“What is an EFL school director and why does anybody want to be one?”
As somebody who makes decisions quickly, I enjoy being able to decide something and implement it without having to discuss and negotiate at length. In my case, my husband is co-owner, so our discussions about the school can happen as and when they are necessary and do not have to be scheduled in. We can debate ideas over dinner or during a long journey.
A hands-on director stamps their vision on the school they run. Things that are important to the director are reflected in the school. For example, we have a really good coffee-maker which is free to staff and adult students because we really love coffee. Things that are less important may not be reflected in the same way – although that is where it is good to have a DOS who is a very different personality and can introduce things that would otherwise be left out. It is exciting to watch your vision become reality and to see first hand the difference you are making in the world.
I might have answered this differently pre-pandemic but in the post-Covid world, the cons of running a language school loom large. The financial model where clients pay in advance and schools depend on money coming in this way to meet monthly cashflow demands, leaves owners in a vulnerable position when hundreds of people need refunds. This is precisely what happened during Covid; no money coming in, lots of money going out. Directors are not normally paid salaries so they are dependent on the company making a profit and if it doesn’t, they don’t get paid.
Covid also taught me that some employees are pretty selfish. We had staff who were furloughed through Covid, for whom we had to find the money to pay their tax, NI and pensions, and the first thing they did on returning to work was to book holiday. And I doubt any of the individuals involved would see anything wrong it what they did. ‘It’s my right,’ is the mantra; and it is their right. But it leaves business owners (and DOSs) feeling isolated and used.
A lot of my job revolves around red tape, particularly employment law, safeguarding and all things legal and financial. I interact with students as much as I can but not as much as I would like. During Covid, I went back to teaching when I won a small amount of funding to teach refugee students. It was only £3000 for 10 weeks of classes, so the only way of being able to use the money to pay off bills and make refunds was for me to do the teaching gratis. And I loved it. It reminded me of why I set up a school in the first place but now, I am not in a position to teach as I am needed in so many other areas of the business.
Lack of appreciation
If you become a school owner, do not expect to be appreciated or even considered as a person by the majority of those you employ. The boss is expected to make sure the staff are well paid, have reasonable holidays, paid sick days, time off for a multitude of other reasons, bonuses, perks, that their mental health is cared for, their work environment is conducive to well-being, and so on. But few employees will reciprocate at any point. If one of your teachers is ill, you must pay them and leave them alone to recover and listen to their requests for a tailor-made timetable or other special considerations. If you are ill, you are on your own. It will not stop people contacting you with questions and demands, all of which will be prefaced with ‘I am sorry to bother you but …’. The same happens when you are on holiday. We travel with laptops to deal with the inevitable emails. My husband and I have worked 7-day weeks for years and our normal working day is at least 10 hours long. If you are thinking of setting up a school, I suggest you start when you are young and don’t have children and that you should be a person who gets a great deal of pleasure out of working really long hours for not much reward. Alternatively, start out with a lot of investment up front, so you can pay others to do the hard yards.
Factor in also that the disaster that is Brexit means there are fewer people than ever going into TEFL, and it is increasingly difficult to staff a school. The seasonal nature of the business means you need a strategy for increasing staffing in times of high demand but cannot afford to take on a large full-time staff year-round. Younger people now believe they should change jobs every three years, so in an industry like ours, you find yourself frequently replacing people. We have become very wary of somebody asking for a pay rise out of the blue as it usually signals their intention to apply for a new job somewhere else and they are trying to inflate their salary as much as possible before doing so. When we interview now we ask when the person last got a pay rise and why. If the last pay rise was within 5-6 months, it always gives us pause. Remember, you are very limited, at least in the UK, in what you are allowed to ask interviewees so you need to develop strategies to try to find out necessary information. For example, be wary of those with unexplained gaps in employment, check all qualifications and take up all references. It is time-consuming and can be thoroughly dispiriting but it is vital. Check online to see if there is anything you should be aware of about the person you are interviewing. We used to employ people in a much more relaxed way but now, we cannot take the risk. Ending up with a nightmare employee that you cannot get rid of easily is a headache every school owner can do without.
The good employee
Don’t get me wrong. Some employees are fantastic. They step up and take responsibility and make a real effort to work with you, not just for you. These are the ones who go the extra mile and who don’t feel they need to point out that they stayed 30 minutes late or did something that was not specifically mentioned in their job description. They are the ones who allow you to be in a bad mood, even, God forbid, to raise your voice, without acting as if it were a crime. Such people tend to rise in a small school, as they should. And it is for them that you carry on even when all logic says you should stop. For them and for the students.
So, why carry on?
Well, I am too old to change careers now; too invested in every sense to be able to walk away. I admit that being an IH director is a huge bonus. Meeting up with others annually who know exactly what you are going through and just how hard it is helps to re-charge my batteries and re-kindle my enthusiasm. Similarly, when students write to us to thank us and tell us how their course has changed their lives for the better or when one of our refugee students finds a job, it feels good to have been a part of their experience.
But if I had my time over, would I do it again?
I am originally from Dublin but have lived in Bristol since 1985. I set up a language school in 1987 while studying for a PhD at Bristol University. Other than a year spent lecturing at Bristol University, I have run a language school since then. I have enjoyed my time as a school director although it has not always been easy. In the little spare time I have, I enjoy running, dancing and reading. I have two grown-up children, who are all a parent could ask for, and a husband who makes everything worthwhile. I love working in EFL, but the landscape of the industry is changing very rapidly and not necessarily for the better. I am an optimistic person who looks forward to the UK rejoining the EU and the world becoming a safer and more secure place environmentally.