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Where the Buck Stops: the work of the DOS

by Ron White.
1 Introduction
The demanding scope of the job of DOS was neatly summed up by Helen Mattacott in the title of her article, ‘101 things to consider as a Director of Studies’ (Mattacott 1995).    Ten years after her article was published, I decided to  survey language teaching organizations (LTOs) in the EAQUALS and NEAS accreditation schemes to see what the work of the DOS then involved, and I reported on my findings at the 2004 NEAS DOS conference in Sydney (White, 2004).  The particular focus of these surveys was on changes in the jobs of the DOS and LTO director, and the findings are summarized below.

The picture which emerged was one of continually increasing activity in virtually all areas, and for DOSes the addition of responsibilities outside the traditional scope of the academic manager, notably those concerned with business management and marketing and promotion.
When, in 2008, I was asked to write another article on the DOS, I decided  to do a similar survey to provide a ‘snap shot’ of their work.  The survey was distributed to DoSes working in LTOs which are members of English UK and English Australia. The resulting sample of 43 respondents is tiny, constraining whatever conclusions can be drawn. However, the account of the job of the DOS is, in their own words, and I hope that any DoSes reading this paper will recognize what is reported as being authentic,  while those who are not DOSes will obtain some insight into what being a DOS involves.
1.1 The DOS as middle manager
1.2 Position in organization
Most organizations are, to a greater or lesser extent, hierarchical, as conventionally portrayed in an organizational chart, with directors, managers, supervisors and customer-facing staff in descending order. In such a conventional scheme, the DOS is a middle manager, mandated to implement policies defined at senior management and board level. Typically, the DOS will be responsible for the operational work of the LTO as carried out by teachers, and although the DOS may do some teaching, most of this is achieved through delegation to teaching staff. Only very large LTOs have more than one DOS, although medium-sized and larger LTOs will often have one or more Assistant DoSes. Where this is the case, the span of control – that is, the number of people directly supervised by a manager – will be reduced. Often, however, all teaching staff report to the DOS, who, despite delegation, will have a very broad – and consequently demanding – span of control, which helps account for some of the more taxing features of the work of the DOS to be noted below.
1.3 Variety & Change: differences from LTO to LTO
Generalizing about the job of a DOS is tricky, since “the job and job description seems to vary radically form institution to institution”. While “the work of a UK DOS is quite different to that of a DOS abroad” and “the DoS’s role is vastly different depending on the type of centre and the structure”, while “the state sector (FE) is very different  from the private sector in that EFL/ESOL is not its main business”. Furthermore, the “DOS job seems to be encompassing more and more”, having to “to juggle a significant number of conflicting demands” so that “it is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with jobs that fall into the ‘important but not urgent’ category.”
1.4 Balance: professional/commercial
It is clear that the DOS is faced with having to reconcile professional and commercial demands, and that “a DoS needs good business sense and needs to balance this side of things with the academic well-being of the school”. Yet, at the same time, “it is really important that a DoS is actively involved with teachers and teaching, combining this hands-on role with managerial responsibilities”. However, “effective DoSes are often asked to take on additional tasks more akin to the role of Principal” and “the role has become much more of a general managerial role with less emphasis (than before) on Academic Management”. In some cases, the job is “more about financial accountability and success than about teacher development, unfortunately” although, there have also been benefits in assuming the role of DOS, with a “change from someone who was constantly ‘firefighting’ to someone who can focus on the long term management issues”.
2 Educational and LTO management
Whereas in the past, educational management in the public sector almost exclusively focused on professional and educational concerns, the growth of new Public Management, with its emphasis on value for money, efficiency and performance management has meant that significant aspects of private sector management have been imported into public sector and not for profit organizations.  In turn, this has blurred the boundaries between public and private sector LTOs so that financial, entrepreneurial and marketing skills are now required of middle managers in all sectors.  This change is reflected in the range of responsibilities and skills incorporated in the educational leadership model developed by Law and Glover (2000), which I have adapted to provide a framework for describing and analyzing the work of the DOS.
2.1 LTO management responsibilities
There are various ways of organizing the responsibilities of a DOS.  One list devised by DoSes in a UK chain, defines four areas, two of which are based on the type of programme – General English and Groups – while one is based on teachers, and the work involved in managing their work.  Such a list is operational in focus, specifying the activities for which, ultimately, a DOS is accountable in the LTO concerned.
Key accountabilities:
  • General English: registers, class lists, course programmes, student placement, timetables, room allocation, etc. .
  • Teachers: recruitment, induction, course planning, support
  • Groups: administrative & academic support
  • External: exams advice & administration
For the purposes of my survey, I used the Law and Glover list, since it is broader in scope, and helps situate the work of an LTO manager in a broader educational management context.
