March 2013
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Abigail M. Porter, Danielle Bus, Lara M. Ravitch, & Britt Renée Johnson

Many associate the TESOL profession with a merry career of adventurous globe-trotting and confident transition from one institution to another, but this idealistic picture is, of course, not completely accurate. Even the most experienced language teachers can find themselves feeling insecure and uncomfortable when they join a new program, whether that program is down the street or on the other side of the globe. Indeed, each language program has a unique institutional culture, and the differences among these programs can lead to varying degrees of culture shock for new instructors. This shock may be a serious threat to program quality in IEPs, where low salaries and limited advancement opportunities may result in high faculty turnover. What specific strategies and approaches can IEPs use to reduce institutional culture shock and harmonize new instructors’ backgrounds with the values, expectations, and institutional constraints of their programs?

In TESOL, we are accustomed to thinking of culture in a number of ways—how it relates to language, society, and our classrooms. Yet little attention has been paid to the importance of the organizational culture of language programs. Pennington and Hoekje (2010) address organizational culture from the perspective of language program ecology, which is a system that has several resources and components that interact, making it a “delicate and intricate system," (p. 213). At the center of this system are the faculty, who are integral to how the language program ecology makes decisions, operates, and defines its culture. Consequently, the introduction of new teachers into an IEP can easily disrupt this delicate balance. It is therefore of utmost importance for the administration and longtime faculty of an IEP to ameliorate cultural conflict and assist new faculty members in assimilating to their new environment.

First of all, IEPs must begin to expect varying degrees of culture shock in new hires just as one might expect it in travelers, migrant workers, employees of multinational corporations, immigrants, or students studying abroad. In order to develop strategies to address this culture shock, program administrators should identify the forces at work in shaping institutional culture. It is important to consider a broad spectrum of these forces, including program size, leadership structure, exit outcomes for students, average age of the faculty, the nationalities and educational backgrounds of the faculty, methodology emphasized in teacher evaluations, and decision-making protocol. Identifying key influences that shape the institutional culture can help to begin the process of articulating and demonstrating the cultural expectations and norms to new hires. Once these forces are identified, the IEP must determine an approach for assisting new faculty.

Two approaches have traditionally been used to address acculturation of new hires: a brief, initial orientation and a longer term mentoring program. While these practices are indeed beneficial to new hires, richer and more prolonged guidance and action may help to fully address the needs of new hires. It is naive to believe that a short initial orientation, or simply designating a mentor for a few meetings, can effectively aid new faculty in assimilating into an IEP. This is especially true when waves of student enrollment, such as the influx of Chinese and Saudi students within the last several years, make it necessary to hire large numbers of faculty on short notice. Instead of the brief, cursory induction practices used in many IEPs currently, the work of Lave and Wenger (1991) and their concept of communities of practice can inform the development of a more comprehensive process.

In a communities of practice approach, new teachers can be seen as legitimate peripheral participants in a community of practice, who learn to become full participants through a lengthy process of observation and participation that is initially limited but becomes more active as the new faculty establish their roles. As Lave and Wenger (1991) suggest, “To become a full member of the community of practice requires access to a wide range of ongoing activity, old-timers, and other members of the community; and to information, resources, and opportunities for participation,” (p.100-101). Therefore, rather than simply delivering logistical information, this approach would present cultural information along with logistical and practical information, because both are essential to a new hire’s success (Bensimon, Ward, & Sanders, 2000). In other words, institutional culture, to the extent that it can be articulated, would be addressed head on. New hires will be better able to adapt to the new cultural norms if the norms, procedures, and general ways for interaction can be explicitly communicated to the new hires. Too often, returning faculty and administrators rely on a new hire’s knowledge of the profession to be sufficient for acclimating to a new place without recognizing the value of addressing more specific institutional cultural norms. Similarly, the orientation would familiarize new faculty with the criteria for success at the institution (Bensimon et al., 2000). In short, the planning and delivery of new hire orientations should be multidimensional.

Not only must orientations increase in their breadth to address cultural as well as logistic concerns, but they must also expand in length. Unfortunately, although many departments give their new hires an orientation, these orientation sessions are often of inadequate duration. Many of these programs are delivered in a short, intense day or two prior to beginning the first weeks of teaching. These intensive short-term orientation programs do not offer suitable support and often give an overwhelming amount of information about too many topics at the same time. A better solution is to offer a 1-year program; such programs offer necessary information in a time frame that allows faculty to absorb it. They also provide long-term support throughout the first year and recognition that new faculty will have many ongoing questions. A 1-year program can also provide both formative and summative evaluations and learning experiences for new faculty (Buller, 2006). Unlike a short, initial orientation, which might feature one overwhelmingly large social event, an ongoing orientation process could also allow for multiple, varied opportunities for socialization between new hires and returning faculty. These opportunities could then lead to both formal and informal mentoring between the new and returning faculty.

Indeed, in the redesigned orientation process, mentoring should play a significant role as the mentor provides an important means by which new hires can learn cultural norms. A mentor can insert insight and empathy into the experience of being a new hire in the institution. In a recent study, employees were reported to be more satisfied with their careers if they had a mentor (Nguyen, Huynh, & Lonergan-Garwick, 2007). However, this mentoring must not be haphazard or left to chance. Simply providing a mentor and a few initial meetings may not be enough to make new faculty feel comfortable expressing their insecurity or concerns about the institutional culture. Instead, the mentors should be trained in helping new employees navigate culture shock and should have plans that can be individualized to the needs of each teacher, depending on the level of engagement he or she needs in order to be adequately supported.

In conclusion, culture shock may cause many to feel unnerved, but it is important to remember that it is absolutely normal. Instead of scrambling to get new faculty in line or hoping in vain that they will intuit expectations, IEPs can make this time period valuable for both new hires and institutions by reinventing the induction process through a communities of practice approach. By initiating dialogue, analyzing on-boarding processes in practice, and carefully considering the current institutional culture, administrators and returning teachers can work together to strengthen support systems to new hires, thereby advancing the IEPs.

Specific suggestions for orienting new faculty and materials for orientation activities will be provided at a TESOL presentation on this topic, to be held March 22, 2013, 11–11:45 am in Convention Center room A302.


Bensimon, E. M., Ward, K., & Sanders, K. (2000). The department chair's role in developing new faculty into teachers and scholars. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Buller, J. L. (2006). The essential department chair: A practical guide to college administration. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Nguyen, A. M. D., Huynh, Q. L., & Lonergan-Garwick, J. (2007). The role of acculturation in the mentoring-career satisfaction model for Asian/Pacific Islander American university faculty. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13, 295–303.

Pennington, M. C., & Hoekje, B. J. (2010). Language program as ecology: A perspective for leadership. RELC Journal, 41, 213–228.

Abigail M. Porter, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA, has an MA in applied linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has a variety of teaching and program administration experience in corporate, secondary, and higher education settings. She now teaches in the American English Institute and the Department of Education Studies at the University of Oregon.

Danielle Bus, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar, received her MATESOL from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She has worked in public school, community college, IEP, and EFL settings. She is currently an instructor in the Foundation Program of English at Qatar University, in Doha, Qatar.

Lara M. Ravitch, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA,is a graduate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where she studied foreign language teaching and program administration. She has taught in and coordinated a variety of FL and ESL programs. She currently teaches in the American English Institute at the University of Oregon.

Britt Renée Johnson, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA, received her MATESOL and a certificate in language program administration from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She worked for many years as a teacher and program administrator in adult education and is now an ESL instructor in the American English Institute at the University of Oregon.

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