The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

I’m afraid I have some bad news…

I’ve recently been working with a teacher whose students consistently give her negative criticism. For the last three years she has come in for criticisms about her ability to teach effectively and engagingly. For the last three years, we have put that evidence in front of her and talked to her about what she might do: get some further qualifications; do some peer evaluations; try to include a bit of [insert as appropriate] into her lessons; teach this way; follow this lesson plan; don’t do this, do that. But in 2013, the complaints that are coming out of her classroom are the same as the ones that came out of her classroom in 2010.

What I find interesting, however, is the fact that she is now irate about how she is being treated. We recently observed her classes and put together an action plan that was linked to some external standards which identified potential areas for improvements and how she might adapt her teaching to get closer to these standards. Now she feels that this is overkill and that she is a perfectly good teacher who has only ever had a good relationship with her students. She feels that she is being singled out for criticism by her managers and that there are more nefarious intentions afoot.

All quite natural, you might think. After all, who wants to face up to the reality that perhaps they are caught in a job that they are not very good at. But wait a minute! Isn’t that fascinating in itself? That it is natural to construct a false reality in order to protect yourself from a more objective reality? Because if one was asked to try and draw an objective conclusion about what is happening here, one would inevitably come to the conclusion that the teacher’s students are the ones who are criticising her and her managers are only acting upon these criticisms.

What appears to be at play is cognitive dissonance – a peculiarly human trait. Our brains – the powerhouses of creativity- appear to be hardwired to deny all data that calls into question any interpretation of reality that doesn’t square with what we already believe to be true. Your hero appears to have said that he can’t stand black people? He must have meant something different. You didn’t get the job that you wanted? They must have already decided who they were going to give it to before they saw you. The doctor said that it was just a virus and that you shouldn’t have booked an appointment? She must be one of these newly-trained inept types. Your managers have highlighted problems with your teaching? They must be bullies who are trying to hound you out of your vocation.

Cognitive dissonance means that it doesn’t matter how much evidence that is laid before your brain – it won’t budge from squaring the circle. This is seen when doomsday prophets are inevitably proven wrong – “Aah! Bien sur! Our faith is what persuaded the Lord to spare the planet! Praise be! And pass on your bank details…” And interestingly, once the brain has made up its mind, even a full investigation that categorically denies your brain’s woefully idiosyncratic interpretation will only serve to confirm it.

Which calls into question the approach that our institution uses to address employees’ grievances. My aggrieved teacher has complained officially about the way her managers are treating her. She has made allegations of bullying and these need to be given credence. As a result, a formal investigation has been launched. Inevitably, this will conclude that there are no objective grounds for an allegation of bullying. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the investigation will conclude that the employee has been supported and encouraged for the last three years. I suspect that the grievance will not be upheld.

All of which will confirm the employee’s feeling that she has been bullied and that her teaching is exemplar. Of course, she will think, the institution is not going to admit that their managers are bullies. The institution condones bullying and there is probably a conspiracy to force her out of the company, much to the chagrin of her students. She will need to surround herself with confirming evidence of this and so will confide in colleagues who are most likely to agree with her (or at least not disagree with her) and it may be that they have their own vested interests in giving credence to her perceptions. The atmosphere will begin to fester and a small group of staff will feel bitter and resentful. All this in order to protect one individual’s perception of herself as being beyond reproach.

Ironically, if this individual were to take a step back and look at the situation objectively, she would agree that teaching English as a foreign language is not what she wants to do. Objectively it is quite understandable that she is as bad a teacher as she is because her passions lie elsewhere. Teaching pays the bills and allows her to pursue her true passions. If she were particularly brave, she would admit this and would take an approach that would be more coherent. Unfortunately, the modern workplace -or at least my workplace- does not encourage objective appraisals of reality and appears geared to supporting individual perceptions, no matter how absurd they might be.

All of which makes me ponder on how ill-served humanity is by its powerhouse of creativity. Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow tells us of an organ that is so ineffective that by holding a pencil between your teeth and forcing your mouth into a shape that is wide and narrowly spread, you must be smiling. It then proceeds to activate the areas that are associated with happiness and relaxation. Unfortunately, it also shuts down the areas that are concerned with attention and caution. The opposite effect can be achieved by wrinkling up your forehead and faking a frown: OMG! There must be some sort of danger! We’re frowning! Activate all resources for identifying the danger and dealing with it! What I am amazed by, these days, is the realisation that neuroscience seems to be leading us towards: despite everything we would like to think about ourselves, science would suggest that we are influenced mostly by brute animal instinct and that the civilising forces that we thought differentiated us from the apes are actually just an illusion. For me, personally, that is a mindblowing thesis. If it isn’t for you, you’re undoubtedly engaged in the practice of cognitive dissonance!



10 Jan 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Really enjoyed this! Looking forward to more.

    Comment by Ebefl | 10 Jan 2013 | Reply

    • You’re very kind. I hope I don’t disappoint (too frequently).

