Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stepping stones

The last seven days have captured a lot of the year: the sweetness of being together; the trickiness of living here; the ridiculousness of bureaucracy; the sheer endurance required just to keep one's head above water at work. It has had it all.
2011 in all may be a foundation year. It is of hard work, of learnt lessons, of persistence, of accrual (and not financially, let's save that till 2012). It was the consistency of the challenges that came that will make it memorable - and a brief look through the blog of the last year shows it: it was the year the bucked the trend increasing the number of blogs. I've thought a lot this year. Most of my thoughts never got close to being transcribed here.
One feeling that all trampers have is that of descending to the valley, down to the river. It could present a rapid descent, or sometimes the sound of the river teases you as you wind your way nearer and nearer. But then you get to the river-level, pass it in the way that you conjure, and then... It is (often) back up another steep incline, back into the trees and ascending to the next ridge. New years might be arbitrary markings in time, but they provide a reasonable landmark for us. A river between ridges to ascend. I like the significance of it. I like going from one phase to another.
Let's cross.

Stepping stones

The last seven days have captured a lot of the year: the sweetness of being together; the trickiness of living here; the ridiculousness of bureaucracy; the sheer endurance required just to keep one's head above water at work. It has had it all.
2011 in all may be a foundation year. It is of hard work, of learnt lessons, of persistence, of accrual (and not financially, let's save that till 2012). It was the consistency of the challenges that came that will make it memorable - and a brief look through the blog of the last year shows it: it was the year the bucked the trend increasing the number of blogs. I've thought a lot this year. Most of my thoughts never got close to being transcribed here.
One feeling that all trampers have is that of descending to the valley, down to the river. It could present a rapid descent, or sometimes the sound of the river teases you as you wind your way nearer and nearer. But then you get to the river-level, pass it in the way that you conjure, and then... It is (often) back up another steep incline, back into the trees and ascending to the next ridge. New years might be arbitrary markings in time, but they provide a reasonable landmark for us. A river between ridges to ascend. I like the significance of it. I like going from one phase to another.
Let's cross.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2 out of 2

"I've had a day here now: I've been approached by hawkers; eaten my first street food; smelt that funny "Please let that be anything other than sewage?" odour that wafts out of drains in the city; and been pushed in front of by little old ladies. Yes, if the sign after customs hadn't said it already, I'm indeed in China."
That was my first blog upon coming to China to work on November 15, 2009. I'd boarded my plane on the ominous day of Friday 13 November and the odd but now familiar time of 11:59pm, and landed on a cool, overcast day. The taxi driver that picked me up tried to talk me into teaching his son for 50 yuan an hour. Jetlagged and sleep deprived, I started to muse about teaching to help the less advantaged but remained wisely noncommital. Things have come a long way.
Two years have passed. I didn't celebrate it; someone else decided to randomly celebrate something else a day earlier and not wishing to detract from that randomness, I kept my own special day silent. Life also passed a stressful passage: the search for a new apartment. It ultimately ended in failure, we'll stay where we are but in some ways it cannot be regarded as a disappointment. It is only when you look at your other choices closely enough that you consider how lucky you are. Our apartment is wonderful (although a little far away), our rent comparatively cheap (we do want to save) and our landlord is fantastic (although too inclined to DIY repairs). Of course, it is when you re-sign your lease that the neighbours start renovating noisily from 8am every day. These walls make the scratching and hammering sound like they're in your room.
Work is attrition. Half the centres in my city are situation red, including my own. Our problems are two-fold: a historically struggling centre - students often don't come to class regularly or transfer out to the bigger centres; and it had been overstaffed to the eyeballs for most of the year and then shed almost all of its international staff... in fact, for a week in December and from early January, the international staff will be the boss and I. Staff deprivation unfortunately means that we cannot be picky about who we get, but students are. One of our soon to leave teachers is not appreciated by students by and large. He likes teaching but he doesn't have the skills to do it effectively or interestingly. He had got pressure from the boss to lift his game or face losing his job. He didn't like the pressure or the way his urgent need to improve was presented and resigned. When he leaves in early January, if no-one new comes, it'll be just the two of us. And then the students can have what they want: the two best teachers teaching continuously...
Part of my coming to the centre has been to help turn it around, not on the management side, but in terms of teaching quality, centre spirit, team spirit and innovation. I think the first three can still be delivered regardless of the red situation. It is great to be in the classroom and getting involved with students. But my plans for revitalising the centre academically (which have already been accepted by management) will be put on hold for at least two months. There is timing in these things. A season for holding steady, a winter perhaps, and a time to grow and get active: Let's hope I can spring in Spring!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In stride

