I have written and read many reflections on IATEFL and events overall, and often they read like a summary of the day, especially if you were not there. This, however, is a little more self-centred, as I am mostly going to be writing about my own takeaways from the day, and what I have decided to do in my own school. I hope that there are some ideas for you, the reader, that you could apply in your own context. I will add here, before we start, that for the first time I was at the conference with my Academic Manager. That means I had someone to discuss and share ideas with afterwards, and we could go away and actually try to implement some of the ideas.


Disaster strikes, or did it?


While not directly related to the actual content of the day, one of the speakers (there were only two) was sick and could in the end not actually attend the day in person. That meant that she had to present through Zoom with all of us physically in the room. There were also a few attendees that joined the event online, which means we had people attending that were not in the actual physical space.

So, was it a disaster? If this happened as little as two or three years ago, it would have been a disaster. But we have learned so much over the past few years with Covid and online lessons, and blended lessons, and how to run online events and even schools, that the transition was extremely smooth. So, my first takeaway for the day was how much we have actually learned and grown, despite one of the biggest disasters to have hit the world in the form of Covid. Obviously, there is a lot more to learn, especially in terms of crisis management and strategy, but this was a very good indication that managers (especially those on the committee of LAMSIG) can respond almost instantly to a crisis, and it makes me feel a lot more confident about where we could go as an industry.




A shared vision – but what will it cost


This is an area that my academic manager and I discussed at length. It keeps coming up, and we have decided to have an internal visual image competition where staff can think of a way to visually represent our vision, but also what they think we should add or remove from it. It is a really tricky issue, and something that has plagued my thoughts for many years.

If we want staff to have a shared vision, and work towards a common goal, why is such a large part of ELT based on casual, or zero-hour contracts? How committed can a person be if their work is only measured per hour. These contracts are the norm, and it has created an almost mercenary approach to teaching. Later in the day, we spoke about mental health and work-life balance, and I did wonder again how much this is impacted by those contracts. Even for teachers who have regular contracts, they are consistently surrounded by those who don’t.

A further issue is the comparisons of pay across countries, and articles about teachers leaving the profession, or being underpaid. A very good example of this is the number of teachers in the United States working two jobs just to be able to maintain a family.

So, why the problem? Because the industry is so focused, in my opinion, on what our vision is, that it loses focus of why teachers work. It is great if you want to change the world, and I do, but can I really expect my teachers to feel the same way? Especially if they took an extra class to pay their grandmother’s medical bills. I feel that teacher working conditions and pay is something that needs to be addressed with a little more seriousness than whether we are working towards a common goal. We do need a shared vision, but also standardised and proper working conditions to recruit and retain teachers, and sometimes that needs to involve local governments not working against the industry through regulations related to visas, qualifications, or recruitment practices.




Teacher development

One of the other main reasons teachers stay with organisations, or are willing to work for them, is the opportunity to develop. It is to some extent the old story of, ‘What if we develop our staff and the leave?’ With the standard correct response being, ‘What if we don’t develop them and they stay?’ Teacher development should be aimed at developing teachers, so they have new skills, and become more valuable in the market. And yes, that might mean they end up leaving. However, in my experience, they often return with even more skills, and repay all that development. Or, they become advocates for your organisation and why people should work there.

How do we do this then? Give teachers new opportunities, new classes, new tasks or responsibilities. Have succession planning in place where teachers can have new responsibilities. If your assistant academic manager (or whatever title you want to use here) has to line manage 5 or 6 teachers, and you don’t have long term or experienced teachers line managing one or two other teachers, then how are they supposed to develop these skills?

A very big takeaway for me from this part of the day was the idea of ‘downward growth’ as opposed to upwards (being promoted) or sideways (same level but different classes or tasks). Downward growth basically means returning to a previous place. So, you were a manager, didn’t like it, and want to move back into teaching? Sure. If that is where you want to ‘grow’ to, then let’s do it.

And to return to that previous comment on what if we don’t develop teachers and they stay? Unfortunately, and fortunately, research indicated an 58% increase in retention in organisations where staff development was prominent. (I unfortunately did not take a picture of the slide with the references on).


Collaboration, connection, and community

Being able to work together with others in a meaningful way is also an important component of staff retention. To have effective collaboration we used the word SEEP.

Structured: Having time, space, and opportunity for collaboration in an organised manner

Experimental: Teachers are encouraged to try out, refine, and embed new approaches

Evidence-based: Teachers use information and data from students to provide evidence

Problem-based: Not some random collaboration but something that is focused on enquiry and problem solving.

I don’t think there is much more to say about collaboration. I think this is as simple as it gets. Give teachers the space to find problems they want to solve and then give them the space to solve them through enquiry.

That does lead into how to generate a community where teachers are connected, which creates an environment of collaboration. The first point ties back to the shared vision for me. Do teachers feel a sense of belonging and do they feel that your organisations values and their own values are aligned? And if they don’t, can they express themselves candidly and be heard?

If those two things are present, be sure to provide lots of support. The support that helps them develop, collaborate, and connect. And finally, but perhaps the most important part, make sure your staff are valued and appreciated. These factors will ensure that there is a community, that staff members are and feel connected, and create a culture of collaboration that will benefit your teachers and your school.


A culture of wellbeing

The last part of this post looks at a culture of wellbeing. To create that, you need to make sure your staff are enthusiastic. There needs to be a sense of camaraderie in the teachers’ room, staff room, and across the office. It is pointless if you have camaraderie in the teachers’ room, but a disconnect between academic staff and non-academic staff.

Once that is in place, make sure that staff members support each other and that there is a willingness to ask for help when needed. That level of support is a key factor in making sure you retain staff, but also a key factor in why people might leave your organisation. Get your staff involved in other projects when they are ready and ensure there is an enthusiasm for professional development. If staff can speak candidly, as mentioned earlier, allow them to question decisions, make suggestions, and importantly, listen to their ideas. And finally, ensure that there is a feeling of wellbeing in the school.



Looking forward and backwards

So, what did I actually learn? Very little I did not already know. And perhaps you reading this blog feel the same. But going to a conference event where I see people I haven’t seen for a year or sometimes more, and just having a discussion about important issues, means I feel refreshed and ready to evaluate my own practices more carefully. It is very similar to when my kids say to me, ‘Daddy, I love you.’ I know they do. They don’t have to say it. But sometimes hearing it is the validation and motivation I need to make sure I am a good parent. So, perhaps doing that to your staff, through validation, support, encouragement, appreciation, and everything in this blog won’t cause miracles. But it will build a culture where you can retain and recruit the best people for your organisation, or your team.