Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘Director of Studies’

On choosing coursebooks (badly)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written a couple of posts about coursebooks, the first describing my requests for publishers and writers to take into account, and the second a list of questions for anybody who feels like reviewing the coursebooks they’re using so we can all make a more informed choice. I’ve also seen a few other posts that respond to our build on the points in my requests post, like this one by Julie Moore, and this one by Mura Nava. I also received a blogpost length response from Nick to those same requests. This post is partially in response to Nick’s one, and partially getting something off my chest and seeking help.

(By the way, I’d also recommend reading Nick’s post called ‘Challenging the coursebook – challenge accepted‘ and hope he’ll write part 2 at some point) 🙂

Before I continue, please remember that everything I write on this blog and in this post is not designed to reflect on my school, but only to describe my experience, one which I am pretty sure is not unique, at least in the world of private language schools.

As in my requests post, I do not intend to name specific coursebooks as I don’t believe that will help. I am sure that some of the books I am talking about work brilliantly for other teachers in other contexts, and without providing a fully contextualised review, I don’t wish to provide negative publicity for them.

A corridor between two long bookshelves filled with coursebooks

Image taken by @michaelegriffin, from ELTpics under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

I am currently working as a Director of Studies at a private language school, and as such one of my responsibilities is to have the final say in the selection of coursebooks for our school. I inherited a system of levels with books attached to them, about half of which have stayed the same since I started three years ago, with the occasional change of edition as particular books stop being sold in Poland.

Selecting adult books hasn’t really been a problem for me: the majority of my teaching experience is with adults, I have used a very wide range of coursebooks designed for adults, and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I also strongly believe that there are a lot of very good quality adult coursebooks out there, many of which already meet half or more of the requests on my previous list. This means I have a wide range of books to choose from. Adult students who are studying with us are unlikely to be studying elsewhere at the same time, so I have free reign, and can choose whatever I think might be best.

I haven’t needed to choose books for our young learners (aged 7-10) because the series we use is very well thought out, and has a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t really date. The only time we need to change it is when a new edition comes out and the old one is no longer available for our students. Again, students at this age are unlikely to be studying elsewhere, so I don’t need to worry that they will have seen the book elsewhere. The one exception to this was the highest level, which seemed to throw all the challenging grammar normally found in two levels at the students: fine for a strong class, but very challenging for a weak class. When one teacher used it in my second year, we had to adapt it quite a lot and remove at least two of the grammar points. We’ve now chosen a different book to replace it, but haven’t had a group to try it out with yet, so I can’t judge that decision yet.

Teen books, however, are an entirely different question. They are the bane of my life. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent thinking about them, but I do know it is FAR TOO MANY. Here’s why…

In my first year at the school, we were using a series that was already 5 years old, and is now 7 years old, for four of the seven teen levels we have for 11-15 year olds. That means that somebody who became a teenager when the series came out would now be in their early 20s. As we all know, teen culture moves incredibly fast, and while there is no way that coursebooks and publishers could possibly keep up with those changes, I did feel it was time for something more modern. The series worked quite well in terms of language input, and in fact has now become the benchmark by which we judge other books we are considering. However, I don’t really remember my 13-15 year old students ever being engaged by the reading or listening texts, or the writing tasks, or possibly the speaking tasks, regardless of what I did to set them up. Of course, that may well be my fault, not the book’s, but you’d think that at least one or two things would grab them. It could also be my faulty memory, or the fact that in a group of teens nobody wants to be different by showing interest in something the others don’t seem interested in. Many possible reasons, but I don’t think an out-of-date book helped.

To help me choose a replacement, I asked around for recommendations of good series both on social media and when meeting colleagues. The most oft-repeated recommendation was used in a lot of local schools, so I couldn’t choose it. Another one wasn’t available in Poland if I remember rightly. We got sample copies of as many books as possible, and I also spent a long time at publishers’ stands at the various conferences I went to that year, asking about every book that seem relevant. With the help of my senior team, we tried to draw up a checklist of features we were looking for. I know that such lists appear in methodology books sometimes, but they all seem very general, and we wanted something that worked in our context. Here are a few of our requirements:

  • Available in Poland.
  • Age appropriate for 11-15 year olds (many are 9-12ish or 13-16ish – it’s hard to cover the full range)
  • Attractive to look at, so students actually want to open it.
  • Covering a similar range of language to the series we had previously used.
  • Providing a logical progression through the book and through the series.
  • Clear grammar explanations.
  • Including freer practice activities for new grammar (something we often had to add to the previous series).
  • With an interesting range of topics.
  • Lots of opportunities for speaking.
  • A workbook that supplements the student’s book.
  • Has a teacher’s book with extra activities if possible.

