about the ESL job market, understand what they are likely to be able to achieve career-wise, decide whether to earn further qualifications, and make good decisions for themselves.


Let’s talk about those hourly teaching rates

A school vice principal I once reported to told me of his younger days teaching 60-hour weeks at Berlitz school. It was exhausting, he said, but at least with the Berlitz method, all he had to do was walk into the classroom and follow the script. There was no lesson planning, no grading, no syllabus or evaluations to write.

The Berlitz method is gone, and good riddance, but how should the hours of part-time ESL instructors be calculated in an age when teaching involves so much more than walking in and following the script? Many ESL teachers are employed on an hours-per-week basis, which invariably refers to the number of hours spent in class teaching students. Many programs in their turn – and this includes university IEPs, non-profit organizations, and English language schools – advertise their rate on a per-hour basis, which also refers to hours spent in class. At the upper end, this could be $60 – $80 per hour in some university programs. At the lower end, it could be as low as $15 or $20 per hour, especially in some non-profits and private language schools. As all ESL teachers know, these are not the true hourly rates, because teaching requires preparation and grading, in addition to required meetings, office hours, evaluation writing, and other activities. According to the federal government, actual hours worked should be calculated as time in class x 2.25. That is, for each hour spent in class, it is reasonable to assume that instructors spend another 1.25 hours working outside the class. Additional required activities should be compensated additional to this.

Many ESL teachers will tell you that 2.25 hours is too conservative, and that they spend longer on lesson planning and grading. Others may find it over-generous. But for the sake of argument, let’s take this number as a reasonable expectation. It doesn’t take advanced math skills to work out that a “15-hours-per-week” (not untypical for part-time ESL teaching) assignment is almost a full work week. Add those additional duties and you easily have a full-time job. Further, that $20 “hourly wage” is well below minimum wage in most states. Even that higher paying $80 per hour teaching gig is actually $35.50.

Everyone in the field knows about this. Part-time teachers tend not to complain because they enjoy the work and it’s the best they can do. University administrators and business owners know that advertising actual pay rates might be embarrassing and paying more would reduce margins. Accreditation standards for intensive English programs don’t mandate salaries or impose specific workload requirements. Associations such as TESOL and EnglishUSA either have little will or power to address salaries and teaching loads for part-timers.

It is way past time for a conversation about this, to include teachers, administrators, business owners and managers, accreditors, and associations. A start could be made at the national TESOL convention or the NAFSA conference. Can the field overcome its inertia and finally address part-time teaching salaries?