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List of Priorities for a Director of Studies

Some background

I worked as a Director of Studies (DOS) in the UK for British Council-accredited schools for almost 9 years last century. Here I would like to write about my experience in the spirit of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” I certainly went through a lot of powerful feelings during my time as a DOS and I found the work extremely stressful, so I thought it might be useful to set out what was involved, in the hope that it might help those of you who are thinking of embarking on a career change from teacher to DOS, or for those of you have just taken the plunge and have realised that it really is the deep end without floats or a life jacket. Don’t worry: there will be no poetry.

As a DOS, you are bombarded from all sides by a constant stream of expectations, requests and demands. You are in the middle of complex task A, when minor task B interrupts you, and just as you find the necessary resources to perform task B, a phone calls drags you away to urgent task C, a task that so drains you that you can no longer find the motivation to tackle complex task A for now, and also makes minor task D slip your mind, which in turn disappoints someone, so you end up having to deal with difficult situation E. I’d like to try to prioritize such tasks, then offer some suggestions as to how you might survive the ordeal.

Prioritizing

You have to drastically improve your time management skills and your ability to distinguish high-priority from low-priority tasks. Here is a list of priorities in the order of importance that I slowly discovered from bitter experience. At the very least, you need:

  1. suitable, weather-proof premises with suitably-sized classrooms, common rooms, toilets etc adequate for the numbers of students and staff expected, all well-maintained, clean and tidy
  2. suitably qualified staff (both teaching and activity/welfare staff)
  3. a clear mechanism for checking and predicting student enrolments coupled with an equally efficient mechanism for monitoring staff availability
  4. a small team of willing, part-time staff ready to respond at a moment’s notice to emergency staffing needs
  5. adequate supplies of the main course books along with suitable supplementary materials
  6. essential equipment like CD or mp3 players, whiteboards with adequate supplies of pens, DVD players with suitable screens, projectors if available and needed etc
  7. good stock control mechanisms with good channels of communication with suppliers and repair services to minimise the detrimental effects of damage, wastage and loss
  8. a good working atmosphere that brings together high morale, enthusiasm and professionalism

When juniors are involved there is a whole extra layer of responsibility for their safety and welfare that brings its own special pressures with regard to resources, staffing and procedures. All of the above become even more important.

Practical List of High Priority Tasks in Busy Periods

  1. Monitor student numbers to ensure adequate staffing levels. It’s worth dwelling on this point. I had years of stress trying to ensure that there were enough teachers at each of our summer centres. Student numbers, especially in junior centres, can spike suddenly for short periods because no matter how strict your enrolment policy seems, someone somewhere in your marketing department will have allowed a group to arrive late and leave late. Overall, you may have the teaching staff you think you need, but for 3 days, until the rogue group departs, you need 3 extra teachers. Teachers’ contracts are typically generated for a number of weeks, so you have to approach teachers to stay for an extra few days, juggle things round and generally spend precious time that should have been avoided. The key word is should. You have to concentrate on what is the case not on what should be. One useful trick is to estimate your staffing needs and then add 10%. As soon as I took the risk to start following this formula, I found that cancellations and illness always brought the numbers back to the right level. It was the single most useful secret I discovered in my time as a DOS.
  2. Develop whatever staffing system suits you: Excel worksheets, complex database system, Gantt Charts, a whiteboard. If you do develop or purchase a computer-based system, any data you add to the system or subsequently update about staff availability and student numbers needs to appear automatically in a clear grid of some kind with daily totals and special alerts and warnings to show when you don’t have enough staff for a given period. A system that averages things out or gives a weekly overview could obscure those short-term spikes in student numbers.
  3. Maintain a comprehensive inventory of materials, resources, equipment down to the smallest sundries. When you’re in a well-stocked office, it’s easy to forget how much you take a stapler for granted. Summer centres in rented premises only have the supplies that you provide, so this is crucial.
  4. Learn a bit of basic statistics to monitor the distribution of levels. For instance, you may find you end up with a normal distribution with the average around the intermediate level (say CEFR B1). As you get nearer the busy period, you can use the curve to make plausible predictions of how many course books you will need for each level and order accordingly. It may not be perfect, but no school can afford to either over-stock or run out. If you can negotiate a sale-or-return agreement with your supplier that would be great, but it involves the extra work of packing up unwanted books and updating records, so the closer your predictions can be, the better.
  5. Keep careful records of exactly what you supplied as standard and what was needed unexpectedly. Gradually the unpredictable becomes more predictable and easier to prepare for.
  6. Monitor teachers’ performance through formal observations, the impressions of Course Directors or senior staff, and your own judgement. Effective teachers who develop a bit of loyalty to the school and return year after year can be the backbone of your courses during a busy period. Advertising, interviewing, following up references, briefing and training all cost time, money and energy, so if you can fill a slot with a quick confirmation telephone to a trusted returner, so much the better.

Some final thoughts

In my first rough cut at trying to make sense of this complex job, I wrote a list of 82 bullet points and felt that I had only scratched the surface. It takes all your ingenuity and you have to dig very deep into your personal resources to cope. Any yoga, meditation, stress-relief exercises, art therapy, brisk exercise or early morning swims in the North Sea that help you will become a pressing and urgent necessity. If you find yourself turning to stronger remedies to cope, consider returning to the relatively calm waters of teaching. Like the foreman in a busy factory, you are caught between the legitimate demands of your customers; the strong feelings of the more volatile members of your teaching staff, whose noses can be put out of joint by the slightest, em, slight; and the very heavy burden of the owner’s expectations of excellence; not to mention the demands and close attentions of the British Council inspectors when they show up at your door.

Written by David Mann for Teflnet July 2013
David Mann has 30 years’ experience in TEFL, both as a teacher (General, ESP and EAP) and a Director of Studies in Spain, Britain and Japan. He has been an ESP and EAP instructor for Nippon Steel & Sumikin Intercom, Inc in Japan for the last 15 years, working with scientists, engineers and business people from major companies and top universities in Japan. He has also delivered successful IT courses on database and web application design through the auspices of the Japanese Association of Overseas Training Scholarships (AOTS) in Yokohama to IT professionals from all over Asia.

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Teflnet : TEFL Articles : School Administration : List of Priorities for a Director of Studies