How Can We Make TESOL’s Interest Sections More Effective?

Editor’s Note: This post is an update on the activities of TESOL’s Interest Section Task Force from task force members Tamara Jones and Joe McVeigh. Joe is also the chair.

TESOL Interest Sections serve the association and its members in a number of ways: through newsletters, online discussions, and helping assemble the annual convention program. As a member of TESOL, you can join as many interest sections and subscribe to as many email discussion lists and newsletters as you like.

TESOL’s interest sections in their current form have been around since the 1970s. As associations such as TESOL grow and mature, they often keep doing things just as before, simply out of habit. But it is good practice for an organization to periodically examine itself and its structure, to see if it’s working as well as it might be. To examine the organization’s functioning, the TESOL Board of Directors struck the Governance Review Task Force. This group completed its work and reported to the board last year. In response to the ideas presented by that task force, the board asked a new group of TESOL leaders to look in greater detail at the structure of the TESOL Interest Sections. This second group, the Interest Section Task Force (ISTF), came into being in May 2015.

The board charged the ISTF with

  • conducting research on contemporary forms and functions of knowledge-based member communities (KBMCs) in associations
  • analyzing TESOL’s interest sections
  • recommending options for functions and improved communications

The ISTF comprises members who hold interest sections dear to their hearts, including Joe McVeigh (ISTF chair, MWIS, IEPIS), Elisabeth Chan (SRIS), Kristin Hiller (PAIS), Tamara Jones (SPLIS, IEPIS, ISLC), Todd Ruecker (SLWIS), Justin Shewell (CALLIS), Aya Matsuda (board representative), Sarah Sahr (staff representative), Michelle Kim (staff support), and John Segota (staff liaison). We’ve been meeting electronically, reading, interviewing, and researching for the past several months. We wanted to share our process with you and ask for your feedback about the future of interest sections within the association.

Looking Outward: Component Relations Literature

Before looking inward at TESOL Interest Sections, our first step was to look outward, to review and evaluate other models. We reviewed the literature surrounding what professional associations refer to as “component relations” because components are similar in many ways to interest sections. Next, the ISTF looked at literature relating to communities of practice (CoPs) or knowledge communities. Several common themes arose from this literature.

  • The world has changed, so members have changed and, thus, organizations need to change, or they risk becoming irrelevant.
  • Organizations need to maximize the use of members’ increasingly precious time. Everyone is very busy these days.
  • Today’s younger professionals are more technology oriented, so to meet their needs, organizations need to use use technology effectively.
  • For members, including volunteer leaders, to be invested in the organization’s work, they need to be able to trust the organization.
  • Successful CoPs in professional organizations require high value learning activities, peer-to-peer learning, and successful use of online technology.

Looking Outward: Knowledge-Based Member Communities

Based on points raised in the literature review, the ISTF developed a questionnaire to administer to other professional associations to learn how they use components, knowledge-based member communities (KMBCs), and communities of practice (CoPs). The ISTF identified approximately 30 associations and reviewed their websites to see how they use components. The list of associations was then narrowed and ISTF members asked staff and members from the selected associations to complete the questionnaire via phone, electronic interview, or email. ISTF members synthesized the more interesting findings from this work into a list of ideas that may inform the ISTF’s ongoing work. Again, several interesting themes arose.

  • If online communication and interaction is to thrive, the online platform and communications software must be streamlined and easy to use.
  • In some associations, members avidly compete for volunteer positions because they see these positions as desirable. In this case, rather than being known as “volunteers,” they are known as “leaders.”
  • Associations have developed a wide variety of structures and levels of control for KBMCs. In some cases, each KBMC has its own staff member who curates the online community. In other associations, the KBMCs suffer from benign neglect.
  • Some associations have various levels of KBMC. Some may come together briefly to explore a particular issue and then disappear. Others may have to pass through various levels of qualification to become long-term groups within the association.
  • Engagement is key.

Looking Inward: Examining the Findings of the Governance Review Task Force

Initially, the ISTF looked outward so that we would not—by default—base our findings on the way TESOL works now. But we then began looking at what we already know about TESOL thanks to last year’s Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) Report. As part of its work, the GRTF surveyed interest section and other TESOL leaders to ascertain their level of involvement and satisfaction with TESOL governance. Among the GRTF findings were the following.