There were more, but I’m at home in the evening right now and I can’t remember them off the top of my head! By this stage, we had a very short list of books – definitely two, maybe even three. We showed them to students in class, and to teachers who’d have to work with them, and got feedback. None were particularly any better than any of the others. Quite late in the game we found out about another series, and didn’t manage to get as much feedback on that one. However, it was by the same publisher as the series we used to use, and seemed to cover most of the same ground. The video content seemed particularly interesting and engaging, and was something quite different to any of the others books. In the end, we went with that series.

So in my second year, we had a new series of books covering the same four levels, 3-6. We also had a new book from a different series covering level 2. That one worked pretty well, but about 15 lessons into the year, it was apparent that although the topics in the main series were engaging, the videos worked really well with most groups, and the language covered similar ground to the old series, it just wasn’t doing what it need to do, and was in fact going to cause us more problems than it solved.

One issue was that the lowest book, the one we were using for level 3, was actually easier than the level 2 book (from a different series) at times, and there didn’t seem to be a real level 3 book in their series: I’d made the mistake of looking at the CEFR level on the back and the language covered and thinking it was OK, without doing an in-depth analysis of it and comparing the two books carefully enough. Another was that the reading and listening texts were in general far too easy for our students, and didn’t seem to challenge them at all, while the videos were much harder. Vocabulary sets were almost completely without challenge, with students only really not knowing one or two items in any given list. These are all things we could work around, but they meant a lot of extra work for our senior staff in particular, supporting brand new teachers with adapting the book for their students to maintain the quality lessons we pride ourselves on. Another, much larger, problem was that while the books covered the same grammar points as the previous series, they actually stopped at unit 8, where the old series had had 12 units in each book, meaning a lot of key language was missing if you looked at the equivalent adult levels. This was particularly important for any of our students who might be old to change to adult groups in the following year and resulted in us having to rewrite the syllabus for the rest of the year for four levels, supplementing the book with a lot of other materials to make sure everything was covered that we needed to include. Again, this was a considerable amount of work, multiplied by four to cover all of the levels.

All of these things meant we couldn’t use this series again this year, so we went back to the drawing board, with a much longer list of criteria this time round. Some of the things we added were:

  • Long enough for a 124-hour course.
  • Doesn’t require too much supplementing.
  • Covers all of the ‘main’ grammar points at the equivalent adult level, so if students are moving into adult classes they haven’t missed anything major.
  • Challenging reading and listening texts.

Learning from our experience in the previous year, we checked the grammar points much more carefully. We also tried to be more systematic in getting feedback from students on the books, and had teachers do trial lessons with some of the books we were considering. However, as it was quite late in the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do this: we were starting to wind up lessons with end-of-year revision, tests, etc. The list of books was also pretty similar to the one we’d ended up with at the end of my first year.

Part one of the resulting decision was to use more of the level 2 series for levels 3 and 4 – we’d originally decided against these as they actually felt like level 3.5 and 4.5 to us. At this point in the year, we’re now finding that is true: the harder language points are coming in, and some students are really struggling with them. Apart from that, a lack of ready-made extension activities, and a rather pointless teacher’s book (basically a glorified answer key), the series generally seems to be working quite well and we will probably continue with it next year, trying to re-pace the year to leave more time for the more challenging language in the second half of the books. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how consistent I was with checking which books were used in local secondary schools, and have discovered that a few of our students use the same book (or, worse, the book they used last year!) at school, so will have to check that again with the rep to see whether this is feasible. If too many of our students use it, we’ll have to choose something else, regardless of how good it is.

