My Last Director Couldn’t Direct

Little Things Counted in a Big Way
A Letter From an ISR Member

I will argue that teachers don’t make good directors because they clearly lack the experience to run a multi-million dollar corporation, which after-all is what an international school is. Negotiating with a shrewd businessman intent on selling a construction project to the school or making decisions that impact the lives of teachers and their families is a far cry from resolving disputes between two third grade kids arguing over the blue crayon. This topic, however, is for a future article. In this article I’d like to focus on why some directors are able to create a quality school atmosphere while others fall far short of this goal, resulting in a general atmosphere of discontent among teachers and staff.

I am reminded of the day I heard that our director, Dr. Tom, had forgotten to heat the pool for the water polo match. I remember grinning at the news and thinking about those poor kids freezing in the cold water. I never gave the incident another thought. Had I heard the same comment about Dr. Bill, the director at my previous school, I would not have been grinning! In fact I’d be thinking, “He can’t do anything right and this is just further proof of his complete and utter incompetence”. Obviously, Dr. Bill had done something to lose my support during my stay at his school.

Although the incident I am about to relate to you was not my first negative encounter with Dr. Bill, it was the incident that turned the tide. I had been renting an apartment for $300 a month. The contractual housing allowance was for $350. Six months into the school year Dr. Bill called me into his office to point out I’d been making money on the housing allowance, and this was not permitted. I reminded him my contractual allowance was $350 and relayed that the extra $50 had been going towards utilities. Still, Dr. Bill insisted I was taking advantage of the school and took $300 out of my next paycheck and reduced all future allowances by $50. I felt I had been treated unfairly. In fact, dishonestly! As I mentioned, other events lead up to me becoming unsupportive of Dr. Bill and I’ll tell you about a few of them.

Among other habits, Dr. Bill would intermittently post himself at the school’s main entrance on Monday mornings and point to his watch as a few of us arrived mere minutes past reporting time. He never asked if traffic was bad or if they were still fixing the road? I also never heard a thank you to those of us that gave up our Saturdays for the International Fair, the Fathers’ Day extravaganza or other events. Yet Dr. Bill made sure to be there to kick things off. Once, however, the photo opportunity was over he retreated to who knows where. Probably to set his watch.

When I first arrived in the country with 13 suitcases and my son in tow there was no one from the school to pick us up at 1:30 am. What message did that send? Especially after we spent the night in a hotel and Dr. Bill refused to have the school pick-up the tab for his mistake? Welcome to your new school! Yes, anyone can make a mistake but when later my housing allowance was reduced and the Monday morning clock watching resulted in being called into the office for a lecture on “commitment”, the little things began to add up and in a big way. My relationship with Dr. Bill had crumbled.

No, we can’t have our own way all the time and every situation won’t work out exactly as we would like. I do believe international teachers, as a group, are flexible individuals, otherwise they would never even consider immersing themselves in a foreign culture. Reviews on the ISR web site, however, illustrate events that go beyond expecting teachers to be “flexible”. There are reviews that point to directors who consistently support parents and students over teachers, who change the terms of the contract and even belittle teachers in front of students and faculty. Dr. Bill fit this description. Step-by-step, one teacher at a time, he alienated his faculty until he was unable to rally our support. Yes, we are all “professionals,” but there comes a point when the word “professional” means we were being trampled on and trying to smile about it.

Credentials and certificates demonstrate a commitment to achieving the technical skills required to fulfill a position, but no amount of course work can compensate for a leader lacking the intrinsic character traits to support and treat his or her staff fairly and with respect. Dr. Tom, who forgot to heat the pool, earned the respect of his staff and as a result created a quality atmosphere in which teachers and students thrived and supported each other – even when they made mistakes. Dr. Bill, who belittled his teachers and showed no appreciation for their efforts and dedication to their profession created an unhealthy atmosphere and a low quality school, rift with discontent and a couple of teachers that did midnight runners. And all over little things that could have easily been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Teachers may not make the best directors due to a lack of business experience, but such experience can be gained along the way. I don’t believe character traits can be changed as easily, if at all. When it’s the little things that count in a big way, what counts most is the director’s basic personality. Is he or she a fair person? Do they treat their staff with concern, support and respect? Do members of the teaching staff feel valued? Years ago international teachers had no way to know what they were committing to at recruiting fairs until it was too late. Fortunately these days, the International Schools Review web site makes it possible for us to share our experiences with with each other and forewarn each other of potentially negative teaching situations. When it’s the little things that truly count in the end, the place to find out about the important little details is on the ISR web site. I’d be better off today if I had been able to avoid Dr. Bill. At least now I can avoid working for a “Dr. Bill” in the future. And that’s no little thing!


An ISR Member

An ISR Member Responds

As a teacher who had a decade long previous career in business, I read your current article on the qualities that make a good international school director with a sense of irony.

The writer correctly argues that running a large international school may be compared to running a multi-million dollar corporation, but then makes an egregious error by inferring that the leader of an effective international school should therefore possess qualities akin to those of the leader of an effective multi-million dollar corporation.

The writer goes on to exemplify the point through the comparison of the effective Dr. Tom, who had good people skills as compared to the ineffective, outright deleterious, Dr. Bill who did not.

The problem here is that Dr. Bill– with his pettiness about promptness, his quibbling over small sums and employee rights, his stepping into the limelight and claiming credit where it was not due him or stepping out of it when genuine diligence and commitment were required– actually behaved much more like the heads of most companies, or like the immediate underlings they deputize to enact their policies.

In short, you´re on the ball about what makes a good school director, but barking up the completely wrong tree when you imply that corporate senior management is the example that school leaders ought to follow.

In fact, the argument that international schools (or any schools) would be better off if they were run more like the mid-sized companies they structurally resemble is generally misguided and has, over the years, caused much damage in British and American education both at home and abroad.

Dr. Tim