5 Questions to ask before taking a contract teaching job in the languages or literacy field

April 24, 2014

Too many language and literacy professionals grovel for work. They’ll take teaching, editing or translating jobs that require long hours, lousy pay and poor working conditions because they are afraid that if they don’t they might not get another offer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When you exude confidence to your school or the organization who is contracting you (e.g. the client), you earn their respect. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself when you are considering a contract job as a language or literacy professional:

Business - Group - team hands

#1: Will I like working with these people?

Let’s face it, people who work in languages and literacy often have a vested interest in the students or clients they serve. It’s not just the learners you want to think about though. How does the management treat its staff? If the Executive Director is a micro-manager and you are a big picture thinker, is that really going to be a good fit for you? If the office staff are miserable because they hate their jobs, are you really going to like working in that environment?

You owe it to yourself to find out what the people are like that you would be working with. If you get that nagging feeling that these folks aren’t “your peeps”, do yourself a favour and walk away. Chances are you’ll be miserable if you take the job. In the kind of work we do, people matter. At least, they should. If people don’t matter, why would you want to work there?

#2: How do the organization’s values align with my own?

This is a big one. You need to be honest with yourself about what matters to you deep down. If you believe that genuine effort, commitment and participation are the most meaningful aspects of learning, then you’d hate working in an organization that bases marks on standardized testing.

I was once raked over the coals by a department head because my final grades didn’t fit  onto a bell curve. My students’ marks were too high. It happened that it was a particularly good group of students.  The department head didn’t care. She wanted a statistically perfect bell curve for the final grades “to maintain the integrity of the department”. (Baloney. The integrity of a language teaching department can never be represented by a bell curve of marks.) I was told in no uncertain terms that the next semester my class record book needed to reflect grades that fit onto a standard bell curve. There was no “next” semester. I choose never to teach for them again.

If an organization’s values are not aligned with your own, you’ll hate the work and you’ll hate yourself for working there. Seek out schools and clients who believe what you believe.

#3: How are the working conditions?

Are you given your own desk or work space or are you required to share? Are the facilities where you work clean and sanitary? Is parking readily available (at a fair price)?

How are the psychological and emotional conditions of the workplace? Is there a culture of oppression? Do the folks who work there constantly feel demoralized, grumpy or stressed out?

I recall one client who didn’t pay their staff particularly well, but the “extras” they offered them included free parking, a catered lunch every Friday and a work environment where laughter filled the hallways during break time and folks enjoyed a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship. As a result, they had staff who never wanted to leave and a long line of applicants who would give anything to work there.

The working conditions, environment and relationships at a workplace matter.

#4: How are the hours?

It is not uncommon for teaching organizations to fail to pay for the time required for you to prep your classes, grade student work or perform associated administrative duties. But what if they did? That would definitely be worth considering.

Are you required (or implicitly expected) to sit on committees as part of your professional volunteer service to the organization? Are you constantly being asked to help develop (or revise or “refresh”) curricula for no additional pay?

All of these extra tasks add up. Time is a limited resource. Every extra volunteer task you are asked to take on is time you can not spend doing something of our own choosing, such as spending more time with your family, engaging in leisure activities or even taking on more paid work elsewhere.

Your employer (or client, depending on your relationship with you) may not intend to “suck you dry” in terms of your time, but it happens more often than it should. Contract employees want to say, “Yes” because they think it will help position them for a full-time job should one arise. That may be the case… but it may not. Be honest with yourself and ask if all these “extras” you are taking on are really worth it.

 #5: How will this work maximize or help me develop my professional skills?

Would you be doing the “same old, same old”, teaching a subject you’ve taught for 20 years and if you are honest, are kind of bored of?

Conversely, are you being asked to teach courses that you’ve never taught before and the work would require you to put in dozens of hours of development time?

Is the work challenging for you in a way that you find inspiring and engaging? Are you growing as a result of your work? Are you learning new skills that will make you more marketable?

I’ve seen too many adjuncts, sessionals or contractors take any job they’re offered because they are afraid that if they don’t, the sky will fall in and they’ll never get hired again anywhere. You’re not “just a contract teacher”. Schools need you as much as you need them. Finding the right fit is more important to your long-term health and professional growth than taking any old job that might come along.

You are a language (or literacy) professional. And professionals don’t grovel or beg for work.

Treat every opportunity as a two way street. Interview the organization to see if they are a good fit for you. Make sure the work aligns with your areas of expertise and interests. If not, walk away. If you don’t, you could miss a real opportunity that’s just around the corner.

It’s your career. Be in charge of it.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Webinar recording: Creating Space for Strength

November 30, 2012

Our research team is thrilled to share the recording of our webinar “An Introduction to Creating Space for Strength: An Asset-Based Community Development and Research Project Focused on Calgary’s North Central Communities”.

