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Wise words from a summer school super-head

Millfield’s Mark Greenow reveals to Melanie Butler his secrets for success

He doesn’t just run Millfield English Language Holiday Courses, our top-ranking boarding school courses. Millfield’s Mark Greenow also hosts a major EFL conference and is an inspiration to many. Here are his top tips for dealing with key stakeholders:

1) To parents worried about the safety of their child

If they want to let their precious little things fly the nest for a couple of weeks, I tell them that I am a ‘professional babysitter’.

I appreciate their trust and I know it is a huge responsibility. I assure them we will do everything we can to protect the children from the environment with risk assessments, from the staff with DBS checks and from each other – that’s why we have Houseparents.

Our Medical Centre protects them from illness and injury, the Prevent programme from radicalisation and we have Designated Safeguarding Leads to protect students from themselves.

Most importantly, we train and induct every member of staff to understand this multi-layered approach and strive to create a caring culture that all staff are responsible for.

Having said all that, I don’t believe in wrapping everybody in cotton wool. It is important that the students have new experiences and let themselves go a little – in a controlled way! Things inevitably will happen. It is how you deal with them that counts.

2) To summer school teachers

Engage with and listen to your students. Preparation is important, but don’t obsess about it. However much you plan, you never really know where a lesson is going to go. Students will forgive a bad lesson or two if they see you care.

The best teachers are perpetual learners, good sharers and great listeners. It is important that they know that they can’t control what students learn. They can only control what they do. So, concentrate above all else on the PROCESS of learning and give the students time to REFLECT on what they are doing and why.

As time goes by, the students may not remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.

“Students will forgive a bad lesson or two, if they see you care.”

3) To students on the first day of the course

I enjoy giving welcome talks and I work hard preparing them. It is a chance to set the boundaries and spell out the ‘rules’ whilst establishing our values.

But I do it in a fun way. For example, because I am not brave enough to take a telephone from a teenager, I show them a video of phones going into a crusher to the sound of the song Goodbye My Lover. I tell them this is what will happen if they use their phones in the Dining Hall instead of talking to the people around them!

I tell them they are here to improve their English but that they can learn more important things like learning to learn and learning to love learning. This will ultimately be more important than learning twenty phrasal verbs. They can also learn to be curious, learn more about themselves and learn to respect others. I also tell students that I am going to make them cry, but only because they will have such a wonderful time they won’t want to leave!

Most importantly, a summer school is a chance for students to reinvent themselves and learn to live in the moment. In words beginning with ‘e’: educate, engage, enthuse, entertain, energise, entrust and enthral.

4) To agents

Agents need to take the time to really understand the schools they are working with and avoid working with too many schools. They need to be led by quality, not commission. Some agents pigeon-hole schools, sending all hockey players to one and tennis players to another, just because they have always done it that way.

Some of my best agents were previously students or staff! I love working with them because they completely get it. They know how important this intense shared experience can be and they know the passion and dedication that goes into making it happen. Some of them come back as Group Leaders. That means a lot to me.

5) To inspectors

I believe in inspections and, evidently, we do quite well at them, but I do wish there was a way they could get more to the heart of the matter. In my opinion, inspectors spend a disproportionate amount of time in summer schools observing the teachers.

Schools have to meet the standard set of tick boxes. For example, inspectors seem to be obsessed with the teaching of pronunciation. OK, but there are many pedagogical reasons to argue that English can be taught very well without using IPA. Many teachers aren’t trained to use it: phonetics is not a major focus on the Celta syllabus. Even with great academic support and in-house training, it can be difficult for a summer school to fill the training gap.

As an inspector, I would really want to get deep into the school and test that learning is taking place holistically: in the activities, in the houses, on the playing ground. I would want to feel the mood and culture of the school. I must confess, though, I don’t know how to write a tick box for that!

Tug-of-war at the Millfield summer fete
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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