If there is one thing that is true in my life, apart from work I can barely reasonably do one thing well at a time. Chinese has done well from me in the last two years (well, the reading classical novels and Cantonese parts at least). But these things rose and other fell away. One thing that did was my general fitness, and then my general health.
My trip back to New Zealand was a good reminder of this. The doctor said my immune system was low: that can be attributed back to diet and perhaps stress. Part of being a vegetarian in Guangzhou is the lack of variety that my body has become use to. And part of being away from the hills, valleys and mountains of my homeland is a lack of naturally occurring fitness. My fitness daily has been 15 minutes between home and subway twice a day and the stairs at work.
Part of being back has been to search for ways in which to make up for these. One concession has been to the expat way of eating. I've gone back to cereal and milk for breakfast and, with the luck of my new workplace, I've been enjoying falafel and humus and all the joys of a mixed diet.
My new workplace also has the novelty of inconvenience by subway yet the comparative convenience of food: at the quickest it'd take me 40 minutes to the office by choosing either bus or subway; by foot I can do the distance in an hour fifteen, which though not fast makes it a reasonable choice when I have time and leisure (and going home I often do). The temperature cooling, I can once again run without sweating myself parched. Ping pong and shuttlecock kicking becomes an easier option too (the latter best if there is no wind).
Our latest preoccupation has been whether to move. Our place though with inherent strengths has always been inconvenient. And two other dark marks against it: a poor sofa and a rotting cupboard under the sink. And it would of course be nice to save a few more pennies on rent. Yet there is no such thing as the perfect apartment. And the more one looks the more one is torn. If anything there is a temptation to spend even more. And with every place we look at it the better what we have looks.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A crisis of conscience and social trust

A mother distracted at her stall; her precocious two year old wanders onto the street outside; a van driver distracted runs her over with his front wheels and stops briefly; either not wanting to know what he hit, or perhaps fearing that he hit what he knew he hit, he continues running her over a second time with his back wheels; the CCTV records numerous passers-by having a glance some even stop or slow their vehicles; her mother has already realised she has disappeared but has headed up the street instead of down; another mother, walking hand-in-hand with her child, walks around the bleeding, crying, crushed little body on the road; another vehicle runs her over for a second time; an old lady, who spends her days pulling plastic bottles from rubbish bins for recycling, is the first and only person to do anything for her; she pulls her to the side of the road and gets people's attention; the mother finally comes over.


This is a what you could see uncensored on Chinese internet (TV clips of course are censored) of a very real event from earlier this week. It makes for brutal viewing - the first time I saw it I cried. It sent this country into a frenzy of blame and a gnashing of teeth about the sickness of the society. There are of course the two drivers who ran her over; they're in police custody. But the eighteen apparently normal people who didn't so much as call an ambulance on seeing a run over still living two year old infant boggle the mind. From the life of an outsider in China, it's the worst possible consequence of several factors which become increasingly apparent. This may have always been coming.


China is abound with the fear of all kinds. One of the fears is that of extortion. A pertinent example is the case of a good Samaritan who stopped to help a fallen elderly person. The elderly person was thankful at first but as soon as the authorities came suddenly changed their story to the good Samaritan having knocked them over and demanded they pay the medical costs. This is one of a huge range of "tricks" that exist in society. Most children from young are told to not pay attention let alone, consider believing, what they see and hear of people in need. Gangs do disfigure people so that they become better beggars. And there are those the prey on the basic goodness of people. Avoiding the bother that helping could entail is the consideration beyond the simple moral equation. We can ask how this justifies ignoring the cries of a mangled child whose life hangs in the balance, but it does if one considers that a mother could come out of the sideroad screaming to high-heaven that it was you who hurt her child, that if you don't pay up she'll go to the police and then even if you can prove it wasn't you, you've had terrible bother. It's an easier thing to just keep going.


Even the drivers' behaviour can be understood to an extent. In some small towns, drivers who hit people might be dragged out and beaten by family members (as some people can escape justice through their connections, villagers taking justice into their own hands is often common sense). This has been used to explain hit-and-run cases here. Drivers will often turn themselves in shortly after on their own terms straight to a police station, as is also the case here.


