Musings of an academic manager – the art of timetabling classes

The last two years have been interesting – especially around September. One of the most challenging aspects of running a language academy has been timetabling – working out what classes go where, and who is going to teach these classes. In this short post, I’m going to talk about some mistakes we’ve made over the last two years, some lessons learnt, and some pro-tips from the not-so-pros-yet.

Timetabling classes

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So, for the past two years, we’re made a habit of trying to keep our existing clients happy by working towards their preferences, and, perhaps more importantly, trying to give one class roughly the same timetable for the next year. So, if a Level 2 class was scheduled for Mondays at 5pm one year, we would try to give that Level 3 class the 5pm (or near that) spot on Mondays the following year. For the most part this worked; however, this year we increased the times of certain levels, and so this got a bit crazy. To get around this, we sent out a questionnaire to parents, asking for their preferences. From there we collated the main groups, and then decided the Level/class times. For example, if the majority of Level 2 said they wanted X day/time, we then timetabled that class for that time. This part of the process took us about a whole month to sort out, and a good four people involved speaking with parents, brainstorming, and working through things. Important to note, though, was that we did all of this around March/April – well before the end of the academic year.

Signing-up of current clients

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Last academic year, we waiting until August/September to start sign-ups. This basically meant that August/September were nuts – calls, emails, walk-ins, etc. In short, a rookie move. This academic year, however, has been a little different. We opened our sign-ups for current students (in-fact we advertised it) around the end of May/start of June. We also moved our on-boarding to an online platform – in effect removing the need for parents to come in and fill out the forms. This resulted in us having approximately 60% of our then-current students signed up for this academic year. What happened at the end of August/start of September? Well, it’s still been crazy, but so much easier than previous years. Basically, half our work was already done, and with the new sign-up system, we were still able to get forms out easily.

Onboarding of new clients

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Now, I’ve focused on students who were existing clients, but what about new clients? Well, at the end of May/start of June, we opened up classes to our then-current students and told them that they have their place in their current class reserved for the future – up until a certain date, which was the end of June. This pushed those really keen parents – the ones who we had spoken to, negotiated with, and tried to ensure timetabling was done as best as possible for – to sign up before their child’s place was taken up by someone else. Of course, not all parents signed-up, and so after the end of June, all the ‘places’ within a class were ‘fair game’ essentially. The onboarding of new clients was fairly easy – we would carry out our level tests, and then look at which classes have free places. We would then send them the online forms and Whala! onboarding done.

Timetabling of teachers

Contracts

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What about teachers? Last year, we made the mistake of hiring teachers for a set number of hours, but then failed at being able to provide teachers with enough classes to reach those contracted hours. End result? We ended up losing money on paid “no-teaching” hours (not too much as we moved things around, but it was a wake-up call). This year, however, we are doing thing a little differently. We have teachers on a reduced contract (basically, almost full time – an amount of hours that we can guarantee we will meet), we have increased the duration of certain levels, and are open to extending teachers’ contracts once they have enough classes to complete their contracts. End result? We now have all teachers with full hours and more classes to give them – we will be extending their contracts, and we are in the first two weeks of the year.

You might think that this is risky, but I disagree. By speaking with teachers and understanding which teachers are going to want more hours, you can understand if you’re going to have enough teachers or not. And by calculating the absolute bare minimum number of teaching hours and basing contracts off of these, you are ensuring that you’re not shooting yourself in the foot. Just a side note, though – I would certainly advise that you still make your contracts attractive to teachers. They do need to live off their salaries after all!

Classes

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Have a staff which you have worked with before is amazing when deciding who to give X class to – another reason we should be aiming for high retention rates of teachers. Basically, Patrick and I sat down and looked at our teachers’ preferences and based their classes off these. For 80% of the time, we were able to give teachers the classes that they wanted. There were of course a number of classes that teachers desired less, but were given all the same. As a manager, though, I feel that if I give my teachers what they want most of the time, they are less likely to be upset when I need to give them a certain class that they don’t want.

For new teachers, we simply asked their preferences in the job interview phase, looked at their experience and judged from there. Again, not perfect science, but it has worked well so far (touch wood!).

Gaps

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We aim to give our teachers block hours, meaning that they will come to work for classes that start of 4pm, and will finish around 9/9.30 pm (with a break in the middle). Some of our teachers, however, have some gaps in their schedules. We are in the process of filling these gaps with individual courses and new groups. By only reserving the ‘group’ classes in June, we found that we were able to get the schedule mainly set with group classes fairly easily, and then the rest of the individuals, etc. fit in nicely. Currently, we only have two gaps in our timetables – gaps we are confident we will fill shortly, so happy faces all round.

Overflow

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Of course, it comes to a point where you may have all your teachers on full hours and no space for extra classes. We are pretty much at that level now, which is great. However, we want/need to take on more business if we want to grow. This means that both myself and Patrick have started to take on classes, but we’ve found that we need to manage the hours we give ourselves quite carefully. This is for two reasons:

  1. Workload and stress: Anyone in a DoS role knows that it is a stressful job at times. There is so much to do, so having too many classes on your plate will make life infinitely more difficult. Also, burnt-out managers is not a good thing.
  2. Teacher absence: Teachers get sick. Teachers take leave. And who has to cover those classes? Generally Patrick or myself. If we have too many classes on our timetables, then covering these classes becomes impossible.

So, what are our next steps? Well, we are slowly taking on more classes – AND we are also interviewing potential part-time teachers. Again, it’s not perfect, but by seeing how much work we have first, before hiring someone, we can be sure that when we do hire another teacher, they will have their contracted hours filled.

Some tips from the not-so-pros-yet

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We are definitely not the pros (not yet), but these are some of the things we’ve learnt:

  • Start early – like, a whole term early if you can 🙂
  • Work from existing courses and clients
  • Try to work from client preferences
  • Give existing clients preference – but set a cut-off date
  • Go digital!!!!!
  • Using data collection tools such as Google Forms
  • Work from the bare minimum number of guaranteed classes when working out teacher contracts
  • Be aware of how many hours the DoS takes on
  • Be prepared for overflow by understanding what the DoS CAN take on and by interviewing potential part-time teachers
  • Keep looking for ways to make it better 🙂

Not having seen how other academies do timetabling, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, opinions, experiences, etc. So please do comment or get in touch.

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