Decision part two was to use a new series for levels 5, 6 and 7. Level 7 had previously used an adult book which required a fair amount of adaptation, but was the only thing we could really find for their level, so the chance to use a teen book seemed too good to miss. The series was only published three years ago, and I am very sad to say it’s probably one of the frustrating coursebooks I’ve ever had. I’m lucky that I don’t have to teach from it, but I have had to provide a lot of support in planning from it, and listen to all of my poor staff who have had the misfortune of using it. Needless to say, we will not be using this series next year. It was the source of at least three of the requests on my list, including the first two regarding out-of-context items and exam tasks. And who’s to blame for this book selection? Ultimately, me. I am the most qualified and most experienced person on our team, and even though we looked at the books together, the final decision was mine. We chose it because the levels seemed to match up to our requirements, it covered the range of grammar points we required, the topics were interesting and varied, it was professionally presented with interesting images and engaging video content, and I am sure there were other reasons too. Listening lessons are particularly frustrating, as they are often ‘exam-style’ tasks containing 8 short extracts, only one or two of which may be related to the topic of the unit, making it very difficult to raise students’ interest in them. I somehow managed to completely miss that every last skills activity was an ‘exam task’, and the ones I did notice seemed at first glance to match up to Cambridge Main Suite exams, though it has subsequently turned out that they are in fact task types from a wide range of different exams, none of which are explicitly stated. Vocabulary pages are overwhelming for students, consisting as they do of three controlled practice exercises, each with 6-10 items and no other help beyond the questions in the exercise itself. If you’re really lucky one or two of the items may have appeared earlier in the unit or elsewhere on the page, but this is rare. Vocabulary is completely test-focussed, with no explicit input or freer practice activities. Most importantly, the amount of work it takes to put together a single lesson from it, particular anything that concerns teaching language, is completely unjustifiable in our very busy school for our busy, mostly newly-qualified teachers, and the senior team who support them. To top it all, a few students have told us they’re using the book at school, which I someone didn’t find out from the rep (more than likely, that’s my fault as I probably didn’t ask).

So now we’re starting to make decisions about the books for my fourth year, and I’m hoping these are books which stick so I don’t have to revisit this in another year (pretty please!) Here are some of the criteria I’ll be adding to the ever-growing list:

  • Presents and practises grammar and vocabulary items in a clear context.
  • Provides repeated opportunities to activate the grammar or a limited set of vocabulary items.
  • Contains skills activities which are not purely exam-focussed, and which it is possible to engage students in.
  • Is possible to consistently plan a 90-minute lesson from in less than 90 minutes, without requiring entire new sets of materials to be made.
  • Is not used in local secondary schools.

For those who’ve been wondering, I have repeatedly considered ditching coursebooks entirely, but that would create even more work, copyright concerns, and many other issues that I really do not have the time to deal with. It’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead we’re starting the selection process much earlier this year, and we’re going to be teaching multiple lessons from any book we consider. I’ll be checking with all of the reps for a full list of books used in local schools. We’ll go over all of the points in the checklist above with a fine-tooth comb. I know we won’t find anything that’s perfect, because nothing is, but if we can find something at least half-way decent, that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out every time I look at it or hear its name, then I will be satisfied.

All recommendations and advice will be most gratefully accepted. Thank you for your patience!

Advertisements

Working with new teachers: first steps (IH Journal)

Issues 43 of the IH Journal was published yesterday, with lots of great things for you to read:

IH Journal issue 43 contents

It features the first article in a new series which I’m writing, all about working with new teachers. You can read the journal online, and my article is here. If working with new teachers is something you’re interested in, or if you’re a new teacher yourself, watch out for an exciting announcement coming soon on my blog 🙂

Staying healthy

I’ve written at length (when don’t I?!) about the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, and how it affects my life.

Having a stress-induced illness means that it’s particularly important that I find ways to manage how stressed I feel to avoid a flare-up of my colitis. September and the beginning of October are by far the busiest times of our school year, and can be very stressful for me at times. For the last two years, I was quite bad for most of this six-week period. Since Christmas last year, I’ve been on immuno-suppresants, which have stopped me from having any flare-ups (yay!) and seem to be keeping me mostly healthy right now (double yay!) I can still feel some of the symptoms though, and I need to look after myself to avoid the other pitfalls of a weak immune system, like catching every cold that passes through the school (!)

Here are some of the things I’ve been trying to do:

  • Making sure I stick to my morning routine as much as possible, doing physio exercises and spending 20 minutes or so doing cross stitch, both relaxing activities in and of themselves. I listen to podcasts at the same time to give me something to think about other than work.
  • Keeping active by aiming for 10,000 steps a day, which equates to about 100 minutes of exercise a day. When you’re sitting a desk doing timetables and setting up electronic registers all day, that’s not always easy!
  • Eating healthy food. I bought a slow cooker a couple of weeks ago, which has helped me to cook in bulk and not have to worry about exactly when the food will be ready. So far I’ve made soup and lasagne, and am happy to get any other suggestions (though I can’t eat anything spicy because of the colitis, so no curries!)
Soup in my new slow cooker

It might not look very appealing, but it tasted delicious!

