As teachers, we all have a good idea of what we should be doing when we walk into the classroom. We have been trained, mostly in fairly similar ways to each other, we are aware of pedagogical theories and philosophies and how they apply to learning in practice, and as our experience grows we become more aware of what works and what doesn’t work in our contexts.
Very often, we work for organisations that state they have a particular belief system, values or ideology. These beliefs form part of the organisational identity and can come from a number of places. They may be actual core beliefs that are held by founders and managers, they may come from managers within the organisation trying to promote growth or change (and therefore possibly represent the latest business / HR zeitgeist), or they may simply come from the marketing department trying to position the organisation in counterpoint to competitors and to highlight the USP.
In this post I want to explore the gap between what goes on in the classroom and what goes on in the boardroom – the difference between organisational ideology and organisational practice.
For many language schools in the private sector, articulating any kind of ideology can be difficult. For many it is easy enough to describe what they do: teach a language / help students learn a language (notice the competing ideologies there?); and it is easy enough to describe how they do it: direct method, communicative approach, task based learning, (insert name of offbeat sixties humanist approach here). It is less easy for them to articulate WHY they do it.
Yet it is these beliefs that should underpin all the other activity within the organisation. Amazon lists 14 leadership principles that are intended as practical guides for people at all levels of the organisation to refer to in their day to day practice. Within the Amazon organisation, these are so ingrained that “The principles are embodied in the natural way of thought and the common language spoken on a day-to-day basis by Amazonians regardless of function, domain, role, level, business model or target market.” (Interviewsteps.com 2017); which in turn leads to quite a high staff turnover as people realise they aren’t a good fit for the corporate culture. The point is that these principles have become so ingrained in the Amazon corporate culture that you either submit or quit.
There is research to suggest that being able to articulate what you stand for and what you believe in as an organisation brings you commercial benefits. A 2014 study (Dodd and Supa) found that where consumers agree with an organisation’s stance on an issue, they are more likely to purchase from that organisation. The context of the study was in looking at wider political and cultural issues and the impact on companies, mostly in the retail sector, and obviously language teaching is very different to that. Nonetheless, where students and parents of students have a choice of organisation, and they already have the intention to purchase, giving them a reason to positively identify with your organisation seems sensible.
Goll and Zeitz, in an earlier study (1991), go further. Ideology, they say, “shapes strategic choices and determines organizational practices”. Typically, this is transmitted through an organisation in terms of the management picks. The founder will hire managers that present similar or shared belief structures. They in turn will hire people who share their own belief structures, and so on. The organisational ideology may therefore not be clearly articulated, but assumed to be there through a set of implicitly shared beliefs. This, to me, presents a number of problems. Firstly you have the issue of divergence or dilution as the worker at the bottom of the chain may be a number of ideological steps away from the person at the top of the chain. Secondly the organisational ideology is based on the assumption of shared beliefs. Thus the people at the sharp end, who physically represent the organisation to the customers, may not really share much of those beliefs anyway.
Goll and Zeitz echo this idea by pointing out that organisational sub-units may have their own ideologies, relating to a more specific purpose, that may modify or replace the overriding ideology. They also point out that managers may typically be expected to show closer adherence to orthodoxy because that is in part where their authority comes from – employees are less likely to accept official beliefs as thoroughly. Within the language school scenario, it seems that teachers are in an odd position.
Teachers are often required to present and defend official ideology and policy to students, without necessarily believing in it themselves. Teachers exist in a sub-unit all of their own called the classroom, where the collection of individuals bring expectations and ideas that may be at odds with the school ideology. Teachers are also in the position of needing to develop and maintain rapport with students, which may be undercut by official positions or requirements. In some cases this may extend to methodological choices where the school requires an approach that the teacher is not convinced by or unfamiliar with, and which the teacher may therefore feel in adopting wholeheartedly. Anecdotally, I have heard of teachers in direct method schools paying lip service to the method when managers are around, but switching to alternative methods at other times. This was, I was told, particularly a feature of higher level classes.
When teachers interview for positions, they are usually asked about their experience – how many years they have been teaching, what ages and levels they have worked with. They may also be asked about their knowledge, how would you teach the present perfect continuous to an intermediate group, tell me about a recent lesson you taught, what do you think is important in preparing a lesson on writing essays, how would you deal with a ten year old girl hitting her partner in the face…. That sort of thing. Very rarely though, are teachers asked about our beliefs about language or learning, or how that might fit with an organisational ideology. It has not happened to me – the closest I got was when interviewing for a large international organisation, who looked for evidence of key behaviours during the interview process. These behaviours, I assume, are mapped to the core values that the organisation holds, yet are treated with a healthy degree of cynicism and skepticism by some of those I knew in the staff room. There was very much a feeling that these ideas, while worthwhile, were imposed from above, that they corporatised the teaching and that you only needed to demonstrate a superficial familiarity. One anecdotal experience does clearly not show evidence of a wider systemic failure and I should point out that there are also those I know within that organisation that do feel the organisational ethos more strongly. However this is something I notice across a number of organisations in a number of contexts and settings.
I think for me, the questions are whether we really know or care about what the organisations we work for say they believe in, whether we think that our organisations live up to the values they espouse, and whether we bear all that in mind when we walk into the classroom – or whether we just leave all that behind at the door and do our own thing anyway. My suspicion is that most of us have an idea about what our organisations stand for, but might find it difficult to articulate clearly. I also suspect that opinion will be fairly evenly split between those that feel their organisation lives up to their values and those that don’t – there are as many good places to work out there as not. I also think that probably, most of us don’t really pay a lot of attention to all that in the classroom – we just get on with it.
I’d like to see whether what I think has much validity – whether it is just my perception that this is an issue or whether it really is an issue! With that in mind – there’s a short (six question) survey embedded below – if you could take a minute to record your answers, I’d appreciate it!
Dodd M.D. and Supa, D.W. (2014). Conceptualizing and Measuring “Corporate Social Advocacy” Communication: Examining the Impact on Corporate Financial Performance. Public Relations Journal, 8(3). Available online: http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Vol8/No3/
GerardG, (2017), Amazon’s Leadership Principles Interview: What to expect and how to prepare. InterviewSteps.com. Retrieved 22/10/2018: https://interviewsteps.com/blogs/news/amazon-leadership-principles-interview
Goll I. and Zeitz G. (1991). Conceptualising and Measuring Corporate Ideology. Organization Studies 12(2) pp 191-207
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