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

Posts tagged ‘IH Bydgoszcz’

Reflections on leaving IH Bydgoszcz

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 ūüôā

A list of all terms in the word cloud (repeated to show relative size):
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
International~House~Bydgoszcz
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
Director~of~Studies
creating~teams
management
teaching
training
workshops
meetings
Google~Drive
online~registers
continual~assessment
creating~tests
choosing~coursebooks
recruitment
interviewing
communication
IH~CAM
induction~week
timetabling
teaching~Polish
teaching~teens
teaching~young~learners
advising~students
dealing~with~complaints
dealing~with~mental~health~issues
organising~cover
problem~solving
Zoom
responding~to~COVID
teaching~online
classroom~dynamics
observations
drop~in~observations
video~observations
tracking~development
professional~development~interviews
choosing~groups
choosing~teachers
tracking~student~progress
contacting~students~and~parents
streamlining~processes
motivating~teachers
encouraging~teachers
training~senior~staff
supporting~staff
making~decisions
being~inspected
mentoring
managing~performance
dealing~with~difficult~people
letting~staff~go
tracking~overtime
managing~pay
updating~contracts
cooperating~with~other~schools
organising~social~events
sharing~what~we~do
Teacher~Training~Days
references
placement~testing
level~meetings
SEN
guiding~professional~development
offering~advice
calming~people~down
letting~people~cry
crying
responding~to~staff~feedback
answering~emails
speaking~to~publisher~reps
managing~resources
checking~reports
writing~reports
managing~my~time
scheduling~meetings
managing~remotely
attending~conferences
representing~the~school
bringing~back~ideas
creative~thinking
chatting
socialising
maintaining~a~positive~environment

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.

The Director

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.

The teachers

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 ūüôā

The school

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 ūüėČ 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!)

What’s next?

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…

All change!

I came to International House Bydgoszcz in September 2015, having been Director of Studies in a very different, much smaller school (IH Sevastopol) for a year, followed by a freelance CELTA trainer for a year. When I came to Poland, I thought I might stay for 5 years. It’s now my 6th year, and my last.

I’ve learnt so much from the job and the people I’ve worked with, but now it’s time to move on and let somebody else take their turn. I’m very happy to say that my colleague will take over from me as the next DOS, and I wish her the best of luck with the position, in what is one of the best schools I’ve ever had the privilege to be in contact with.

As for me, I’ll be moving into the world of freelancing from October 2021. I’m aiming for a combination of teacher training (CELTA and non-CELTA), materials writing, and perhaps also some teaching and consultancy work. If you have a project you think I might be a good fit for, please do get in touch. I also plan to continue my work on the ELT Playbook series, so watch this space for announcements of new titles or subscribe to the blog or facebook page. I’m excited about taking the next step, and look forward to continuing to share what I learn with you.

The first photo of me in Bydgoszcz, August 2015

Things I’ve learnt about my teaching this week

This week I have taught:

  • 3 hours with my new upper intermediate adult class (who are actually mostly older teens);
  • 3 hours of cover with a low A1 kids’ group;
  • 2 hours with a 121 who I’ve been working with over the summer;
  • 3 hours of cover repeating the same lesson with two different high A1 adult groups.

This is easily the most teaching I’ve done in a single week for over two years, since I started out as a CELTA tutor and then a DoS. It’s also probably the largest number of students I’ve had contact with in a week since I finished my Delta. While it’s been pretty tiring on top of my DoS responsibilities, it’s also been very invigorating, and has helped me to realise a few things about how my teaching has developed over the last couple of years of self-reflection and training others.

I never used to enjoy teaching kid’s classes. Despite knowing¬†the theory of how to approach them, I could never put it into practice. I’ve now¬†spent a year working in an environment where there is a lot of training for teaching kids and teens, with teachers who are great examples to learn from, as well as tried and tested routines and discipline systems which are used¬†across the school. I was also¬†the local tutor for a teacher doing the IHCYLT for teaching young learners and teens. This was useful revision, as it’s six years since I finished mine. I discovered that I now really enjoy these lessons¬†ūüôā It’s been a long time coming! Having the security of routines wasn’t just good for the kids: it also meant that I knew what to do at any given time in the lesson, especially for the all-important beginning and end of the lesson. It probably helped that it was a relatively small group, but I felt in control throughout the lesson, and felt that my plan was right for the level and interests of the kids. This is¬†a huge step forward for me, and I’m even considering timetabling myself for a kids’ class next academic year, something I was very reluctant to do before (!)

