The Importance of Fishing in Academic Management

by Alex Bishop

I have to start this article with what may be a first in the IH Journal. No – not some groundbreaking EFL eureka moment that would make me the new Scott Thornbury, but an apology to my Nan.

Nan, sometimes when I’m on the phone to you in the lounge I am distracted by the computer sitting in front of me and start surfing the internet at the same time. Hence the stunted sentences, time delay before answering and so on. It won’t happen again!

I have fallen foul of not being present. What is this management speak?” I hear you splutter.  Read on…

A couple of months ago a colleague came into the HR office, handed me a thin paperback and said something to the effect of “Read this, it’s from the boss, then maybe do some training using it”. It was (drum roll) a MANAGEMENT book. If you are anything like me (and, I suspect, many other managers in ELT) you probably didn’t come from a management oriented career/study path.  I therefore know very little of the theory of management. I also have a completely unfounded scepticism of MANAGEMENT books. You know, Become the Best Manager Ever in 10 easy steps etc etc. A former colleague had groaning shelves of them and my insecurity at not knowing about these tenets of management has always led to me studiously avoiding them.

The book in question was Fish by Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., Harry Paul and John Christensen1. It is a fictionalized story of a manager in Seattle who is landed with a ‘toxic’ team and learns some key principles of managing people from a very unusual fish market. This market actually exists. You can see a video on the publisher’s website:

If you look at this book on a site like Goodreads or Amazon, it has some devastatingly negative reviews, but also some great ones. The four principles can easily be scoffed at, but there are some lessons there to both reinforce what we as academic managers do each day and to remind us of what we should be doing. The four ideas are: be present, choose your attitude, make someone’s day and play.

I mentioned one of them above – be present. A question – when did you last phub2someone? Come on – be honest – I’m sure you checked your phone during a conversation at some point today. That’s right – phone snubbing. Unsurprisingly in a world where you have computers, mobiles and landlines vying for your attention with the people around you it is easy to get distracted from the person you are actually talking to (in person or on the phone). Consider the pros of being present and the (very) negative cons of not:

●     By making eye contact you are more genuine

●     You’ll probably resolve the issue faster by being more focused

●     You are showing that the person in front of you is more important than other matters at that moment.

●     It is infuriating for other person

●     They feel you are not taking what they are saying seriously

●     Inefficient – you will never understand the same as if you were concentrating, you’ll probably be asking them to repeat or feigning complete understanding and hoping you are not caught out!

●     You lose credibility with your listener

Images courtesy of Ambro /

Make someone’s day. Again, easy to scoff at this as management mumbo jumbo, but underneath is something that can make you feel a whole lot better.

To check this, I asked around the office and also around the team of DOSes and ADOSes at work. Here are some of the ways that people had either made someone’s day or had their day made for them.

●     Receiving a book from colleagues when on long term sick leave

●     Being invited out to lunch when feeling down

●     Receiving a surprise present for a special task done well

●     Doing the centre’s Xmas decorations together

●     Buying a pot of marmite for (this teacher’s) class (!!!))

●     Buying a cake and sharing it around the office (also brought up by people who cake was bought for)

●     Being asked how they were by a colleague who noticed they were stressed

●     Seeing a difficult YL giving one of his points to a classmate who had none

●     Finding a cake on (her) desk that a colleague had made

●     Someone leaving the crossword on (her) desk

●     Buying some bottled water for an elderly neighbour when the water was off

Surprisingly for me, the common element to these is not helping a colleague with a work related problem, but taking the time to think about your colleagues and do something extra beyond your normal working relationship. It sounds cheesy, but it really is taking the time to be nice that sticks in people’s memories and makes their day. Look around you – what could you do for someone else today? And – best of all – you are the one that really feels good afterwards.

Choose your attitude. Now we’re heading into more contentious territory. Many comments that I saw online about this idea tended towards saying that this is a typical middle management idea that patronises people ‘lower down’ in the company hierarchy. “Your job is a bowl of sick but have a positive attitude and it will miraculously get better’.  Maybe so – I can’t just give someone a horrible class and say ‘be positive and you’ll feel better’. However I’m sure you’ve all observed classes and seen how much difference the level of energy a teacher brings to class can affect the dynamic of the group. I think this third idea can be applied more to yourself than others. Yes, you might be facing a job you are not over the moon about, you may have a problem student/parent/teacher/class/colleague to deal with but consider these two options.

One – you have a bad day ahead. You start off negative. Result: can only be negative.

Two – you have a bad day ahead. Try to bring some energy into work, or try to make someone’s day. The end result could still possibly be negative. However, there’s now a chance it could a bit better as well! You’re the manager and part of your responsibility to your team/teachers/staffroom is to lift the mood and kick-start everyone else.

Play. Maybe the one I struggle most with (horrible images come to mind of stickers saying ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here…’) as the book included examples of joke day or having a play area and that is pushing even my cheese/artificiality limit. However if you take it in the same way as above, and think that it doesn’t have to be big and earth shattering, then little things can lighten the mood: banter, doing each others’ YL games, looking for favourite songs from your teenage years on Youtube, juggling scissors…oops, think I’ve gone too far now. Anyway. Also bigger things like organized events such as a pub quiz, carnival party, organized drinks out occasionally, can all go a long way to building relationships.

So now these four phrases are on the board in the office and although some colleagues look at them very sceptically, (it took a while to explain the idea of make someone’s day, in Spanish, to some colleagues with 20 plus years in the job), it does keep you focused on some fundamental points of treating your colleagues with respect – listen to them, have fun with them, try to do something for them beyond the everyday humdrum and start with yourself for the energy than can brighten up your school.

Good luck!

Author’s Bio: Alex has worked in ELT since 1999. He has worked for IH Madrid since 2000 in various roles – as an ADOS, DOS YL, then since 2010 as Director of Human Resources, with responsibility for recruitment, timetabling and professional development in the company. He is also a CELTA tutor and trains teachers as part of the in house professional development programme. He likes teaching VYL and beginner level adults.


1 Fish! : A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results

(Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., Harry Paul and John Christensen, Hodder Paperbacks, 5 Sep 2002)