Exclusive Interview with @TheSecretDoS!

It is no secret I (Mike) am a big fan of @TheSecretDos and the blog that is attached to this human. Around 24 hours ago I had the sudden thought,”Wouldn’t it be cool to interview The Secret DoS and share the results here on my blog?” Then I mustered up the courage and asked. I was very happy with the positive response. I said, “I’ll get back to you in a few days” but I couldn’t wait. I wrote up some questions almost immediately and then shared them in an extremely secret google doc. The responses came in very quickly and I was thrilled with what I saw and I am even more thrilled to share them with you here. Thanks very much to Secret for taking the time and sharing these thoughts. I hope readers will get as much out if it as I did. 

Ann O'Nymous

TheSecretDoS

Hello, and welcome, thanks very much. 

Would you like a drink? What are you having?
At this time of day, some of that kopi luwak. If it was later, with an eye on my waistline, I’d probably go for water. I start the day off as a hedonist and end up as an ascetic.

Thanks for that response. Not what I expected, perhaps.
OK, let’s just get right down to it then.
What do you look for in prospective teachers/employees?
These days, a sense that they really get a kick out of what they do. There are a lot of people where I work who seem to insist on the hours they work and the homogeneity of the level they teach. Timing was never an issue for me when I started – it was all about doing as much as needed to be done. And I recognised then, as I do now, that this was a personal choice. I did it because I wanted to be confident when I went into class. I still think that teaching is a vocation: we do it because we want to do it; not primarily for the utilitarian exchange of time for money.

I also look for independence. I also work with some people who seem to want me to tell them what to do all of the time. My view is, “They’re your students: you know better than anybody what they need. Just do that!”

I see. Do good teachers make good DoSes? [DoS = Director of Studies]
What is needed to be a good DoS?
I don’t think good teachers make good DoSes and I don’t think good DoSes make good teachers. Good teachers make good teachers; good DoSes make good DoSes.

I think/thought that I was a good teacher. By this I mean that I agonised over every lesson and some were way below my shame threshold. But if I was asked to line up in the line of good teachers, average teachers, or terrible teachers, I would have joined the first queue. As a DoS, I think I’d plump for the middle one…and I’d probably be wondering if I shouldn’t have slunk to the back of the third choice. That isn’t me being self-effacing. That’s me being honest.

What makes a good DoS is something that I have given a lot of thought to. I am cursed with what Chip and Dan Heath identify as “the curse of knowledge.” I once knew what made a good DoS, but now I am a DoS, I can’t remember. I think only a teacher can answer that question.

The best DoSes I ever worked for allowed me a lot of autonomy; they [made me feel that they] recognised my strengths; they spoke up for me; and when I moved on, they let it be known that they were sorry to see me go.

What is needed to be a good teacher?
Somebody who really believes in what they are doing (whatever that might be); somebody who knows how to sell that belief to the disinterested students sat in front of them; someone who thrives on being with people; somebody who isn’t fazed by chaos; somebody whose skin is thick enough to deal with criticism, but thin enough to think that the criticism points to the need for some introspection.

What comparisons can be made between the skills, knowledge, attitude and awareness needed to be a DoS and a teacher?
DoSes manage programmes and courses. Teachers manage learning. Both are management jobs. Some teachers need to understand that. Beneath it all, we are all humans (yeah, I know, right?!). There’s a view that it’s natural for teachers to give out to their managers because their managers are employed to deal with this frustration. I don’t buy into this idea. I am a worker here. In the same way that I can’t go and tell a teacher that I think their teaching is goddawful, they have no right to come and tell me that my timetable is goddawful. We need to learn to respect each other. If you can’t say something positive/constructive, shut yo’ mouth! If you have to shout out negative criticism, apologise for it when you’re calmer and learn not to do it again.

Managers need to understand that there is very little to be gained from telling somebody that they’re wrong. People react badly to this. The ones who want to know how to improve will often ask for opinions. Then you can go to town. Until then, I think there is a lot to be gained from highlighting people’s strengths and when people appear to be falling short, making it clear that what is happening is that they are failing to meet the expectations (which may be right or wrong themselves). It follows, obviously, that you need to be up front and explicit about what these expectations are.

We have talked about defensive behaviour and acting defensively before. How can one in the course of everyday school life ensure that we don’t trigger a defensive response from you?
Always assume positive intent. Recognise the truth that permeates tired old folk wisdom and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

You have been in this field for 20 years, right?
Oh yes.

What advice would you give yourself of 19 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago and 1 year ago?
To 1995 Secret, I would say, “Get out of ELT. It’s rotten and unprincipled. Become a real teacher. And what are you wearing?!”

To 2004 Secret, I would say, “I told you to get out of ELT. It’s not too late. And don’t use your credit card any more.”

To 2009 Secret, I would say, “I told you to get out of ELT. It’s still not too late. And I told you to stop using your credit card. At least heed the last bit of advice.”

To 2013 Secret, I’d say, “Remember that everybody thinks that they are trying to do the best they can. They don’t need you highlighting the cognitive dissonance. You’re stuck in ELT now. Embrace what makes you happy in life. You’ll be dead soon.”

What can EFL teachers around the world learn from how (for example) French is being taught in the UK?
We can learn what it means to be teachers. Not English teachers. We need to throw ourselves into the debates that the education field is having. Forget all the crap about devising fun ways of doing X or Y. Start thinking about what actually makes people learn! Because it might very well be that the things that make people learn are not very much fun. Perhaps they’re bloody hard work.