  • Switching off the computer and blue screens by 9:30, before going to bed at 11pm. Having always been lucky to sleep fairly well, I didn’t think this would make much difference, but I feel much more refreshed by my sleep if I haven’t been using screens late at night.
  • Noticing when I’m stressed, particularly if I’m moving faster than I need to be, taking a deep breath, and consciously slowing down. For example, I realised I was rushing when I was washing my hands this afternoon because my brain was very active and I felt like I needed to get things done. I realised that taking an extra 30 seconds would calm me down a bit and make my work more effective in the end.
  • Blogging 🙂

I’m also really looking forward to my first flamenco class of this year – our lessons restart tomorrow night.

What do you do to stay healthy and to de-stress?

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

A timetable metaphor

Last week I started trying to put together the timetable for the new school year. This is the third time I’ve done the timetable for my school, not counting changes that happen through the year. I’ve worked out a few systems for myself now, and as I’ve got to know teachers, students (especially 121s) and what does and doesn’t work, things have got a bit easier, but it’s still an all-consuming task. I have no idea how those who do timetables at schools with continuous enrolment manage it!

What my head feels like right now! (Image from Pixabay)

It’s like you’re trying to do a jigsaw, with people adding random extra pieces all the time, and occasionally taking them away.

There is a deadline, but you know that the picture will still have to change for at least a couple of weeks after the deadline has passed – it’s never truly finished.

The end result has to be a picture that is as pleasing as possible to various different groups of people: students, staff (approximately a third of whom you’ve only had a couple of hours of conversation with during interviews and have never met in person), admin staff, businesses etc. You’ve never seen this picture and have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.

Said people are also looking over your shoulder, offering advice, asking questions, and sometimes telling you that the picture just doesn’t look right that way or that they’re not happy with that particular part of the image.

You go home, sleep on it (or not, as the case may be!), and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Duh! How could I possibly have forgotten that?’ or ‘Oh yeah – that would be a much better picture.’

You’ve been on the other side of the process as a teacher, and you have a pretty good idea of what is manageable in terms of a timetable. You try as hard as you can to make things as easy as possible for your teachers, a lot of whom have never taught before, while at the same time matching up students and groups to those who you believe will be most likely to teach them successfully. You also try to balance timetables, so that they seem ‘fair’ when the inevitable comparing begins. You also know it could be a lot worse for them.

Three or four weeks later, after many hours of work and countless to-ing and fro-ing, you hand out the timetables to everyone. And then the complaints roll in.

But at the same time, there is a sense of satisfaction. This giant, ever-changing logic puzzle has coalesced into something that looks like it just might work. Now you just have to wait and see…

On leadership and teamwork

Zhenya has just posted her answers to the 11 questions challenge (Thanks! See mine here and here) and posed some of her own, including three which I’d like to respond to here.

Have you ever tried to lead a team of people? If yes, what are your impressions and learning? If no, would you like to (one day)?

I’ve now been working as a Director of Studies for two years in two very different schools. The first was small, with only a handful of part-time teachers and one other full-time teacher (the school Director) besides me. Most of the time I was teaching full-time as well as being the DoS. The second has about 20 teachers, including me, and I only teach for a couple of hours a week. I work in close collaboration with two ADoSes and the school Director.

I had an excellent induction, but have also learnt an incredible amount on the job, not least in the last two weeks. It has not just taught me about what it takes to manage a language school, but also about working with a team of diverse personalities, and about my own personality. It has shown me how I and my team respond to a crisis (or five!), how everybody’s personalities and characters can complement each other to complete a team and also how sometimes there are things I just don’t or can’t notice which I need other people to be willing to share with me.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s not impossible either, and the challenges it throws at me keep me interested and invigorated, if a little tired at times 😉

When do you think someone is ready to be a leader of a team?

Not long after becoming a full-time DoS, I wrote some advice for people considering moving into management. It includes a series of questions you can use to help you decide whether you are ready to be a manager.

For me, it’s important for a leader to have experience of being part of a team or environment similar to the one they are managing in. That way they are much more likely to be able to empathise with their team. If they are ready to learn what it takes to be an effective leader, then they are probably ready to become a leader. If they think they know it all already, then I would probably steer clear!

What’s your best tip on working with people?

Communicate.

And remember that part of communicating is listening.

Listening attentively

Without good channels of communication, it’s impossible to work effectively with people. There will always be rumours, backbiting and negative comments if people don’t understand what is going on and why.

You also need to be willing to listen when members of your team have something they want to tell you, whether it’s positive or negative (and let’s face it, it’s usually negative). Don’t get defensive or be accusatory – let them talk, and find out what they need from you. Sometimes it’s just to let off steam. Sometimes they don’t know what they need, and you need to help them work towards finding out.