Another area where I’ve noticed a massive improvement is my activity set-up and instructions. This is particularly important for lower levels, and between the four lessons¬†I taught with them last week, I only had one activity where the students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. This was entirely my fault, as I knew it would be a potentially complicated activity, and I hadn’t thought through the instructions carefully enough, but I managed to rescue the situation pretty quickly through a demonstration, which is what I should have done to start off with. Although I still forget them sometimes, demos have now become much more natural for me, and have led to a massive decrease in the amount of time I spend setting up activities and solving problems when the students don’t understand what to do.

With the upper intermediate group, I also set up a series of routines right from the first lesson. One of these is journal writing, and another is extensive reading, something which I already knew was useful, but now understand more of the theory behind¬†thanks to the Coursera course I’ve just completed.

My 121 student showed me that my language awareness is now pretty comprehensive, as I was able to deal with pretty much any language question she threw at me without having to look it up. When I did need to use a reference tool, I was able to confidently access a corpus, something which I had no idea how to do a couple of years ago. I also managed to explain some of the fundamentals of grammar based on what Lewis says in The English Verb [affiliate link] using this diagram, something which I’d like to develop more in the future – this one was created on the spur of the moment!

Rough diagram based on Michael Lewis's The English Verb

The way that my own teaching has come on makes me feel much more confident about supporting all of the teachers I’m working with.¬†We’ve got another exciting year ahead at IH Bydgoszcz, and another great team. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us.

Why Central Europe should be on your list of dream TEFL destinations

Two different people have recently told me how Poland exceeded¬†their expectations.¬†Those who’ve never been here think they’re going to get¬†some kind of post-Soviet, post-war, depressing, grey place to live and work.¬†When I tell people I’ve decided to make Bydgoszcz my home and buy a flat here, I’m often greeted with surprise.

I’d never thought of applying to Poland and was always amazed¬†that other people wanted to live there. Then I visited for a few days and was pleased¬†by how much I liked it. I definitely want to move there now.

Why on Earth would you want to come here¬†when your TEFL certificate could open the doors to Spain, Thailand, or any number of other holiday destinations? Let’s face it, very few¬†aspiring TEFL travellers start out on their CELTA saying “I’ve always wanted to move to Central Europe. Sign me up!”

I am so surprised by Poland as I had imagined something grey and post war. I honestly thought we would be faced with abandoned concrete buildings everywhere! I also imagined old taxis and copious amounts of grey tasteless bread. When I told people I was going to Warsaw for the weekend I was met with incredulous looks or pity that that was the chosen destination!

Popular culture has a lot to answer for. So what’s it really like?

I first fell in love with Central Europe* when I lived in Brno in the Czech Republic.

Brno Cathedral

I have to admit that I started out with similar impressions to those in the quotes above, but thankfully it didn’t take me long to get over them. In fact, within 24 hours of arriving in Brno, I’d already decided I wanted to come back for a second year. I ended up staying for three, and made this video as a way of expressing my feelings for the city. I’ve since been back many times, and it always feels like going home. I left for two reasons: to be in the UK for the year before the Olympics and Paralympics and to develop my career further. Otherwise I’d probably still be there!

When I was offered the chance to move to Bydgoszcz, I knew that I would feel comfortable here and that I would get a lot out of my life and work. I haven’t regretted that decision for one moment.

*I know Germany counts as Central Europe too, and my love of the language and many trips there count too, but in this post I’m talking about the places that are still suffering from the impressions created when they were behind the Iron Curtain. I’m also mostly addressing this post to Brits thinking about where to move to as I know we have a lot of stereotypes to get over – I can’t speak for those from other cultural backgrounds. ūüėČ

Why teach in Central Europe?

Because our schools are not at the top of the list as a dream destination, it’s in our interests to help you develop professionally to make sure we get good teachers in through the doors. (Please note, I’m speaking from my perspective as somebody who’s worked for International House schools – I can’t vouch for anywhere else!) Many IH schools in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have good reputations as places to start out your career. Accommodation is also often provided in school flats, so it’s one less thing for you to worry about when you move here.

You’ll experience a culture which is similar enough to what you’re used to in the UK that you can fit in pretty quickly, but at the same time different enough that you’ll be learning new things all the time.

Candles for All Soul's Night at the Military Cemetary

Candles for All Soul’s Night at the Military Cemetary, Bydgoszcz

The food here is delicious and affordable. Czech Sv√≠ńćkov√°¬†and¬†Polish pierogi¬†are two of my favourite discoveries, but any semi-decent restaurant will serve you delicious food for a really low price. I don’t drink, but I’ve also been reliably informed that Czech beer is the best in the world. One of my favourite quotes from a visiting friend:

Do you mean I’ve just eaten that huge¬†meal and had two beers, and it cost me less than ¬£10?

