Knowedge-Based Leadership in Language Education

Author: Maria Davou

I have a new morning routine: cycling around the hill in my neighborhood, listening to podcasts. It makes me forget about the struggle of cycling and it gives me fantastic ideas! Only problem? I can’t take notes so I might forget some of the wonderful things I learn or some of the things I seriously disagree with (which is again a learning process).

By Maria Davou

So this morning I was listening to a Brene Brown podcast that came highly recommended by my friend Dafne (whose recommendations have literally saved my life) and I started thinking again about the situation in the field of (Foreign) Language Education. When I could still travel around the world for talks and seminars (we’ve now become mental travelers and zoom residents), there was one pressing question I’d get from most educators - and it’s cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-everything: what about the parents?

See, language educators in their great majority mostly agree on the basics of language teaching. We know what is right and wrong, we know what we should focus on, we know what works. We know all this because we studied it, we analyzed it, we investigated it. But is this knowledge transferred to our actual practices? The answer I’m afraid, is a big ‘no’. And if you ask teachers ‘why’, 9 out of 10 will tell you ‘because the parents object to it’.

So today, I will talk about 3 aspects of the problem and I will offer a tried-and-worked solution.

The parent: who is this scary ‘monster’ that dictates our teaching practices, that cannot be convinced by research findings and scientific knowledge, that does not respect our own expertise, based on years of education and professional development? The answer is very simple: this ‘monster’ is us. Not only because many of us are actually parents but because we use the label ‘parents’ to mask our own fears of doing things differently. Instead, we perpetuate the ‘teach-the-way-you-were-taught’ model, putting aside what we know. Let’s make the parent happy means let’s take the road taken because we are afraid. It’s not the parent, it’s the parent inside your head.
The manager: let’s call them managers. Or leaders. Or just bosses- no, these terms do not necessarily overlap. The thing is teachers might be insecure to practice what they know is right because they might simply be afraid of losing their jobs. And this fear is well-founded. If the manager/ leader/ boss puts forward ‘the-customer-is-always-right’ approach, then the teacher will follow. What does this mean? It means that I will give X parent a Grammar-Translation lesson and Y parent a CLIL lesson and XYZ parent an exam-prep lesson. Just a question: is the parent in the classroom? By focusing on the parents’ needs and wants, we forget who the actual focus is: the learner and their hunger to learn! Not only that: by focusing on the parent, we forget about our expertise. Remember when you learned at university that “children learn best by playing, singing, and using language in real situations and for fun, NOT by explanation” (Dendrinos, Teaching Grammar to Young Learners)? Well, then why do you choose this or that coursebook with the detailed grammar explanations and why do you design this or that progress test, asking your young learners to know the difference between Present Simple and Present Continuous? Can the teacher act on their own and teach opting for the informed way? Without the manager’s support, not really. Simply put, managers need to set a knowledge-based framework and support teachers in their efforts to stick to it.The teacher: the hard-working, qualified, constantly-learning teacher is not the one I’m talking about here. Not that rarely, I’ve seen things turned over: the manager trying to implement an open, knowledge-based approach and the teacher resisting. Of course, the teacher will say ‘parents won’t like that’ but we covered that in point #1. The teacher who resists is not only the insecure teacher. Very often it’s the bored teacher. Sad, sad, sad! But true! It’s the teacher who strictly wants the overprinted answers in their teacher’s book, all resources readily available, the never ending story of 101 practice tests, no project-work, no ‘outside the 4 walls’ activities, no storytelling, just ‘open the Companion and learn 20 words, study the rules from your Grammar book, ‘do the test’, ‘get your marks’, on your marks, ready-set-go’! Yes, this teacher resists because this teacher wants to sit in and sink in this comfort zone armchair of control.

A way out?

Yes! There’s always a way-out! I’m one of these ‘somewhere-over-the-rainbow’ people, so as a born and raised optimist, I believe there’s a solution. I will call this solution Knowledge-Based-Leadership. What does this mean? The leader of any educational operation should be a very qualified educator. At the same time, the leader who knows their research, theory, paradigm shifts, who keeps learning, searching and experimenting should create a knowledge-based framework for their team. And most importantly, there needs to be a lot of support for their teachers in two areas. Teachers should feel that they are part of a learning culture, where knowledge is appreciated, rewarded and promoted. They also need to feel that this knowledge is communicated to stakeholders (parents before anyone else) in simple terms.

Knowledge-Based-Leadership means that the leader knows the ‘why’, explores ‘why’ and sets out the framework for the ‘how’. Then the teachers implement the ‘how’ in a confident way because they know they know and because they know this knowledge is a power. In a Knowledge-Based-Leadership framework, the leader empowers the teachers and no one is afraid of the ‘parent-monster’ because informed decisions are made based on…Knowledge!

But don’t get me wrong: knowledge is not a static thing. Above all, it means the courage to admit ignorance, to keep learning and to change accordingly. •