Leadership initiatives and strategies for English language educators in post-secondary education


In post-secondary education, English language programs (ELPs) have the potential to make important contributions to their institutions’ academic and strategic goals. This potential is particularly strong in goals related to internationalization, intercultural learning, interdisciplinary connections, academic integration, and teaching excellence. ELPs also support goals related to recruitment and revenue generation. To be fully realized, ELP potential must be affirmed and developed by leaders at all levels – professors, coordinators, chairs, and senior leaders. In this paper we share leadership insights, strategies, and initiatives gleaned from interviews with ELP leaders at 10 Ontario colleges. The paper focuses on identifying ELP strengths and broad strategies that can enhance ELP contributions and institutional leadership. The workshop examines specific successful initiatives, and it explores how participants might adapt these initiatives for implementation in their own contexts.

Leadership initiatives and strategies for English language educators in post-secondary education

English language programs (ELPs) make important contributions to their institutions of higher education, and English language teachers (ELTs) have considerable academic and leadership potential to offer. However, ELPs and ELTs often experience marginalization within their institutions (Eaton, 2017; MacDonald, 2016; Pennington & Hoekje, 2010). ELPs struggle to find a place or good fit within traditional departmental and administrative structures in post-secondary institutions (Pennington & Hoekje, 2010). Because ELPs can play a valuable role in recruitment and revenue generation, they are often administered differently and separately from other programs (Eaton, 2017). Randolph and his colleagues (2014) interviewed ELP program leaders and identified common problems and frustrations, which included:

  • lack of awareness of the ELP within the institution,

  • lack of respect for language teaching,

  • blaming of ELTs for the perceived deficits of English language learners,

  • lack of permanent teachers,

  • lack of integration between ELP and non-ELP students, and

  • problems fitting into the larger organizational structure.

The role and importance of ELPs is expanding as post-secondary institutions admit higher proportions of international students (CBIE, 2019), and as the demand for English language education in post-secondary grows. This growth is fueled by needs of both international students and domestic students who are newcomers (i.e. new immigrants and refugees). While not all international students and newcomers require English language training, the demand is strong among these groups. In the United States, there has been a decline in the number of international students that began in the 2017/18 academic year, but the overall trend has been a 43% increase from 623,119 international students in 2009/10 to 891,330 in 2017/18 for students enrolling in all types of institutions (IIE, 2019). In Canada, there were 494,525 international students in 2017 enrolling in all types of institutions, up 119% from 2010 (CBIE, 2019). The US and Canada are both top destinations for immigrants. In 2017, the US welcomed 1,127,167 new permanent residents (DHS, 2018) and Canada welcomed 286,479 (GOC, 2018). ELPs in post-secondary education were created, at least to some extent, to support recruitment and generate revenue within their institutions (Eaton, 2017; Pennington & Hoejke, 2014), and these are important goals in times of reduced funding and higher competition among institutions. This said, ELPs can offer support, collaboration, and leadership in all areas of higher education.

Strengths of English language educators

Our interviewees identified several key strengths of English language teachers (ELTs) in areas including preservice training and teaching excellence, intercultural competence, supporting student integration, and teaching transferrable academic skills.

Pre-service training and excellence in teaching and learning

English language educators often hold preservice teaching certifications for training that comprises theory, methodology, and supervised practicum components. Well-recognized certifications in the field are CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), TESL (Teacher of English as a Second Language), and MATESOL (Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). In contrast, other post-secondary educators are not typically expected to have a teaching certification. Community college educators must have strong industry experience and expertise, and university professors must be accomplished researchers and published authors – but specific preparation in teaching is not often a requirement. Because ELTs have strong preservice training, they understand – from the very outset of their careers - the outcomes-based approach that structures most post-secondary curricula and can apply this to their assessment and teaching practice. They know how to foster student-centered learning and plan lessons that engage students in diverse activities that appeal to different learning styles. They know how to support inclusion by designing accessible materials and activities, accommodating students on assessments, and thinking carefully about their own content delivery. They are prepared to be reflective practitioners and can obtain resources and support from others in their field. While Centers of Teaching and Learning Excellence do much to foster in-service development for all educators in these areas, ELTs begin with this strong foundation.

Intercultural learning and communication

English language teachers have often experienced living and teaching in other countries. In addition, they often work with diverse communities of newcomers. With this experience, they develop the necessary attitudes, knowledge, and skills for intercultural learning and interaction. Intercultural experience is not only valuable for teaching international and newcomer students. There are many potential applications of this strength in post-secondary; building international partnerships with institutions and industry partners, leading student mobility trips, training college staff in intercultural best practices, as well as recruiting students from around the world and from diverse local communities.

Supporting student integration

A primary role of English language educators is to help students integrate academically, socially, and professionally. Academic integration means helping students to understand the culture and expectations of North American academia – concepts that many educators may take for granted but that can nonetheless vary greatly in different parts of the world.

Beyond academic integration, students often come to their English language teachers for guidance on social integration (e.g. making friends, joining organizations, participating in events, accessing community services) and professional integration (e.g. job search, resume preparation, interviews, appropriate workplace behavior). People outside the field might imagine that English language lessons are primarily about vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. However, language educators also teach pragmatics, discourse, and sociolinguistic awareness. Broadly speaking, this parallels what other fields describe as soft skills development. In the typical post-secondary education model, support for social and professional integration is often provided by student services, and teachers do not necessarily see themselves as responsible for soft skills development. ELTs, however, have strengths that help unite these three types of student integration – academic, social, and professional.

Teaching transferrable academic skills

Community colleges, polytechnics, and universities offer a wealth of different programs, all with highly specific learning outcomes. ELTs teach skills that are foundational to all these programs, such as presentation skills, group work skills, and academic writing. ELTs have training, experience, and strength in teaching foundational and transferrable skills, which means they can potentially