The challenge of compacts

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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.


7 Responses

  1. How interesting to hear all of this.
    Firstly, what are ‘PAs’, Anne?
    Next week I’ll be in a similar situation. I have some days with unemployed people – I have these groups every few months – and it’s usually similar to what you describe.
    Strangely, it usually goes very well. I spend the first two sessions on ‘socializing’ activities, participants presenting themselves woven through the programme and a needs analysis session mixed in with the participants focussing on, discussing and presenting their personal goals. Then each participant does a presentation during our days together and I set that up on the first day.
    I always try to do a video each day ( I like the Vicki Hollett ones) followed by activities based on it. Eventhough I insist that they only speak English for their ‘English’ days they do resist. But in the feedback they usually claim that was one of the most effective parts of the programme! I then go through a programme of the basic skills we do in business courses and try to include songs, chants, hands-on projects, a bit of grammar sprinkled throughout and a touch of humour.
    But as you say, one never knows, people are people and we can’t always make them as flexible and motivated as we’d like to have them!
    So, I look forward to hearing more.

  2. Sorry, Joan:
    PAs are Personal Assistants (Chefsekretärinnen), and the compacts are all-day intensives. I teach them at hotels or, if a company has ordered a course, in company. My partners are Management Circle and also Akademie für Sekretariat und Büromanagment, high-profile organisations, which gives these intensives a special role in my portfolio. Since I don’t know the participants we do lots of opening up and bonding activities right up front.
    Yes, I think that it was a major mistake to allow little groups to hive off and speak German. Since it was my first PA compact in a while I was worried that I might have lost my touch. Maybe not. As you say, people are people. I’ll have another chance in a week or two to check.
    Yes, humor is so essential, isn’t it? I was just thinking about something Vicki Hollett was saying to the same effect. Do you know her lovely blog, ? I really like those fun videos, too, but they’re VHS, you know? I use a lot of YouTube videos these days. Jamie Keddie has shown us how to download them and has an interesting new article on the legal side of things:
    I’ll report how the next compacts go.
    Thanks for your interesting and kind comment.

  3. Yes, sure, Anne, I’ve been to Vicki’s blog – love it, too.
    Thanks to her books, teaching business English became – bearable? and then fun and satisfying in itself.
    What did you mean by V.H.S. – sorry, if I’m a bit dense! What I like about the Vicki Hollett videos is that they’re really geared towards learners – regardless of the level. They might even seem silly sometimes but I always find an element in there where they prove their worth. Youtube, there I’m a little bit more cautious.
    Humour – must be careful, could be subjective, have to consider tolerance +humour, perhaps.
    Anyhow, this is a great topic and I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  4. I mean video cassettes rather than DVDs, which my clients don’t have devices to play anymore. I have to give all of my VHS cassettes away…
    I take all of my visuals with me on my laptop…

  5. Don’t be too impusive there, Anne, in throwing out your old VHSs – there is equipment to copy them on to DVDs (I bought myself one some years bck, but it’s still in its packing under the sofa! Technology is not my strong point, I’m afraid. Meanwhile, I do have the Vicki Hollett ones as DVDs.
    Just thought I’d let you know.

  6. Good luck with your course, Joan, and let me know how it goes! Do you use a book, or make a full handout, or copy sheets as needed?

    I still like the funny sketch of the two robbers breaking in to the bank and answering the phone – It still works like a charm, but I don’t have it except on the video cassette.

    So as soon as the crush is over, I might have to come over and help you unpack that equipment under your sofa 🙂

    And we need to do that Ning thing too, right? Let me get back from the States, first, in about a month, from June 10, and then I’ll have loads of time!

  7. A sort of mix’m gather’m (do you understand that?) or pot purri, if you like. I prepare sheets, (copy some??) etc. depending on the topic. For meetings, negotiations etc. I dip into some of the classics on the market. And a lot of the input comes from the participants, describing their jobs/skills/ and focussing on CVs and interviews. These are people who are unemployed currently and are trying to gt back into the workforce.
    I’ve also just started three other business groups so I’m pretty busy.
    Have a good trip over yonder and looking forward to your return.

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