LTO management responsibilities [based on Law & Glover (2000)]
2.2 Job shape
Using this list, I asked DoSes to estimate the percentage of their work devoted to each area so as to yield a profile of ‘job shapes’, summarized in the table below.

Job Shapes
Note: rounding has resulted in totals exceeding or falling short of 100%
Overall, across the two groups, UK and Australian, the picture is one in which around half of the work of a DOS involves managing people and administration, with about a quarter being devoted to two other areas: academic management and professional leadership.  There are, however, some differences between the UK and Australian cohorts, with the former devoting more space to academic management and administration than their Australian counterparts.  As will become clear,  a major feature of the work of the DoSes in the survey involves managing people,  which is simultaneously demanding and rewarding.
Respondents were also asked to indicate the extent to which there was alignment between their job description – the formal specification of their work responsibilities and accountabilities – and their job as actually performed. The fact that around two thirds indicated that there was only “quite close” alignment between the two suggests that the human resource management of many LTOs may be out of touch with the evolving realities of the job of the DOS.
3 Challenges on assuming the role of DOS
Typically, the career trajectory of a DOS involves a move from teacher to DOS, sometimes via the job of senior teacher or of ADOS, and all DoSes are expected or required to be EFL teacher qualified, usually at diploma level.   This means that assuming the role of DOS involves a significant transition from the classroom to the DOS’s office, so respondents were asked to comment on the challenges involved.   Sorting their responses, I have identified a number of concerns in characterizing this career move, beginning with what I have called a change of focus.
3.1 Change of focus
It is clear that becoming a DOS involves ‘looking at things from a much wider management/business perspective (i.e. looking at the BIG picture) rather than from a single perspective of a teacher’ and that ‘the DOS needs to be aware of the wider needs of the school, rather than just those individual(s) in his/her class’. New DoSes will also find themselves ‘in constant communication with a large number of people on every level of the organization about a wide variety of topics and issues (as opposed to teaching, which largely involves focusing on a small number of people in great detail)’. The new job will also mean ‘learning to deal with the conflict between financial constraints and academic quality’.  Crucially, all this entails a major change in accountability, the DOS now ‘being where the buck stops, rather than being able to pass on difficult problems’.
3.2 Change in status & relationships
Not least among these changes is ‘taking the leap from being a fellow teacher to taking on a leadership role’, a leap which involves a shift ‘from being a team member to being quite isolated at times’, and ‘if the role of DoS is a promotion, the shift from being one of the teachers to their manager can be challenging, especially without any specific training’.   This promotion also entails ‘how to manage the changes in colleague perception, from same level/friend to boss’ and to being ‘the face of the company’, so it is not surprising that new DOSes need to avoid ‘letting power go to their head’, while negotiating the difficulties arising from ‘stepping into the middle in between teachers, students and other management staff’.  It is also difficult to change ‘from the role of a teacher where you are often thanked and rewarded by your students and their progress to a position which is pretty thankless’.
3.3 Learning and using new skills
What is very clear is that the move to DOS involves acquiring a set of new skills, top of which are those concerned with “people management and organizational skills”…”often without any training/experience”. In particular, the former involves “learning how to deal sensitively with difficult situations such as dismissing staff or reducing teachers’ hours” as well as developing “a head for business” and “learning and/or setting up administrative systems”, including “becoming familiar with compliance requirements”  such as those involved in various national accreditation schemes, as well as changes in state sector funding, and “responding appropriately to maximize this”.
4 Demanding aspects of DOS work
Having asked respondents to consider the challenges of changing from teacher to DOS, I then asked them to summarize the demanding aspects of their work.  Obviously, there will be an overlap with some of the points which emerged when considering the effects of promotion. Even so, responses to this question produced a significant range of issues, the first of which concerns time and resource management.
4.1 Time & resource management
“Time is always a pressure”, and “some days are extremely busy and pressured, others far less so”. In summer schools, there are “long hours of intensive work” and “making a quart fit into a pint pot”, which is “something all DoSes do, but especially in the summer”. There is also “firefighting, constant interruptions, prioritizing, getting things done as quickly as possible” and “taking into account continuous enrolment, teacher availability”, which, among other things, means “multi-tasking”, “never crossing off the endless list”  and  “never having time to concentrate on just one project at a time because of the many interruptions during the day (even when the office door is closed!)”. As a result, “the emotional stress generated can be overpowering!” and DoSes “need to be careful of burn-out”.
