7.6.13

Leading a Teachers' Association in times of crisis

To Bessy, Sevi,  Vicky, Tri, Eftichis, Sophia, Vangelis,   and all those who made a dream come true

There is a small country in a corner of this world which has been hit by the crisis.  Unemployment rates have reached record highs - in the vicinity of 30%, the economy has been devastated by ruthless austerity policies imposed by moneylenders and its people saw their salaries decreasing practically overnight by 22-40%!!!  This has been combined with merciless taxation. Highly qualified staff is underpaid or has not been paid for months,  working hours have increased while braindrain has reached epidemic levels. On top of that, the country has consistently been ‘raped’ by the international media over the past three years:  the inhabitants have been  labelled as lazy despite OECD surveys indicating they work longer hours than most of their European counterparts;
Shamefully,  its long culture and history have been ridiculed; monuments which are icons of  democracy, freedom, equality and pedagogy have often been "defaced" in the most vulgar way on magazine covers and newspaper front pages.

How would you feel if you had to take over as the chairperson of the local English teachers' association (T.A.) under these circumstances? This is an account of my voyage to "Ithaca" as the chairperson of TESOL Greece and I hope that some of the tips I am giving below may help other teacher associations in crisis.

Background
The news broke unexpectedly in September when the chairperson had to move abroad for professional reasons in the midst of her tenure. According to the bylaws, the vice chair takes over.  I don't believe in omens but when I assessed the situation it didn't seem very hopeful. The members had suffered a severe blow (income wise), the chair had already moved abroad and two members of the board of directors were soon to follow; the cost of travelling from the countryside to the capital -where most events are held- was prohibiting. The board - seriously understaffed - had to organize and host 8 events and an international convention in a professional field where sponsors are an endangered species. Even worse, Harry Potter was not around to lend us his magic wand...

On a less humorous and more realistic  note, the dilemma posed for a TA in such conditions is : either downsize  by cutting down on events/services and wait until the crisis is over or offer more for  less money in order to increase membership.

The former stance seemed closer to the Troika policies which devastated the Greek economy. The latter seemed to be what the members and potential members needed most in a crisis: An association on their side, to support, motivate  and give them courage to go on with their mission, to educate children under adverse conditions.
The choice seemed obvious and clear from the very beginning. "The only way is up! We embrace the community investing in our members!"
But how can this be achieved?

Having had no previous experience as a chairman, I found the following 12 points helpful in my attempt to keep the association alive:

1. Listen
Most members have brilliant ideas but do not forward them to the board  because they do not know the procedure and feel their contribution is unimportant .  On the contrary, very often a suggestion by a member -slightly modified to the association's reality- can be life saving.

2. Choosing close associates
Make sure that you choose people you can trust and  communicate well with as your closest associates. Mutual understanding can save time and lead to a smooth handling of projects and issues that may arise. I was lucky to have a vice chair, a treasurer and Newsletter editor who spoke their minds openly and shared the same vision. This helped TG organize many events and run projects that were initially considered overambitious for their size and membership.

3 Get to know thy membership
The potential of a TA  should not be limited to the board. Getting a clear picture of the members’ profiles  and  professional achievements can help you recruit the right people to run events or projects . Despite what was believed, I soon realized that TESOL Greece has experienced, highly qualified members who excel both in Greece and abroad. Most of them are willing to share their expertise in various fields either in the form of articles or presentations.

4. Reshuffle and recruit
Voluntary organizations do not have the luxury to hire experts in certain fields. Redelegate duties or support overworked teams with experienced volunteers. Usually past members of the board have the experience and are willing to help if necessary. From my experience at the 2004 Olympics and over the years in TESOL, always recruit more volunteers than you need. The reason is simple. It is only human not to be able to make it either due to a minor flu or a family issue that may arise at the very last minute. The spare volunteer can and will make up for the absentee.

Recruit people with a vision. They are highly likely to work autonomously and develop a project without  stagnating or unnecessary panicking.  They are usually people who will overcome difficulties and give a boost to the project using their creativity, imagination, hard work and expertise. TESOL Greece was fortunate to have such people. Here are two recent examples: The blogmaster managed to boost the blog to 20,000 views within 4 months attracting a readership from all four corners of this world and the webmaster managed to build a brand new website within two months. Both worked on a voluntary basis and in essence acted as de facto project managers.

5. Delegate and involve
Even if a day had 48 hours and you had 6 hands, it is highly unlikely that one person can do everything. In this case you will soon end up worn out and behind schedule. Your help will be necessary sooner or later but make sure that you delegate duties and involve as many members of the board and the TA as you can. This is not a one man show but your role resembles that of an orchestra conductor. Fine tuning takes more time than doing the job by yourself but pays off in the long run when you are surrounded by a team who are confident and  supportive of each other. This was actually one of the comments I heard at the recent TESOL Greece convention that made me happy.

