My last two-day compact for PAs didn’t go quite as well as they usually do, leaving me pondering what went wrong. As I’m teaching quite a number of similar ones in the upcoming weeks, I need to pause and think things through in depth, because I want the next ones to go better.
The conditions are always a big challenge:
- We have just one or two days to go through the world of back-office communication, and/or handling international guests and teams.
- The PAs come from various companies and regions and in fact have rather different kinds of jobs.
- Their English skills range widely, from basic school English and little experience at work, to having a background in English correspondence and doing business in English on a daily basis.
- The participants want to take home specialized answers to their needs and some want general reference materials for future use.
Now, I love a challenge. My compact workshops are very interactive, not presentations. To make them work I find I need the following:
- The participants must be willing to accept the basic concept that they will learn by doing things themselves in the course.
- Everyone needs to put their personal experience first and share it in order to learn in the group.
- They get a general all-purpose handout for professional back office skills that I’ve written, along with published self-study materials (including a CD).
- There’s a clearly structured outline, as announced, but I’m flexible and adapt it to their needs.
- I bring a big and diverse selection of tasks to choose from over the course of the two days, and tools to make up new ones in line with the participants’ needs as we go along.
- Some of the tasks are built around the errors that individual participants make. This gives the seminar a more tailored feel than anything “off the rack”. I ask for writing samples from each participant in advance to target their special errors, and collect emergent good and faulty language in the course and incorporate that into new tasks.
- I do my best to enable individuals to perform well and experience incremental learning as empowerment.
- The big facilitators are fun and humor, warmers and relaxers, discussions and a focus on problem-solving.
This time I feel I failed at some of these.
- I tried to get my participants to open up, asking for formative feedback, but too little came from those who were dissatisfied.
- Those whose English was above average spoke German to those whose English was weaker. Usually I pair up strong-weak duos, and the strong one is a teacher’s helper, but this time they just wound up speaking German to each other. I tried to encourage total immersion in English, but that just shut them up.
- At least one of them didn’t like group work at all and would have preferred a very tightly structured presentation. I wish I’d had the opportunity to work with her individually. Another person was simply not particularly motivated to be an active member of the course.
- One of the participants had a learning blockade that needed sensitive handling. I’m a specialist for such learners, but it does mean being very focussed on that person for a while, which means others don’t get the attention they deserve. The seminar would have been better if I had had more energy to really see all of the participants all of the time, even as I was focussing on the weaker learners.
How to deal with this?
- Next time I’ll have to be sharper. More sleep, more exercise, more meditation.
- This time the group was too diverse. Unfortunately I have no say in who gets to participate, but I simply must insist on getting writing samples from everyone in advance.
- The gap in skills made it impossible to follow the course I had plotted in the handout. We had to work through far more basic English issues, and then those who were a little bored with what we were doing would jump the gun and address some other issue, and I’d find myself giving the group a new task to keep them happy, one that messed up the sequence of the script. To avoid this, next time I’m going to bind only the reference sheets and, as the need for each new task emerges from our class interaction, I’ll dip into my loose leaf collection and hand out materials as needed.