Every country has its outrages. Outrage is good. It would be a lack of outrage that would be truly evil. With outrage let's hope that it settles into introspection: those eighteen weren't deviantly amoral, insensate; they were just like all of those carrying outrage. Let's hope that those outraged notice and in themselves seek to change the way they react to the hurt and unfortunate.


It is interesting to know that the only one to do something was poor and uneducated, yet showed instinctive care. It took no moral courage to act. She was given money by the city representatives and gave it straight to the young child... who regrettably is likely to die soon or become a vegetable.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Autumn Floods

I walked home from the bus-stop barefoot on Thursday night. Many people did. It is not something I ever expected to do in suburban China, with its reputation for filthy streets, but there you go.
It'd started raining in the afternoon. It wasn't heavy but rarely let up. Rain of course isn't a rarity here. Even though the summer steam has eased, autumn is still rather tropical. Rain is a big problem for public transportation too, as the taxis become difficult to catch and people clog the dry subways. Rain snarls up the traffic so buses also come less and less often.I take buses in general these days, which is cheap and generally comfortable. My bus eventually came and pleasantly I got a seat in which to observe the outside happenings. The bus goes through and underpass, which was a foot deep with water at the time. The bus, like a charging elephant, ran through the river with a groan.
Guangzhou is a river city. The beautiful, yet stinky, Pearl river halves it. There are also numerous branches and canals through the suburbs (my apartment looks over one such branch). Though river cities flood when the water level rises, I've never seen this happen in Guangzhou. Guangzhou floods because Guangzhou can't drain. Guangzhou's extensive network of canals and streams should facilitate its draining but through civic mismanagement it doesn't. The humour from last year was that the city government put a lot of money into modernising its underground drains in one area only to flood worse than the old system ever did.
Anyway, so I was on the bus overlooking the aquatic mayhem. To be honest it didn't look that bad. I got off my bus and put up my umbrella and walked to the edge of a block, which was cut off by a decent bank of water. The sight of a passer-by, or should that be a wader-through, gave me enough to gauge it was close to knee height in places. I went to the other end of the block. Again: water, water everywhere. I was on an island! Looking closely at the people who had resigned themselves to standing under eaves and in shops and banks you could tell that they too had sensed no other option. There were no taxis to catch. Buses on this side of the road would take you farther away and possibly to even deeper, less familiar waters, and not many people have friends with cars to call over to pick them up. So suddenly one has to think how much damage a walk in the drink will damage one's shoes and tailored pants. Or how long it will take for the flooding to ease. (If the did wait they'd be disappointed: it rained well through the night and even heavier than you could ever imagine.)
Then came the answer to me: a gentleman came onto our island, plastic bag with his shoes and pants rolled up, walking calmly by with his umbrella. If the notoriously dirtophobic locals aren't scared of walking through floodwater barefoot, I'm certainly not. So off came the shoes, up-rolled by pants (although the material of my pants always made them slowly unroll, requiring re- and re-rolls) and I set off home. It was a good feeling. Guangzhou rain is fairly warm so it was a comfortable splash; the road surface nicely massaged the bottoms of my feet; and unlike New Zealand, and let this be known as one of the advantages of Chinese streets in general, there was no glass (which is fortunate because I'd hate to think what was in the water).

Monday, September 26, 2011


So we were kicking around a shuttlecock in our apartment complex patio area when a voice came from behind us. It was a mother talking to her children about the game and presumptiously asking if they'd like to join us in the kicking. The two boys said they didn't but still walked around to a position that incidentally completed a triangle to observe us.
Mid-play, the shuttlecock launched off the side of my foot in their direction and they leadfootedly let it drop down next to them without any attempt to kick it back into the air.
"No-one got it!" I dramatically cried in Mandarin.
Their mother from behind called out that they should join in when the oldest one stomped away yelling in English: "I'm from New Zealand!"
I had never expected him to say that! "I'm also from New Zealand!" I called back but he wasn't listening or wasn't interested.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wind has turned

I was walking through the old town looking for something to eat. I bumped into three friends, all of whom were considerably older than me. We were on our way to somewhere, when we came across a blood donation facility. We went in. One of my friends muttered that he didn't want to donate but the others had already grabbed an application form. We'd mostly filled in the form when it became clear that there was a space to stamp a chop. We told the woman attending us that we didn't have a chop. She told us that we couldn't donate then. We were frustrated and were about to leave when I asked: next time, besides a chop, was there anything else we needed?


