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Staff engagement and motivation in the language teaching organisation

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In this article, Andy Hockley looks at some of the factors that can increase staff engagement and motivation in language teaching organisations.

Much of current management literature focuses on the topic of engagement, but what is meant by this term and what exactly does engagement look like? In the language teaching profession, what would we expect to see from engaged teachers and others, and what obstacles prevent people from being more engaged? In this article I’ll address these questions, as well as making some concrete suggestions as to things that leaders and managers can do to increase engagement.

What is engagement?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines engagement as a “combination of commitment to the organisation and its values plus a willingness to help out colleagues (organisational citizenship). It goes beyond job satisfaction and is not simply motivation. Engagement is something the employee has to offer: it cannot be ‘required’ as part of the employment contract”. In this definition, motivation can be seen as carrying out your assigned tasks with enthusiasm, whereas engagement is this but more, going beyond a set of tasks to being totally committed to the wider success of the organisation itself. Research is clear that staff engagement leads not only to happier staff but to more productive and even profitable organisations which are more focused on customer service.

More simply, however, engaged workplaces are those in which there is a clear sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm. In our profession, that means schools where people feel happy to go to work and there is a buzz about the place. Over the years I have been lucky enough to work in a number of language teaching organisations (LTOs) and have visited countless others. This “buzz” of engagement is very tangible when you encounter it. There is chatter in the staffroom, most of which is of a professional nature. I hear teachers asking questions like “Anyone got any ideas of what to do to get the best out of Module 6 in the coursebook?” or people sharing thoughts on some aspect of teaching and telling stories of great moments of learning that they’ve just witnessed in their classrooms.

But we live in difficult times. Covid-19 has destroyed many of our expectations and certainties about work, but even before the pandemic, the psychological contract – the unwritten basis for expectations between employee and employer – had been torn up. In English language teaching (ELT), teachers have been facing increased casualisation and zero-hours contracts, a greater role for technology, downsizing, and in general a greater sense of precarity in the profession as a whole. In these circumstances, expecting teachers and others to be motivated, still less engaged, seems a big ask. Whereas motivation theory has tended to look at the higher levels of Maslow’s pyramid (such as a feeling of accomplishment and achieving one’s full potential), it may well be that in the current climate teachers can no longer take job security for granted, and their needs lie much closer to the lower level of the pyramid.

So, in the midst of all this, how can we promote engagement?

Leading engagement

It goes without saying that teachers and others who are fearful for their job security cannot be entirely engaged, and to imagine otherwise would be a mistake. In his seminal research on workplace motivation, Frederik Herzberg (1959) argued that maintenance factors, such as reasonable working conditions, must be satisfied before we can think about full motivation. However, if managers can (as much as is possible) ensure that teachers are not working in fear for their jobs, or concerned that they will have enough teaching hours, they can then focus on engagement.

Studies show that employees of any organisation want:

  • trust in management
  • satisfaction with work/job
  • involvement in decision making
  • a climate of relationships between management and employees
  • satisfaction with pay
  • job challenge
  • a sense of achievement from work.

A 2009 report commissioned by the UK government, Engaging for Success, concludes that engaging managers and leaders are pivotal. They must be willing to relinquish command and control in favour of a relationship based on mutuality. So, effective leadership is key.

Linda Holbeche (2018) suggests that engagement can be looked at through the lens of four key areas: connection, support, voice and scope. I’ll outline what she means by those different areas, and what they might mean for us in LTOs.

Connection

Connection is about employees feeling a sense of shared purpose and agreeing with the values of the organisation, as well as feeling part of a community and having a sense of belonging. A connected workplace almost certainly involves strong workplace relationships.

 One way to improve connection is for staff to come together to develop a shared vision. A shared vision (that is to say, one that is actually shared and not imposed from above) is a statement generated by the whole team, which outlines what kind of workplace you want to have, what the purpose of the work is, and so on. An example will look something like this: This language school is dedicated to learning, and we, as a team, are working to develop our students’ learning. In order to do that we are a supportive team who work well together, who help each other, and who keep at the cutting edge of new ideas in our profession. We want this to be the best place to work in this city.

Support

Staff get support from management and from their colleagues. There are opportunities for development, and they have a reasonable salary (as well as other forms of recognition and reward).

Managers should get to know their staff: Who are the members of your team? Why do they teach English as a career? And why do they teach English for you? What are their plans, their hopes, their dreams? Do you know the answers to these questions about all your staff?

As for professional development, how do you organise this now? How much say do teachers themselves have in the teacher development systems? Could you promote a teacher-led professional development system, in which teachers form communities of practice to look into professional areas that most interest them?

Other things you can do:

  • Keep an eye out for burnout; offer support and help to those teachers who may be struggling.
  • Offer a coaching approach to management.
  • Identify and actively address the root causes of disengagement. This is something that needs to be a daily focus, rather than just as part of the annual review.

Voice

Staff feel as if they participate in making decisions about areas that are important to them and things that have an impact on their working life. They feel as if their input matters and their voice is heard. No one feels excluded.

The teacher-led professional development approach mentioned above goes some way to achieving this. In addition, teams can be formed to address important academic matters – curriculum development, testing, materials writing, etc.

When change is necessary (for example, introducing new technology into the teaching and learning process), ensure that those affected by the change are involved in the process of planning the change. And, very importantly, celebrate your successes together.

Scope

People have work that is not always routine and easy but interesting, challenging, meaningful, and which involves a certain amount of “stretch” (research shows that teachers who seek a diversity of roles and challenges have a higher level of satisfaction). They have autonomy and control over their work, and a chance to develop skills and grow.

Encourage your staff to stretch themselves, and provide opportunities – whether it be teaching different levels or being involved in, for example, curriculum development. Think together about ways that people can have more say in how they best get the job done. To an extent, teachers already have this in that they have autonomy over their primary role in the classroom – they may have a syllabus to follow and a test to lead towards, but once that classroom door is closed, they are in charge of their work.

In general, if people work in a constructive environment where they feel they are achieving something challenging and meaningful, they will be much more able to deal with change and the daily pressures of work.

To summarise some of the enablers of engagement:

  • leadership – gives a strong strategic narrative about the organisation (where it is coming from, going to)
  • line managers who motivate, empower and support
  • employee voice throughout the organisation (challenge, reinforce the status quo, involve people)
  • organisational integrity – stated values are embedded; walk the talk
  • trust. Trust your staff. You hired them because they were capable of doing the job well. Let them get on with it!

I hope that some of the ideas here and some of your own can help you, as manager, think about ways of shifting your organisational culture to one that is more engaging, or one that retains its already engaging nature. And, remember to ask your staff what obstacles to engagement they are facing, and work together on addressing those issues, whatever they may be.

Primary references

  • Holbeche, L (2018) The Agile Organization: How to build an engaged, innovative, and resilient business. CIPD, Kogan Page
  • Herzberg, F; Mausner, B; Synderman, B (1959) The motivation to work. New York: Wiley
  • MacLeod, D and Clarke, N (2009) Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement. UK government report

About the author

Andy Hockley is the former co-ordinator of LAMSIG and a freelance educational management consultant and trainer. He has been training teachers and managers for 20 years and has been coordinating and training on the IDLTM (International Diploma in Language Teaching Management) since its inception in 2001. He is co-author of 'From Teacher to Manager' (CUP, 2008) and the upcoming ‘Leading Technological Change’ (CUP 2022). He lives in deepest Transylvania.

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