TESOL Governance Restructuring: A Long-Term View

With the recent proposals regarding TESOL International Association’s affiliate relations and knowledge-based member communities, the association’s governance review process is moving into its final phase. I think it is appropriate therefore to summarize the findings of the Governance Review Task Force and to discuss how the TESOL Board of Directors has responded to them.

In mid-2012 the TESOL Board of Directors appointed a Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) charged with helping the association create a system of governance that

  • fosters a culture of knowledge, trust, and nimbleness within TESOL International Association
  • ensures that all entities within TESOL International Association are high impact and add value to the association
  • supports efficient, effective, and strategic decision-making that is responsive to the needs of members and the TESOL profession
  • increases the ability of members of the profession to identify and discuss issues and to have input into governing actions that affect them
  • supports a leadership pipeline for members
  • maximizes the benefits from time and financial investment of members in association governance

In March 2014 the GRTF issued a report calling for the association to consider revisions to its governance structures and processes. It based this call on the following conclusions:

  • The association is spread thin and fragmented.
  • The governance system is not integrated; the elements in the system are not strategically aligned.
  • The overall structure and accompanying processes have expanded to become complex and bureaucratic, without clarity of purpose or function.
  • There is no coherent or readily obvious leadership pipeline or volunteer management process to find the best match between volunteer skills and opportunities.
  • Leaders and members desire to contribute meaningfully to the work of the association, be accountable, and receive acknowledgement.
  • The mandates of many member groups, and their roles in governance, are not clearly defined.
  • Many member groups experience a lack of consistency in work and effort with the annual rotation of leaders.
  • The governance system does not provide an efficient means to gather information about the paradigm shifts affecting teaching that would enable the association to meet the rapidly changing needs of members and the field.
  • Information flow among board, management, and member groups is problematic.
  • The overall organizational culture is focused primarily on structure and process, not on strategy and outcome.
  • The organizational culture is almost singularly focused on the annual convention, to the point that many member groups have little activity or function outside of it.
  • The strong culture of inclusiveness and equality in the association and the field often serves as the primary criterion for governance decisions.

These conclusions were not taken lightly, and since the findings were shared in March 2014, successive boards of directors in consultation with the membership have in fact made significant revisions to the governance processes and structures of the association. (The GRTF report, as well as subsequent reports and updates pertaining to the governance review and restructuring, are available on the TESOL website.)

Governing Documents

One of the board’s conclusions was that our approach to governing documents needed to change. Our previous approach relied on a set of bylaws and standing rules. The TESOL bylaws established who could be a member, how the association would make decisions, what the basic structures of the association would be, and other matters. The standing rules were intended to provide more detail regarding the operation of various entities within the association and processes to be followed. The board felt, however, that the standing rules overly emphasized procedure without always specifying the goal or reason for the rule. Moreover, changing procedures spelled out in the standing rules required a vote by the board. These processes around standing rules contributed to the sense that the association was overly bureaucratic and slow to change.

In March 2016, therefore, the board decided to replace the standing rules with a policy manual. The manual covers many of the same policies that were addressed in the standing rules, but the manual explains the rationale and general principles that should guide policies. When a policy establishes an entity such as the Finance Committee, the policy states that the committee shall write and maintain its own procedures manual. This allows the group itself to establish and revise as needed its way of operating without having to wait for board approval.

In March, the board will be considering a number of revisions to the bylaws. If adopted, these revisions will bring the language in the bylaws in line with governance restructuring changes and better enable the board to conduct business electronically. The Board will also be considering a new process whereby members can submit resolutions to the board for consideration.

Committee Restructuring

At the time of the GRTF report, TESOL had established 17 standing committees, which met yearly at the convention and then communicated electronically during the year. The committees varied with respect to both function and composition. Some assisted with recurring activities of the association (Awards and Professional Development Committees); some helped run the association (Rules and Regulations and Nominating Committees); and some focused on advocacy issues (Global Professional Issues and Employment Concerns Committees). Other standing committees were composed solely of board members and assisted the board in its responsibilities (Board Operations and Finance Committees). Members who served on these committees devoted considerable time to committee tasks, but, as the GRTF reported, members often felt the tasks were bureaucratic in nature or being done for no clear reason. Moreover, the sheer number of groups contributed to the breakdown in communication and the sense that the association was spread thin.

In its review of the committee structure, the board recognized that committees (or appointed groups of members) are a useful way of tapping member expertise to help the association achieve its strategic vision. At the same time, we recognized  the need to establish more transparent function(s) for these groups and rethink whether we needed so many permanent groups. In response, the board decided have fewer standing groups and, instead, to use task forces with a limited duration. In the end, the board identified two types of groups with ongoing functions: governance committees and professional councils. Governance committees enable the association to function as an association, and we have three: the Executive Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Nominating Committee. Professional councils, on the other hand, serve as centers of expertise on activities that help the association pursue its strategic vision. Currently we have six councils: Awards, Conferences, Professional Development, Publications, Research, and Standards. The transition from standing committees to governance committees and professional councils occurred between October 2015 and April 2016. As described below, the board is also considering an Affiliate Network Professional Council to help the association strengthen its international network of language teacher associations.

Charters establishing functions and responsibilities for each of these committees and councils have been adopted as part of the association’s policy manual. The charters also specify the kinds of expertise required to serve on the professional councils, and this information has been used to create calls for new members. The calls are posted on the TESOL website. Applications are reviewed by the council’s leadership, which makes a recommendation to the Executive Committee. Because the GRTF reported that members wanted more opportunities for shorter service, appointments are for one year and renewable annually for up to three. The governance committees and the professional councils have been asked to produce a procedures manual that documents what they do and how they do it. The hope is that writing a  procedures manual will help the group think through the scope of its activities and  that the manual will help orient new members.  The professional councils have also been assigned a board liaison to ensure direct communication with the board and a staff partner who facilitates the work of the group and shares information with the other staff partners.

