TESOL program administrators: How do I get the skills to become One?

The need for formalized training for ELT program administrators is a recurring topic in the field of TESOL. Navigating the transition from faculty to administrative authority is rarely covered in TESOL programs, yet many TESOL graduates find themselves offered administrative and/or management positions based on their advanced degrees and classroom experience. Additionally, those who do not have a background in TESOL and would like to complete a postgraduate degree to legitimize their teaching experience, professionalize themselves, and gain management skills to move beyond the classroom find few options in TESOL programs with a management focus.

This article1 discusses the skill set educational program administrators and managers typically have and then compares those to the distinct skill set TESOL program administrators and managers may need. The article closes by describing how some TESOL professionals have acquired these skills informally and how some TESOL programs are beginning to respond to the industry’s need for program administration and management training.

General Program Administrator & Manager Skills

An educational program administrator is frequently responsible for planning, implementing, and evaluating course offerings. However, these functions transcend both leadership and management roles. A position can consist of both leadership and management functions or just one or the other, depending on the institution. With respect to leadership, the position’s functions range from assisting the organization to specify its vision, set goals, and plan a course of action to achieve that vision. These functions relate more to the macro-level operations of an institution; establishing long term objectives to ensure the institution is competitive in the future. This role requires an individual who understands the industry, where it is going and how to rethink the institution’s brand image, internal structure, financial plan and so on. With respect to management, the position’s functions relate to the actual implementation of operational tasks and the establishment of systems to accomplish the institute’s mission on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Functions usually include knowledge and implementation of pedagogy, organizational development, human resources, and professional collaboration.

These above skills are general to any educational program, whether it be a K-12 private school, a publicly funded community after-school program, a higher education certificate, or a degree program. On top of the knowledge of operating a public K-12 program, for example, there is the need for local knowledge, from a rural First Nations community to an urban Toronto neighborhood or even to a regional program in Quebec. The same holds true for TESOL program administrators across Canada in the variety of public and private programs offered to domestic residents, newly settled migrants, skilled professional labor, and international students.

TESOL-specific Skills

Using a series of surveys of experienced administrators in University Intensive English programs (UIEPs), Megan Forbes (2012) sought to identify the skills, knowledge, and personal qualities necessary for successful UIEP administrators. The qualities in each of these categories were submitted by the administrators surveyed and refined over the course of several rounds of questionnaires to identify the items which most respondents felt were important. The items with the highest rating by the survey participants are included in Table 1. Forbes argues that other items identified in the survey are also worth considering and has refined these into a list of 65 items representing necessary skills and knowledge. Although some of the items produced through this process initially may not seem to correspond to the category in which they are listed (e.g., integrity as a skill), Forbes suggests that the results may prove useful for training and hiring UIEP administrators.

Table 1. Necessary Qualities of UIEP Directors, as identified and rated by survey respondents (Forbes, 2012)



Personal Qualities

Decision making skills

Knowledge of the financial structure of the program and how it fits financially with the institution

Ability to make difficult decisions

Effective communication skills

IEP standards

Ethical presence

Managerial skills

Institutional knowledge



Knowledge/acceptance of academic bureaucracy

Ability to prioritize tasks

Ability to define and articulate vision, mission, goals

Knowledge/acceptance of other cultures

Ability to work with others/be a team player and lead at the same time

Interpersonal/Interpersonal communication skills

Common sense

Ability to deal well with people at all levels of the university

Leadership skills

How the IEP is perceived/valued within the university

Cultural awareness/sensitivity

Ability to deal effectively with the needs/goals of the director’s superior(s) and those of staff and instructors under the director

Knowledge of how to plan strategically and build a team


Ability to interact and collaborate with many different constituencies

Understanding that a director is continually dealing with competing values

Interpersonal skills

Listening skills

Willingness to listen

Multi-tasking skills

Personnel skills

Problem-solving skills

Some of the items identified in Forbes’s study may not be widely applicable beyond the specific situation of a UIEP (e.g., Intensive English Program (IEP) standards), may be hard to teach (e.g., common sense), or may be quite institution-specific (e.g., institutional knowledge). Yet these show, in general, how valuable field- and institution-specific knowledge is, be it IEP or migrant ESL standards and so on. Other items identified in her research, however, such as managerial skills, knowledge and acceptance of other cultures, and knowledge of the financial structure of the program are probably more widely relevant. Several elements with an ethical dimension were mentioned (e.g., fairness & honesty). The results of the study demonstrate a perception that UIEP directors need leadership skills, management skills, and some field-specific skills or knowledge. This could be extended to predict that TESOL directors and other language program administrators across contexts and institutions would need much the same.

