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A Light-Hearted Look At DOSing in China and Australia

By Claire Firat

I was sitting at my desk, working quietly at updating the student average figures, when a student came in and took a big swing at me. I didn’t see it coming. I stood up, a bit groggy, and was in the process of steadying myself when I felt another thump. This time I looked up to see an agent. I swayed sideways from the blow so was even more startled when another fist flew at me from that side. My head flew back from the impact and there in front of me was one of my teachers, fist raised again. He was pushed aside by my boss and relief assailed me, until he too raised his fist. I fell to the floor and retracted into foetal position. I mentally rescheduled my deadlines. It was going to be one of those days.

I have never seen anything official in the advertising for a Director of Studies position that pre-warns that you may be other people’s punching bag but before I took on my DoS job, I guess the anecdotal evidence was there. I just hadn’t processed it. I had often heard stories about disillusioned DoSes who step down from their jobs in search of a simpler life. Almost every teacher trainer I had ever met had been a DoS in the past (why the past?). And every long-term DoS I had ever met had been calm, in a Big Brother conditioned kind of way, or completely nuts, in a Mad Hatter kind of running commentary fidgety kind of way.

I was neither calm nor mad but I did very much want to be a Director of Studies. And so three years ago, I stepped up. I was a DoS in China for 16 months before taking on my current DoS role in Australia. Here is my step-by-step guide to what every DoS criteria should really address as a result of my experience, both in the EFL (non-English speaking country posts) and ESL (English speaking country posts) environments.

Must exhibit fixed smile response in stressful environments
The DoS is the fall guy for almost every group in the ESL organization: the student who is unhappy with their level or their teacher, the teacher who is unhappy with their students, fellow teachers, hours, syllabus, coursebook, guillotine or holepunch, the agent who is unhappy with your teachers or your class offerings, the administration who are unhappy with your teachers’ paperwork or your administration expectations, and occasionally your boss who is unhappy because one of the above has met with them first in the corridor instead of you.

When I am being beaten up by all around me, I have found that my best response is to show no emotion and no weakness. Both in the ESL and the EFL situations, I listen, show I am listening, investigate fully, arrange further meetings, and then, because it is a business and I need everyone to be friends, I compromise. In every environment, it is best to do this in a shifty manner in which no one looks like they have had the power to change school policy or procedures. On the rare occasions that one chooses to stand firm, be assured that your boss will promise what you have not and you will have to compromise anyway AND have ‘lost face’ in the process. Losing face is more frustrating than shameful for a Westerner, but because of its shame factor in China and other Asian countries, you will also need to contend with your colleagues’ pity if in the EFL environment.

In China, I found that the Chinese have time and are persistent and respectful of foreigners. When I said no politely, they would nod in understanding, thank me politely, leave my office smiling, and then barrage my Chinese co-workers with phone calls, berating them and threatening them until I ‘compromised’.

In the ESL environment, anyone who forces you to change position and knows they have wielded that power puts you at immediate risk, as a precedent has been set. Move a student up because they have complained, give a teacher extra hours to assuage them, provide extra care for a VIP student at the request of an agent – jungle drums will beat. I have found that the Korean and Brazilian drums beat fastest and loudest, so best to take the baton away and act stealthily and efficiently.

When taking a beating, I have learnt to consider the time involved. Getting beaten up takes longer in the EFL situation because you need a translator. Meetings with my Chinese boss regularly needed at least two toilet breaks as we settled in for 5 hours of reported speech. As my translator was a member of staff directly responsible to both of us, her job security depended on her colouring of translations, further lengthening the process as she tried to keep both parties onside. In the ESL situation, choosing not to immediately deal with a disgruntled student will eventually lead to agent intervention. Writing carefully worded tomes to agents takes far more time than dealing directly with the student so it is in the interests of a busy DoS to resolve the situation as fast as practicable … whilst maintaining that smile.

Must enjoy marketing and being marketed
My husband and I strolling hand in hand away from the camera lens towards the beachfront is one of my most precious marketing memories of China. A la 60 Minutes, I was interviewed for a 10 minute cover piece on a local programme. I was never sure why or how this helped the school, but this was just one of many random marketing opportunities into which I was thrown. When the interviewer asked me what I found strangest about Chinese culture, I strained to think of something appropriate for Chinese TV. I was therefore completely flummoxed when the interviewer asked me to discuss my horror at how the cleaners used toilet water to mop the floors at school. Hardly clever marketing for the school I would have thought … yet it was my Chinese boss who had relayed the story to the presenter.

Miscommunications made my marketing experiences in China all the more bamboozling. The Chancellor of the local university may be introduced to you as the university’s chef (chief being one of those elusive English words), whilst no-one will think to tell you that the disgruntled student here to see you is also your boss’ son. Every time someone swung by my office with a new face alongside, I became trained at jumping up, nodding respectfully and shaking hands regardless. I learnt not to react to that person’s title with relevant small talk after experiences such as the chef chat, ‘Oh, have you tried our food yet?’ only brought mystified responses from those around me and resulted in the Chancellor looking miffed that he could be mistaken for a cook.

When in EFL posts, your marketing spiel is reliant on looking clever as you speak, as few will be listening that intently to the translation. More often they will be smiling politely whilst studying your person for titbits to confirm or deny stereotypes. Don’t kid yourself that your spiel will affect the outcome; you will only be disappointed when you discover later that the family with which you spent 60 minutes planning their daughter’s study pathway chose your school because they were offered free tuition by your boss. However, in ESL posts, what you say is vital. Tell an agent about the directed study options class and they will ricochet a rejoinder to confirm if you are referring to self-access. The days of reverential foreigner treatment are behind you; you had better be verbally prepared as the weight of your words will be measured by all in attendance (including your boss who will alas understand what you are saying at all times).