Another part of communication is about being open to the world around you. By learning more, you will be able to connect more easily and effectively with more people, which will hopefully benefit both you and them. By being open, team members are also more likely to be willing to share those things with you which you can’t see, as I mentioned above.

How would you answer Zhenya’s questions?

My first year as a full-time DoS

Richard Branson, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later.”

I saw this quote on Jane Cohen’s blog a few days ago, and feel like it sums up my job at IH Bydgoszcz pretty perfectly, as well as being from one of the managers I admire most.

When my predecessor, Tim, first mentioned the possibility of taking over from him as Director of Studies (DoS) managing a team of 18-20 teachers, I really wasn’t sure I could do it. After all, I’d only finished Delta a year or so earlier, and had done very little teaching since then to see if I could apply what I’d learnt. I was a fledgling CELTA tutor with only four courses under my belt, and still very much felt like I was learning how to do that job. Although I’d worked as the DoS at IH Sevastopol, it was a very different school with a much smaller team of only 3-6 teachers, and where I was still teaching 18-24 hours a week. Thankfully Tim talked me into visiting the school to see what the job really involved.

Less than a month later I spent four days in Bydgoszcz and Torun, visiting the school and the surrounding area and shadowing Tim at school for two days. I spent the first day continuing to think there was no way I could possibly do this job, and it took a couple of conversations with some of the teachers on the second day to persuade me that I would manage it. Thank you – you know who you are!

The result was that when the end of August 2015 rolled around, I found myself moving to Bydgoszcz, and entering a near-empty school just waking up from the summer break for the best induction I could possibly have hoped for. Tim spent nearly three weeks with me, introducing me to various procedures at the school and helping me get a handle on many of the things I’d need to do the job. He’s always been on call to help me throughout the year, and I’m immensely grateful for his help.

At the beginning of September, the senior teachers arrived and together, with Tim’s help, we planned the induction week for new and returning teachers. Throughout the year Luke, Sam and I have worked well as a team (in my opinion!) to support the teachers and keep everything running smoothly. I have relied on their prior knowledge of systems at the school to help me work out what needed doing, when and how. This is also true of the admin staff, and especially of the school Director, who is amazingly supportive, and one of the best bosses I have ever had the pleasure to work with.

Together, we have:

  • placement tested new students and organised the timetable
  • done drop in and formal observations to help our teachers develop
  • provided weekly professional development workshops
  • run collaborative level planning meetings covering about half of the groups at the school
  • had weekly meetings and senior meetings to keep everybody up-to-date
  • organised a teacher training day, two adult social events and two young learner socials
  • run a day of Cambridge mock exams
  • coordinated and checked reports for students
  • organised tutorials and parents’ meetings
  • recruited new staff and organised accommodation for them
  • dealt with problems that teachers, students and parents have had
  • chosen new course books for the next school year
  • and probably many other things which I’ve forgotten!

Needless to say, I had no idea how to do a lot of those things before I started the job! I was lucky to have inherited a lot of systems which I’ve been able to build on, making the whole thing a lot easier for me. A selection of the skills I think I’ve learnt or developed over the past year include:

  • using many features of Excel I had no idea even existed before!
  • how to use Outlook (something I’d thankfully managed to escape before – I hate it!)
  • communication skills: when to listen, what to ask, when to talk, what to say, how to say it
  • awareness of relationships around the school and how they impact on people
  • recruitment
  • balancing timetables fairly and taking into account the needs of teachers, students and the school
  • helping teachers fresh off the CELTA to build on what they’ve learnt
  • classroom management with teen classes (I had my own teen group for most of the year)
  • time management, and knowing how to manage my office door
  • balancing school work and out-of-school activities (I’d say ‘life’, but a lot of it has still been work this year – already have plans afoot to change this next year!)

Of course, there’s still a lot I need to work on, including many of the areas mentioned above. To help me with this, I’d like to get some more formal management training, as like many people I’ve been learning on the job. So far I’ve been relying on a combination of instinct, past conversations with my mum when she was managing a large organisation, Business Studies from school, management books I mostly read as a teenager, and asking for help from my ever-supportive network.

As I enter my second year at IH Bydgoszcz and am now more aware of the background I’m working with, I’m starting to make deeper changes, beyond the occasional rewriting of a document or update of a system. These include modifying the already very strong professional development structure, changing the way registers are set up with the aim of making them easier to fill in, and introducing some shared groups. Watch this space to find out what works and what doesn’t!

Tag Cloud