  • The association is spread thin and fragmented.
  • The governance system is not integrated; the elements in the system are not strategically aligned.
  • Leaders and members desire to contribute meaningfully to the work of the association, be accountable, and receive acknowledgement.
  • Many leaders felt unprepared for their jobs when they began their positions.
  • Leaders felt that too much of their time was spent on administrative issues, such as writing reports, and not enough on the real matters of professional interest to their members.
  • Interest sections, as well as other parts of TESOL such as committees, appear to operate almost in a vacuum without clear communication or knowledge of what is happening in other parts of the association. Information flow among board, management, and member groups is problematic.
  • Many interest sections struggle to fill volunteer leadership positions.
  • Many member groups experience a lack of consistency in work and effort with the annual rotation of leaders.

Looking Inward: Examining Current Interest Section Structures, Practices, and Beliefs

More recently, the ISTF has begun to look inward at current interest section structures, practices, and beliefs. To get an idea of the common areas of concern among leaders, ISTF members reviewed the Interest Section Leadership Assembly minutes and interest section annual reports from 2010 to 2015. Interest section leaders and a random sample of TESOL members will receive surveys asking how they view TESOL Interest Sections and what they would like to see from them.

Next Steps

After analyzing all of the data, the ISTF will recommend options and models for improving member engagement and communication. These recommendations will be presented to TESOL’s Board of Directors for review at their April 2016 meeting and the board will decide how to respond to or act on them.

To keep members informed of activities, the ISTF hopes to hold a webinar in advance of the conference, and to share its findings at the Leadership Briefing at the conference, as well as at a special session devoted to the subject.

We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how interest sections can better serve TESOL’s members. In the event that you do not receive a survey, please feel free to leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

About TESOL International Association

TESOL International Association
Founded in 1966, TESOL International Association is a professional community of educators, researchers, administrators and students committed to advancing excellence in English language teaching for speakers of other languages worldwide. With more than 12,500 members representing over 156 countries, TESOL fosters the exchange of ideas, research, and peer-to-peer knowledge, and provides expertise, resources, and a powerful voice on issues affecting the profession. Through professional development programs, its international conference, special interest groups, and publications, TESOL engages tens of thousands of professionals to collaborate globally and create a world of opportunity for millions of people of all ages who want to learn English.
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2 Responses to How Can We Make TESOL’s Interest Sections More Effective?

  1. Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

    Thank you, Joe and Tamara. I did complete a survey. I also wanted to share a success story.

    The English for Specific Purposes Interest Section (ESPIS) has contributed significantly to my professional growth because it has provided me with opportunities to “create” on a global scale.

    As I have written in the TESOL Blog and elsewhere, I conceptualize leadership as being a creative activity that involves: 1) communicating to create a vision and 2) communicating to achieve a vision. As a leader in the ESPIS, I have had the opportunity to create in collaboration with many others.

    Such creation includes:
    1. An ESP PowerPoint to define our field and who we are as ESP practitioners (which can be accessed on the TESOL ESPIS page)
    2. ESP month-long threaded discussions in the Community Network (by TESOL members and also in collaboration with members of the ESP Special Interest Group of IATEFL)
    3. A TESOL webinar on ESP principles and best practices (which can accessed in the ESPIS library in the Community Network)
    4. The ESP project leader profiles, which illuminate the leadership, professional communication, and expertise of ESP practitioners. (See my TESOL Blog posts.)
    5. An IATEFL-TESOL conference call on how ESP projects can create social change. (The discussion will be recorded by TESOL in February and then made available worldwide.) I should note that the Board of Directors has been in the loop, and we have their support!

    In view of the above, I am hoping that the IS will continue to be structured and governed in such a way that such creative activity, global communication and collaboration, and professional development are promoted and enhanced.

    As a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF), I can appreciate the work that the ISTF has put into this project. Thank you!

    Best wishes for a good result!


  2. Margi Wald says:

    As program chair for the TESOL 2017 convention, I am interested in working together with this group to provide opportunities to increase engagement of and networking between IS members. Thanks for all your hard work so far.

    If members have ideas, please let the program chairs know ( what we should consider for 2017 in Seattle.

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