We had over 40 people sign up for the webinar. The program lasted approximately 45 minutes and included chat dialogue from many community participants.

Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed. As promised, here is the recording. Feel free to share it with others.

5 Great resources on asset-based community development (ABCD) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1xJ

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Letting them shine: Working with multi-organizational coalitions

April 3, 2012

A colleague and I were recently asked to facilitate a workshop for a large, multi-organizational coalition that included government, educational and non-profit stakeholders. The coalition includes over 25 organizations who have all joined forces to promote a particular aspect of education.

As facilitators, we were warned that the groups were having difficulty agreeing on a structure for their coalition network and that different stake holders came to the table with different values, philosophies and areas of expertise. Yet, they all wanted to work together. Their lack of consensus was causing concern among some members.

Traditional model of governance

The coalition had a leadership team comprised of senior members of some of the major organizations. The group had been working hard to define what the structure of their coalition would look like. Here is what they came up with:

Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Elaine Eaton, Sarah Eaton, facilitator, speaker, keynote, presenter

Characteristics of the traditional organizational structure

Org charts like this show the typical structure of a traditional organization. This chart could work for a business, a non-profit organization or a public sector organization. The characteristics that define them are fairly uniform:

  • Top-down model (Leaders are at the top)
  • Clear hierarchy
  • Orderly
  • Rigid
  • Governance-focussed
  • Straightforward and easy to understand

Why traditional models do not work for coalitions

In the traditional model there is an underlying assumption that all members who belong to the organization share the same values and that those who are lower down in the pecking order are less qualified, experienced or powerful than those at the top.

In a coalition, every member organization may have a structure like this. Or they may be a “flat organization” with very little hierarchy. In any case, in a coalition, you are bringing together collective wisdom and knowledge for a common purpose. A traditional model of governance does not work because a “pecking order” is unproductive. Members who are not at the top may feel confined and undervalued, when in fact, they have a great deal to contribute. Members at the top of the coalition may feel frustrated because they do not have all the answers and they sense disengagement from those who are lower down in the organizational structure. The result can be feelings of disempowerment, frustration, anger and ultimately, disengagement from the work that everyone has come together to do.

In addition, members may feel pressured to surrender their current organizational culture in order to become part of the new coalition. Members may feel that their identity as an organization is challenged.

The Constellation Model

We presented a different model for the member organizations to consider. This model was developed by Surman & Surman (2008). It captures the complex nature of multiple stakeholders working together based on shared interests and assets.

Constellation model of Social Change, Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Eaton, facilitator

At the top of the model is a “magnetic attractor”, or the purpose that caused all the groups to come together in the first place. This essentially becomes their guiding star, or in less “fluffy” language, their guiding principles. The larger group’s shared purpose is what guides them and drives their actions, defining how they will work together.

This model is light on governance. There is no separate legal entity or incorporation. Instead, action-focussed work teams called “constellations” take on the responsibility for moving certain pieces of the work forward. There is no obligation for a group to exist indefinitely. Once their work on a particular area has been completed, the constellation may be phased out, giving way to new constellations. This “phasing out” is seen as a natural progression of the work, rather than a source of anxiety. It does not mean that the foundation of the larger organization has been shaken in any way.

Instead of a traditional leadership team at the top, there is a stewardship group that serves to empower the various constellations. Their job is to set a strategic direction, monitor the coalition’s overall health. Then, it turns over the energy and power to the working groups. Each group takes the lead on a particular project or set of actions. The general terms of reference for the stewardship group are “as little process as possible”.

This model also includes a third-party secretariat whose job it is to coordinate the overall efforts of the project and troubleshoot problems. Surman and Surman point out that:

“When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically… (create) a secretariat within the partner who has the most capacity. This is seldom an ideal solution. Placing the coordination function within one of the partners permanently alters the power dynamic of the group. One partner takes power. The others defer responsibility and lose energy.”

In this model, the secretariat is responsible to both the stewardship team and the constellations.

Characteristics of the Constellation Model

  • Defining traits of this model are:
  • Organizationally complex
  • Lightweight governance
  • Messy
  • Exist through lightweight agreements between members
  • Fiscal and legal responsibility moves around depending on which partner is leading a constellation
  • Leadership and power are shared among members

Our process

We challenged the groups to consider the constellation model in more depth. We asked them which aspects of it resonated with them and how.

We did not tell members that their current structure was wrong or that they needed to change it. We simply presented the constellation model as a tool for further discussion.


  • The group was able to engage deeply in a productive conversation about governance, leadership and structure.
  • Members gained insights into why a traditional organizational structure might not work for them.
  • Individuals who were feeling anxious and undervalued suddenly felt that they had options.
  • The group was able to acknowledge that a structure can be “messy” and still work.

