Academic Management and Teacher Satisfaction: What makes a school a rewarding place to work for?

Academic Management and Teacher Satisfaction: What makes a school a rewarding place to work for?

7th December 2020

By Alan Dunleavy

A lot of online articles in the TEFL sphere are focused on teacher tips, classroom technology, finding happiness as a teacher abroad and so on. I want to consider the question of teacher satisfaction from a different angle, that of management. In my 5 years of experience, it’s the quality and style of management that makes the biggest difference in terms of how well a school is run, and how rewarding the job is for teachers. I’ll draw from my own experiences, while outlining some of the core management challenges which apply to TEFL, and specifically how they relate to teacher satisfaction.

An analogy I like to use is that of an airport and airplane. Think of the teacher as the pilot, and the students as the passengers, whereas the management is air traffic control. For the plane to land smoothly teachers need support in key areas, and when this support is absent, landing the plane can be a challenge. Which specific areas do I have in mind?

First of all, resources. It is often taken for granted but there are schools which don’t provide textbooks or even printing paper. This is bread-and-butter stuff but when you’ve worked for a school that makes you find your own resources online or go to an Internet café to print whatever you need then you’ll appreciate an academy which provides books and printing-paper free-of-charge.

Secondly, timetables. This is a tricky one and often in my experience a source of unhappiness. Schools ought to strive not to make a teacher’s day unbearable and also to consider the impact on a teacher’s energy and motivation that their timetable has. For example, finishing at 9 or 10 pm on a day when you started at 7 or 8 in the morning means you’ve given up the whole day to work and done nothing for yourself. Although there tends to be a block or two free in between classes, It’s usually not enough time to switch off or really get anything done. Very often I’ve found myself just hanging around in a teachers' room waiting for the next group to start.

Schools concerned with teacher satisfaction can make life easier by either grouping lessons closer together or compensating for a long day by making the next one shorter. For example make classes 15 minutes apart rather than 30 minutes apart and the teacher can finish their day a lot earlier, or compensate for a late night by ensuring that the teacher doesn’t have to work the following morning. These are strategies which help teachers to stay motivated and maintain their energy. Teacher burn-out is a widespread phenomenon in schools which don’t create their timetables with the teachers’ interests in mind.

The third area where teachers need solid management is group composition and level placement. If you’re teaching a group and there’s one student whose level is markedly higher or lower than all the others then you’re going to be challenged constantly by the need to supplement the lesson to accommodate this student. Another problem which can arise is when a student is much younger or older than the rest, making it more difficult to choose content which has appeal to everyone. Worst of all, is when some students in the class say they are sitting an exam while others want General English. Hence the teacher must provide lessons tailored to the exams but not so much as to lose the interest of those not signed up for a test.

I am writing exclusively from my experience as a teacher, so forgive me if this article seems one-sided. I know that management has considerations of their own. For example, putting an extra class on a teacher’s timetable might inconvenience the teacher but add vital revenue to the schools budget and ultimately everybody’s incomes. Schools also need to retain students year-after-year so it may be essential to find a slot somewhere for an established group of regulars. Regarding group composition, it may be inconvenient to place someone in a class where the students are of a different age or level, but if the alternative is adding another lesson to an already full schedule then there’s no easy solution. I can appreciate that and managers do face tough choices when preparing timetables and composing groups.

The above three areas, namely resources, timetabling, and group composition, are the essentials of sound management. When these three areas are well-attended-to, teachers can carry on smoothly and “land the plane”. Management which neglects any of these areas will inevitably create problems for teachers throughout the year, as teachers who have to deal with either a lack of resources or a poorly composed group of students will find themselves faced with additional preparation time as they overcome these obstacles. Teachers who struggle with antisocial schedules can find that successive long days drain their energy and enthusiasm. Managers with an interest in retaining teachers in the long-term should take note.

This leads me into another point. What is a TEFL teacher? Is TEFL a form of “gap year” or a serious career? It’s different things to different people, but one thing I’ve learned from experience is that the attitude of management makes all the difference in terms of teacher satisfaction and long-run retainment. TEFL at its worst is arriving in a new country with rose-tinted glasses only to find yourself exploited by a miserable boss. At best, TEFL can be the time of your life and a rewarding experience or career. In my opinion, the more the management of a school factors in the above three areas when organising itself, the more rewarding the year is for teachers, and as a direct consequence, the more likely it is that those teachers will stay on for subsequent years. There are two types of school which I’ve worked for, one is full of career teachers who have stayed with the one employer for many years because of the quality of management. The other is the opposite, teachers come and go with high frequency, management is cynical and the experience is not worthwhile.

 I also believe that the fulfilment you’ll get in a year of TEFL is driven far more by the quality of management than it is by the location or cultural appeal of the place. I’ve had a miserable time teaching in some of the most beautiful parts of Spain and Italy, and also had a fantastic time teaching in the far less popular locations of Poland and The Czech Republic. When you feel valued as a professional and when a school goes out of their way to accommodate you, you feel far more motivated to put in the hours and deliver your best work for them. In contrast, when a school refuses to support you or fails in the aforementioned essentials of organisation you inevitably lose enthusiasm and become disenchanted.

The big question for a manager then, be they a Director of Studies or an owner, is this: Are your teachers replaceable commodities with a one year shelf-life, or are they assets to the business, capable of growing and flourishing over a long period of time, if carefully nurtured? How this question is answered makes all the difference not only to the motivation and fulfillment a teacher will experience while working for the school, but also in their decision over whether to stay in successive years rather than moving on. When schools treat teachers like expendable commodities then TEFL is treated as a gap year experience by teachers given little reason to stick around, but if schools go the extra mile to promote teacher satisfaction, then more and more of us will come to see English-teaching as a viable career and loyalty to one school will be more widespread. Is your school one a teacher can plan their life around? That’s a question worth considering for managers serious about building a team of dedicated and loyal long-term staff.

Alan Dunleavy

Alan is from Dublin, Ireland and has been teaching English since 2016 in Poland, Spain and The Czech Republic.

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