Alex Case offers advice on how Business English and ESP teachers can stay motivated despite poor class attendance.

Dear Alex,

I am the academic director of a small language institute. We mostly cater to business professionals, often in large companies, where our students have very busy work schedules. This frequently leads to students finding it difficult to come to class on time (2-4 students in a group), if at all, and this sometimes causes my teachers to become unmotivated. They might have developed motivated, active, strong lessons, but when there's no one there to teach, time and time again, they lose their motivation and the next time around, when the students do come, their lessons are boring and unfocused. I work with their Human Resources departments to improve their attendance and punctuality, but I also want to help my teachers deal with this issue. How can I help them stay motivated even when they don't often know who is coming to class when, if at all? Any insight and ideas would help. Thank you so much.

Maureen Kuhn-Rojas

You’re not alone on this one – most Business-English and ESP teachers have to deal with this sooner or later. Although you are never going to get 100% attendance or teachers who are happy to scrap a lesson plan they have spent hours on, there are quite a few ways of alleviating these problems. As even the most motivated in-company student in the world might have to skip class occasionally, I’ll deal with keeping the teachers motivated when that happens first, and then give some ideas for getting student attendance rates up.

Dealing with the motivation of teachers whose students regularly miss class

There are four ways of looking at this:

  1. Maintain a feeling of making progress
  2. Make preparation easier
  3. Make sure they can use the lesson again
  4. Help them share the lessons

1. Maintaining a feeling of making progress

Even more than preparing a lesson and then finding they can’t use it, teachers can be demotivated by taking their lesson into class, scrapping it because few or no students turn up, taking the same lesson back in the next week etc. This can also be demotivating for the students who are attending. In place of this, the HR department, you, the teacher and the students will need to design a syllabus made up of single stand-alone lessons, e.g. a lesson on the Present Simple, followed by one on Telephoning, followed by the vocabulary of typical office actions. If any lesson is missed, the materials are passed on to the students who weren’t there before the next class (along with any answer keys, tapescripts and instructions to help them use it at home) and the class moves on to the next stand-alone lesson on the syllabus anyway. The same system can also be used if students do attend but the lesson content is different from what is on the syllabus due to special student requests for help on something, tiredness, etc.

An unrelated technique that can also help students and teachers maintain a feeling of making progress is to get teachers to write regular progress reports on what their students have been studying (inside and outside of class), and how they have improved.

2. Making Business and ESP lesson preparation easier

It can take a lot of time to find the right materials for Business-English and ESP classes and many teachers find that very focused lessons can be demanding in terms of adapting or even writing materials. As you said, this can make it particularly disheartening if they then can’t use the materials they have spent so much time on. The best way of helping teachers cut down on that preparation time is to build up a collection of files with materials for different business skills (telephoning, emailing) and types of business (architecture, oil industry). A less paper-intensive way of doing the same thing is to bookmark useful EFL and business magazine and newspaper sites in your web browser and let teachers have a look through them when they come in. If the teachers can’t come into the office very often, you can share those links with a blog links page or email of recent finds.

3. Making sure they can use the lesson again

As far as possible, try to give a teacher classes of the same level, type of business and textbook used, so that they can reuse lessons that weren’t possible with the class they originally planned them for.

4. Helping them share the lessons

Possibly even more motivating than making sure they can use their own lessons is sharing those ideas with someone else. You can help teachers with this by having a notice board and/or file for recent materials and lesson plans they have written or found, passing the best of these ideas on to everyone in a teachers’ newsletter or blog, having workshops where they can exchange ideas, organizing peer observations and / or encouraging them to publish their ideas in places like the onestopenglish Lesson Share.

Although helping them share the lessons can result in teachers who are even more motivated than before the whole question came up, obviously we would still like students to come to class as much as possible. Here are some ideas:

Getting attendance in in-company classes up

Here are some ideas to give students that extra little push to neglect their work and come to English class instead:

  1. Take the attendance and make sure students know it
  2. Set a minimum attendance rate
  3. Make sure no one gets left behind
  4. Set tests
  5. Make students’ jobs easier
  6. Give students a break

1. Take the attendance and make sure students know it

For example, try having a big clipboard where students sign themselves into the lesson with the time they arrived, and then send them monthly, quarterly and yearly reports on their attendance and progress.

2. Set a minimum attendance rate

Although it seems very strict, students can sometimes be happy about a system of having to attend 80% or so of lessons or pay for your own classes, as it gives them a clear reason they can tell their boss why they have to leave their work for a bit and go to class. In the event they don’t come to the minimum number of lessons you set, you can make them sit an obligatory test or do extra homework rather than actually charging them.

3. Make sure no one gets left behind

Once a student has missed a class for totally unavoidable reasons, that can turn into a feeling that they have got left behind and to them missing classes for more and more avoidable reasons. With the help of the HR department and the other students, make sure that students who miss a class get copies of all the materials used in that class (including a tapescript if a recording was used) and clear, written instructions on what the homework is and any other catch-up work they should do. A system where they can submit their homework even if they don’t come, e.g. by email or through another student, can also be useful.

4. Set tests

Although it can be easy to assume that Business-English and ESP students get more than enough motivation from needing English for their jobs, there is no substitute for the short term adrenalin boost that a test or exam can give. As well as regular progress checks (which can also help teachers write the progress reports mentioned above), scheduling a test like TOEIC, BULATS or BEC can help students remember that they actually can skip that meeting and come to class instead.

5. Make students’ jobs easier

Even a student who has a clear long term goal with their English is more likely to come to class if they know it doesn’t mean finishing work an hour later once they have gone back to their desks to finish what they are doing, but means that the amount of work they will have to do is actually less. Ways to do this include teachers correcting and helping to write actual work emails, giving guides to telephoning they can stick to their desks near the phone, emailing them formats for different kinds of email that they can just fill in the gaps of and send, and helping them with a presentation they are giving next week. More generally, it means giving students the language they need to do their work as soon as possible, rather than taking a building blocks approach to building up their general language level. This also fits in well with the stand-alone lessons idea above.

6. Give students a break

Although it is easy to get into the mentality of setting up work-related special needs courses where we get students to talk about their jobs and prepare to do their jobs, many students understandably can be more motivated by that hour away from their desks being an escape from work – especially if it is at a time when they would otherwise be having lunch! Please note that students will often not admit this to themselves, let alone the teacher or HR manager. You could write a whole book on how to combine this with the syllabus that their company is paying for and the students know they should learn really, but some techniques include using warmers, fantasy ('your dream office', 'imaginary excuses for not doing your work', etc.), business trivia, cultural topics about other countries, the lives of rich and famous businessmen, futuristic inventions, etc.

Hope that helps.