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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 offer support and resources to colleagues in all other academic areas.

Strategies for enhancing ELP contributions

In our interviews with ELT leaders, we learned about several strategies that can enhance the contribution and raise the profile of ELPs in higher education institutions. Below is a list of strategies with specific examples and ideas for implementation:

1. Become the “go to” language experts in the institution

Too often, colleagues in other academic and service areas are unaware of the advice, resources, and support that ELTs can offer. ELT leaders should put themselves forward as potential advisors, supporters, and developers for projects in any area that involves language education, intercultural communication, and international connections. They should offer small-scale assistance on a collegial basis. For larger commitments, they should explore additional funding, resources, and release time for faculty.

2. Leverage experience with language assessment.

Admissions departments often need guidance and support on English language proficiency requirements – determining minimums and establishing equivalencies among a large array of different tests, e.g. IELTS, FCE, CAE, TOEFL, TOEIC, and PTE. Testing Centers are often looking to improve in-house tests and test procedures. By connecting with admissions and test centers, ELTs can broaden their contacts within the institution, offer a crucial service, and learn from exposure to these new areas.

3. Find an advocate in senior administration.

Several ELT leaders mentioned the importance of having an advocate in a senior leadership position. This person should know the ELP well, understand its purpose and potential, know its limits, and be on the lookout for ways that the ELP can be meaningfully involved in college initiatives.

4. Connect with the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence

Most colleges have a center dedicated to supporting teaching and learning. In their preservice training, ELTs learn many of the concepts and skills that centers for teaching and learning deliver for teachers as in-service training. There is a natural opportunity here for ELTs to put themselves forward as workshop and training facilitators, especially when faculty throughout the college could use help in supporting the English language learners in their courses. It may even be beneficial to explore seconding an ELT into the Teaching and Learning Center.

5. Offer intercultural training for colleagues.

ELTs have extensive intercultural teaching and learning experience, and many have experience living abroad. Educators in other areas may have less experience. ELTs can help train colleagues when their institution expects a large increase in international students, or an influx of students from a specific community or geographical area. ELTs can also help prepare their colleagues for travel and assignments abroad. This is becoming increasingly relevant as institutions develop international satellite campuses and programs at partner institutions.

6. Help ELP students to connect and integrate in the campus community.

Students in ELP programs often need support to integrate fully into campus life. ELTs can provide this support through classroom lessons/activities, organizing special workshops, and collaborating closely with student services. In addition to helping language students integrate, there is an important opportunity to help US or Canadian-born students to learn more about other countries and cultures. ELTs should consider organizing international days and other opportunities that foster intercultural learning and friendship for all students. In a small number of programs, our interviewees noted that ELP students do not have access to the full range of services (e.g. sports teams, facilities, clubs, and student governments) available to other students in the college. Where this is the case, ELT leaders should at least question the reasons for this different level of access and involvement. If the reasons are not strong, they should look at possible changes.

7. Participate or liaise with college committees, councils, and leadership bodies.

ELTs teach in unique programs with unique students, and their perspectives should be considered in college decision-making bodies. Our interviewees mentioned participation in academic honesty committees, educational technology committees, and academic councils or senates.

8. Partner with other student services.

Most institutions have some kind of tutoring or writing center. ELTs can help to ensure there is strong training for peer tutors and that there is at least one qualified ELT available to students in these centers. The library is also a place where ELTs can provide valuable advice on the kinds of books, biblio-guides, and other resources that would be useful to the ELL post-secondary population.

9. Be creative! Partner with outside sources in the community.

Some interviewees mentioned forging relationships with local bookstores to bring in well-known ELT guest speakers, and even to organize conferences.


English language programs in higher education can make significant contributions to their institutions and support a wide range of academic and strategic goals. Professors, coordinators, chairs, and senior leaders all have a role to play in leading and supporting ELP initiatives. An important first step is to assess the strengths and potential of the ELP team, and to consider broad strategies that might enhance the ELPs’ leadership within the institution. The next step for leaders interested in enhancing ELP contributions is to closely examine initiatives that have been successfully implemented in post-secondary, and to consider how these initiatives might be adapted and implemented within specific contexts.


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Randolph, P. T., Jones, T., Porter-Szucs, I., Arokiasamy, L., & Dunsmore, C. (2016). Breaking the unwanted stepchild curse: Elevating the image of ESL. The 50th Annual TESOL Convention and English Language Expo, April 5-8. Baltimore, Maryland.


This paper accompanied a workshop delivered at the Chair Academy Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, from March 26 to 29, 2019.

By Jesse Black-Allen, Danielle Mercier, Jean Nielsen, and Amanda Nowensky from Seneca College

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