The first 90 days

3 08 2014
Every cloud has a silver lining - @cgoodey #eltpics

Photo by @cgoodey #eltpics


If we decide to offer you the role, what would you aim to achieve in your first 90 days?

This was one of the questions I thought I might be asked when preparing for the interviews I had to undergo for my new DOS job.

In the event, it wasn’t one I was asked, but, having got the job, and now that I have passed that mini milestone, I thought I’d look back at my notes to see how I am doing so far, and how closely I have followed my scribbled plans.

To put my notes into context, it is worth pointing out that I was interviewing for a school that had recently been rated a centre of excellence after their BC inspection, and rated Outstanding by ISI.

I was going to be in the ELT equivalent of David Moyes’s shoes, taking over from a ‘title-winning’ Director of Studies. And it didn’t turn out so well for Moyes!

So, taking over a team which has been assessed as excellent – how do you make your mark whilst at the same time ensuring the level of quality at least stays the same, if not improves? And coming back to the hypothetical interview question – what to do in my first 90 days?

These are my pre-interview notes:
[screen pic of my evernote]



A smooth transition was my first goal – keep the school running as seamlessly as I could.

The scale of a larger school can be initially daunting – the number of students, classes, teachers, classrooms, the timetable spreading over multiple pages; everything much bigger than my old school. And with weekly enrolment, that’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, and I felt it was really important to make sure there were no operational cock-ups.

I also knew that previous senior appointments in the school had come internally, so having an outsider take on the DOS role would be a significant change for everyone. I wanted to quickly reassure and build confidence in me as the new DOS.

Getting to know the team – the next main goal.

It was going to be so important to get to know my new team as quickly as possible – line manager, academic management team, teachers, and registration team. It is a lot of people, and the opportunities for getting to know everyone are not always apparent.

I knew there would be regular management meetings; it would be relatively straightforward to get to know the Principal and his management and communication style.

I would be working in an office together with the ADOS – we would have to establish a close working relationship quickly, and thankfully that has been very easy to do.

There would be weekly teacher meetings; a chance for teachers to get to know me – and I made a point to prepare a short introductory presentation of me and my background, my first impressions of the school, and my beliefs and goals, for the teachers meeting at the end of my first week.

But getting to know a large team of teachers individually – over 40 of them – has been harder. As etched out in my pre-interview notes above, I knew I would need to be visible and approachable. The DOS office is great for concentrated work, but a too-easy hide-away, and I knew I would have to make an effort to get out and be around the staffroom – ‘MWBA’ as I’ve heard George Pickering call it, Management By Walking About. So, lunches taken with the teachers in the staffroom, milling around with them in coffee breaks, little chats and small talk here and there – all have been ways to gradually get to know the teachers.

Another key strategy for really getting to know your team is having a regular one-to-one chat with them; I call these ‘catch-up chats’ and tried at my last school to ensure I had a 121 every 8 weeks or so with each teacher. It is a great way to find out more about ‘the person behind the teacher’ – what their motivations are, their interests outside of EFL, their hidden talents. This part of my plan has been harder to achieve; I’ve managed to have chats with some but not all, including some of the senior teachers who I intended to prioritize – I need to find a better way for scheduling these catch-ups at times convenient for them and me.

Of course, another great way to get to know your new teaching team is to observe them in the classroom – and, as planned in my notes,  I quickly organized rounds of buzz observations (also called drop-ins) to see teachers in their teaching context. Although you don’t get to see the full arc of a lesson in a 15-20 minute buzz obs, you can still gain a good idea of how each teacher works in the classroom, and an overall sense of the strengths of the team; and as long as you let them know more or less when you will be dropping in, then I think this kind of observation is less daunting for teachers, and also perhaps less artificial – which more ‘formal’ observations can sometimes be.

I also felt it would be important to get to know the students in the school, or at least for them to know who I was. I made sure that I went round to every class in the first week and introduce myself, and ask the students a few questions. I also wanted to ensure I was able to meet and greet new students each Monday, and be visible where possible during orientation.

Other goals at the start

If I were to get the job, I knew the first big event wouldn’t be too far away – and so getting started on planning for the summer would also be an important initial objective. Recruitment can be so time consuming, and is so critical that I knew I would need to devote time and energy on this; I felt that the first few appointments I made would reflect strongly on me, so it has been important to get them right.

The new school is part of a group, and I thought that I might find benefits from becoming part of a team of other DOSes, so finding ways to get to know new colleagues at sister schools, and explore ways to collaborate was also an objective for the first three months. I have managed to achieve this with the DOS at the closest school, and it is really reassuring to know there is someone from the group I can contact to ask questions and share ideas with.

Finally, a welcome drink also seemed a good idea to organize within the first 90 days. A social event is a great way to show yourself outside of the role, and can help to ‘demystify’ the manager.

Photo by @fionamau #eltpics

Photo by @fionamau #eltpics

Being new

These first 90 days have whizzed by. There has been lots to learn and learn quickly; it has been refreshing to see new ways of doing things, and to bring fresh eyes and perspectives on things; it has also been good to establish new norms in the way I work – things I wanted to introduce before in my old school but found the norms there hard to break.

The goals I imagined before my interview were fairly obvious; the school hasn’t needed a dramatic and immediate sea change, and I have been lucky in that respect. A DOS taking on a failing academic team would have needed more radical objectives in the first three months.

But I’d be interested to know of other experiences or suggestions for the initial goals of a new team manager. What else could I have planned for?