Talking with experts in ELT!

Interviews on education and language teaching

Mike Riley on Teaching, Managing and Leading


“Making decisions is a crucial part of being a leader”
Now settled in the UK where he works as Global Teacher Training Manager at Macmillan Education, Mike spent over a decade at International House Milan. He worked there as teacher, Director of Studies and Director. He has been passionate about leadership ever since studying American History at university. Mike has always got lots of inspiration from the lives of great men and women throughout history. He has found that many of the lessons they have to offer can be applied to the world of teaching English.

Many educators have worked for different language teaching schools as teaching staff, coordinators, Directors of Studies, administrators and/or managers. What are the main qualities of a virtuous school manager?

In my career I’ve been lucky enough to work for and alongside many excellent managers. Every manager is different, but there are some characteristics that the best ones have in common. A clear sense of vision is crucial. The very best managers are also the ones who embody the values and culture of the school – the way they behave on a daily basis shouts out ‘this is how we do things here.’ The best managers are authentic.
Probably one of the most important qualities is to trust your team. It takes a confident person to put in his/her teachers and other staff – you will sometimes get your fingers burnt. But working for a trusting manager can be very liberating. People work with more creativity and less fear. Fundamentally, the managers’ job is to help their team members be as effective as possible – trust is a great way to achieve this.
As a manager your focus has to be on getting students and parents as happy and satisfied as possible. That comes from their contact with the teachers and administration staff – so much of our focus will be on getting the best out of those two groups. 

What challenges does running a school bring?

I’m not sure we have enough time to cover that question! Just as you get on top of one batch of challenges, a new load lands on your desk. Management
in any sector has a huge range of challenges – from financial management and analyzing the market to hiring great staff and keeping your team motivated.
There are some unique challenges to running a school. People attracted to working in education are usually passionate, creative people. This is a wonderful thing to have in the school, but also a challenge as creative people tend not to be enthusiastic about being ‘managed’ One of the problems of managing performance is that so much of the job takes place behind the closed classroom door. So it’s sometimes difficult to get an accurate picture.

An interesting challenge for a school manager is how to assess success. To an extent we can measure success through assessment and testing of students, but this doesn’t always show the full picture. Do we look at retention as a measure? Total hours studied? Feedback from courses?
Also, let’s not forget, we have our students right there in the building – so there are lots of challenges in terms of safeguarding and customer satisfaction. It should be said, the most successful managers are the ones who enjoy these challenges.

Who is more difficult to deal with? Teachers, students, parents or administrative staff?

Ha – that’s a dangerous question! As managers I’m sure we’ve all experienced frustrations with people from all of these groups. What I’ve found is most people are being ‘difficult’ because they are actually striving for the best – they want to be the best possible teacher, they want the best results from their studies or their children’s education. It’s really important to remember that and not get into confrontational situations with them. Occasionally, you may come across someone who would be better served in another school, but that’s pretty rare.

As a manager your focus has to be on getting students and parents as happy and satisfied as possible. That comes from their contact with the teachers and administration staff – so much of our focus will be on getting the best out of those two groups.

Can a good teacher become a good manager?

Absolutely, but it is important to remember that the two jobs are very different. Being a good teacher does not necessarily mean you will become a good manager. The pressures and focus are different. I’ve worked with some great teachers who became great managers.

I think it is crucial that a teacher making that move does so with their eyes wide open. It will inevitably mean less time in the classroom. Anyone who thinks the academic manager sits in their office reading the latest educational research all day and carefully piecing together next year’s academic programme is in for a shock.

The job is much more about problem solving, number crunching, fire-fighting and people management. The hours can be long. The responsibilities can be stressful. The manager’s chair is a difficult place to be if you are a perfectionist! But if you enjoy understanding people, putting their needs first, developing their talents and constantly making clear decisions and solving problems, then, yes a good teacher can become a good manager!


Should a manager brought in from outside have a sound educational background?

That’s a great question. Probably more important than their educational background is what support is offered to a manager coming in from the outside. The world of ELT can be a confusing one for an outsider! So, the key is to give that person as much support, information and insight as possible.

It is certainly very attractive to bring someone in with the requisite management skills. It would be crucial to impress upon that person the importance of focusing on their own learning as they start. My advice to that manager would be to listen as much as possible to as many people as possible before radically changing things.

Reflecting on your time in Milan as a school director, what is the one thing that you would now do differently?

Oh! So many things! Making decisions is a crucial part of being a leader. Leaders are only human, so many mistakes are made. I always felt that it was important to make decisions at the right time and risk making a mistake rather than hesitating for a long time and, in so doing, create a lack of leadership.

I think the thing that brought me most success in my role was spending one-on-one time with members of my team. Nothing brought better long-term rewards. But, life as a director is extremely busy and it was always easy to let those meetings slide. If I could do it all again, I would be even more vigilant about finding and protecting time to connect with my team members on an individual basis.

Greece may have started to get its bearings but tuition fees are still a very price-sensitive commodity. Are there any ways to avoid getting dragged into price wars with competitors?

That’s an interesting question and I should come clean and admit I am not an expert on the market in Greece. I guess it’s really important to understand the market inside out and your own customers. Customers may be sensitive to price, but there are some things they are reluctant to trade just to get a better price. It’s crucial to research the market to understand this – thinking about both the short- and long-term.

It’s really important to build your brand and make sure it is strongly positioned. What value are you offering – both real and perceived – that your competitors aren’t? What do your customers value about your brand? Build your story around that and you just might retain your customers and attract new ones, without getting dragged into a price war.

Is the school owner’s vision alone enough to lead a school into the future?

No. If a school owner has no vision or a muddied vision, then disaster is probably round the corner. So having a clear vision that is rooted in reality and based on a keen understanding of market conditions is crucial. But the vision on its own is not enough.
The leader has to get everyone in the team, at every level, engaged with and excited about that vision. The leader has to allow people to take that vision and make it their own. If you had everyone in your school fully behind the vision, each one reacting and responding to situations as if they themselves were the owner, wouldn’t that be the best formula to bring success?

It is often the case in companies that you “hire based on skills and fire based on behaviour”. What is the most important quality that a teacher should have in order to be a good fit into the school’s culture?

To be honest, I’m not sure hiring for skills is actually the best approach. Skills can always be taught and developed. What I looked for when interviewing teachers was attitude. Some of the most successful teachers I had, joined us straight from their initial training course. They needed a lot of support and development in terms of techniques and knowledge, but they had such wonderful enthusiasm and a positive approach.
It was a joy to watch them grow and develop over the years. It still gives me a thrill to know that many of those teachers continue to be great teachers. Some of them present at conferences. Some of them have gone into management. Some of them have their names on course books. That initial positive attitude and enthusiasm was a good indicator of how they would develop in their careers.

How important is educational leadership in small and medium-size schools?

I think leadership is crucial, regardless of the size of the school. I think leaders can play a crucial role in empowering others and have a huge impact on the well-being of the teachers and staff working for them. So, great leadership is going to have great results regardless of the size of the institution. And looking at the world in 2019, I have to say great leadership is in short supply – let’s hope the world of ELT can offer a shining example to other sectors! •