TESOL-field specific knowledge identified in Forbes’s study as necessary for UIEP directors includes the following:

  • knowledge of IEP standards
  • second-language/ESL teaching skills and knowledge of second-language acquisition
  • knowledge of the goals and aspirations of typical IEP students
  • TESOL-ESL-IEP issues and priorities
  • knowledge of trends in the field
  • knowledge of where and how to find resources in the field
  • knowledge of language assessment
  • knowledge of other programs and innovations in those programs
  • ability to understand L2 research
  • knowledge of English grammar (Forbes, 2012)

The range of skills, knowledge, and personal qualities identified in Forbes’s study reflects Kaplan’s assertion that “an IEP is a many-splendored thing” (Kaplan, 1997) since it is called upon not only to teach language but also to “teach academic skills, culture, pragmatics…offer both academic and personal counseling; provide teacher training…; design, administer, and interpret assessment instruments; train international teaching assistants; engage in the pursuit of grants; recruit students and teachers; interact with other academic and administrative entities on and of the campus; interact with educational agencies…; and engage in a multiplicity of other activities” (Kaplan, 1997, p. 3).

Kaplan and Forbes are specifically addressing what is needed by administrators in a university-based intensive English program, but a similar skill set is reflected in Coombe, McCloskey, Stephenson, and Anderson’s (2008) more general work on leadership in the context of English language teaching. Topics covered in this book include theories of leadership as they relate to English language teachers, strategies for communication, and skills and strategies for organization both personally and institutionally.

The second edition of A Handbook for Language Program Administrators (Christison & Stoller, 2012) expands on Kaplan’s focus on IEPs and includes chapters for administrators in adult education programs, binational centers, international schools, and K-12 schools. The sections of the book reinforce the idea that language program administrators require skills in leadership and management as well as promotion and advertising, with chapters on empowering faculty, advocating for students, and promoting the language program.

From the Classroom to the Boardroom: A Guide to the Successful Transition from Teaching to Administration for ESL and Beyond, written explicitly for English language teachers making the transition to administration, identifies skills that language teachers may transfer from the classroom to an administrative role. It also highlights distinct skills that teachers will need to develop in order to become successful administrators. Specific qualities Boyd and O’Neill (2006) outline as essential for administrators include listening skills, patience, flexibility, balance, delegation, conflict resolution, kindness, and humor. They also discuss the importance of skill or knowledge in the areas of finances, strategic planning, evaluating employees, communication, culture, and decision making.

Informally Acquiring the Needed Skills Set

Since teachers may not have formal coursework in the area of administration, Brad Teague, Assistant Dean and Director of English for International Students at Duke University, has described other avenues by which TESOL professionals may acquire these skills. A teacher can engage in taking on leadership roles in student organizations, conducting research on professional development, coordinating a local ESL program, and participating in conversations with the directors of various ESL program. Through these informal positions, a teacher can acquire skills that are later directly applicable to language program administration.

From there, it is possible that administrative training can occur on the job as the teacher may now be able to assume some form of entry level administrative position. In such a situation, the teacher may have immediate access to previous directors and benefit from the mentorship available from the senior administrator. Also, ongoing contact with colleagues from other programs at workshops and conferences allows teachers to build personal networks and collaborate on management research projects of mutual interest. Teachers can also join special interest groups with an administrative focus, such as TESOL’s Program Administration Interest Section (PAIS), and participate in their activities and listservs. Finally, reading publications related to language program administration and attending relevant conference sessions can be a support for professional development.

