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DoS-ing for the First Time, by Paulina Melichova

Monday, 7:15am. Outside, the sun is shining beautifully. ‘Should be a nice day’, the thought just crosses my mind, when the deafening, shrill sound of fire alarm interrupts my morning routine. I run out of my room, down the stairs and to the fire panel, thankful I had at least managed to put on some clothes. I grab a radio, put on a reflective vest, and rush to the designated place. Around me, children of all sizes and ages in various stages of undress run towards the fire assembly point. 10 minutes of organized confusion pass before we get everybody out of the building safely. By that time we figure out that it was a false alarm. On the way back inside, a girl who came to study on her own, without a group (let’s call her Ellie), grabs my arm. She tells me that this is her last day in her current class, and that from tomorrow, she will be in a higher level. When I try to explain she doesn’t get to decide, she vehemently disagrees and threatens to call her dad. I tell her I’ll speak to her teacher and see.

After breakfast, several VIP children are feeling sick, and need to be taken to a clinic in town. I go to meet the group leader, ready to provide the flawless customer service we’re here to deliver. We have to wait for the taxi for an hour. Meanwhile I try to keep the group leader occupied by asking her about the differences between her country and the UK. We finally get back a couple hours later. One crisis averted, a brief sigh of relief.

I rush on to deal with the thousand little tasks that accumulated while I was away. I check the classes. One teacher is missing 2 students. They are minors, so we are responsible for them, and have to establish their whereabouts. 2 hours later, having checked every place we can possibly think of, we discover one of them had been in the classroom all along, while the other was in another level with a different teacher.

Having sorted this, I go to check on the newly-arrived children who were being placement tested. I discover one has been sick. In the classroom. It wouldn’t be fair to leave the invigilating teacher to clean it up, yet equally I can’t just leave the mess there. Guess who ends up doing it? … Moments later, the poor child is taken to their room. Makes me wonder if it was the unfamiliar food at breakfast, or stress from the test. Perhaps we should have a separate form of testing younger children? One that doesn’t traumatise but still allows us to determine their level. I make a mental note to email my boss about this later.

Time for lunch, and I haven’t even started on the ‘real’ work yet. In the canteen, Ellie’s crying, determined not to be consoled. Constantly on her phone, she misses her family and refuses to eat.

In the afternoon, I manage to look at the new placement tests and play around with the different levels, consult teachers and check the mix of nationality, age and gender, until it seems about right. I also go and have a look at the sports kids play outside after lessons, to be a presence, as a good manager should. Afterwards, I hunt down the teacher who was supposed to prepare a report for the student who’s leaving early, because they haven’t done it as required. After much explaining, amending computer settings, wasting loads of paper and persuading the printer that we ARE doing this today, I succeed, and hand the leaving certificate to the student, just minutes before they have to go.

Having spent half my day in the company of spreadsheets, the evening finds me exhausted. At least unpredictable group leaders can be relied upon to brighten up the end of my day. One of them comes and tells me her group will go to Oxford for a day-trip tomorrow, hence they won’t be in lessons. That is a couple hours’ work thrown out the window, and I can start placing students into different levels again…

For the purposes of concealing the identities of those involved, the names, locations and other details have been altered. However, the description is based on genuine happenings.

What were some of the challenges in this true story?

Rolling intake. Changing classes and levels sometimes every day of the week, immaturity and lack of personal integrity of some of the staff, overwork and being understaffed, student numbers dropping, and as a result having to decide which teachers will be let go of sooner than their expected leaving date, at times unrealistic expectations of students, parents and group leaders. Lastly, teaching was not seen as a priority for the course as a whole. This I found to be one of the most challenging aspects of the job – something I couldn’t influence, but had to work around, still delivering the best, within the constraints of the situation.

BASIC SURVIVAL MANUAL

Having been branded as ‘the best manager’ of the camp, I have achieved this! How? I’d like to share a couple thoughts:

Gotta love those meetings…

Somewhere between breakfast, waking the children up, making sure they all go to assembly on time, taking care of the sick child, helping the one who got lost, and responding to other endless queries, teachers were asked to attend a brief 10-15 minute meeting each morning. A lot of information, changes in student levels and class size, and last-minute details all had to be conveyed.

Quick team building, when incorporated into these often-squeezed-yet-essential meetings helped uplift teachers’ mood, unwind a bit before a full day of lessons, sports and activities, and feel part of the team. A team that is doing something that matters. It reminded them they are making a difference in other people’s lives. Even something as basic as each person describing in 3 words how they feel about their experience in summer school so far, and then guessing who wrote what, was helpful. These brief pauses from the stinging reality of working 6 days a week, 14 hours a day (on average!) brought us together as a group and enabled us to share meaningfully.

Rapport

Like with any job, putting in extra effort at the beginning pays off. Let me explain what I mean. Most of us will have a regular experience of teaching a new class. If you try hard to be approachable, get to know your students and create a positive atmosphere where they feel they can take risks from the word go, it will most probably carry over into the following lessons. Students will be looking forward to seeing each other, their affective filter will be lowered, and this emotional state will help them learn, overcome embarrassing moments, and encourage them to keep going even when they hit the wall and don’t seem to be making much progress.

Expending the energy on this at the beginning of the course is much easier than not doing it, and later trying to remedy that students don’t feel comfortable and free to talk in class. Just like in any other setting, in the classroom we are still people who want to be liked and appreciated. And these factors can play a crucial role in the overall experience, as well as learning outcomes.

I found the same to be true about rapport with teachers. I had had some awful, unapproachable, and unprofessional superiors, and I knew I didn’t want to be like them. So I made extra effort in this area. Warm introductions, setting the tone by being interested in who they are as people, finding out what makes them tick, clarifying by example that the expectation is that all aspects of work will be approached professionally and with flexibility – this was a vital strategy.

Final thoughts?

For anyone thinking of moving into ELT management, I’d say: those challenging situations in the classroom, that annoying, incorrigible teenager who keeps ruining your perfectly-planned lessons, the conflicts with colleagues, the chronic lack of time for all the things that need to get done, that difficult, unapproachable boss – they are your training ground. Take those opportunities, thank those people you don’t get on with for being your best teachers, and make the most of it. Flexibility, resourcefulness, not passing on to others the stress and pressure we experience, and prioritizing others over ourselves don’t come naturally to most of us. Good news is, over time and with practice, they can all be acquired. At the end of the day, the lessons we learn the hard way cannot be compared in value with the ones we learn when all is well.

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