Poznan - Saint Martin's Day rogale, a kind of croissant filled with almond and poppy seed

Poznan – rogale, a kind of croissant filled with almond and poppy seed, traditionally eaten for Saint Martin’s Day (11th November), but available all year round

You can get fresh fruit and vegetables from markets all year. Polish apples have a well-deserved reputation as some of the best in the world, and the berries you can get in the spring are juicy, sweet, and (did I mention?) cheap.

Zelny Trh vegetables, Brno

Zelny Trh (Green Market) vegetables, Brno

Admittedly it’s a bit harder to eat out if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, but it’s definitely getting easier and shouldn’t stop you from considering¬†Central Europe.

There’s always something going on, especially in the spring. It’s rare that I went into the main square in Brno at a weekend without seeing some kind of interesting festival, show or performance, and the same is proving true of Bydgoszcz.

River concerts, Opera Nova, Bydgoszcz

River concerts, Opera Nova, Bydgoszcz

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Far from being post-Soviet, the architecture on show across Central Europe is varied and interesting, and full of history.

Bydgoszcz Post Office

Bydgoszcz Post Office: from the 19th century

Cathedral of St. Martin and Mikulas and archaeology museum, Bydgoszcz

Cathedral of St. Martin and Mikulas and archaeology museum, Bydgoszcz

Bydgoszcz warehouses

The symbol of Bydgoszcz – warehouses by the River Brda

Poznan - town hall and herring houses

Poznan – town hall and herring houses

That’s not to say that ugly Soviet buildings don’t exist, just that there is a lot more variety than you might expect. Rare is the Polish or Czech town square that doesn’t have at least one building or monument that jars with the rest of the architecture to our British eyes. But that’s how you know you’re¬†living in a different country ūüėČ

Znojmo, Czech Republic, with the roof of a communist department store in the foreground

Znojmo, Czech Republic, with the roof of a communist department store in the foreground

Public transport is generally cheap, clean and very regular. A three-month tram pass in Brno used to cost me approximately £40, and I could use it at any time of the day to get all over the city, with hourly night buses on offer too. That was about 0.05% of my salary if I remember rightly! In both Bydgoszcz and Brno, they also often run old trams at weekends and holidays if you want to experience a bit of retro travel.

Trams in Brno

Trams in Brno

Old tram in Bydgoszcz

Old tram in Bydgoszcz

There are so many little towns and villages to explore, and hundreds of castles and stately homes. Did you know the Czech Republic has one of the highest densities of¬†castles of any country in the world, with over 2000 in the country? Most of them are easily accessible by the afore-mentioned cheap and efficient public transport (though check what times the buses/trains come back!) I can’t drive, and have managed to explore many different places easily.

Lednice chateau, south of Brno

Lednice chateau, south of Brno

Hrad Karlstejn, outside Prague

Hrad Karlstejn, outside Prague

A much more flattering picture of Znojmo!

A much more flattering picture of Znojmo in the Czech Republic!

Hrad Pernstejn, near Brno

Hrad Pernstejn, near Brno

Torun

Torun – a World Heritage site 40 minutes from Bydgoszcz…

Torun - Copernicus

…and the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus

It’s easy to travel internationally too: I’ve been to Budapest, Krakow, Bratislava, Vienna, Poznan, Warsaw, Prague, and¬†Stockholm, all with ease, and mostly on the train or the excellent Czech Student Agency buses!

You get four seasons.

Autumn sunlight in the park by the Philharmonia

Autumn in the park nearest my flat

Admittedly, the winter can feel pretty long when you’re in the middle of it. When I was in Brno we had about 10 weeks with snow on the ground one year, and a few days of -20C. People here¬†know how to deal with it though, and it very rarely causes problems.

Brno in the snow - walk from Vinohrady to Stara Osada

Having said that, global warming seems to be reducing the likelihood of a really cold¬†winter, and this year in Bydgoszcz we had almost no snow. It was about five months of grey and dullness instead, but when you’re at work, that doesn’t really matter when the heating’s on ūüôā When the spring arrives, it’s stunning, and you really appreciate it. The city comes to life, tables and chairs appear in all of the squares, and there’s a real caf√© culture.

Park near the Philharmonia in the spring

And if all that doesn’t convince you to come to Central Europe, here’s one of my favourite ever Buzzfeed collections: 27 reasons you should never visit Poland

So what are you waiting for?

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