TESOL Programs Responding to Industry Need

In addition to the informal ways that individuals may seek training to prepare them for serving as administrators in language programs, the field is beginning to respond with more formal training opportunities. TESOL International Association has developed an ELT Leadership Management Certificate Program which is offered face-to-face at various locations worldwide (Bangkok, Thailand and Seattle, Washington, USA in 2017) as well as via an online format. Less specifically related to language program administration is the NAFSA Association of International Educators Management Development Program.

In addition, courses and specializations are being developed by some degree programs preparing future TESOL professionals. One example of this is the Language Program Administration specialization offered by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies directed by Lynn Goldstein, Professor and Program Chair. This specialization includes 17 units with some courses offered within the TESOL MA program (including Introduction to Language Program Administration and Language Teacher Supervision). Other courses are taught by the Graduate School of International Policy and Management (for example, Survey of Accounting and Marketing Management for non-MBAs).

The foundational course in this specialization is Introduction to Language Program Administration, created by Kathleen Bailey (Professor, MIIS) and recently taught by Netta Avineri (Assistant Professor, MIIS). It is taught as a 3 week online course in January with assignments related to internships and reflections extending into the spring semester. The course includes both theory and practice and touches on topics including intercultural communication, practices for hiring teachers, technology as it relates to LPA, and the transition from teacher to administrator within a language program.

Another course developed to train language program administrators is the Introduction to Language Program Management offered by the School of Education at Boston University taught by Bruce Rindler (ESL Program Management Consultant and Commission on English Language Program Accreditation). The course outcomes include developing awareness, attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Included in the course content is material on personnel issues, leadership, intercultural communication, and academic management. Specific skills tied to this content include strategic planning, managing change, dealing with finances, program development, marketing, writing proposals, and program development. The course includes fieldwork or interviews with program administrators and engages participants in reflection on the content.


The field has begun to respond to respond to the growing demand to effectively prepare TESOL graduates and existing professionals to serve as language program administrators and managers. This article is part of TESOL Ontario’s emerging dialogue and research on how TESOL professionals looking to move into administration and management can acquire the required skills to advance their careers. In the process, as they they look to develop programs or revise curriculums, Canadian TESOL programs will learn what training current students demand in today’s marketplace.

Each national and regional context demands that TESOL administrators and managers have both theoretical and practical knowledge. Multicultural awareness, cross-cultural communication, and interpersonal competence are key for interacting with students, teachers and other levels of middle/upper management. Additionally, there is a need to be versed in the provincial/regional English language teaching regulations and the needs of the institute’s student demographic, which are not necessarily acquired through formal instruction, but through being part of that teaching community. The current discussion is necessary at the TESOL international level across affiliates and locally within affiliates and their chapters in order to assist the field in better serving the TESOL community, including students, teachers, institutions, and other industry stakeholders in the years to come.


Boyd, G. Lee, & O’Neill, M. E. (2006). From the Classroom to the Boardroom: A Guide to the Successful Transition from Teaching to Administration for ESL and Beyond. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Christison, M. A., & Stoller, F. L. (Eds.). (2012). A Handbook for Language Program Administrators (2nd ed.). Palm Springs, CA: Alta Book Center.

Coombe, C., McCloskey, M. L., Stephenson, L., & Anderson, N. J. (Eds.). (2008). Leadership in English Language Teaching and Learning. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Forbes, M.J. (2012). Establishing an Accepted Skill Set and Knowledge Base for Directors of University and College Intensive English Programs (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Florida).

Kaplan, R. B. (1997). An IEP is a Many-Splendored thing. In M. Christison & F. L. Stoller (Eds.), A Handbook for Language Program Administrators (pp. 1–19). Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center.


1. The content is drawn from a panel session at the 2016 TESOL Convention, Solutions for TESOL Programs Lack of Administrative Preparation as part of the NNEST-PAIS Intersection Presentation by Netta Avineri, Megan Forbes, Lynn Goldstein, Kara Mac Donald, Ketty Reppert, Bruce Rindler and Brad Teague.


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