For almost half of my professional life, I’ve been working as the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz: six years here, out of a total of thirteen. To say it’s hard to leave is an understatement, but it’s time for the next person to take their turn, and for me to go on to new adventures.
Most of the teachers finished their contracts a couple of days ago, so now we just have the last few lessons to finish, and a few days to prepare for next year before our summer break. I’ll be back briefly in August and September for the last part of the handover, but my full-time management of a team of 20 teachers has come to an end.
TL;DR: the word cloud shows some of what my job has involved over the past few years, and just how much I’ve learnt 🙂
Coming to Bydgoszcz
In January 2015, I was at the IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference, representing IH Sevastopol. A few days earlier, we’d decided that I wouldn’t be returning to the school full time as there weren’t enough students to justify it. I was a DoS without a school. Then I sat next to Tim, who changed my life in one sentence: “We’re looking for a new DoS next year.” A couple of weeks later I was in Bydgoszcz for a long weekend. I shadowed Tim for two days, during most of which I wondered how he managed to juggle so many things and thought I wouldn’t be able to do that. Thanks to his confidence in me, and that of Luke, Sam and Lisa, I was persuaded to take the position, and after that initial wobble I’ve never regretted it.
Grzegorz Chruszcz started IH Bydgoszcz in 1992, and the school wouldn’t be what it is without his vision. He cares so deeply about every aspect of the school: the teachers, the students, all of the other staff. He’s easily the best boss I’ve ever had, and I feel very grateful to count him as a friend too. He’s been by my side during all of the ups and downs of the past six years, professional and personal. Together we’ve celebrated successes, made difficult decisions, and striven to maintain the best quality school we can, while caring for all of the people involved. Grzegorz has been particularly amazing during the COVID pandemic, driving all over the city to drop off things we needed to keep on working from home, and bringing us Easter gifts along with the less exciting masks and disinfectant we needed to stay safe.
The senior teams
Luke and Sam were my first senior team. They had been working at the school for a few years before I came along, and gave me all the support I could have wished for to learn how the school worked and to settle in.
Helen, Rose, Sarah and Nick were my next team. They joined the school while I was here, and really helped me to grow and refine the systems that make the school run.
Emma and Ruth have been my senior team for the last two years. They have helped me to deal with so many challening situations during that time, including but not limited to the pandemic of the last 15 months.
I know that the school is in safe hands as Emma takes over as DoS next year, and Ruth stays on as ADoS. They’ll have the support of Connor and Ash, our two new senior teachers, staying at the school to take the next step in their careers.
Whether they’ve stayed for one year or far longer, the teachers I’ve worked with over the past six years have been professional, caring, enthusiastic, and willing to learn. They’ve dealt with all kinds of different things being thrown at them, and provided the feedback and support we needed to keep on improving the school. Many of them I now count as friends, and I’ve really enjoyed continuing to see what they do after they leave the school.
Watching brand new, fresh-off-CELTA teachers come into the school, and turn into confident, competent, flourishing teachers over the course of their time at the school has been one of consistent privileges and pleasures of working at the school, and is one of the things I’ll miss the most.
The important people!
Mariola, Sandra, Marta, Monika: running the office of such a thriving school isn’t easy. Dealing with all of the admin of managing hundreds of students across four locations, contacting parents and students, running a Cambridge exam centre, and dealing with paperwork and the random questions of a team of twenty plus teachers, many of them foreigners, is really not easy, but the ladies in the office have always supported us and kept everything running smoothly.
Ania manages the accounts and accommodation for our teachers, and Marek manages the IT sides of things, both dealing with my random questions and last-minute requests admirably and with a smile on their faces.
Pan Wlodek, and the sadly missed Pan Piotr, the caretakers, greet students with a smile as they come into the building. Pan Piotr ran a mean barbecue for the end of year school social, and Pan Wlodek fixes everything which goes wrong in the school flats, apart from all of the things they do around the school. They may not speak much English, but they always find a way to communicate with the teachers, often prompting much hilarity 🙂
We are lucky to have the whole school building to ourselves. Grzegorz has created a lovely environment for us to work in, with well-equipped staffrooms, and a wonderful office for me right next to them. The classrooms all have their own personalities, some including original features from the building like ceramic stoves, while others have balconies. There’s a garden area at the back, and a conference room and ‘club’ area for socials and other events. I’ve also had the chance to travel out to other schools in the area where we rent classrooms, and companies where we teach too.
The overall environment in the school is one of support. Questions fly around the staffroom, and there is always somebody to answer them. Feedback runs in every direction, including upwards, and we all improve as a result. As Emma put it so well, there is a lack of ego. I will miss being part of such a strong team at the school, year after year.
So what have I learnt?
So, so much!
I think the biggest area I’ve developed in has been my ability to manage my emotions, especially during challenging situations. When I first came to the school, if somebody got angry, I would probably be likely to raise my voice back and argue at a similar level. I’ve learnt to stop myself from doing that, to stay calm, and to know when to walk away from a situation and come back later when we have both calmed down. I also used to get very emotional when we received staff feedback. I’ve worked with our staff reps over the last few years to move towards more balanced feedback, but have also learnt not to take things to heart so much. Many of the most useful changes I feel I’ve been able to implement have come as a direct result of the feedback staff have shared with us.