6. Communicate with your members
Very often a lot of hard work and effort is put into organizing and creating but  if you don't communicate it to members and potential members, they are highly unlikely to find out. Mass mail, facebook group, twitter, newsletter or any other medium that can convey the information accurately and in time will do.  What may seem unimportant to you, may count for some of your members. Informing them on a regular basis (without excess) strengthens the bond of the community and prevents feelings of exclusion or allegations that you and the board act secretly forming clans(heard that too...) Bethany Cagnol of TESOL France has acted as a source of inspiration with her brilliant way of communicating through the social media and promoting her association's events.

7. Think forward and innovate

A new era requires new ways of communicating and facilitating continuous professional development.  Consider introducing webinars; Live streaming for members who cannot attend because of the distance or a busy schedule but will still find a slot to attend the presentation. Encourage communication and exchange of opinions on teaching matters through a TA blog. TG's TESOL saw an unprecedented popularity within months which indicates the need of the community to (re)visit certain EFL areas.

8. Cater for their needs

Academia enlightens teachers but when it comes to dealing with everyday issues, practical workshops are much appreciated. Working longer hours means that teachers have less time to prepare, less time to devote to "charging batteries" and very often burn themselves out. At certain events, speakers were asked to give workshops with hands on activities and material. Most of our members felt thankful and reported that they felt inspired to go to the class the next morning.


9. Give credit
Don't be afraid to give credit to good ideas and hard work. As a chairperson, you are already overexposed to the media. Acknowledging others simply shows that you can work in a team and people are more likely to be involved if they feel their voluntary work is recognized and appreciated.

10. Seize every opportunity to network and establish alliances
Due to the economic strife, most TAs have realized that strengthening bonds, exchanging experience, speakers, articles and displaying solidarity are essential to the survival of the field. During my tenure, I found out that TAs have more in common than previously thought.  I attended a TA conference in Ankara in December 2012 where a number of delegates expressed their concerns and presented the problems they face which bore striking similarities.

Even though you cannot expect financial aid, smaller gestures can make a difference. For example, TESOL international covered the flight expenses of a plenary speaker at our international convention which allowed us to be more flexible with other minor financial issues. IATEFL gave us permission to adopt their guidelines which saved time and effort and allowed us to use our human resources in other positions. Finally, contacting directly other presidents about minor issues that usually  arise, prevents misunderstandings, promotes collaboration and facilitates effective problem solving.

11. Reach out to the ELT community
You and your TA are not alone in a shark infested sea. In a crisis, everybody is hit including the ELT industry. Sponsors are rare but if you approach them in a win-win mood making allowances and taking their concerns into consideration, you will be surprised by their positive response! Such an approach brought us an unexpectedly high number of exhibitors and created a feeling of solidarity and unity in the EFL field.

12. United we stand
Solidarity and team work are the most precious features of an association.  Team spirit can overcome any logistics, financial difficulty and can make or break an event. It is worth devoting time, energy and activities to help members build bonds. During the international convention, the tight budget was outweighed by the voluntary spirit of the members who identified with the association and did their best to help delegates.

Fighting against the odds may not be a lost battle after all…
TESOL Greece saw a 15% rise in its membership and managed to strengthen bonds within the community in the darkest hour.

Looking back, I can now tell that it was no rose garden and there was no red carpet treatment. If you are the chairperson,  there will be times when sleep will be your most sought after dream; there will be times when people will not share your perspective;  they may tell you are "too little or unsuitable for the position"; your proposals maybe be questioned just for the sake of doing so.... There will be suggestions to invite speakers with a 4 or 5 digit honorarium. You may even be asked to offer free membership to members who simply stated a different opinion (at a time when the TA's budget is tighter than ever). Most of these requests are usually forwarded in good spirit but eventually you are the one who has a clear, overall  picture of the landscape and has to make a decision. Saying "NO" can be difficult but on the other hand you are not a politician and there is no point for demagogy.  Most well intentioned members will understand if you explain the situation at the general meeting or in a message on the social media.


No matter how stressful it may have been, I am grateful. Seeing it from a distance, it is also a unique challenge to discover yourself! You soon realize that you have more stamina you thought you had. Your time management skills are tested to their limits but are also developed day by day. Synthesizing ideas and having to communicate with people from all walks of life are unique experiences that you don't have in your daily teaching routine. You learn how to deal with minor and major crises without shouting and screaming but remaining cool and using your critical ability to the maximum - much appreciated in my role as a father.  Synergy with colleagues who specialize in different areas of ELT can teach you a great deal and help you see the situation from a completely different perspective.

In an economic crisis, teachers are the first ones to suffer loss of income, receive pressure and tension both inside and outside the classroom, deal with one of themost vulnerable groups of the population: children and teenagers. They absorb the aftershocks of poverty, unemployment and they have to be a source of stability and "routine" (necessary to make children feel secure) in an environment that changes rapidly around them with the consequences often being dramatic. In such a context, teachers sometimesfeel their work is denigrated; their morale and self- esteem often plunge and they are susceptible to depression and burn out.  A TA should be there to support  and remind them that they are not alone in this battle!

 There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a community recognizing hard work and making plans and dreams for the next academic year being creative instead of pitying themselves. There is something unique in being trusted the fate of a teachers' association: You support those who support, empower and inspire a young generation that will build tomorrow's world.