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Navigating the Covid effect

Caroline Gear, executive director of the International Language Institute of Massachusetts (ILI) and former president of EnglishUSA, explains how her school survived the pandemic

We had limited experience in online learning prior to the Covid pandemic, and it took unprecedented commitment, especially on the part of our teachers, to create the classroom atmosphere and appropriate materials and teaching styles needed to succeed. With continued registration on many of our courses, we had a steady source of revenue to help offset enrolment losses in our intensive English programme for international students and our on-site workplace language learning courses, which suffered when businesses began to close their doors.

We also received the strong backing of our many advocates, including ongoing advice from our very accomplished all-volunteer board of directors, as well as financial support from foundations, businesses and individual donors. We qualified for a low-interest federal loan, two rounds of federal pandemic response funding and federal payments to offset expenses associated with employees – all because we kept our entire workforce employed during the pandemic.

Finally, our flexible long-term planning strategies guided us in shaping a ‘new normal’ as we moved to all remote learning and are now bringing back in-person classes. Our plan projects that our adjusted business model – comprising both online and in-person learning opportunities – will underpin success for ILI students, the school and the local communities we serve.

And the future…?

At ILI, we saw an increase in international student enrolment in 2022 and registration numbers for early 2023 are holding steady. That appears to be a trend across the US, although it is still anaemic compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Actually, enrolment began to decline before the pandemic, when changes in US visitation policies took hold. There are some positive signs that US policies are once again trending toward more ‘friendly’ in relation to international travel and visitation, and as they take hold, the word that the US is open again may drive greater interest from international students.

We are working hard on a daily basis to grow enrolment through contacts with agents, messaging with many friends in this business around the world, and improving our website to make it easier for prospective students to find us and initiate the registration process.

We can’t compete with countries that offer work opportunities for full-time students enrolled in language courses, though we would love to see changes in US policy that would include a work option, as well as a clear path for potential students to immigrate to this country.

Our school

ILI’s mission focuses on building multicultural understanding and diverse communities through high-quality language instruction and teacher training. To us, that means serving people in the communities of western Massachusetts as well as bringing international students to live and learn right here in Northampton. To increase the accessibility and relevance of our programmes, we offer online and in-person language classes and teacher training options.

Why it’s over-17s only

Many international students studying at ILI stay with area host families, most of whom are not comfortable with the added responsibilities of looking after younger students in their home. There is certainly a market for junior classes, and we are discussing the potential of bringing in juniors in collaboration with one of our university partners, so that students would live on campus in dorms.

Low teacher numbers

The teacher shortage is a regrettable fact across this country. During the pandemic, positions were cut and some teachers found other work, while others working remotely did not want to return to classrooms when in-person learning started again.

Fortunately, our situation isn’t as dire as at some schools. Our diverse offerings provide opportunities for teachers to work in more than one programme, including our TESOL certificate course that provides newly trained teachers who could potentially work at ILI.

If you could change anything?

My magic wand would conjure up a holistic approach that would result in institutional and community awareness of the cultural and economic contributions that English learners of all ages and walks of life bring to this country. It would be anchored by collaboration with EnglishUSA, the largest professional trade association of accredited intensive English language programmes in the US.

Caroline is the executive director at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts. She has been at the school since 1986 as a teacher, administrator and teacher trainer. Caroline has lived and worked in Peru, Mexico and Spain. She served as president for EnglishUSA, is the youth exchange officer for the Northampton International Rotary Club and is a board member of the Greenfield Community College Foundation and the World Affairs Council of Western Massachusetts.

Image courtesy of Library
Caroline Gear
Caroline Gear
Caroline Gear is the executive director at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts. She has been at the school since 1986 as a teacher, administrator and teacher trainer. Caroline has lived and worked in Peru, Mexico and Spain. She served as president for EnglishUSA, is the youth exchange officer for the Northampton International Rotary Club and is a board member of the Greenfield Community College Foundation and the World Affairs Council of Western Massachusetts.
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