Those who’ve been with me at the school for a while know that I still cry, but it’s pretty much always happy tears now. One of my happiest memories was during the craziness that was the beginning of the COVID pandemic. We had decided to close the school for two days to give us all time to learn how to use Zoom. Watching the whole team rise to the challenge and support each other made me realise (yet again!) just how privileged I was to work at this school with this team of people, and I ended up crying while I watched them all working together.
My communication skills have developed hugely. I choose my words more carefully, and slow down and reflect on the potential effect of what I’m saying or writing much more than I did when I first became DoS. I’ve also improved my ability to share information effectively in meetings and emails, and to keep everyone who needs to know in the loop with information. We’ve strengthened systems to communicate with students and parents across the school, and to share relevant information about students within the school. Thanks to the hard work of the teachers and the office, I feel like as I leave we’re in the best position ever with regards to everybody knowing what they need to know about student progress, and about the needs of students in their groups.
Introducing Google Drive is probably the biggest change I’ve implemented over the past few years. We moved from paper to online registers in my second year. The registers have been refined since then to meet the needs of the teachers and the school, making it ever easier to complete admin requirements, track progress, and write reports…though I still have to remind myself to stay calm when asking teacher X or Y to complete their registers for the umpteenth time! We use Google Forms to collect information about various things across the school, and as a key step in teachers communicating information to parents and students – it’s something of a running joke that I create a form whenever I need to know something 😉 My ability to exploit the functions of Excel and Google Sheets has grown exponentially, and there are all kinds of functions and formulae that I can work with now, but had no idea even existed six years ago. We also use Sheets to track things like report writing and checking, information about struggling students, and who needs to create tests by when. We’ve also introduced online placement testing, thanks to the support of Barrie at IH Seville.
When I started at the school, there was already a very strong focus on professional development, particularly on supporting early career teachers. There are weekly workshops, collaborative planning meetings, regular developmental observations, and the chance for returning teachers to do the IH Certificate in teaching Young Learners and Teenagers (IHCYLT). To that mix, I’ve added mentoring and video observations (somewhat accidentally!) I’ve become much better at understanding how collaborative planning meetings can be organised to best scaffold teacher development. We now get regular feedback on the success of our workshops, though there’s still work to be done on evaluating the long-term effectiveness of our workshops. My workshops are tied much more strongly to what actually happens in the classroom, including time for teachers to consider how they can apply what they have learnt rather than just throwing information at them.
Interviewing potential new teachers was one of the biggest challenges for me when I first arrived. I didn’t really know what questions to ask or how to structure an interview. Thanks to other IH DoSes and Josh Round, we now have a much clearer process, including a pre-interview lesson plan task, and a consistent set of interview questions. As I became familiar with the kind of questions it was and wasn’t useful to ask, I also became more comfortable with personalising interviews to each applicants. All interviews are now conducted by two members of the senior team, which has removed some of the issues with recruitment we had earlier on in my tenure as there is always somebody else there to discuss things with.
I’ve learnt how to manage the puzzle that is the timetable, aiming to provide teachers with the most friendly timetable I can. This includes carefully considering the levels they teach, the double-ups they have, the one-to-ones they work with, the hours they work within a single day and across the week, and many other factors. I’ve become more efficient at this over the years, and I don’t think I’ve had any complaints for at least three years, so hopefully I’ve been doing something right!
I have tried to introduce more standardisation across the school, with clearer guidelines for teachers and senior staff about different processes they are involved in. For new processes, this has generally created two or three years of teething problems – you know that the process is working when people don’t remark on it any more! These have included standardising continual assessment and testing, how information is communicated outside and within the school, and how information is recorded. We also have a bank of ‘how to’ documents which any of us can refer to. This maintains institutional knowledge, meaning that it isn’t lost when staff leave the school. Hopefully it makes things easier for teachers working with new kinds of classes (for example, conversation classes or exam clubs) and senior staff joining the management team.
My time management has gone from strength to strength. I’ve always been pretty good at juggling things, but the challenges of managing a team like this have really pushed me. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different ways to track the tasks I need to complete and the meetings I need to have – it took about three years to settle on the system that works for me. My weekends have also become much more clearly delineated, and I’ve learnt to say no to things outside school at challenging periods of the year, choosing when is best for me to take on extra responsibilities – I’m looking forward to having more flexibility to choose how I manage my time as I move to freelancing!
The last thing I’d like to highlight is just how supportive the wider International House community is. IHWO have always been on hand to answer my questions, as have other DoSes who I’ve got to know from the online community and by attending the IH AMT conferences. Many of the changes I’ve made within the school have been inspired by what they’re doing, from big things mentioned above to much smaller things like Monica Green mentioning how important it is to say positive things to people too. I hope I already did that, but until I heard her say it, I wasn’t conscious of how often I did it. Since then, I’ve tried hard to keep my communication as balanced as possible, and encourage teachers to come to me with positive things too, not just when they have problems (I need balanced comments coming my way too!)
Having developed so much over the last few years, I’m really looking forward to passing that on to others as much as I can. Once the handover to Emma is complete, I’ll be fully freelance from October. I’m aiming to work on a combination of projects, including training for others and on my own courses (watch this space!), CELTA tutoring, materials writing, methodology writing, working on my own books, and consultancy work. I’m also planning to complete my NILE MA. If you’re interested in working with me, please contact me via Twitter @sandymillin or on my Work with me page.
Farewell IH Bydgoszcz! On to the next adventure…