4.2 Positional pressures
Among the demands on the DOS are what I have termed ‘positional pressures’ which derive from “the curse of middle-management, i.e.,  acting as a buffer/go-between/punch-bag between the teachers and the owners and trying to build a bridge between them”. The result is that sometimes, the DOS is “caught between teachers, admin and Director”, while “being ‘pulled’ in different directions (‘Am I Admin, Am I teaching, Am I marketing??? Who am I?)”. As a result, DoSes may find that they are cast in the role of “being the ‘bad cop’ and rarely the ‘good cop”’. This may involve “issues where company decisions are made, and although you may not agree, you need to ‘sell’ the decision to teachers”. So, DoSes may find themselves “trying to please a lot of people on different levels of the organization – from  above (managers) and from below (teachers / students) whilst being the one ‘on the front line’ to both teachers and students”, not to  mention  the “Principal Administrator, marketers, administration …all at the same time and everyday”.
4.3 Dealing with unpredictability and changing demands
One of the challenges which DoSes have to manage is “dealing with the unpredictable, of knowing when to plan in detail (e.g. for the summer), given all the forces in the external environment that course provision is subject to (earthquakes, visa problems, terrorist attacks, etc.)”.  Seasonal fluctuation is especially challenging, with peak seasons requiring “a huge increase in the amount of time spent on recruitment, training and observations”, and because “the administration side is obviously a lot more demanding”  the busy DOS “can feel a bit out of touch with the staff room”.
In fact, at any time of year, the DOS has to ensure that “there are always enough teachers to match needs”, which can be problematic, “especially in a small school without a bank of teachers to call on”.
In addition, there are changes in the business strategy of the LTO to cope with. “Currently, it is to maintain and raise the quality of the service. Previously, it was to try to keep the students happy while keeping the costs as low as possible”.  Furthermore, there are “changes in student needs”, with “many more students … coming in at an advanced or super advanced English level” so that they  “need communication skills rather than language skills as they are essentially communicating with non-native speakers and need to negotiate meaning more and more”.
4.4 Managing people
Of all the areas of management which seemed to pre-occupy respondents the most, it was that concerned with what Helen Mattacott termed ‘management of the teaching team’, and which the DOSes in the survey described as “managing people and their various personal and professional needs; resolving conflicts; dealing with the ever-increasing work load”. Such “HR stuff is taxing” as it includes “recruiting and training quality staff and keeping them” as well as “counselling and performance management” and “firing” as well as “dealing with ‘prima donna’ teachers (some of whom are not used to working in a team and prefer doing their own thing)” and “permanent members of staff who do not pull their weight” or “‘older’ teachers who just want to coast in the last couple of years”.
4.5 Professional demands
Interestingly, in view of the key role of DOS as leading professional in the LTO, few respondents referred to professional demands among their challenges, the only professional aspect to be mentioned being that of  teacher training. Possibly it is in such areas as curriculum development, course planning, assessment, teaching, materials selection and development that, by virtue of their training and experience, DoSes are most at home, and don’t view them as among the most demanding aspects of their work. Whereas the managerial aspects, with which they have less experience and training, are so perceived.
5 Rewarding aspects
Fortunately, the many challenges are counter balanced by rewarding aspects, so despite the rather pressurized view of the work of the DOS presented so far, there proved to be many rewarding features of their work about which respondents were enthusiastic, beginning with variety.
5.1 Variety
What a number of respondents enjoy is the “daily variety of work and people” and the “variety of responsibilities” which means that “the job is never dull; it involves such a range of responsibilities and tasks that you can’t get bored”.  Also, “the breadth of the challenges is in itself a challenge, but a rewarding one”.
5.2 Making a difference
What clearly motivated many respondents was the feeling that as DOS, they “are a part of the action and are empowered to make decisions to help both students and teacher” and are “able to make a real difference to the academic services and standards…and effectively help meet the needs of students”. This includes being able “to overhaul all aspects of the academic side of the school which drove me crazy as a teacher, thereby streamlining many of our processes”. It also means operating on a bigger stage, by “being able to strategically plan and make positive changes to curriculum and the bigger workplace” and “to guide a school in the direction you think best for students and teachers”. Satisfaction is gained by “implementing new policies that are more effective and efficient (and are well received by staff and students)”, “seeing your ideas, systems actually working” and “creating a good working place”. A major outcome is summed up in one word: happiness.
5.3 Happiness
A major reward for some DoSes is “seeing that you have helped create a happy atmosphere in which teachers teach and students learn” resulting in “a motivated, happy staff and successful students”.  Many respondents emphasized the significance of relationships in helping to bring about this desirable state of affairs.
