What are the key skills required to be an Academic Manager?

by Maureen McGarvey

Applying for a job as an academic manager is a bit of an odd process, really. I can’t think of many roles where the key qualifications for getting the job are not the ones you are directly going to need when you are actually doing the job itself.

Here are a couple of examples of requirements from current job adverts for academic management posts.

All such adverts that I looked at had these as essential requirements.

  • You must have a DELTA, DipTESOL, or MA TESOL
  • You must have a degree (e.g. BA, BSc)

Many adverts go on to list the skills and requirements their school needs [a creative and inspirational leader, an experienced academic manager, someone who will lead and manage a team of teachers, ability to ensure high quality delivery of courses, experience in customer care, strong communication skills, keen interest in professional development, etc.] but there is no requirement to evidence these skills in the form of any qualification. It’s almost as if, once you are appointed, all those skills will magically transfer themselves to you as soon as you get the title ‘Director of Studies’. If you are fortunate, there may be a handover period with the previous incumbent, but if they leave at the end of the academic year and you come in at the start of the next academic year, this is unlikely. Many schools do offer support and induction for academic managers, of course; but in many more, you are expected to ‘hit the ground running’ and develop and demonstrate your skills and requirements at the same time. Quite a tall order for many of us!

Some years ago, myself and a colleague were both IH World school inspectors, and we noticed how many academic managers were struggling with the more managerial aspects of their role. This was not because they could not do some of the things required, more that they had no framework to operate within, or because they didn’t have the knowledge to support, for example, how best to “ensure high quality delivery of courses” or “manage professional development for a varied teaching team”. This led us to propose the creation of a [then] Distance Learning programme for academic managers, focusing on specific topics where we felt academic managers were struggling.

We surveyed a number of academic managers in the IH World Organisation to see what areas they felt would be useful to study, and these formed the syllabus for the original management training programmes. Since then, the materials have been rewritten, adapted for fully online delivery, updated again and adapted again, and this process is ongoing. There was very little written about academic management in a language teaching organisation (LTO); the excellent From Teacher to Manager – Managing in Language Teaching Organisations by White, Hockely, et al. was not published until 2008. However, there was a lot of literature on general management theories and approaches. It made sense to us to refer to the literature on the topic and then exemplify it within a language school context. We could then consider management theories and, through examples, Case Studies and Discussion Forum tasks, explore their relevance to our own LTOs.

Through the process of revising and updating, we now have a core set of seven topic-specific modules which together cover the main areas of academic management.

Business Management covers the [sometimes scary!] areas of marketing and finance. These may, initially, appear to fall beyond the normal ‘DoS remit’, but we feel that understanding the marketing mic and marketing plan, as well as getting to grips with budgeting, break even analysis and course costing, is becoming ever more important for academic managers. The next Business Management course starts on 13th November 2021.

Managing Customer Service covers the different aspects of customer service in a language teaching organisation and examines customer expectations. We explore how to improve the customer journey in your organisation or department and how to rectify quality issues. The next Managing Customer Service course starts on 18th September 2021.

Observation and Giving Feedback explores the role of observation in your organisation set against what effective teaching is for different course types. We look at different observation types, the stages of observation, and ways to approach oral and written feedback on observations, as well as how to manage resistance. The next Observation and Giving Feedback course starts on 26th June 2021.

Teams and Communication looks at what constitutes a team, what to do if your team gets stuck and how to implement action centred leadership. We look at the principles which underpin effective communication, communication in conflict situations, and how to conduct an organisational communications audit. The next Teams and Communication course starts on 26th June 2021.

Managing Change is a key aspect of almost everything we do as academic managers. In this module we look at models of change management, responses to change, types of change and change fatigue, as well as the relationship between organisational culture and structurer and change management. The next Managing Change is TBC.

Performance Management is a complex area which covers not only managing poor performance but how to enhance good performance among teaching staff. We look at our own understanding of Performance Management, at theories of motivation, at INSETT and at the use of the timetable as a developmental tool. The next Performance Management course is TBC. 

Young Learner Centre Management is aimed at managers who work with either a completely Young Learners LTO or a mixed adult/YL set up. Here we explore curriculum, course design and resource management as well as academic and policy support and communication with parents and teams. The next Young Learner Centre Management course starts is TBC.

The fully online modules are short [6 weeks] and require about 4 – 6 hours of work per week, as well as submission of weekly Portfolio Tasks and a final written assignment. Course participants are those either currently in an academic management role or those planning such a move.

Some comments from previous course participants are:

“It was great to be able to really dig deep into marketing and finance [I never thought I’d say that!] and I feel much more confident now as a result.”

“I’d thought performance management was about dealing with problems and student complaints, but now I realise it’s much broader than that, and also, much more positive.”

“Working with colleagues meant I could really talk through problems I was having in my school and get a wealth of suggestions from those who had experienced exactly the same problems before.”

“It’s good to get some theory and literature to support what I was doing instinctively before. It’s a bit like teaching; you know ‘it works’, but it’s really good to know why it works.”

The managers who have undertaken these modules all say that they feel more confident in the topics studied and they can see how they are directly applicable to their LTO. Sometimes, as managers, we get swamped by the everyday ‘stuff’ of our jobs and don’t have the chance to stand back and really think about the principles behind what we do. We’re too busy doing it to think about it! But for six weeks you can learn and share problems, ideas and solutions with support from your online colleagues and your tutor. And you set a great example of CPD to your teachers at the same time.

The ELT market is becoming increasingly competitive and the role of the academic manager is becoming ever more complex. As the demands on academic managers multiply, so the need for specific training becomes greater. We emphasise professional teaching qualifications, but shouldn’t we emphasise management training as well? Short courses on specific topics, like these online modules, are an immediate way to support our academic managers, and thereby help them to support their teaching staff.

Maureen McGarvey

Maureen McGarvey is a course tutor on our Academic Management courses and has been involved in ELT since 1974. She has been a teacher, teacher trainer, and academic manager at middle and senior management levels. She has also been Programme Manager for a range of eLearning programmes, primarily focussing on teacher development, trainer development and academic manager development. Her main areas of interest are academic manager development, CPD for teachers and integrating online and blended learning programmes with whole-school development. She is a frequent conference speaker on issues related to academic management.