On the eve of retirement as Executive Director of English Australia after 13 years, Sue Blundell reflects on life-changing industry experiences, her work and proudest achievements.
First steps in teaching
I was an English literature and language graduate and initially I got some job interviews in the advertising field. However, my friend saw an advert for the JET programme in Japan and bet me to apply for it. And they offered me the job!
I was teaching just outside Tokyo and my first experience with the host family was traumatic they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese but it gave me an understanding of how our students feel when they arrive. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. I can’t imagine how different life would have been if I hadn’t done it. I think everyone should go and experience a different culture.
A different industry
After the JET programme, I couldn’t settle back in the UK and returned to Japan for another three years. I had a job in Spain lined up, but then met this Australian man, fell in love and moved there! I spent a lot of time learning Japanese seriously, but couldn’t get a job using it so ended up teaching again.
It was very unregulated back then. My first job was teaching a Japanese tour group and I thought it was the best job ever teaching in the morning and going sightseeing in Sydney in the afternoon. There was no salary structure; my boss asked me what I thought I should be paid! I was working at one of the largest schools with five centres in Sydney, but it was part of the boom and bust cycle. We were on TV when we turned up to a padlocked school one day.
My next job in 1991 was an amazing school. I stayed there for 10 years and went from teacher to trainer to education manager to marketing director to general manager. Someone saw potential in me and gave me the opportunity to grow. I was given a platform to step onto the English Australia (EA) board. At that time EA only employed two people, so it was a big decision to create a senior-level position to take the organisation forward. Two candidates were presented to the board and they were both appalling! I said, “I could do a better job than that,” so the others said, “Why don’t you then?”
One thing that I have learned is that it is really important to look out for people and help them develop their skills. I had a really good mentor and we need to pass that on.
Very few people get the chance to impact on a whole industry, so that has been the most rewarding thing and I am very grateful for that opportunity. As for my proudest moment, I think back to the worst time, because how you can get out of that situation can be the most satisfying thing. It was the unannounced closure of seven GEOS schools simultaneously. We had 2,000 students to place with a small staff and no real resources. We placed them all incredibly quickly when you think about the logistical difficulties. We dropped everything for a month. But I still get agents that remember what English Australia did for them at that time.
Changes in the industry
The fundamental teacher/student relationship and cross-cultural dynamic hasn’t changed and never will. The best thing about the industry is the relationships that develop and the passion of the teachers.
One thing that has changed is the recognition the English language sector now has. It had been seen as a poor cousin with no qualifications, so we had to shout to get attention. The government is now involving us on steering committees, which wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Agents play an incredibly valuable role in ensuring students receive good advice and have appropriate expectations. If you have the wrong expectations, you’ll be disappointed. Colleges are driven by business imperatives to get more students, but they have to work with agents that are good counsellors. Schools and agents are partners, so any imbalance in a partnership is unhealthy.
Working together for the greater good
Collaboration is so important. I’ve always believed passionately in associations working together. We have to do more globally to push the cause of the industry and I make sure I always go to the Gaela www.gaela.org meetings. The relationships and conversations we have mean we learn from each other. I think Gaela is one of the best things that has ever happened in the industry. And meeting with Felca www.felca.org means we understand each other better and it gives us a platform to achieve much more.
Within Australia, it didn’t come easily. You need champions and I’ll take a little credit for that. For example, when I make a submission to government, I always send a copy to the other bodies. I was the first to do that, now everyone does it. It is very easy for governments to divide and conquer if the peak bodies don’t agree.
I need a bit of quality time with the man I fell in love with in Japan! I can rediscover the travel bug without thinking about work!
The new Coordinating Council for International Education invited me to be on it based on my experience, which was a nice compliment and I will continue with that as long as it goes on. I have loved every minute of this job and every job that I have had in this industry. It is a passionate industry and we transform the lives of young people.