A syllabus is a document that sets out a plan for how a teacher will turn the curriculum into a course. It’s one thing that tends to set university-based English language programs apart from private language schools. The latter tend to have short sessions or rolling intake systems that can mean students arriving in and leaving the class on a regular basis, as often as once a week. Schools with this type of system tend to follow a school-wide plan for what will be taught and assessed, in many cases based on the units of a textbook, and there is no place there for a teacher-made syllabus.
Many university-based programs have inherited the syllabus tradition, which is part of a broader tradition of faculty ownership of teaching. That is, the teacher is assigned a semester-length course and is responsible for significant elements of its design and delivery. The typical syllabus is headed by the teacher’s name and contact information, and details such as location and schedule of the class and the teacher’s office hours. Information about the course tends to come later. The foregrounding of the teacher on the syllabus symbolizes the centrality of and ownership by the teacher.
This is changing. Institutions have become more prescriptive about the layout and content of syllabi, and many provide a template for faculty to fill in. Heading the new style of syllabus is the institution’s name and logo, representing a brand consciousness that asserts the institution over the individual teacher. Additionally, the requirement to adhere to accreditation standards and institutional attempts to standardize course information and policies – such as academic honesty, attendance, and grading – mean that more syllabus information than ever is supplied by the institution and the document is less and less owned by the individual teacher.
This makes the syllabus in some ways a contested area of school life, one in which the freedom of the teacher may be pitted against the requirements of the institution. Although it may not lead to openly expressed disagreement, there may be some concerns among faculty over this corporatization of the syllabus. On the other hand, having a template that looks professional and requires less ‘from scratch’ work is appealing to many faculty.
I think it’s important to retain faculty-specific elements of the syllabus in university-governed programs. Yes, course goals and outcomes, and even some assessments, should be standard across course sections to ensure fairness to students. But one goal can be reached by many routes, and teachers – master’s qualified, experienced – should retain a degree of professional decision-making and judgment about which route speaks best to their own strengths and to the needs of the students in front of them. As in most things, it’s a question of balance.
Over many years I’ve found that people who work in English language programs, whether teachers or staff, are extremely kind, generous with their time and attention, and committed to their students. You’d think in an environment with people like that, students would always be well served. But in some cases the organization is set up in such a way that good student service is impeded. Here are three examples of organization-level problems and a suggested approach to addressing each one.
In one English language program, first-day check-in was conducted by the admissions team. They had it down to a fine art. Enter the lobby, present your I-20 and passport, check that you’ve paid your bill, show evidence of your health insurance, good to go, come back tomorrow for placement testing. It was highly efficient, and although the staff were friendly, this was hardly the welcome students should have been receiving after traveling thousands of miles and spending significant money for their program.
At this program, there was a siloed culture in which each team did its own thing. It was clear that students could be much better served if all staff, and faculty too, were involved in that first-day process. So, starting by inviting faculty to participate in welcoming the students that first day, the other teams – student activities and the academic staff team – were brought in. This resulted in a comprehensive first-day experience for students, starting with a warm welcome and conversation with faculty. Once the possibilities became clear, the academic and student services staff worked with the admissions team to create a process in which students could get a lot done – IT setup, activities sign-up, electives selection, program changes – in a ‘one-stop-shop’ approach that left students feeling welcomed and accepted into their new program.
Lesson: if your teams are working separately on serving students, break down the walls between departments and find ways to collaborate. You’ll find staff and faculty all pulling in the same direction and you’ll be serving students better.
Going back years, the summer term had been divided into ‘first half’ and ‘second half.’ This made it possible for teachers to teach just one half of the summer (which was an optional semester to teach in) and take the other half off. What’s more, the schedule had been adapted so that summer classes took place only in the mornings. The thinking seemed to be that the fall and spring were the ‘real’ semesters and the summer was just an optional, additional semester.
This may have been true for teachers, but not for students, many of whom wanted to continue their studies as normal over the summer and were inconvenienced by the mid-term change of teachers and the option to take only one 6-week elective in each half of the semester instead of two 12-week electives for the whole semester.
The arrangement seemed to suit faculty well, but had not been designed with students in mind. Again, there was no intention on the part of any individual to serve students poorly, but that was the effect of this arrangements.
Lesson: in decision-making around curriculum, schedules, and anything else that directly affects students, the first people to consider are the students. Always ask, ‘how does this benefit our students?’ In most cases, other considerations are secondary. Put students first.
In the final example, individual teachers worked with a staff member to plan and deliver specialized short programs. In some cases the staff member and the teacher had very different ideas about the role of each in the planning and delivery. One teacher viewed the staff member as ‘support’ – a back-office function to get students to the classroom where the learning happened. The staff member saw her role as integral to the students’ education and claimed more than spreadsheets and transportation arrangements. Disagreements got in the way of a team effort to give students the best possible service.
No matter the individual job – whether classroom teacher, student services staff, admissions personnel, and so on – everyone works for an organization that has the purpose of educating students. A narrow view of education is the ‘delivery to the classroom’ model – staff get students to the classroom where the ‘real learning’ takes place. But an English language program is a place where learning can take place at every stage and in every interaction.
Lesson: As a part of the institutional goal to educate, see all employees as educators, and get them to see themselves in that light too. In particular, faculty and staff should see themselves as being in a partnership, with differentiated roles, to help students learn at every opportunity.
I hope you can see how impediments like the ones I’ve described can get in the way of good student service, no matter how kind the individuals in the program are. Look for examples of these organizational blockages in your own program and work to fix them. You’ll make a big difference to your students’ experience.