"Why do you need an anaesthetic? We don't use anaesthetic to donate blood in New Zealand."

"Because it's painful. You need to get one of these," she showed me a bag of liquid that looked the same as saline solution.

"Can I donate without anaesthetic?" My questioned trailed as she trailed away. She left the room never to answer my question again.


And that was roughly when I woke up. Chinese bureaucracy and service have obviously entered my dreams. It has become easier to dream, too, with the night temperatures dropping into the low twenties. The wind, as they say, has turned. It is cooler in the mornings and cooler in the evenings. Generally speaking it is a nice period to be outside and active. I went for a two hour suburban tramp this morning without the feeling of sweat running down my back. This is how mornings should be.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Zaraz Khan

I'm not quite a pacifist but have extremely mixed feelings no war. Especially when wars explode with an unwritten pretext. Being in China slightly takes away your scope of the lead up to events. China is after all a very inward looking country, even when it's staring outward. The first news about the Libyan war I remember was that the Chinese government was evacuating all 60,000 nationals from the country in a very short period of time. "Why are there so many Chinese there??" a student puzzled in Lounge Chat. It is a piece of the puzzle, the massive diplomatic and economic internationalisation of China, that most of China are unaware of. Economically China is extrememly international. And beside we all learn more about the world through America's wars, and even about ourselves.
Wars, though: The flags wave. Guns splitter. The media flickers. The anti-war people splutter. The rulers family are hunted. People's lives runs red in the streets. It's the devil's circus. A compelling one, at that. There is always one aspect of America's wars (and probably the war's of others, but allow me this indulgence) that was particularly offensive to me and it comes from great TV programme in China which finally gave me a name to get closer to linking it to the true inhumanity of it.
Zaraz Khan was a tall Afghani, he was famed in his small village for it. He walked out into the desert with two other gentlemen with him, purpose unknown. Does the fact that we don't know where he was going lessen what comes next? There is not much next because a missile from an unmanned Predator drone obliterated him and his companions. The people behind the obliteration of a completely innocent human were talking at ease. "Yeah, we spotted him with the drone. He was tall, and we knew Osama was tall. And he was dressed like Osama so we got the order to fire."  The obsenity of it is the manner in which people weigh up the lives of others. Zaraz died because he went for a walk, was tall and dressed like a devout muslim. But his killers showed no remorse. It is not hard to find other cases of unmanned (and probably manned) bombers too. Of course, apologists could say that the other side shows little distinction between those military and those civilian. It doesn't quite gel to me: you don't go to the level of your opponent; and the stronger power has the ability to be cleaner with their actions. This kind of slaughter justifies the 9/11 event. The scale in this particular example is different but the obscene result is the same: innocent, truly innocent people burning in the indiscriminate destructive forces of those wishing to kill.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Teaching Learning