      Comment by thesecretdos | 10 Jan 2013 | Reply

  2. Three questions:

    a) “For the last three years she has come in for criticisms about her ability to teach effectively and engagingly. For the last three years, we have put that evidence in front of her and talked to her about what she might do…” As you were doing that, what were the positive points about her teaching that you brought up during these evaluations? Surely there must be some or you wouldn’t still keep employing her.

    b) “All of which will confirm the employee’s feeling that she has been bullied and that her teaching is exemplar.” Has she actually **said** that to you?

    c) If you have that many students complaining about her, why haven’t you fired her? Are these review sessions being documented and included in her employee file so that you can build a legally-sound case to show that, in not fulfilling her teaching duties, she’s in in breach of contract? Does her employment contract stipulate the conditions under which she can be let go?

    I’m not asking these questions to be a pain; it just seems like she must have *some* redeeming features along the way or she’d have been fired by now.

    Comment by STOP SPANGLISH (@stopspanglish) | 10 Jan 2013 | Reply

    • Three answers:

      a)I doubt that you actually want the specifics of the good points, but absolutely – we recognised the need to not just drown her in criticisms. Everytime we took great care to highlight the strengths and the aspects of good practice where she was meeting the standards. Middle managers we may be; monsters we are merely becoming.

      b) Not so much said so much as put into a formal written complaint about the way she has been managed.

      c) Sadly, and I am not being facetious when I say, “sadly for her”, we are managed by a higher power who quakes at the thought of finding herself paraded before an employment tribunal. Review sessions are documented, student evaluations are recorded, observations are awash in paperwork. We have enough paperwork to paper the stick that we could shake at the paperwork; but it takes a great deal more than that to get the sack where I work. Our students would benefit from her being dismissed; the team would benefit from her being dismissed; she would benefit from being dismissed. But we lead a merry dance of dissonance ourselves and all parties (minus the students…they get no choice) have to pretend that she is going to get better. She isn’t, naturally.

      We all have redeeming features, I agree; but hers are not to be found in her teaching. I don’t know if it’s my advancing age – but I almost yearn for a time where we didn’t have to pretend that people might get better and ignore the fact that they don’t really want to get better. I’d like to speak plainly and bluntly and tell her, “Look – this clearly isn’t for you. Take this commemorative whiteboard pen and go and do something with your life that makes you happier.” God alone knows it can’t be fun being told every few months that your students think you are woeful.

      Thank you very much though for stopping by and engaging in this topic. I really appreciate it. I hope you pass this way again!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 10 Jan 2013 | Reply

  3. Well, not the specific-specifics…but hey, we all enjoy a good dish of dish now and again. I work from home and kind of miss the gossip-y parts of working in an organization, but I don’t envy the HR aspect that a DoS has to manage, especially when the ESL field is still crammed with cowboys and nut cases.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog. Keep up the good work and the open dialogue!

    Comment by STOP SPANGLISH (@stopspanglish) | 10 Jan 2013 | Reply

  4. Hi, really enjoying reading this as well.
    It is a healthy antidote to my rather earnest DOS blog which I just started!
    Look forward to more…

    And very intrigued to work out who you are! Do you ever make use of your school’s conference budget – maybe see you unknowingly at one in the future 😉

    Comment by JoshSRound | 14 Jan 2013 | Reply

  5. Hi Josh. Far from being overly earnest, your blog is refreshingly uncynical and well worth a visit. I hope that we are seeing an explosion of DOS related blogs. I for one will be regularly stopping by yours.

    Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Jan 2013 | Reply

  6. I can see why you’re the SECRET dos – if I was to post something like this on my of I would be in so much trouble. I think we operate in similar circumstances though and I can relate to the problem you’ve described. I’d be interested to know how it turns out, though I’ll probably have to wait at least a year for it all to get resolved.

    Comment by stevebrown70 | 20 Jan 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks for stopping by,Steve. I’ll keep you informed of how things go. I take some solace from the rather naive assumption that I’ve done nothing wrong! That said, it’s probably better framed as I think I’ve done nothing wrong.

      If you find yourself in similar circumstances, allow me to recommend the scientific method to help you stay in touch with reality: accusations made against you need to be subjected to a search for disconfirming evidence. It’s not enough for the accuser to put forward confirming evidence that what they say is true; they have to be able to explain away evidence that doesn’t support their theory. If they can’t, then quite frankly, they have no right to be accusing you of whatever it is that they are accusing you of.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 20 Jan 2013 | Reply

  7. I can very much imagine this is very common. And you certainly do not ‘keep re-employing’ such people (see comment above)…legally you HAVE to keep people in their jobs and support them if they are not up to it – dismissing someone in line with contract law is a very lengthy process. Which is great – it protects employees when that is right. But in cases such as the above, I know very well it helps no one…

    Comment by swandos | 22 Jan 2013 | Reply

    • The Lord forgive me, but there have been times when I would have sold my birthright for some more liberal labour laws…that said, there have been times when I have been very grateful that they were as they were.

      But Swandos, you said it – no one is helped by keeping somebody who is clearly incompetent in the job. It’s bade for the students for obvious reasons; it’s bad for the teacher who receives constant negative feedback; it’s bad for the managers who have o devote a lot of extra time to essentially providing in-post training (as opposed to development) and it’s bad for the institution because a lot of unhappy customers leave us determined not to return.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 22 Jan 2013 | Reply

  8. […] had shared posts showing how systems thinking is linked to language emergence and to career development. As @Penultimate_K put it, ‘it’s hard to confine the ideas to one area’ with this […]

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