#TESOL Administrator Knowledge Base

Every once in awhile, a recurrent theme emerges from the discussions happening in the various spheres of my professional life. In the past week, the issue of transitioning from teacher to administrator/leader has surfaced both in casual conversation among peers and in the online TESOL community.

The local conversation focused on fostering and building on leadership skills at the various levels in the administrative hierarchy. The online conversation, started by Joe McVeigh, asked language program administrators where they felt the deficit was in their skill sets once they had been promoted. Here’s the original post:

Most of those who become program administrators in TESOL have been moved up from the ranks of classroom teachers. In some professions, one might get a degree in, say, business administration that might prepare you for a management position. There are some training options out there through UCIEP and via TESOL’s ELT Leadership Management Certificate Program. But I’m curious about something: What do you wish you had known about before you became an administrator. Do you think there is an essential knowledge base? What would have been useful to know before you took on your administrative position?

This is not a new conversation.

Both UCIEP and the TESOL Leadership Certificate program do offer venues for ongoing professional development tailored to language program administrators. These are wonderful opportunities for those who are fortunate enough to be able to participate. Through them, you can witness firsthand the professional development needs of leaders with different levels of experience. In this sense, leadership development is very much like language proficiency development – each of us having our own degree of fluency with corresponding strengths and weaknesses.

Added to this, the needed skill sets emerge as program needs evolve. The LPA running a one person, private shop is using arguably different hard and soft skills from an administrator in a large, well established program with several reporting lines. When programs face a major disruption, well-honed skills will surely be tested.

That said, here is my response:

I was fortunate to receive extensive on-the-job budget training/mentoring and have tried to deliberately allow others to shadow me. Budgeting experience seems to be a significant barrier qualification for moving into administrative positions in our field. It also seems to be the one area where our ESL colleagues seem the least confident and the most reticent. This is a personal observation based on anecdotal evidence, but the ‘B’ word causes folks to cringe.

What would I most like to have had to prepare for my position?


This is context specific. If the program you’re working in is a stand-alone business, pedagogical grammar only gets you so far. In lieu of an MBA, and especially given the turbulent times in the IEP industry, extensive training in entrepreneurship would be invaluable. How to test markets, market online, launch products, iterate, and respond to unknowns.

All entrepreneurial skills.

Also a solid foundation in economics. And being up-to-date with regional world politics.

Even if I had these skills, though, it still doesn’t adequately capture what it means to embrace administration. As if some knowledge base would guarantee success.  David D. Permutter wrote a phenomenal article in the Chronicle on Administration 101: Deciding to Lead which captures the existential challenges faced by academic administrators. In it, he posits four fundamental questions:

  • What do you bring to the job?
  • How prepared are you psychologically?
  • Is your family on board?
  • What are your real motivations?

These questions underscore the reality that the mantel of academic leadership encompasses more than a knowledge base and skill set. Collectively, the answers to these questions will determine whether an administrator succeeds or has a blessedly short tenure. What’s more, I’m unsure whether they can be answered truthfully through soul searching without firsthand experience. As Permutter puts it, most of us are woefully inadequate at self-assessment.

There’s an opportunity here to package a new ELT Management Certificate course for the 21st Century….


What would be on your ‘If I had only known…’ short list?

As always, I love to connect with colleagues anywhere and everywhere. Drop me an email!