5.4 Relationships
It is scarcely surprising to find that valuing personal contact with students and staff is significant for managers who have come to their job via the classroom.   Having “real interactions with real people – whether staff or students, or others” and “building relationships with teachers and students to be able to foster an atmosphere of community in the school” were seen as important rewards of the job, as were “camaraderie with teachers” and having “as positive an influence as possible on the teachers’ room”.
5.5 Motivating & developing staff
A significant positive factor was “seeing staff develop” and “taking a relatively inexperienced teacher and watching them grow and become a valued member of staff”. This involves “being able to offer teachers some form of professional development” and “encouraging teachers to develop in their careers”. Ultimately, “it’s very satisfying to make a difference”.
5.6 Customer success & satisfaction
In addition to promoting the motivation and achievement of teachers, respondents are also rewarded by “student satisfaction and achievement” and “getting good feedback at the end of the course from genuinely satisfied customers”. Also rewarding are “positive comments from external moderators” and “when a teacher thanks you for being an effective and supportive DOS”.
5.7 Professional/Academic
Whereas professional and academic matters received scant attention when considering challenges, when considering rewarding aspects of their work, respondents devoted much more attention to what one called “the more creative aspects” such as “creating a syllabus, introducing a new procedure, training teachers” and “introducing a new course successfully”. Satisfaction is also gained from “successfully helping the team of teachers produce a high-quality program, that runs smoothly with few administrative problems”.
5.8 Successfully solving problems
Some respondents rate problem solving as one of the rewards of the DoS’s job. “Tricky problems” are “solved creatively”, while “diplomacy” is used “successfully to overcome a problem”.  The “successful resolution of students’ problems” is seen as important, the reward being “students’ happiness when you solve their problems”.  Also important is “overcoming communication and other problems with students and colleagues in other departments (some of whom do not understand the academic side of the business)”.
5.9 Representing organization
Although diplomatic and representational responsibilities are, according to the job profile data, a minor part of DoS’s jobs, these were pointed out by several respondents, who specifically mentioned “representing our school to the outside world – visitors, agents etc.” as one of their rewards, one saying that “I am proud of the team we have at [our LTO] and the work we do”.
6 Conclusion
On the basis of this snap shot, it really does appear that the work of the DOS does involve Helen Mattacott’s ‘101 things’, which fall into two main areas.  Firstly, managing  people and overseeing the running of day to day systems, for which their training and career experience may have given them limited preparation. Secondly, academic management and professional leadership, for which their qualifications and experience will have provided a range of relevant skills and expertise which enhance their professional credibility.  Indeed, it is their teaching experience and associated values which appear to influence their approach to managing systems and, in particular, people, whose motivation and development are seen as so important.  Yet, at the same time, there is an awareness that as a middle manager, the DOS has to take a broader view of the purpose and function of the LTO and of their role in it.
Despite having major responsibility for the operational management of the core service of the LTO – teaching and learning – the respondents report devoting comparatively limited attention – 13% — to academic management. Who, then, is monitoring current and forthcoming developments in ELT, education and areas like educational technology? Putting aside considerations of cost, the slow adoption of the interactive whiteboard in LTOs, in comparison with mainstream education, may be indicative of the way in which the perspectives of the DOS are constrained by having to devote so much attention to day to day operational concerns, at the expense of attending to strategic aspects of academic management.
Unfortunately, for the aspirant DOS, ‘very little training is available’, yet it ‘is vital for any new DOS’. Furthermore, there ‘is little formal support or information for DOSes available (at least outside the British Council / IH network of schools)’. It also appears that the ‘soft skills’ involved in mentoring and supporting students and staff aren’t always being engaged or even fully valued by the larger organization. Ultimately, a solution to this problem lies in the hands of the DoSes themselves; yet LTOs also have a responsibility to ensure that their middle managers receive the training and support which they clearly need and want, and to incorporate their professional skills and values into the organization’s management culture. In the end, this particular buck comes to a stop on the desk of the directorate of the LTO.
  • Law, S. & Glover, D. (2000) Educational Leadership and Learning. Buckingham: Open University.
  • Mattacott, H. (1995) ‘101 things to consider as a Director of Studies’. ELT Newsletter, No. 18 (June 1995): 11-13.
  • White, R. (2004) ‘The Driving Force’, paper presented at NEAS DOS conference, The DOS Experience: Responsibility, Diversity, Opportunity. Sydney: 13th May, 2004.
Author’s Bio:
Ron White graduated in anthropology in New Zealand before embarking on an ELT
career which culminated in the directorship of the Centre for Applied Language
Studies at the University of Reading, where he developed an interest in management
of language teaching organizations. Since 2000 he has been involved in teaching
on the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management (IDLTM) and is coauthor of ‘From Teacher to Manager’ (CUP).

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