Dreams, vision, and intention: The secret behind a great association
Interview with Mieke Kenis, BELTA co-President
The Belgian English Language Teachers Association has grown in leaps and bounds, garnering 150 members in its short life thus far. Co-founded in 2012 by James Taylor, Mieke Kenis, and Guido Van Landeghem, BELTA boasts a lean organisation, low membership rates of 45 euros (or a little over CHF 48!), and rich learning opportunities for its members. ETAS caught up with BELTA co-President, Mieke Kenis, to explore more about the dynamic association she helped found and continues to help operate whilst wearing many hats.
You met James via Twitter and the idea for BELTA started gaining momentum. Founding an association is a big undertaking. What made you decide to get involved?
To be honest, I did not really think too long and hard about it. Sometimes you have to act – even at my age – on a gut feeling and hope that things will turn out right.
I really felt that an English Language Teachers organisation was something we needed and deserved in Belgium, just like in so many other countries. I would have loved to be a member of such an organisation myself. Moreover, I completely trusted James and Guido, who are the co-founders, and who seemed confident, which was enough for me to take the plunge with them. Founding BELTA seemed such a positive thing to do. I put aside all my uncertainties and fear and just said ‘yes’. This blog post by James sums it up, I guess.
From the first introduction video you did with co-President James Taylor, you mentioned some initiatives like BELTA Day. How did you come together and organise this for the first time?
An event where members can actually meet face-to-face was indeed always on the list right from the start. We all enjoy taking part in ELT conferences enormously so it was a privilege to organise the BELTA Day ourselves.
We did not have an official Events Officer at the time so we divided tasks between the then Board Members and organised the day. It was all very exciting as we did not know how people would react, but it turned out really well. I still have the fondest memories of that first BELTA Day.
What have you learned organising a conference now heading into your fourth time?
With every conference you learn how to improve things for the next edition. We carefully read the feedback forms and listen to delegates on the day. We always have a board meeting the morning after the conference to discuss the day and point out what could be better next time.
I have learnt that no matter how well prepared you are, things can always go wrong due to unforeseen circumstances, but being flexible helps and teachers are very warm and understanding people. As Board Members, you have to trust each other and the volunteers who help out on the day, keep calm, and accept that you cannot please everyone.
What other professional development initiatives does BELTA offer?
There is the BELTA blog with contributions from teachers and educators all over the world. Members can also read our magazine, The BELTA Bulletin, and every month we offer a free webinar in our series Sundays with BELTA.
We already cooperated twice with TESOL Toronto to organise our two-day summer online conference. On our Facebook and Twitter pages, we post interesting articles and refer to ELT initiatives.
How do your fellow board members keep motivated to continuously providing such high-calibre content? How do you hold accountability?
Every Board Member has their reasons to be part of the BELTA team and has their own talents and skills. We are all volunteers and work full-time so the motivation to be part of BELTA must be strong. We are at our best, I believe, when we can organise events like the BELTA Day. In the run-up to this event there is a lot of online and face-to-face contact and the buzz this creates gives a real motivation boost.
The BELTA Board is a very democratic, small group of like-minded people who work together in a very informal way. We all respect that each and every one does their best and we can always discuss matters, also when views differ. I suppose this way of working is not always possible in a very large organisation, but for now it works for us.
As a co-President, how do you lead your team? What is your strategic vision for BELTA? How does that complement James’ vision? Is your role more strategic or practical?
Right from the start I said jokingly that I would be BELTA’s tea-lady. I have indeed a very practical role and that is what I like best and feel most comfortable with. We all complement each other in the BELTA Board. I am not sure we have a ‘strategy’ but we do have dreams, a vision, and the intention to make BELTA a great association for its members.
From the start, James had some very clear ideas about what a teacher organisation could be like. He is the one who also has a very wide view on the global ELT world and what is going on there, not to mention his large network in the ELT world. The Belgians on the Board are familiar with the day-to-day situation in our Belgian classes. We know the complex situation in Belgium, with different Ministries of Education and different kinds of state-funded schools, etc.
It is an asset I think that the BELTA Board consists of people with different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.
James will be soon be resigning as BELTA co-President, and while we understand that being a BELTA President is not a position one particular person can have forever, we still feel it is a loss for BELTA. If it had not been for James, BELTA would never have existed. He was also our Communications Officer and as such he very much defined the BELTA ‘look’ and how we communicate with our members and the world. He was the perfect person we thought to be president, as he did not belong to any particular region of Belgium, to any of the education networks, nor to any Belgian school. Education being a rather sensitive issue in Belgium sometimes, BELTA was as neutral and independent as we wanted to be with him as President and although he did not live in Belgium the last years, we still managed to work together very well.
BELTA is what it is today thanks to James and his influence has paved the way for the future of BELTA. We are very grateful to him for all he did for BELTA. We wish him all the best with his next projects and are happy he will still be there for us an adviser.
What is the best part of being a co-President? What is the most challenging?
The best part is just being a member of the BELTA team. It is rewarding to be part of an organisation that I wish had existed before and that I would definitely have joined. The most challenging part for BELTA is to become better known in Belgium and to increase the commitment and involvement of Belgian teachers. As co-President, I feel responsible for this.
I do not want to generalise too much but we see that Belgian teachers are used to doing what they are told to do by their heads and by the ministries. They try to cope with their ever-more demanding workloads, but professional development is not something that is considered as an absolute must.
You always meet the same people – a minority – at conferences, for example. Furthermore, teachers have a very ‘flat’ career in Belgium, which means that professional development does not really make a difference for your position.
Belonging to a teachers’ organisation is not obvious. The fact that we did not even have an organisation before 2012 proves my point.
The positive side of all this is that the people who do become members are really passionate about their jobs and about professional development. Maybe we should not focus too much on quantities but still, it’s only natural we would like everyone to know and be part of BELTA.
As well as co-President, you are also Membership Officer. What does that entail?
It entails responsibility for increasing membership and for looking after our existing members well. We regularly discuss how to do this with the Board. It also means that we try to be present at ELT events where we represent BELTA so people get to know us. The administrative side of things is rather boring, I am afraid. It means looking at Excelsheets, using different colour schemes, and sending lots of mails.
… and not only those two roles, but also Finance Officer. How do you do it all?
We have recently combined the two roles because membership is strongly connected with finance. As a Finance Officer, I check the BELTA account and when I see people have paid their membership fee, I check their details on the membership form and they get a membership number from me. The Finance side of things is still very manageable although it is not really my cup of tea. Luckily, I have a very helpful colleague at school who teaches accounting.
As BELTA grows, how do you see the Association changing? Your role?
I do not like to think too much about that in advance. We will see what the future brings. When we grow, the number of people who are actively involved in running BELTA will increase, I suppose, and the informal way of doing things maybe has to change. As to my role, I am looking forward to spending more time working for BELTA when retire in a few years.
If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for you in this role, what did you achieve?
I hope we can look back on another great BELTA Day 2016 and other events, more members from all parts of Belgium, and another great year of learning from and sharing with Belgians and teachers from all over the world.
Thank you, Mieke for these thought-provoking and instructive insights about founding and leading an association and for sharing your secret to making it great.