Teaching values and valuing teachers by Wayne Rimmer

What do teachers want from us? Language teaching organisations (LTOs) often pose the question the other way around, what they want from teachers. This begins with post specifications at the interview stage and continues during employment with job descriptions, lesson observation criteria, student feedback, performance appraisals and a whole host of other yardsticks, not always formalised or even fair, to measure teachers up against the standards LTOs set. LTOs seem much less interested in the other half of the equation, what they offer to teachers. They regard teachers, and their other employees, as the providers of services rather than a resource to be serviced.

This attitude perhaps stems from a too narrow definition of who our clients are. For an LTO, learners of course are the main clients. Their paying presence in the classroom is our revenue. A huge amount of activity will thus naturally go into at least maintaining learner numbers. But, essential to this is the teacher. Poor teaching will drive learners away, or, put more positively, excellent teaching will attract learners and make them stay. Without teachers the LTO simply does not function. In this sense, teachers are clients too because their contribution has a direct and immediate impact on the profitability of the LTO. Consequently, LTOs should put equal effort into making themselves attractive places to work. Indeed, there is a case for considering teachers to be more important clients than learners: as the latter always outnumber the former, it is much harder, and more costly, to find and retain a good teacher than a loyal learner.

One method of evaluating the appeal of an LTO to teachers is the extent to which it satisfies teachers’ values; what teachers need and expect in their professional life. A list of values would be long and non-finite, ranging from concrete issues such as salaries to more abstract concepts like status and self-realisation. I carried out a survey into teachers’ values for a poster presentation at the 2011 IATEFL conference, simply asking teachers to rate their satisfaction over ten different variables. Forty-five teachers from twelve different countries responded and the mode result was in the middle of the scale, ‘satisfied’, which indicates a degree of content in the profession. However, there was significant variation between individuals disguised by the summarising statistics: certain teachers were far less than ‘satisfied’ on specific issues. An in-house investigation into its teachers’ values must have a qualitative dimension, which means finding out how individual teachers experience your LTO.
The issue of satisfying teachers’ values is, unfortunately, easier to investigate from negative evidence, i.e. the consequences of teacher neglect in an LTO. There are several indicators which should give a reflective LTO warning that its teachers do not feel valued.

i. High turnover

If teachers do not wish to renew contracts, or if they terminate them, this suggests dissatisfaction. Keep statistics on turnover and look into negative trends.

ii. Difficulty in recruiting

It is easy to blame market conditions but there may be an internal reason, perhaps the bad press below, which is reducing your candidate pool.

iii. Bad press

An undesirable side effect of the internet revolution is that bad news travels fast and ELT blogs are full of disgruntled teachers with axes to grind. If these sites regularly mention your LTO, there is reason to worry.

iv. Teachers’ room atmosphere

This is the acid test of any LTO. Five minutes in a busy teachers’ room will tell you more about the morale of the teachers than any amount of formal meetings and paperwork.

As with any disease, prevention is by far the best cure. Continuing the medical metaphor, the first step is diagnosis of the problems (it is unlikely factors are isolated). Management can formalise this process through STEP analysis or an internal audit but the crucial thing is to talk with teachers. It is incredible how often management attempt to resolve serious problems concerning teachers without involving them in more than a token way. Yes, in an LTO, senior management often have a teaching role – I’ve never worked in a school where the DOS didn’t have classroom hours – but they are still distinguished from the general teaching staff by virtue of their position. Management can empathise with teachers but at the end of the day they see things from a different perspective and should not presume they share the same values.

Unfortunately, open dialogue can open a veritable Pandora’s box of issues; one reason no doubt that LTOs are so loathe to involve teachers fully in decision making. Some of these issues will be irresolvable or out of academic management’s control – financial decisions often fall into this category. However, others can be addressed. To give a detailed practical example, professional development will be a vulnerable area if it is not linked to career development. The LTO may provide adequate training opportunities but teachers still feel that they are accumulating knowledge and skills which are not transferable beyond their particular context. In this case, an LTO must make teachers aware of how their professional development fits into their wider and longer-term goals. A careers chart such as the one below could be an instrument for helping teachers to see the full picture. The final column of the chart connects career aspirations with the skills needed to realise their aim. The training is provided by the LTO; the vision and responsibility for action is assumed by the individual teacher. The LTO empowers teachers to realise their values without compromising their freedom of action.

Under-valued teachers represent the waste of a precious resource. It is easy even for experienced teachers to be cynical about ELT so the LTO which bucks the trend and addresses teachers’ needs will stand out from the crowd and attract the best professionals. This is not about giving teachers everything they ask for and conceding their every demand; it is about communicating with teachers and showing that we value what they value.