The Oxford TEFL Blog

Dealing with Your Boss

One of the great advantages of teaching, particularly EFL, is that we are our own boss most of the time. In many office jobs people are in constant contact with their boss or line manager, working to instructions, reporting back and generally aware of having someone breathing down their necks! As teachers we are bound by syllabuses and school protocols of course, but are pretty much left to our own devices in the classroom, our attention focused more on keeping a different kind of boss happy—our students.

That said, there are times when we need to deal with someone in authority in our organization, our school Principal or D.O.S, for example, and these situations are often challenging. Here are some examples.

  • your teaching is observed and discussed
  • an annual appraisal
  • a pay issue (you want a raise, for example!)
  • a development issue (you would like to take on a new challenge in the school or would like your school to sponsor you to do a course or attend a conference)
  • an issue about working conditions (your timetable, resources etc.)
  • some negative feedback from students about your classes

There are some general principles for dealing with situations like this, bearing in mind that successful relationships with bosses are no different to any other. They benefit from you

  • being pro-active
  • listening carefully
  • adopting a positive attitude
  • thinking win-win
  • being flexible
  • being assertive (that is giving clear messages without coming across as aggressive or bullying)

Easier said than done, of course. Here are three examples of how to put these principles into practice.

  1. Ask your DOS to observe you. Don’t wait for the annual round of observations or for a problem to arise. Specify which class you would like her to observe and what you would like her to look out for. After the class take a lead in the feedback by asking her questions about what she saw rather than wait for her to tell you. In other words take a measure of control of the event. She will love the fact that you have taken responsibility and you will feel empowered and able to take on more constructive criticism than you normally would
  2. Request a meeting with your boss to discuss ways you could contribute to the school and further your own development. Find out from your boss what she thinks is important for the school and how she thinks you can contribute. Offer your own suggestions too. Some possible “partnership” projects that emerge from this could be creating a feedback questionnaire for students, organizing material share among teachers, starting a blog with staff or students, improving an end of course exam and so on.
  3. Get the boss to spend some money on resources. Write the him a carefully worded e mail with a proposal for some resources you think the school should buy (Books, equipment, whatever). Say what the benefits of the resources would be, linking these benefits to school policy or specific feedback from students. “Many students have said they appreciate role play activities in class. The book “100 role play activities” will help teachers to include these more in their class” etc.

Most of us get somewhat apprehensive about communicating with bosses. A good way to overcome this is rehearse conversations beforehand with a colleague or friend. You can play you and your friend plays the boss or vice versa. Rehearsing will help you polish your communication skills and understand where your boss is coming from. Apart from that it can be quite a lot of fun!

Have you had an experience dealing with your boss which went well or didn’t? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

11 comments on “Dealing with Your Boss

  1. Good blog, Duncan. Because we have less contact with ‘The Boss’ than people in many other professions I think teachers often lack experience in how to approach management figures. This can mean problems snowball out of control if we are not proactive. E.g. in my school a teacher resigned as she wasn’t happy with the timetabling and didn’t say until asked why she had resigned. By then it was too late as she’d signed a contract elsewhere.

    On approaching bosses, a manager once gave me a piece of advice….come to me with solutions not problems. I think there is some truth in that. If I have a problem or complaint, I try to come up with solutions before I go to the boss. Managers are stressed out too and sometimes need to save face. Giving them a suggested solution can give that win-win situation you suggest.

  2. Very useful suggestions, Duncan.
    I think that because we often have little contact with our bosses, this can actually make the situation worse: we can become comfortable in our little classroom kingdoms, and defensive when someone steps through the door. Creating an “open door” teaching environment, where any teacher is welcome to sit in on any other teacher’s lesson, helps lessen the apprehension when it comes time for more formal observation (not to mention nipping any issues in the bud!).

  3. I think if you’re nervous about approaching your boss, then the ‘think win-win’ tip is especially useful. Bosses often have quite different concerns from teachers (e.g. the bottom line/ the school’s image/maximum efficiency), so planning how to couch your request/ suggestion etc in terms that present it with a positive angle for them can be a big help.

  4. Good blog, and I agree with much of what you say too Teresa. Through the process of doing the diploma my confidence is increasing and I feel hugely motivated to want to support, particularly, new teachers. This showed itself when I took a deep breath during a staff meeting and suggested a staffroom pinboard for ‘collaborative teacher development ideas’ and suggested that motivation should come from within the staff room and not be spoon fed by the Management. As well as winning a few brownie points (unintentionally, honestly!) it went down well with the other teachers as my ‘win win’ stategical approach was that we can all benefit from the wealth of experience available from other teachers. So, the board is up…..and I will keep you posted as to it’s success (or otherwise!).

  5. You say, “Most of us get somewhat apprehensive about communicating with bosses.”

    This is very interesting to me. I think you are right, and it makes me immensely sad that you are.

    Incidentally, I am a graduate of Oxford TEFL BCN as you may remember, and I loved the place – this comment is hopefully no reflection on that institution!

