December 2017
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PAIS VOICES
ENGAGEMENT IN AND REFLECTION ON ACTIONS AS A PROGRAM ADMINISTRATOR
Linh Phung, Chatham University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

I started working as the coordinator (now director) of the English Language Program at Chatham University 6 years ago. I was “thrown into” an administrator position while being relatively new to the country and definitely new to the role. In my first few years, thanks to the influx of Saudi students, the program grew from just more than 20 students in three proficiency levels to more than 100 students in five levels. My job duties grew in response.

It was an exciting but also tumultuous time as the program went through growing pains. Dealing with requests, resolving complaints, and disciplining (and dismissing) students were not easy tasks. Nor was supervising program faculty and staff. Looking back, I realize that I was naïve in the sense that there was so much about working with people that I did not know. However, with the positive feedback from students, the established reputation of the program in the Pittsburgh area, and the high engagement of the program faculty and staff, I can say that I have achieved a certain level of success. I have grown in my awareness and knowledge of the people around me and their diverse experiences, perceptions, and desires. Through their comments about me, I know that some aspects of my approach to work have stayed the same while others have evolved. Here are some examples of those aspects.

Courage and responsibility: I have always been persistent in solving problems that I judge as important. To me, when there’s a problem that needs to be solved, doing nothing is not an option. This focus on solving problems by pushing other parties to take actions has earned me a reputation of not only being “a fireball,” “driven,” and “ambitious,” but, painfully, also “aggressive” and “desperate.” However, I realize that I need to keep having the courage and responsibility to drive change and get things done for the good of the program and the students that it serves.

Being inspiring: My office neighbors, who sometimes overheard my conversations with students, praised me for being “firm, clear, and friendly.” My former boss once said, “You’re small, but nobody can intimidate you.” A student jokingly commented to another, “She’s small, but dangerous.” I took these as compliments and even described myself as being “tough.” As I’m working with more motivated students, I see that holding high standards and expectations is still important, but being kind and inspiring is also effective—and usually easier than being tough.

Just an ESL teacher: I once heard the comment: “She’s just an ESL teacher.” “You wouldn’t say she’s just a surgeon,” commented others as I told the story to them. I knew that sentence affected me deeply. I’m aware of the status of ESL at a university in the United States. Relating my struggle to be recognized, I’m sometimes seen as being driven by status. After some time, I could finally articulate the reasons behind my struggle: I’m fighting against power for people with less power (including myself). But I have also learned to be more relaxed. With the power of English worldwide, for better or worse, I realize I have opportunities outside my place of employment to do more work, such as lecturing, publishing, and serving communities. I am not just an ESL teacher or a director of a university program. I can do more and achieve more elsewhere.

There’s no question that language program administrators can benefit from professional training in personnel management, teacher supervision, and business administration, to name a few topics. I strongly believe in the power of knowledge, but also realize there are things we can only learn through engagement in actions and reflection on actions with all the pains and the joys associated with them. Everyone needs to find their own unique approach to program administration.


Linh Phung is the director of the English Language Program and Pittsburgh Pathways at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. She has served as president of Three Rivers TESOL and is the community manager for PAIS.

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