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Schooled In The Trade

In this series of articles, Simon Moran looks at the issues involved in starting and running independent ESL schools.

April 02, 2014


Recruitment is defined by as: The process of finding and hiring the best-qualified candidate for a job opening; it includes analyzing the requirements of a job, attracting employees to that job, screening and selecting applicants, hiring, and integrating the new employee to the organization.

For us, more simply, that means getting the right person in the right job at the right conditions for both them and us, then managing them – and isn’t always easy.

It is important to give someone some sense of ownership or belief in what they do.

I first took on teachers and reception staff within a year of starting Modern English in 1998. I had ideas about what I wanted in my staff, set conditions and asked questions I thought would deliver these. I paid above market rates for teachers, the logic being that good teachers would only work for good money. And I wanted interesting people, so I asked interviewees to tell a funny story, or a joke. Not only could most people not do this, it turned out that those looking for higher rates of pay were in it largely for the money, and if something better turned up, they’d be off.

I spent a lot of my early time recruiting sitting there asking questions to try and find out why I should employ someone. I then went through a stage of asking questions to find out why I shouldn’t employ someone.

These days, we approach things differently. Qualifications and experience are great, but can’t guarantee the person will be right. We look at their background, their interests outside of work and ask them what they like to do as well as teaching. While finding out what they can offer us, we try to see what we can offer them.

Creativity, adaptability, friendliness, reliability, the ability to get along with people of all ages and backgrounds – these are the traits we look for in all our staff.

In our training manuals, we list characteristics students report as being welcome in teachers – we then point out the list mentions nothing about teaching, but is all about the personality and demeanour of the teacher – and this is a benchmark we use in recruiting. It is a given that teachers can teach, know the language, are able to explain it and have patience – but what are they like as people?

Among my teaching staff I have writers, editors, managers, systems designers, illustrators, designers and copywriters who all contribute to the company in ways outside the classroom. It is important to give someone some sense of ownership or belief in what they do. This could be financial, in the form of bonuses, shares or royalties on work they produce, but doesn’t have to be. Salespeople are largely born, not created and schools may fare better finding someone who loves working with people and seeing them reach their goals. Working hard to see students succeed may be sufficient reward.

Without fail, we always ask a teacher to do a short demo lesson. We can train them in our preferred approach, but here we can see how they react to a student, and vice versa. We always follow upon references (and it always amazes me how many people do not), and have a set list of questions to ask referees. Many of these questions have nothing to do with teaching, but are about reliability, congeniality and trust. It is easy to bottom line these questions to the owner of similar type of organisation. ‘If your profit margin was dependent on employing this person again, would you do it?’


Training can be a huge headache for small schools. It is great if the teacher you have just recruited has several years’ classroom experience and a TEFL certificate of some kind, though be sure to check they are actually familiar with everything their course or previous training covered. They should also know their grammar, and to be able to explain it in use, very simply. If they can do all that, half the battle is won. Check they can plan the different types of lesson your school offers to different ages and student types.

Over the years we have developed our own training manuals and approach. We do training sessions and observed practice. We give trainees feedback and areas to work on going forward. They will then be observed again at regular intervals. We follow up with feedback from students and the teacher. Training should be seen as an ongoing process. All teachers should also be learners, and reflective practice should be encouraged to get teachers to continue to train themselves.

Regular meetings are essential, as is an employees’ suggestion box of sorts.
It’s also good idea to close the school and get all staff together. Bring in an outside speaker or trainer to freshen things up and get the ideas flowing.

Managing Staff

Once teachers are employed, they then have to be managed. At Modern English, we provide a structure under which teachers can work, but also give them freedom to implement their own ideas. This comes in the form of a curriculum and admin system that take a lot of the duller tasks – admin, lesson planning, progress tracking – out of the daily work, and allows teachers to be creative. I am great believer in systems; systems that take the drudgery and guesswork out of often repeated tasks, but not systems that overrule what a creative employ would do.

We often use the analogy that the curriculum and our systems are the skeleton, or the framework, and it is the teacher’s job to implement these, then add the colour to the black and white, or the flesh to the bones.

My preference is not to micro-manage – in fact, I want to be as hands-off as possible, though this is both a gradual process and a two-way street as far as trust is concerned. The manager has to trust the employee and the employee has to feel trust in the system, the support and then the freedom the school is giving them to carry out their work. One simple, oft-quoted example of the level of management used is the difference in instructions to solve the same problem:

  1. The manager gives detailed, step-by-step instructions to Employee A, watches him carry them out, checks completion and gives further instruction to ensure the job is done satisfactorily.
  2. The manager instructs Employee B to assess the situation, and propose three solutions. The manager then chooses which action to take and gives any necessary instructions.
  3. The manager calls Employee C into his office and simply asks her to take care of the problem.

The manager knows Employee C can do the job, trusts them to do it and lets them get on with it. With Employee B, the manager is somewhat sure, but also uses this for appraisal and feedback. As for Employee A, the manager knows the employee needs detailed instructions, at least this time.

All employees should know what is expected of them, in terms of job performance and conduct in the workplace, and need to have access to people and systems that will allow them to fulfill these expectations. Company structure charts, job descriptions detailing tasks to be performed and to whom to report, operations manuals, regular meetings, feedback, training and appraisal sessions, not to mention sound employment contracts, are all an essential part of good employee recruitment, training and management.

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