Interest Sections

For many years, TESOL Interest Sections (ISs) have provided members with smaller, more focused communities where they can network learn, and share with others. The GRTF report, however, indicated significant concerns from IS leaders about the number of seemingly bureaucratic tasks they had to do, especially around the annual convention, and also a lack of communication with the association’s leadership. Some ISs also reported  that they were having difficulty recruiting new leaders and that their membership was dwindling.

In March 2015 the board decided to dissolve the Interest Section Leadership Council, which had been operating as an intermediary between the ISs and the board. We did this to enable more direct communication between IS leaders and the board. Because of the significance of ISs within the association, we also struck an Interest Section Task Force (ISTF) to make specific recommendations about how our member communities could be strengthened.

In a separate blog post, you can read a current proposal that the Board is seeking feedback on regarding Knowledge-Based Member Communities (KBMCs). One of the specific recommendations the ISTF made was that we consider having more than one type of member community requiring different levels of responsibility from volunteer leaders. The proposal suggests having Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) functioning as digital groups communicating via TESOL’s online platform and Professional Knowledge Sections (PKSs), which engage in a greater range of both online and in-person activities. Because of the GRTFs finding that the Association was often operating without clarity of purpose or strategy and with an almost singular focus on the convention, the PKSs would be required to adopt an annual plan for year-round activity and both types of groups would be required to articulate how they will contribute strategically to TESOL’s mission.

Affiliate Relations

The final structural element addressed as part of the governance review is TESOL’s relationship with its Affiliates. While our Affiliates are completely independent organizations and do not participate directly in the governance of TESOL, the relation that we hold with them contributes significantly to our ability to advance the field of professional language teaching. Nevertheless, the GRTF found that there was again lack of clarity about the purpose of the relationship. An Affiliate Task Force (AFT) was therefore struck in March 2015 to make recommendations.

A proposal for a strengthened affiliate relationship and an Affiliate Network Professional Council, on which the board is currently requesting feedback, is available in a separate blog post. The proposal suggests specific functions for the relationship and describes possibilities for joint activities that TESOL could engage in with individual affiliates.

Leadership Pipeline

The last two areas addressed by the GRTF relate not to specific structures within the association but rather to processes that cut across all structures. One of these is how we develop and support the volunteer leaders of the association. The GRTF reported that members often do not know about existing opportunities; they have few resources to help them develop their leadership abilities; and when members take up positions of leadership, they have little support.

The board has sought to address this issue in a number of ways. First, as noted above, leadership opportunities, along with descriptions of the abilities needed for the position, are now posted on the TESOL website. In addition, this past year a working group of the board developed a number of leadership resources that will also be posted on the website, including stories about the leadership pathways that individual members have followed. The working group has also recommended committing more resources to the Leadership Mentoring Program, which the association has sponsored for more than 20 years. The KBMC proposal also calls for the development of professional knowledge sections as part of their annual plan to address how they will develop leaders within their group.


The final concern expressed by the GRTF was the need for better lines of communication within the association. More specifically, they recommended “that the board develop an implementation and communications strategy. The implementation strategy would include a timeline for a phased implementation of strategies, as well as a statement of principles, such as those that guided the GRTF’s work:

  • At all stages there will be requests for feedback.
  • The board commits to being open and transparent.
  • The board commits to involving volunteer leaders.
  • Changes will not be made just for the sake of change.
  • Implementation will improve the membership experience.”

This is perhaps one of the most important recommendations made by the GRTF. The board needs to do a better job of sharing information about decisions and providing time for feedback, communicating the strategic vision of the association such that it would underlie decisions at all levels of governance, and responding to entities. Entities need better ways to get information to the board and Executive Committee in a timely and efficient manner, and they need to be able to share information with each other in ways that could lead to productive collaborations.

The board has sought to implement this recommendation in a number of ways. First, as this post and the posts related to the KBMC and affiliate proposals indicate, we are committed to informing members about actions and significant decisions we are considering. The blog post is an ideal vehicle for this because it allows for immediate feedback in a forum where other members can also engage. We also welcome individual feedback when members do not want to comment publicly. Since most TESOL entities meet as part of the annual convention, we have also instituted an annual meeting for TESOL leaders where we can discuss issues and share information with each other. Previously called the Leadership Briefing, this year we will call it the Leadership Forum to emphasize the need for multidirectional communication. Additionally, the KBMC proposal calls for professional knowledge sections as part of their annual communication plan that addresses how they will keep their members and the association as a whole informed about their activities.

The need for improved communication is a bigger issue than a board can address through programs or requirements, however; it is an issue of the association’s culture. If we are to improve our communication processes, then we all have to commit to openness, transparency, and actively thinking about who needs to know and who could benefit from knowing. We also have to remember that communication only occurs when people listen and respond. We must make this our shared value.

In this post, I have attempted to report on several years of work by different boards and task forces. I encourage you to respond by sharing your thoughts and suggestions about how we can continue to improve our association.

About Dudley Reynolds

Dudley Reynolds
Dudley Reynolds is the 2016-2017 president of TESOL International Association and a teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, where he teaches first-year writing. Over his career he has also taught elementary school learners in Egypt, intensive English students at Indiana University, and MA TESOL candidates at the University of Houston. His research focuses on teacher development and second language literacy issues.
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