Category Archives: For Schools

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Keeping your Intensive English Program Relevant on Campus

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These are trying times for many on-campus intensive English programs. Enrollment and revenue are down, and there is increased pressure from senior administration for many IEPs to demonstrate their continuing relevance and usefulness to the wider institution.

At the same time, many universities have enrolled international students who can benefit from language, cultural, and social support. IEPs have faculty and staff who are highly qualified to provide programming in these areas (and who may currently have less work to do), yet because IEPs are typically viewed as profit centers rather than service units, they are not called on to offer such support. This is short-sighted, as increased support for degree-seeking international students will improve their retention and completion rates – which is good for the students,  the university’s bottom line, and the institution’s reputation.

IEP directors can sell this idea to university administrators. Here are some activities the IEP can offer to improve the international student experience on campus:

Workshops for faculty: Offer strategies to encourage international students to participate in class discussions, or give advice on assessing written work of students using English as a second language.

Resource webpage for English language support:  Like this one at Hunter College. Include online dictionaries, grammar resources, and writing advice for international students across campus.

Tutoring: Many universities have a writing center, but few have a place specifically to help with second language issues. The IEP can provide this.

English language workshops: Students who have gained a high score on the TOEFL or IELTS may still be lacking essential English skills. Offer workshops in pronunciation, pragmatics, or giving presentations.

Career preparation workshops: Many international students may seek on-campus employment, co-op or internship positions, or CPT/OPT opportunities. Help them write an effective application and interview effectively.

Pre-arrival language preparation: Develop a short online course to give incoming international students confidence with English. Prepare them for the various situations they will encounter and provide strategies to continue working on their English once they arrive.

These ideas will likely require building relationships with other offices on campus, and IEP directors may run into territory issues. Getting buy-in from a senior administrator who can support these efforts may be essential. This person may also be needed in making the case that the costs incurred in these activities will be more than recouped in international student performance, retention, and completion.

On-campus IEPs are home to enormous expertise on international student success. It’s time to put that expertise to work across the campus.


Job number one for education managers and leaders

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I used to see one former boss only when he stopped by my cubicle with a question or an urgent demand. Another gave me the shrill and unhelpful advice, “You should be panicking!” in response to enrollment declines. This is not what you would call effective supervision.

It’s a problem in higher education that individuals are promoted into positions in which they have oversight over others, without having undergone training to prepare them for that role. For university IEP directors, the problem can be compounded by the fact that they report to managers who have little or no knowledge of the workings of an IEP. While there are many good people working in higher education administration, these circumstances can lead to strained relationships, loss of motivation, and diminished performance.

The solution is for managers to understand their primary role, their job number one.  It isn’t revenue generation, test score improvements, or student retention, which are indicators of great performance but not activities in themselves. No, the manager’s first job is to support his or her people. They are the ones on the front line of providing service to faculty, other staff, or students, and who are best placed to deliver quality through their work. The manager’s most frequent question to those employees should be, “What can I do to support you?” This is followed by careful listening and the  acquisition and direction of resources to provide that support, so that employees can do the high quality work expected of them.

On the basis of a well-supported faculty and staff delivering quality, managers can have confidence in focusing on goals of increased enrollment and revenue, improved student outcomes, and program development. There are no short cuts to these goals. Don’t forget job number one: support your people. 

Performance evaluations – a few polite reminders

Performance evaluation season will be upon us before we know it, so here are a few gentle reminders and tips to make this a good experience for both parties.

For those doing the evaluating:

  1. This isn’t about you. You are evaluating the employee on behalf of the institution, and your evaluation should be a fair reflection of how the employee has served the institution. Put aside your personal feelings and base your evaluation on facts.
  2. Gather your information along the way. Don’t try to remember how the employee performed just a few days before the evaluation. Make it a habit, every month, to take notes on each employee’s performance, so you are not puzzling over the narrative at the last minute. Put it on your calendar.
  3. Make it an ongoing process. Have a deliberate check-in meeting with each employee every three months. Before the meeting, ask the employee to take notes on what has been going well, what the challenges are, what s/he has been working on, and what support s/he needs. Use these meetings to initiate course corrections, and let the notes from the meetings feed into the year-end performance evaluation. Put these meetings on your calendar.
  4. Get your employee’s input. Before the formal evaluation meeting, ask the employee to give you written notes on what has gone well this year and what the challenges were. BUT please don’t ask the employee to write his/her own performance evaluation, and don’t simply reproduce the employee’s notes as the performance evaluation. This is disrespectful to the employee and shows you don’t care. By the same token, don’t ask for the employee’s input and then ignore it in the evaluation.
  5. Rate the employee fairly and realistically. You’ll likely have to check some boxes indicating whether the employee ‘exceeds expectations,’ ‘meets expectations,’ or ‘needs improvement.’ Ensure that you take the entirety of the employee’s record into account when you check these boxes. Don’t mark ‘needs improvement’ to express a gripe about a single incident. And don’t mark ‘exceeds expectations’ across the board – doing so may make you feel generous, but it indicates that you have low expectations, or that the employee should be in a more challenging position.
  6. Discuss goals for the next year. Do this with the employee, and get his or her buy-in. Don’t simply impose goals  on the employee. And be sure to check in regularly with the employee in the following months on the progress toward those goals – don’t wait till the next annual performance evaluation.
  7. And of course, the cardinal rule: No surprises. If you follow the advice above, the performance evaluation will hold no surprises for the employee, which is how it should be. If your evaluation is negative and this is a surprise to the employee, you have failed as a manager, since you should have been working to correct any negative behaviors along the way, and you should have discussed them already with the employee. Your goal should be to have the employee leave your office feeling valued and appreciated, even if there are areas for improvement.

For those being evaluated:

  1. Keep an ongoing record. Make it a habit each month to recall your achievements and write them down. Otherwise, you will forget half of what you achieved and will undersell your accomplishments at year’s end. Put a reminder on your calendar.
  2. Ask to meet with your supervisor once every three months specifically to check in on how things are going with your work. Be prepared to ask what your supervisor is happy or dissatisfied with, and what s/he would like to see from you in the coming months. Report on progress toward your annual goals. Don’t expect your supervisor to initiate this. Put it on your calendar.
  3. If you get a negative surprise in your evaluation, be sure to raise this with your supervisor. It was his or her job to alert you to any performance issues along the way.
  4. Agree on goals for the coming year. You or your supervisor (or both) may develop goals for the year, but you must be sure they are reasonably achievable. Don’t set yourself up for failure with unrealistic goals.
  5. If you’re not satisfied with your evaluation, bring it up with HR. They will be able to advise you on how to effectively raise the problem with your supervisor.

Performance evaluations should be a helpful process for both the evaluators and the evaluated. Too often, they are a source of worry, stress, and disappointment. The advice above (based on years of hard-won experience on both sides of the process) should contribute to a peformance evaluation that is helpful to the employee, the supervisor, and the institution.

Do you have any other ideas for effective performance evaluations?

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.