Learning Leadership Lessons Along the Way: Part 1

Sep 29th, 2015 | By | Category: Messages, TESOL
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Andy Curtis


—Twenty years ago, in 1995, I decided to leave England as soon as I wrapped up my PhD at the University of York and to start working in Hong Kong. One of the best things about that decision was that longtime CATESOL member and past president (1998-1999) of the TESOL International Association (TIA) Professor Kathleen M. Bailey had chosen to spend her sabbatical year, from 1996 to 1997, in the ELT Unit (ELTU) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where I also happened to be working at that time.

It was Kathi who persuaded me (and many others in the ELTU at CUHK) to become a member of the TIA, and when I was presented with the TIA’s Leadership Mentoring Award (LMP) in 1999, I was extremely fortunate to have Kathi as my LMP mentor. In 2002, Kathi published a chapter titled “What I Learned From Being TESOL President” in a book edited by Julian Edge and published by IATEFL, Continuing Professional Development: Some of Our Perspectives (pp. 32-38).

Following Kathi’s example of combining reflective practice and leadership development, I’ve been making notes on language, learning, and leadership for more than 20 years now, especially during the 18 months since March 2014, when I became the president-elect of the TIA, and even more so since March 2015, during my year as the 50th president of the association. These, then, are some of the leadership lessons I have learned along the way, from 1993-1994, when I was elected to be the president of the Graduate Students’ Association at the University of York, to today. This piece also follows up on an article I wrote for the CATESOL News a year ago, in September 2014, titled “Learning to Lead in Language Education.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, in presentations on “moving from the classroom to the boardroom,” although teachers go into teaching, they fall into leadership. By that, I mean that most of the teachers I meet make a conscious decision to go into teaching, but they often find themselves “sliding” into management and leadership roles after many years of successful classroom teaching. The process itself is an interesting one, and not one that I believe much has been written about so far, making it a potentially rich area for more research and writing in the future.

But before we get into that, let me back up a little in case I’ve already made one of the mistakes I’ve been learning about this year, which is to sound, accidentally, as if I’m speaking or writing “Corporate-ese.” According to Erik Sherman: “The jargon of the business world can be especially clubby, conferring speakers with an aura of expertise that often hides a vacuity of ideas (or paucity of work).” And regarding language, he concludes that: “To be fair, using language to prettify reality is as old as speech itself, or at least story-telling.”

Did you spot the potentially offending word? It was “boardroom.” For me, it’s a neutral, architectural term that refers to any room in which a board of directors—such as the Board of Directors of the TIA—meets. But for some, talking about “moving from the classroom to the boardroom” is tantamount to being a “corporate sellout,” which was defined in a posting on the UsingEnglish website as: “someone who gives up what they believe in to make money by serving a corporation.”

That relates to one of the most important lessons I’m learning, which is that, in the TESOL World—which is different from the regular, non-TESOL world—there are no “neutral terms.” As language teaching and learning professionals, we do language for a living; it is the raw material of our daily lives and work. This means that Shakespeare was not thinking of TESOLers when Juliet on her balcony says: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 1-2). For us, names matter, so much so that discussions of what we call things can take on lives of their own and eventually appear to be more important than the thing itself.

Based on my experiences working with private, for-profit language schools, and working with publicly funded, open-to-all schools—as well as working with language-teaching organizations that are somewhere in-between and a mixture of both—I believe there is much that the corporate, business world can learn from the not-for-profit, volunteer world of organizations such as the TIA. And vice versa. But that last thought, in which I stress that such learning can and should go both ways, can bring up our natural tendency to dichotomize, when we know we’re really on a continuum. So, instead of acknowledging that much of our lives is spent in the gray area, between the well-marked boundaries of black-and-white, I’ve sometimes seen instead a kind of “Corporate = Bad, Not-for-Profit = Good” dichotomizing, in which the potential for each to learn from the other is lost.

Even after more than 20 years in a wide variety of leadership roles, in many different teaching and learning contexts and cultures, there’s still so much I have to learn about leadership in language education. Fortunately, I have been blessed with a series of truly great leadership mentors and coaches, starting with Kathi Bailey and David Nunan (TIA past president, 1999-2000), continuing with Neil Anderson (TIA past president, 2001-2002), and Jun Lui (TIA past president, 2006-2007), and many more, to all of whom I owe a great deal. It is, then, my hope that in this series of articles, I can “pay it forward” by sharing what I have learned and what I am learning with CATESOL members, and I look forward to hearing from you about your experiences as leaders in language education—current, past, or future aspirations. You can reach me at acurtis@tesol.org.

Andy Curtis is president of the TESOL International Association, 2015-2016.



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