Must be adept at google searches
Reading a CV is an art. Where I had to bring teachers from overseas sight-unseen, the churn in my stomach wouldn’t settle until their first week of classes was over and there had been no students or colleagues at my door to complain. Google was there to help control the size of my anxiety. If someone said they were a keen writer, I googled them. I figured the best way to find out their style of writing was to rip new TEFL’ians apart on ESL blogs then, rather than after I had brought them here. Cross-checking vitals or researching if that Canadian university actually ran a TESOL certificate as per the assertion of the CV in your hand (and discovering that it is a lie) is all very James Bond, but quite important. If Google had had a facility to sniff out applicants for possible homesickness, unsocial behaviour and alcoholism, my work would have been even smoother. One man I employed had an alcoholic meltdown on his first day and never made it in to the classroom. After he left, we found a huge bottle stash and a pile of vomit on his balcony as the only testimony to his existence. Another teacher had never lived in a room without her sister and eventually broke her contract to return home to sleep alongside her sister once again. A third had to run away because of trouble with the locals. Recruiting new teachers is an expected part of the job but early contract-breakers are especially pervasive as students become irritated and are completely unforgiving of teacher change.

Once back in ESL land, the opportunity afforded by being able to have interviews and trial lessons in order to recruit is elative. However, as the quantity of incoming CVs multiplies, the art of CV reading is just as important.

Must be ready to live vicariously
The working hours of a DoS are long, and weekends and nights are often interrupted by calls. I shiver involuntarily when I hear my mobile vibrate at night now. Once I might have expected it to be a social offering. Now I know the text will more likely mention illness and ‘I’m up to page 35 of the coursebook’.

In China, day classes, night classes, weekend classes and an onsite boarding house meant the school was always open. As the Chinese administration team were expected to work 6 days a week, so did I. How else could I look them in the eye and delegate work. As most Chinese workers will attest, one’s boss can call on them at any time and they are expected to respond. My boss had a habit of forgetting to tell me about important dinners of which I was the honoured guest and was unable to refuse. By midway through my contract, I had learnt to slither out of the school each night in case of dinner invites.
In Australia, I might work hard but I decide when this will be. Whether or not this still equates to my being a sucker, at least I feel like an active participant and not a pawn.

Living vicariously through your teachers’ social lives goes some way to rectifying that empty spot inside of you. I have become an expert at extracting gossip for my own consumption. When all else fails, I turn to Perez. When you do find yourself able to enjoy some social event with full abandon, the vibration of the phone will always bring you back to reality.

Must be able to spell ‘stationery’
When I first arrived in China, I was made to feel as unwelcome as possible by my all-male teaching team. They were unimpressed with me as replacement for the old DoS who had been their friend and ally and incidentally a single, middle-aged man. I think they hoped to undermine me. One day in my second week at the school, I saw the door to their room swing closed followed by murmured sounds of debate. Later, when they were in class, I went into the room to see if I could find anything that might clue me in to the need for privacy. I was horrified when I discovered that the front of the stationery box that I had created for them the previous week now had big whiteboard marker crosses scratching out the word ‘Stationery’ as I had labelled it and had instead been replaced with the word ‘stationary’ scrawled in another hand. I bemoaned their pettiness and their ignorance in challenging me on a spelling that one would hope would not trip up an English teacher. And for the sake of having a central place to find scissors! As they saw business improve, they came to acknowledge my work but I also ensured I was always well-prepared and able to justify any change to their teaching lives. I have also never corrected the spelling of ‘stationary’ that I found displayed across my current school. I don’t have the energy to fight the same battle twice.

In Australia, my reception from the teachers on being introduced as the new DoS was far far worse, and I probably only survived the initial 3 months of open hostility because of my Chinese experience. This time, I was partly to blame as management had given me a deadline within which to implement change, and it allowed no time to observe and integrate. In hopes I would quit, some of the teachers started a silent campaign to unsettle me so my first three months were peppered with 6am phone calls notifying me that one, often two, teachers wouldn’t be able to work that day. Food poisoning, bus accidents, car breakdowns, taxis and buses not showing up are all well-used lines of which I am unable to bring myself to believe. I imagine it’s like being an IELTS examiner when some student uses ‘on the other hand’. The student walks away from the interview, head held proud for having remembered to say ‘on’ and not ‘in’ whilst the examiner walks away shaking their head.

Good teachers, on the other hand (hehe), are placed on little pedestals in your mind. These teachers are committed, never late, respectful of management decisions regardless of personal views, and sharers of good practice and of stationery. They boost morale and fill the corridors with energy.

And in the end, despite all of the thankless work of the DoS, this is why I do it. I love teaching English, and I love being surrounded by others who are passionate about it too. I love watching the students socialising in a second language. And in some masochistic part of my soul, I think I must love the rawness of the punch and the challenge of fighting back. I often wake up at 2am panicking that I have forgotten something vital for the day-to-day running of the business and I have been known to speak out in my sleep, pleading with a student to ‘just give it one more week and then come back and see me’.

Apparently I seek to solve problems even when asleep. Until I burn out, I will continue to work as a DoS because it is the most satisfying job I have known. I will know it is time when my husband tells me I have either become conditioned-calm or mad hatter-crazy.

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