Just as constellations in the sky may seem messy to the untrained eye, each functions well on its own. Sometimes stars burn out… and that is OK. In fact, it is normal and does not mean that the universe is falling apart. There is a natural ebb and flow to all work and process.

As facilitators we were astounded at the depth of conversation and levels of engagement. We brought the constellation to the table as a tool to generate dialogue. The unexpected result for us was a sense of relief, mixed in with excitement. Members felt that they had a better understanding of how many organizations could work together effectively without giving up their own identity or culture.


Here are some of the resources that we drew upon in order to prepare for and deliver the workshop:

Byers, R. (2011). “Models and Elements of Collaborative Governance” from @ A Glance: A Resource of the Healthy Communities Consortium.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.

Koch, J. (2005). The Efficacy of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in the Educational Context. (Master’s Thesis).University of Calgary, Calgary.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications.

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J. L., Dobrowolski, S., & Puntenney, D. (2005). Discovering Community Power: A Guide to Mobilizing Local Assets and Your Organization’s Capacity. from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University: http://www.abcdinstitute.org/docs/kelloggabcd.pdf

Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Surman, T. (2006, March 15, 2012) Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership. Retrieved from http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/files/event/attachments/Constellation%20Model%20Description%20June%209%2706.pdf

Surman, T., & Surman, M. (2008). Listening to The Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change. Social Space. Retrieved from http://socialinnovation.ca/sites/default/files/Constellation%20Paper%20-%20Surman%20-%20Jun%202008%20SI%20Journal.pdf

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A small contribution to a great event: Calgary Learns Life of Learning Awards (LOLAs)

March 28, 2012

When Megan Williams of Calgary Learns sent out an e-mail asking for donations for their silent auction, to be held as part of their Life of Learning Awards (LOLAs), I knew I wanted to do something. I was introduced to the LOLAs a few years back by a colleague who works at Bow Valley College. The awards honour individuals in 3 categories:

  • An adult learner who has achieved outstanding results in a non-credit, part-time adult education setting.
  • A facilitator or instructor of non-credit, part-time adult education who has shown exceptional skill, creativity and understanding.
  • A program designer or director who has made extraordinary and innovative contributions to the promotion, advancement and development of lifelong learning in Calgary.

So this year, when Megan sent out her call, I wanted to do something… and knew it had to be related to learning. As some of you know, I’ve been involved in a project to teach other learning professionals, non-profit organizations and small business people expand their educational program offerings using webinar and e-learning technology. It’s not much, but we have donated one set in our upcoming 5-Week Online “Build Your Own Webinar” Bootcamp.

These awards recognize an outstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Most importantly, the LOLAs recognize and celebrate individuals who work exceptionally hard… and do not always have the chance to shine in the limelight. This event is so inspiring precisely it celebrates those who dedicate themselves to a life of learning, not because they have to, but because they are driven by an insatiable passion to learn… and to share learning with others. It’s hard not to walk away from this event feeling elated.

That’s why I love going every year… and why we wanted to do our part to help. If you’re in Calgary on April 4 consider joining us. I guarantee you’ll leave inspired.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

5 key tips for language and literacy programs on how to use letterhead and envelopes effectively

December 30, 2011

It makes me crazy when I receive a letter with the printed address crossed out because the organization moved and is trying to save paper by using outdated letter head. Your program deserves its own letterhead, with matching envelopes.

Even worse, I shudder when I receive a poorly formatted letter from an organization that prides itself on helping others build their skills through language and literacy education.

Among the 9 Literacy and Essential Skills, one of them is writing. It is important for language and literacy organizations to lead by example when it comes to written communications. Not only does this help you with your organizational branding and marketing, it also helps to ensure that you are demonstrating leadership when it comes to the art and business of written communications.

Tip #1 – Letterhead must contain your contact information

Proper letterhead will include organizational information such as:

  • your mailing address, including the postal code
  • telephone and fax numbers, including the area code
  • organizational logo, if you have one
  • general e-mail address for the organization (e.g. info@…)
  • your website address

It is also becoming common to include social media contact information such as your organizational Twitter account or Facebook page, but these are less critical than your basic contact information.

If your program is housed within a larger organization, ensure that your specific mailing address, including the location of your program office, is indicated on your letterhead. If this information is left out, written correspondence is more likely to get lost or take longer to arrive because it can be delivered to the wrong office in error.

Tip #2 – Have matching envelopes in different sizes

All too often, I have seen literacy or language program letterhead with matching standard-size letter envelopes, but when it comes to mailing out program information and brochures, only plain brown envelopes are used. And worse, sometimes in the busy office environment, staff may forget to make labels for the return address.

If costs are prohibitive and your program can not afford envelopes printed in a variety of sizes, at the very least, buy some inexpensive labels that can be printed off at your office that contain your contact information. Ensure that all staff, including part-time or evening staff who are allowed to send mail on behalf of the organization, have access to organizational stationery, including return address labels.

