Very often, as an English teacher you might encounter misunderstandings in the workplace. He-said-she-said situations that require you to be on top of your game and fully cognizant about what’s going on.
In many cases, you may even have to act like your own trial lawyer. It’s easy to misunderstand a situation when you’re the only one who doesn’t speak the local language. Or when people use their lack of English in ways to sabotage your best efforts and gossip about your effectiveness as a teacher.
Believe me, this happens in the real world and it ain’t pretty. It’s what happens … when people stop being polite … and start getting real.
So here are some tips.
The biggest secret for managing office politics
Conflict in a workplace can pop up unexpectedly. This is why it’s necessary for you to write things down. This way, when it comes time to defend yourself or to shed light on the matter you can look back to your notes, like a good lawyer, and bring up what exactly happened, while pointing to your notes with a pen for emphasis. Just like a really good lawyer would do but for much less pay then one.
Make the core of the issue crystal clear to what events transpired that placed you in an uncomfortable position. If you can spell out the dates and times for each event, even better. “Mr. Headmaster, sir, on Saturday the 14th, at 11 PM, Kim So Ju told me in the cafeteria that I had better watch my class or else she will report it to the authorities and get me kicked out of the country. My eye witness is Sam Kim Rhee,” etc. Just remember that sometimes snitches get stiches, so use caution.
Really spell it out
There’s a lot of great information about managing office politics in the book Teaching English in Korean Public Schools by S. P. Lee, so I won’t rehash all of the pearls of wisdom for you here.
From my own experience, I will advise you keep a diary and keep a record of everything that you’re doing in your schools.
When things got really hot for me, I had my parents send me a pen that doubled as a recording device so that I could furtively record what the teachers were saying about me and then translate them into English and finally prove my case. It was a great way to cover my butt and feel like Jason Bourne while doing it. You don’t have to go to these extremes, but it doesn’t hurt. You don’t have to wear a wire, but that’s fun right?
When you write in your diary, note the correspondence you had and directions you’re given. This way, if any problems arise, you’ll be able to refer back over your notes and rehash the story more effectively. You will be able to discuss, in detail, the understandings you had in your conversations with the person you’re having a conflict with.
In fact, taking notes is one thing I wish I had done more often, believe it or not. Had I done it, I would’ve been able to speak more clearly to people and I would have finally gotten that one teacher who I couldn’t prove was gossiping about me even though I totally know that she was. I even wrote it in my private diary but I didn’t want to also share my secret crushes with my headmaster so now I have a separate diary just for these events.
But in all seriousness, When I wasn’t taking notes at the time, I couldn’t express my feelings clearly. So when people were wondering why I was so stressed out, I couldn’t communicate to them exactly what was bothering me because I didn’t really have a sense of what was happening to me.
It helps to speak the local language, but short of this, take notes and hire a VA to translate them. It’s worth the investment and you get to pretend you are an intelligence agent, which really breaks up the monotony.
On a more profound level, I didn’t really know what the issues were because I hadn’t put it to paper. There’s something about writing your thoughts down that makes them become super clear, even to you! It gives you more clarity. It helps you remember your feelings about specific things too! Writing really does bring clarity and I can’t recommend it enough for you teachers out there who also have to double as soldiers in war. The war on education, fight the power!
If you’re interested in learning more about the power of notes and other strategies you can use to handle office politics, I highly recommend the book The No Asshole Rule. You can guess what this book is going to be about. Download it! It’s well worth the read.
As a companion piece, you can also get the book Difficult Conversations. Great for dealing with co-workers, roommates, and those annoying relatives you added on Facebook.
So, the ultimate truth I want to impart: put your thoughts on paper so that you can easily talk about what the issues were so that you can hopefully get them resolved. Because failure to know your history leads to a whole world of crap that you can do without.
So keep taking those notes, like your life depended on it. Because your career and livelihood may. You can’t trust anyone but yourself. Cheers!
Todd Persaud holds a BFA from New School University and an MA in Applied Sociology from William Paterson University. He has taught in over five countries, and currently resides in Da Nang, Vietnam where he is writing a book about his experiences. He may be reached on his website
The TEFL (re) Education Program
Todd takes you on a trip down to a fiery inferno populated by wild children and angry businessmen where he describes in lurid detail the ins-and-outs of the English (EFL) teaching profession as conceived overseas.