Musings of an academic manager – An update and a brain dump

Moving into a full-time Director of Studies position this year was something I had been looking forward to. It would mean a whole new set of challenges, and I would be able to contribute even more to the academy that I have grown to love. But boy oh boy, is it a whole new ball game to anything I’ve ever done before in ELT. I’ve decided to start a new series, Musings of an academic manager, just so that I have a section on the blog that focuses on this part of my career, and I can write about my experiences both for my own benefit and, hopefully, yours.

An update

So, term 1 went really well, although it was a massive learning curve. I’m going to save my reflections for each of the terms until I have a little more time, but needless to say I’m still here, alive and with all my hair – a positive experience in my mind. I actually haven’t been blogging all that much recently because between my new role, which still encompasses my former role of being the academy’s teacher trainer, and the fact that I am also undertaking my MA, my time is already taken up (especially if I want to have some semblance of a social life). At the moment I am completing the core module assignments for the NILE / Chichester University MAPDLE, and I am really enjoying it, and I will aim to get a reflection on the core module once I have finished the assignments (I imagine sometime around June-ish).

What else have I been up to? Well, you’ve all probably seen the latest Sponge Chats with Sandy Millin and Emily Bryson – they were really fun. I have two more lined up over the next month or so, and I think you’re going to really enjoy those. I also am about to start (need to start!) writing a submission for the Teacher Training and Education SIG newsletter. My focus will be to take everything I’ve learnt from the Sponge Chats regarding teacher training and present it in an article somehow. Not too sure yet how that is going to happen, but I’m looking forward to putting it all together.

If you are by any chance going to the TESOL Spain conference, you’ll be able to see me presenting there, alongside so many great speakers. I’ll be talking about exam moderation and developing teacher assessment literacy, so make sure you come check my session out and let me know what you think.

Some good things that have happened so far

So, I really wanted this first post in the series to focus on all the good and ‘interesting’ things that have happened thus far. It is not meant to be anything ‘scientific’ or too detailed, but I hope that it helps me remember things more effectively.

  • Increase in learner numbers: So this year through various marketing strategies, we’ve been able to not only maintain our level of learner numbers from last year, but we’ve also taken on a few.
  • New academy: We made the move to the new academy in August, and it was a whirlwind of emotions. Joy at getting the place, anger at not having power for so long, and downright panic at not being able to get everything finished in time for the start of the year. We got there though!
  • New teaching staff: This year we have taken on three new teachers! Now we have teachers from Spain, America, Romania, Australia (this is me), Ireland, and England. And, the teaching staff this year are really putting in the work. The team all like each other, and the environment at work is super positive, which is really important in my mind.
  • New incentives: We’ve tried to increase teacher idea sharing by creating and ideas board. Each month, anyone who wants can write an idea on the board (usually with materials or instructions) and then at the end of the month, Patrick (the director of the academy) and I vote on the best. All of these ideas are collected and then put together in a document that is shared with everyone. Take a look at this one from November.
  • Detailed training and development programme: I’ll keep my training blog posts to the Teacher Trainer Diaries section, but here I’ll just say that this year, we’ve put together the most comprehensive and bottom-up driven teacher training programme yet, whilst still incorporating training that covers the needs of the academy. I am very happy with the feedback I am getting from teachers so far, as well as what I am seeing in observations and hearing in hallway chats!
  • Individual course syllabi: In the past, when we had a learner join the academy for an individual course (i.e. on their own), we used to leave the course design up to the teacher. As a teacher myself, I found that really frustrating as not only did I know very little about the incoming learner, I didn’t really have time to plan a course (which usually resulted in me planning the course lesson by lesson). This year, however, we have changed this. We have put together a much more detailed placement test, which includes an embedded needs assessment. From this and the oral interview that takes place, I am able to collect enough data to get the first part of a course drawn up. This is a lot of work, but I am seeing that teachers are a lot happier with courses, and that learners are able to focus on things that they need. I should mention that the course syllabus that I present to teachers is by no means entirely prescriptive; rather, it acts as a guide from which teachers can deviant. At the end of a learner’s short course, if the learner wants to continue, the course is re-evaluated and then more lessons and designed. If they are finished, we send them out a questionnaire to collect data on how the course was (this is also done with the teacher). It is still a work in progress, but I am really enjoying it. My goal is to design many courses and eventually have an activity/task bank that can be drawn on for future courses. If anyone is wondering, Kathleen Graves’ Designing Language Courses is a huge help in this!

Bumps in the road – some challenges that have popped up

Of course, there have been some issues to contend with. This being said, I feel that the year is going pretty well, with no major ‘This is it’ moments, I am happy to say.

  • Time management: The first month or so was quite difficult in terms of time management. I had to wrap my head around working with my teaching hours, training hours and managing hours. I have found that planning my days and weeks ahead of time is my biggest tool here – it helps massively.
  • Pregnancy: So, Carlota and Sara, who are part of the management team and are the people who deal with parents, banking, documentation, etc. are both pregnant. We now have two new girls in the North Station Family! Having them away, however, pushed Patrick and I to work in different roles, which has been a major challenge. I challenge anyone to say that working the front desk is an easy job – it is far from it, and it has given me a new appreciation for secretarial roles within education. Carlota has returned in a reduced capacity, which has helped a lot, and Sara will no doubt be back in the future. I am looking forward to having them back for a whole range of reasons, but until then I am also enjoying dealing with issues that I have never had to deal with before (I’m also improving my Spanish a lot, which is an added bonus!).
  • COVID and other absences: I suppose COVID word on everyone’s lips at the moment. We have been hit by COVID a number of times this year already, and unfortunately, one of our staff had to take time off for personal reasons at the same time we had staff off sick. This meant getting back into the classroom quite a lot! I loved getting back into the class, although I can see why academic managers teach less – these hours I covered did create a backlog of work, which meant working longer than usual to get everything done.
  • Student dropouts from certain courses: One thing that stuck me when I moved into this position is having to look at courses from a financial standpoint. Together with Patrick, we review the course numbers and identify where we are making money, covering costs or not covering costs. For the majority of our courses, we have plenty of student numbers, but there are a few courses where we realised that we open a group to soon and didn’t get the necessary numbers and there are a few other groups in which the numbers fluctuate scarily towards the not covering costs. Of course, one also needs to consider the long-term impact of having the course, and we have seen that opening certain courses will have positive knock-on effects for future years (e.g. with VYL classes). This has not so much been a challenge; rather, it has been a learning curve, trying to look at the school not only as an educational institution but also as a business. I am really enjoying this aspect, though, and look forward to going deeper and strengthening my knowledge base.

Final notes

A short and sharp post here, but I felt I needed to get it done. I have been writing it for over a week! I will aim to get more management reflections out when I can. If I had more time, I would write more – every week there seems to be something that is blog-worthy! But, alas, time is something I have to contend with even more now.

2 Comments

  1. Nina says:

    Great post, Jim. It never gets easier, you just get much much better at it which makes things easier so hang in there and enjoy the ride! And yes! Your Spanish will improve so much because you have all the ‘ingredients’ for language learning success – motivation, noticing, practice, instant feedback, and many more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Nina!!! I’m looking forward to the ride – it’s been fun so far 😊

      Like

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