Tip #3: Include the date and the recipient’s information near the top of the letter

Traditionally, this information is printed on the left-hand side of the letter. If you do not use a word-processing template that automatically tells you where to insert this information, insert 6 to 10 lines before writing the date. Start with the date and follow it with the recipient’s address.

Abbreviations of the date are not usually used in letters. There are two generally accepted formats:

North American format: December 30, 2011

European format: 30 December 2011

The North American format includes a comma between the day and the year. The European format contains no comma.

Two or three lines below this, the recipient’s information is written in this format:

Name (write out their full first and last name)

Title or position

Address Line 1

Address Line 2 (if necessary)

City, State (or Province), postal code, Country

There are accepted variations on this format, but it is important to include the date and the recipient’s information in a relatively standardized way that it is used consistently across the organization.

Tip #4: Fold letters appropriately

For letters that are inserted into a standard-size envelope (in North America, that is a #10 envelope), they should be folded twice, so that the end result is a piece of paper that is divided neatly into thirds.

The proper method is to fold the letter into thirds starting and the bottom and ending at the top, so that when the process is reversed and the letter is unfolded, the top third of the letter is what shows first. In other words, when the flap of the first fold opens outwards, it reveals the recipient’s name and address. The reason for this is rooted in office traditions where a secretary would receive and open all the mail for an organization. Envelopes were generally opened all at the same time using a letter opener. The letter opener was slid along the long side of the envelope, which had been sealed by the sender. Letters were taken out of their envelopes one by one.

In the event that a letter had been received by the wrong recipient in error, the secretary would know immediately, when she (and it was usually a she) opened the first flap of the letter. The intended recipient’s name and address would be visible, but the main body of the letter would remain hidden, due to the fact that the letter had only been unfolded part way.

Knowing immediately that the letter had been received in error, the discreet secretary would refold the letter (supposedly without bothering to open it the rest of the way and read it) and then ensure that the letter was delivered to its intended recipient.

If the folds are reversed so that the first flap reveals the senders signature, the entire letter has to be fully opened before any errors might be detected.

Tip #5: Use proper salutations and closings in your letters

Business letters traditionally start this way:

Dear (Title – e.g. Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) (Recipient’s surname):

Business letters use a colon, not a comma, after the recipient’s name. Commas are used in personal, hand-written letters.

Though it has become common place in North America to use a person’s first name in the salutation of a business letter, the tradition with a typed or computer-printed letter is to write out the person’s title and last name. If the sender knows the recipient well and they are on a first name basis, then the sender strikes out the title and last name with a pen, and writes the person’s first name by hand above their printed name. This shows  formal respect, acknowledgement of the first-name relationship and attention to detail on the part of the sender. Ideally, this is done with the same pen that the sender uses to sign the letter.

Having said that, I have been known to opt for the increasingly accepted method of addressing a letter to a colleague whom I know well by his or her first name. When I do though, it is a conscious choice on my part, rather than accepted standard. It is important for those working in literacy and educational organizations to know the proper standards in order to make informed professional choices.

I have also taught this tradition to students in my Effective Learning courses, as all too often, they seem to think it is acceptable to start a letter with salutations such as: “Dear Miss” (no name, just “Miss”), “Dear Teacher” or “Hi”. Heaven help them if they start a letter with “Hey there!” Once you know the proper way, you can make your own choices from there, but at least they are informed choices. There is a difference between breaking the rules and not knowing them in the first place. Language and literacy professionals, in my professional opinion, should be the last to plead ignorance in matters relating to writing. (Boy, that sounded snotty, didn’t it? Well, so be it…)

Moving right along, appropriate closings for business letters are:


Yours truly,

Best regards,

Closings are followed by a comma. Four or five lines are left below the closing for the signature. Then, the sender’s name is computer-printed. His or her title or position may be written on the line below, if desired.

There are minor variations on these guidelines and some readers might think that I’ve suddenly become very stuffy or nit-picky by suggesting that letters need to be folded in a particular way. I confess to a certain amount of sadness and dismay when I receive letters on letter head that has an address from two office moves ago, envelopes with no return address or letters folded so that the body of the letter shows on the outside of the folds, rather than the inside of the fold. When these gaffes happen in letters from literacy and educational organizations, they make me downright me crazy.

Your program stationery is part of your organizational marketing and branding. If you intend to market your program effectively, start with the basics. Ensure that you have a complete set of stationery with up-to-date contact information.

Your organizational image, however, goes beyond having letterhead with your logo stamped on it. Insist that everyone working in the office use official stationery for all office correspondence and use it in a way that demonstrates high levels of text literacy and leadership in the art of writing professionally.

This post is adapted from “Idea #19: Have letterhead and matching envelopes made for your program ” in 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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