Working with group leaders

If you have ever worked in language summer school, you will be familiar with the term group leader.

Group leaders are adult representatives who accompany a group of international students. They work for and are paid by the travel agency who send groups and therefore not directly affiliated with your school. They are, however, important.

In most summer schools I have worked in, we rely on and aim to cooperate with group leaders even if we, as a school, are ultimately responsible for the children in our care. In essence, the buck stops with us.

Many group leaders are excellent and work hard to ensure that the children they come with have an unforgettable experience. Some group leaders may be only slightly older than the oldest student- this from my experience seems to have little bearing on their ability to the job; while others can be much older- again this is not an indicator of their efficacy. The students may know the group leader- it could be their schoolteacher from back home, or not; they may have met their student group for the first time at the airport. Although many come once, there are a few group leaders who become familiar faces. You build relationships with these people and typically have confidence in their abilities to do the job.

Most summer school managers meet group leaders for the first time at the beginning of the week during the group leader induction meeting; their students are usually being tested and inducted at the same time. During this session, each manager presents key information and answers any questions group leaders might have. As an academic manager, this is your opportunity to convey key information which will allow them to work with you better. But here’s the problem… they need to know a lot and have to process the information quickly so that operationally, the school is working efficiently. For any returning group leader who is great at the job, no problem, a quick refresher on procedures and off they go. For new group leaders, or those you have not worked with before, the learning curve can be steep.

In most instances, I have a 20-minute window to convey the most salient points and answer their questions. Notes will be scribbled down, and heads will nod in agreement, but experience shows that for group leaders to effectively do what you are asking, they require time to imbibe the information. It doesn’t matter how competent a speaker you are or how informative your slideshow is, without an opportunity to mull things over, it may take days for the better ones to fall in as an important cog in a well-oiled machine.

In my circumstance, the information group leaders need to know has been largely informed by how we run our summer centre and in turn, what our expectations are. Also, many of the questions group leaders ask are similar in nature and allude to their priorities. If I itemise all of these facets, we might come out with a list like this:

  • Who you and your team are and what everyone does in the scheme of things.
  • What students are being told during the student induction and why this is important.
  • How student placement testing works and how this translates into level placement and classing.
  • What students will be doing for the rest of the week.
  • What side of the day students will have lesson (morning or afternoon) and why they have been grouped this way.
  • Where students are expected to be at specific times and days.
  • When class lists will be ready and how this information will be conveyed.
  • What the student demographic is like. If your school is top heavy with specific nationalities who speak the same L1, it puts pressure on how well the school can create multi-lingual classes.
  • Classrooms, teachers and the student cohorts can change on a weekly basis. Even though I would try to keep the same student groups together for a week, teachers leave, classrooms may no longer be available, and with a typical two-week stay, there is constant fluctuation in student numbers.
  • What students will be doing in class and the rationale behind our approach.
  • How, when and where students and group leaders can come and speak to you.
  • How and where students and group leaders can find you in an emergency.
  • How you support teachers and whether they are observed.
  • Whether group leaders can observe classes and how this is done.
  • What a group leader should do if a student is ill.
  • We expect group leaders to account for everyone in their group and be proactive in finding students if they don’t turn up to class.
  • What is going to happen next week.
  • Where students and group leaders can find the noticeboard.
  • Whether there is an exit test.
  • Whether students will receive a report or certificate at the end of their course.
  • Whether there is a graduation ceremony.

As a manager, you want to make it clear what you expect from group leaders as well as what they should expect from you. When there is no common understanding, it can and will create extra work for you and your team. Group leaders are your eyes and ears to make sure their students turn up on time to activities and lessons and go to bed/wake up when they should. They also act as a conduit for any problems and questions their students might have.

I decided to problematise this issue and think of ways in which we can inform group leaders better. Question: what is the best way to do this?

The best solution I found was to make short, animated videos, uploaded to Youtube, and accessible to anyone who has the link. After looking at my options, I decided to use Powtoon as it’s free, works from a browser and is easy to use.

It took around a day to create each video. This was my first attempt at making animated, so a lot of it was trial and error. Here is the end product: 3 five-minute-long animated clips giving group leaders the information they need:

Dear Group Leaders – Some information about induction and testing
Frequently asked questions for Group Leaders (part 1)
Frequently asked questions for Group Leaders (part 2)

For a more comprehensive overview of Powtoon and how I have used it for teacher induction sessions, please click here: Digital tools – Powtoon

Ideally, I want to get this information to group leaders on arrival and prior to the first group leader induction meeting. In reality, this rarely happens and it’s usually at the initial meeting when I’m able to email or text group leaders the links to the videos.

During the face-to-face meeting, I can focus on the most salient points and answer any questions group leaders may have in the knowledge that they can watch the video clips after the meeting to review what I’ve said and hopefully answer any further questions.

So how has this been beneficial?

  • Group leaders have a broader understanding of the teaching product. There is a reduction in repetitive questions or the need to repeat key information on a regular basis.
  • Cooperation between group leaders and the teaching team is better. There is more confidence that we know what we are doing and are invested in the product we deliver.
  • There is a better sense of openness with group leaders. I can speak with a degree of authority about the teaching product, can troubleshoot and create better solutions when problems arise, and more importantly, openly admit shortcomings in my understanding. All of this ultimately informs how we can best deliver the product in the future.
  • I see group leaders less often, or more specifically, I see them when I’m meant to see them and not at random times during the day. I’m less likely to see a group leader in the morning asking me to move one of their students to a higher level when the correct time to address this is at the advertised time later in the day.
  • Students are more likely to turn up to class on time! Well… most of them, one or two will still be in bed!
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Planning on working in summer school? You may be interested in these blog posts:

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