    I think that there are definite parallels between the world of teaching and the world of business when it comes to fearing “the boss”. I talk from experience in the commercial world. Unfortunately, many people in “one-up” positions apply power and control in a multitude of ways, for the sake of it, and, in their hard-won positions, some bosses seem to act as if they really are superior beings. This can indeed perpetuate a climate of apprehension when it comes to staff interacting with their managers. It’s so wrong.

    My opinion is that managers – people in “one-up” positions – have a great responsibility (as I know you will recognise); a responsibility to refrain from exercising control for control’s sake; a responsibility to live the fact that they really are no better than anyone on their teams; a responsibility for genuinely, and I mean genuinely, caring for the needs and wants of their charges; encouraging them; coaching them. If the constraints of the business do not allow for this, then it is a poor business indeed. I truly believe that if a staff member turns up with complaints; with problems not solutions; with negativity – that person’s manager needs to look to his or her own behaviour or to company policy and not immediately to assume that the staff member’s attitude is at fault. After all, even though equal on a human level, which of the two parties has greater responsibility within the organisation?

    With a supportive, egalitarian, non-egocentric approach by the boss (which, economically, costs nothing), using teaching as an example there will surely be no feeling of intimidation on the teacher’s part. More than this, there will likely be a payback from a commercial point of view, as teachers feel free to take more responsibility for themselves and to express themselves creatively and give of their best without fear of reproach when they fail now and then, as we all inevitably do. It’s an approach through which we can create something truly exceptional. In such circumstances, nobody is “apprehensive about communicating” with the boss, and your advice would perhaps not be needed.

    My advice to teachers, especially those with less commercial experience, is to develop skills in evaluating organisations and their staff during job interviews – to be discerning, even if it costs a little in the short term. You really don’t want to make your life a misery because you have a boss that you feel “apprehensive about communicating” with or who will make your life a misery in other ways. I know – I have done it, and it’s miserable. Conversely, get a good manager, and it makes all the difference.

    Just my opinion. Kind regards to my friends at Oxford House.

  6. thanks for your comments everyone. I agree that the win-win thinking is crucial. Also being prepared to walk away from a school where there is no win -win. If good teachers can leave bad schools that will help create better ones. I always think that in the interview the teacher should be interviewing the school as much as the other way round. Bosses, like teachers, make mistakes of course, even when they have the best intentions. The important thing is to be able to admit to them and create an atmosphere of open communication. 360 degree feedback is one way to do that. How would you feel about observing your boss for once and giving them some feedback?

  7. I think I’d enjoy that! But it kind of presupposes that there’s a trusting relationship already there. Otherwise, would teachers feel obliged to only say positive things? And I totally agree with what you say about teachers interviewing schools, and walking away from bad ones. What’s a school without teachers, after all?

  8. Thanks for this, Duncan. I read it with interest and if I may, would like to contribute one point: be culturally sensitive when dealing with your boss. In the ‘West’, management often appreciates employees who want to contribute with win-win ideas, but that’s not always true in some eastern cultures. In the Far East, the custom is for employees to wait until asked by management to contribute otherwise, you may be seen as critical of management personnel and policy — no matter how positive ones intentions may be!

    I wonder how folks in the Indian sub-continent (hello Kerala!) and the Middle East view this.

  9. Good point Amelie. I am in Kerala soon so I will have a chance to find out. Certainly wise to take traditions into account, but culture like everything else does change. Who would have thought 15 years ago the English would be sitting on terraces eating tapas even in the middle of winter! There are possibly ways around the problem you describe which allow the “boss” to hear the idea without feeling threatened.

  10. hello everybody,
    This topic interested me greatly. I am an office employee. Through my 15 years experience, I think that communication with one’s “boss” or manager is crucial, though some managers do not like it especially those who received severe training at the beginning of their career. Communicating with one’s manager or superior is liberating and anti-stressing. It also encourages one to do the best when his/her ‘s voice is heard. So, my advice is the following: do not hesitate to come up to one’s boss and discuss with him/her issues related to work, but one should choose the right moment!

  11. Very useful Duncan !!! I live and work in Galicia, not far from Santiago de Compostela. A couple of years ago I decided to become self employed, and open my own business with the help of a relative, who is also an English teacher. I am very pleased but it is much harder to work on your own than for a company.
    To begin with, I was sorely tested by the locals who, at first, were not very happy to have an English language teacher from Catalunya. However, after much work, ( and putting into practice the skills learned at Oxford House College ), I was able to attract students, ( or learners !! ). and survive in a semi-rural setting. How ? By finding out about learners´ priorities, ( needs analysis, which is usually overlooked at other schools ), motivation, and last but the least money…A lot of people are unemployed, as a result I have no choice but to lower my prices or taylor very specific programs for the chronically unemployed. So far my work has begun to yield results, as I get messages such as ” I pass my exam or ” I feel I learn ” !!

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