We also have a lot to teach the French teachers of the UK. We have been freed from all of the constraints that bind them; and we have squandered a lot of our freedom. Learn from our mistakes; but also learn from our discoveries.

Now we move on to the rapid fire portion of the interview.
Top three silliest things ELT people tend to believe:
1. People want to learn English.
2. What we teach matters more than how we teach it. 

3. Student success reflects on our prowess.

Top three most harmful things ELT people tend to believe:
1. They have a right to speak “for” their students.

2. They know better than their students.
3. Because they have a right to an opinion, their opinion is right (or even worth listening to). To be fair, this is one of the most harmful things that anyone believes.

Current thoughts on dogme in 140 characters or less:
Dogme should embrace fundamentalism. Compromise is never a good position to argue for. Fly the flag and burn the bridges.

4 Books other than The Chimp Paradox ELT people should read from outside the field:
The first 3 of the following books I’d read before The Chimp Paradox and they may have provided the right context for me to really benefit from its insight:

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) – Carol Tavris
The Invisible Gorilla – Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
The Self Illusion (Why There Is No you Inside Your Head) – Bruce Hood
Trivium 21C – Martin Robinson 

The first three served to create an awareness that the brain is not very helpful. Some of us know about the manifold cognitive biases that we are subject to, but even then, we may not be aware of the inefficiency of our brains. One of the books makes the point that our brains tend to make up any old crap and pass it off as reality. This means that we see things that aren’t actually there; we remember things that never really happened. This insight made me really understand that people rarely ever tell lies to make other people look bad: they genuinely believe that those lies are true. When you have somebody complaining about you, you don’t need to try and defend yourself by denying everything. You need to find out what made them think that these things were true and see if you can take action to ameliorate the situation.

Trivium pretty much settles the argument for me about the role of grammar etc. I am interested in exploring in a future blog post whether or not the trivium is reflected in the “olde style” P-P-P.

That sounds like another super interesting post. While on the topic of blogs, do you have any thoughts on blogging to share? What do you get out of it?
On the phenomenon of blogging, I get huge amounts out of it. I discover interesting voices, unreal situations, beautiful writing, funny anecdotes, provocative bombast. There are some great blogs out there.

As a blogger, I get to scratch the irresistible itch to write. I get pleasure from people’s kind words. I get to offload some of my frustration. I get to hear other people’s opinions about my flights of fancy. I find the narrative that helps me reach an understanding of the unconnected events that make up my days. I have a readership that I wouldn’t have if it was just a private journal just for me. And my life is full of started, but never finished journals!

One post of yours you’d like others to read?
Given the fact that it appears to have resonated outside the ELT classrooms, I would probably say the one entitled, “I have piled my soapboxes high.” To be honest, all of the blogposts are really just rushed off streams of consciousness. The thing I am proudest of all about them is their titles! “I have piled my soapboxes high” was intended to echo Yeats’s beautiful poem, “I have spread my dreams under your feet/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The most recent one is a quotation from Malcolm X’s “The Bullet or The Ballot” speech. How fortuitous that in a post that praises rhetoric, Malcolm used this phrase that encapsulates the tension between those who feel that education needs to be fun to be engaging and those who think it has to be rigorous to be engaging: part of what’s wrong with the former (say the latter) is that they do too much singing!

Thanks for explaining the title of that post, I had a feeling there was some hidden meaning there. And of course, thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my questions.
The pleasure was all mine. Really.

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7 comments

  1. Anthony Ash

    I’m in my first year of being a Senior Teacher. In this role I have to have tutorials with teachers to guide them in the right direction and I also do observations throughout the year. Feedback seems to be very difficult to get right: some want you to get to the point but others take offence if you highlight any short comings. It seems to me the best way is to be almost blunt with people, which I honestly don’t like. I’d prefer to just stick to people’s strengths but then that doesn’t help them to improve in their failing areas. Any thoughts/advice?

    • Ann O'Nymous

      People don’t want to hear their failings. Remember: everybody believes that they are doing the best they can. Everybody. We tend to operate in a context that says that managers have to identify areas for other people to improve. I think managers have to spot what is being done well and highlight that. People CAN build on strengths. If their strengths get bigger, their weaknesses will get smaller.

      Of course, if someone tells you that they feel concerned about their own ability to do X or Y, let them know what you think. They’re ready to hear it.

      If students complain that teacher Z always does X or Y and they don’t like it, pass that information on in all honesty.

      If someone appears bereft of any strengths, it’s probably kinder to point them towards the door (if you have that option).

      If something is just out and out wrong, point out clearly how it fails to meet your expectations, But, as I say above, you can only do that once you have made your expectations explicit.

      It’s a hard job, Anthony. But it’s made worse by people’s expectations of you. Shrug them off and treat others as you would want to be treated. I actually like having my shortcomings pointed out to me if it is done constructively. However, I’ve learned the hard way that this is not that common an approach! If people want your criticism, make them ask for it! Good luck!

  2. Chris Ożóg

    Dear Secret DoS,

    “Get out of ELT now” – I have been telling myself this for years and it’s refreshing/reassuring/worrying to know that I’m not alone. Thank you. I am cutting up my credit card as I type, which is not as easy as you might think.

    Chris

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