Developmental stages: Why would anybody be a Dos?

I wrote this in May last year but didn’t get around to posting it.

Recently I was reading this summary of a May 2011 #eltchat on what makes a good DoS and was particularly struck by this: “given the difficulties and poor financial reward, why would anybody be a DoS?!” Why, indeed? It’s a commonly-expressed sentiment, usually put simply to me as”Better you than me.” In the hope of making the prospect of becoming academic manager of an Australian ELICOS college seem more appealing, I’d like to give my answer to that question, “Why would anybody be a DoS?”

I’ve just completed one year in my first DoS role and these words have come back to me many times. It probably sounds a bit scary, but I would also say the same thing about teaching: early on, I found it extremely challenging on a number of levels, and I seriously considered packing it in; after six months, I started to relax a bit, and began to actually enjoy it! Those are the two extremes: terror and joy. It’s mostly not like that, of course; there’s a great deal in-between.

  • Before becoming a DoS, I’d spent a bit of time as an Acting DoS; I’d guess this is a common experience for DoSes. My time as Acting DoS added up to seven weeks and included a four-week stint. By the end of that period, I’d decided I knew what DoSing was about and I didn’t like it very much; my experience of the job boiled down to numbers: student numbers, room numbers, capacities, limits, targets, numbers of students starting, numbers of students finishing, and phone numbers (for relief teachers). By the time I’d gotten through the first six months in my current DoS role, though, I’d realised that as an Acting DoS I’d had to deal with the all the worst aspects of the role and none of the best. Now as DoS, the ‘numbers stuff’ generally doesn’t worry me – I get it done and then I’ve got time and energy to focus on the aspects of the role that attracted me to it in the first place: improving the experience and outcomes for students, contributing to teachers’ professional development and helping to raise teachers’ morale.
  • (With ever-decreasing frequency) I’ve longed many times to return to the simplicity, purity of teaching. Now I’ve (mostly) got to grips with DoSing, if I really want to teach, I can make it happen very easily! This week, for example, I’d spent hours evaluating newly-developed A1-level materials and realised I’d completely lost perspective on what A1 learners were capable of so I arranged with a teacher to take her one-hour A1 grammar lesson. She observed me and kindly said afterwards that she’d learnt a couple of useful things. I learnt that I can actually still teach (not sure about other DoSes but I worry about that sometimes) and also gained a better understanding of what our A1 learners are capable of and the likely effectiveness of the materials we’re developing.
  • At the beginning, I also just wanted to feel competent and professionally adequate again; I hated the feeling of not knowing whether I was any good. Of course, I had exactly the same feelings when I started teaching: I thought fondly of my call centre job and how simple it was – just me, the phone, the computer and the customer!
  • I’ve often felt out of my depth, especially regarding the HR aspects of the role. Maybe it’s not such a great thing that many academic managers don’t have any formal HR training, but then many university lecturers don’t have any teacher training and manage to be very effective. I’ve had a lot of HR ‘firsts’ – the first contract I drew up, the first senior teacher I hired, the first teacher I fired, the first performance appraisal I conducted, the first senior teacher meeting I ran – but once you’ve done something once, you’ve done it and you’ve acquired some experience you can build on.
  • One of the biggest challenges has been developing a DoS ‘voice’, particularly at staff meetings. At the end of last year, one of my colleagues mentioned my tendency to say “Perhaps we should…” at senior teacher meetings – I wasn’t aware of it, but it was a very useful piece of feedback and I think I’ve greatly improved the way I run those meetings since that comment. I realised around the same time that to sound like I was in control, I had to actually be in control. Initially my meetings were unstructured and others did most of the talking; following the “Perhaps…” feedback, I established a more formal structure to the meetings and ensured they happened every week by moving them from the busiest time of the day (first thing in the morning) to the afternoon. As a result, the meetings are much more effective.
To sum up, the aspects of being a DoS that are most apparent to others seem to be those which are least appealing; it’s perhaps hard to get a sense of how rewarding the role can be until you’re in it. There is certainly a steep learning curve, but that’s true of teaching and, in fact, most things in life that are really worth doing. But along with that learning curve, there are amazing opportunities to develop professionally and personally.
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