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Challenges in ELT: Transitioning from teacher to DoS

Type: Article

Director of Studies and Delta-qualified teacher Sean O’Grady addresses the challenges teachers face when moving from the classroom to the office.

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Introduction

Teachers spend many years acquiring the knowledge and abilities they need to become skilled practitioners in the classroom. Through initial teacher training qualifications, diplomas, MAs and ongoing CPD, time is afforded to become what is considered a ‘good’ teacher.

In contrast, when teachers make the transition into management, the expectation is that they will already possess the necessary skills to fulfill their new role straight away. While it is true that a teacher’s experience in the classroom is vital for certain aspects of the Director of Studies (DoS) role, there are many qualities and skills that a new DoS needs to develop.

In this article, I aim to highlight some of the initial challenges that a new DoS might face and offer some words of advice based on my own experiences and those of others who have recently made the transition into academic management.

Managing conflict

Having taught English as a foreign language for many years, I am aware that it can at times be stressful, challenging and poorly paid. However, for the most part, it is an enjoyable and rewarding way to make a living. One of the great things about teaching is that the majority of your daily interactions are positive and productive. You are helping your students to learn, helping your colleagues to plan lessons and helping your school to build its reputation. One of the things I found most challenging about becoming a DoS was the increased conflict and tension in my interactions with students and colleagues. As DoS you sometimes have to make unpopular decisions, such as denying last-minute holiday requests or not allowing a student to move to a higher group. In other lines of work there are far more difficult conversations taking place every day, but, for the new DoS, having to say ‘no’ can be daunting, especially when talking to important clients or members of staff who might have been around much longer than you have.

In such situations, the first thing I would suggest is to buy yourself time to make a decision, when possible. Your first idea might have implications that you hadn’t considered. In my initial need to be seen as decisive, I was often too reactive and made decisions that I regretted.

Secondly, when dealing with teachers, the best resource you have is your own experience. Empathising with people allows you to anticipate their objections, which will help you to have a much more productive conversation. Before you corner them to ask for a favour, think about what possible objections they might have. If your request is reasonable, plan how to get that message across. If you are asking for a big favour, perhaps there is something you can offer in return.

The above is concerned with relatively minor daily requests. From time to time, though, a DoS will be faced with more serious issues, which are naturally more challenging to deal with. In situations such as serious client complaints and consistent poor performance from a teacher, the best course of action may not be immediately obvious. Does your school have a principal or centre manager? There is a good chance they were previously a DoS and will have been in the industry long enough to have faced most situations before. Use their experience to your advantage. More often than not, the solution to your problem becomes obvious when discussed over a cup of tea with somebody who has been in your shoes before. You will certainly feel more confident in explaining your decision to a senior teacher, knowing you have the backing of your boss.

Whether a conflict is big or small, always be as upfront and honest as possible. Taking the time to sit down with somebody and talk to them one to one about an issue will be received much more warmly than hiding behind an email or making a passing comment in the corridor.

Acquiring new skills

While it is true that teaching develops some of the qualities you need to become a DoS, there are also a range of other key skills that a new DoS may not possess. These range from basic administrative skills, such as keeping your inbox organised, to soft skills, such as time management, forward planning and prioritisation.

When I first moved into management, it quickly became clear that I needed to become more organised. In one particularly stressful week, I found myself with over 100 emails in my inbox. The upcoming week was unusually busy and we didn’t have enough teachers available, I had stuck up posters for a training session that I hadn’t started planning yet and I had booked the Friday off work for a friend’s wedding. Needless to say, that was a chaotic and challenging week which could have been avoided had I spent time looking ahead at what was coming up and beginning to put things in place well in advance.

The biggest mistake I made in my first months as a DoS was to prioritise the interesting and pedagogical side of the job over the administrative. I was keen to design and implement a new teacher training schedule, to observe all of the core teachers and to fix the problems with the school’s syllabus. I wanted to use the knowledge and skills I had recently acquired doing the Delta and put my stamp on the school quickly.

The best advice I could offer to any new DoS is to spend the initial weeks or even months of your new role nailing down the administrative side of the job before moving on to the other (more interesting) stuff. Once the administrative side of things is running smoothly, you’ll have much more time to spend on the aspects of the role that appealed to you in the first place, and you’ll do a better job of them as a result.

Out of the classroom, into the office

The final challenge, and perhaps the one that has persisted for the longest, is the challenge of not being in the classroom every day. It felt strange to complete my DELTA, with all of the new knowledge and skills I had learnt, and then to almost immediately stop teaching. When you step into the office, there can be a feeling of disconnect from what is going on in the classroom. You don’t have the same relationship with students, and you can feel jealous when listening to a teacher talking about the great activity they ran when you were responding to emails all afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, the administrative aspect of your role is vital, but once those tasks are taken care of, you can find the time to engage with the teachers and students in a pedagogically stimulating way. Some of the things that I have found rewarding are:

  • Mentoring long-term students.
  • Leading assemblies before school.
  • Running after-school activities, e.g. a homework club.
  • Designing and delivering CPD sessions.
  • Researching new ideas/resources/technologies in ELT.

Personally, I have found that the satisfaction I used to receive from teaching has now been replaced by the satisfaction from mentoring and training newer teachers. From formal observations and feedback, to spontaneous chats in the staff room, the skills and experience you have acquired as a teacher are invaluable to newer teachers who are keen to develop.

Conclusion

At times, being a DoS can be a difficult and stressful job, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding one. You have the opportunity to transform a good school into a great one, and you can help teachers to achieve their full potential. There may be a few hiccups to start with, but, as you did when you started teaching, allow yourself the time to grow into your new role.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Hi Cathy,

    Thanks for your comment. We will let Sean know that your rating was meant to be higher than a 1 star! It's nice to hear your thoughts on what is a very interesting topic. There's lots of focus on TPD in ELT these days and highlighting how to transition to other areas is, of course, very useful indeed.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • I wanted to give this a four/five star rating but the system blocked me at one star :(
    Think a lot of the points are very true and am sure many DoS have been in the same position. It is not an easy transition!

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  • Really helpful article. I faced the same problems in my first year of DoS. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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