Language, of all the things we can spend our time learning, is a peculiarity. Almost any thing you can learn about is easier to learn as you get older peaking in your twenties and then declining marginally ever on. We don't even try to teach finance to teenagers, maths to a toddler or philosophy to a tween. A language, however, is best learnt when we are young. There are many reasons for this: like walking, producing sound is a physiological process, a body skill; the brain is primed to learn language when we are young; and producing sentences is requires procedural memory, something more easily formed when young. Language is hardly a body of knowledge after all, but a body of skill. It is more akin to swimming than other subjects.
As we age the disabilities toward learning language accumulate: a tongue that doesn't naturally want to go between the teeth for the "th" sound; an inability to grasp the concept of tense; a reliance on translation from the mother tongue, and others. Experienced teachers often approach the realm of being a therapist to their students. Just like rehabilitating people who've lost the ability to walk, we have to nurture the desire to take those baby steps again, slowly and carefully, and provide the framework of poles so their muscles can again form to do the task. And that's why at our centre we have Dr English.
It was an idea adopted from another centre, but we quickly dressed it up better with signs, appointment times, and 10 minute slots. Being one of the doctors has been interesting as students who go to it have often struggled immensely with one aspect and have time to explain. I listen to their language, check their notebook, ask a few questions, diagnose and prescribe.
It is only now that I really have tapped into an area when I can contribute something groundbreaking. I didn't realise that I had such an advantage over almost all the other teachers in the school: I've been continually learning languages since I was 13. Most teachers in my school have never learnt a language successfully. Now, shall I preface this by saying that you can be a brilliant presenter and effective classroom language teacher without the experience of learning. But learning is a skill in itself, and language as mentioned is an almost unique field of knowledge to learn. To know how to advise people on how to learn, it is best that you've tried, failed and occasionally succeeded to distil great advice. You also need to have the realisations that your way of learning is suited to you, and what works for you may not work for others. And then you will have to build on this knowledge and use analogy to form advice for the others. That's where the over eighteen years of bumpy language learning come in.
I started with Japanese, which I approached wrongly, at high school. I used my academic brain to master its structures and memorise characters; the only thing I did right was to write down characters compulsively until the point that my hand had coordination to write characters smoothly. By the time I got to Japan, I was still mostly functionally unable to speak and listen although I had enough vocabulary to survive. My listening was terrible and I could only pick out some words and guess the meaning of the sentence. I then went onto Chinese at University which I started off on the same foot as Japanese but set myself better: I used language exchange at University; I had a long time in Taiwan to make me realise the heart of my mistake: I may be a very strong visual learner, but no matter how much I read and wrote, it would make no difference to how I spoke. This seems incredibly obvious but every student that I tell it to just like me has had the face of a recently enlightened Buddha when they hear it. In Taiwan, I wrote a 20 minute speech on a topic that burned deep within me (the treatment of trainees). Motivation and channelling interests into a language are of course crucial; yet most students are directed to BBC to topics that suit only the few interested in world affairs.
It was only when I returned from Taiwan that I started to read in Chinese for periods of time, and only then I discovered radio. It might seem strange that someone who is a visual learner might find the radio a learning tool. But that is one of the discoveries of my learning trajectory. You learn through your prime learning method and then review with the skills you are weaker at, without much assistance from your strongest suits. I tried it with Maori when I was learning it. I'm using it with Cantonese. It works. One method to learn; another method to generalise and consolidate the knowledge. In this world of subtitled movies, most students will use these together which obliterates the chances of nurturing your weakness; it only feeds your strength.
The difference in time and experience shows with my experience with Japanese. After coming back from Japan, and having had 5 years of high school Japanese under my belt and some misguided  self-study at University, I failed level 2 of the Japanese Proficiency test. 5 years later, a period in which I only went to Japan for a few days, had predominantly studied only Chinese, and went to one Japanese class a week for three months, I passed level 2 easily. The five years represented me finally realising what kind of learner I really was. It had taken twelve years of my language learning career: two thirds of the time! 12 years of inefficient unsuccessful, disheartening learning that had been eroding out of me every day. Other teachers at my school try to emphasise this to students: if you don't review, you are frittering away your money. But that's when it comes down to the key point: What is good review (for this particular person)? There is a concept for choosing learning strategies. It is called meta-cognition.
I went to the school lounge yesterday while I was heating my dinner and was beset by Betty, a great student who found she couldn't understand authentic English outside of the school. She could only understand with subtitles (English subtitles for English films). I asked her for her notebook, then gave it Jimmy who was looking on. I asked Jimmy to read from the most recent page: "Diseases are caused by germs." Betty's eyes lit up and said: "What's that? What's that?" I told her that if you want to review properly you will need someone else to read your notes to you and test you on the words that you have recently learnt. You learn listening by listening. And went back to get my dinner. I was starving. I hope she gets the idea and keeps it going. I'll ask her in a couple of days.
But if a small number of people have the quality advice and can only dispense it one person at a time it is incredibly slow. Dr English itself is a form of reincarnation of an old add-on service that "they killed off". When I started teaching here were what were called PAA, an acronym which I'm finding it more and more difficult to remember the meaning of. But in essence a student could book a whole hour with a teacher to ask for study advice. They could do it once every three months. As one of those who did them, I loved it. Students who knew about them loved it. (As with Dr English, the take-up rate was fairly low.) But there was a company idea to slowly move teachers to the chalkface where the money is made: classes which the money is linked to, and not the nice extras. Study advice was moved onto another department, the progress managers. (Chinese staff who are very proficient in English, who follow the progress of the students and check that they are studying at the right speed. They have lots of duties.) Over a year on, I've heard countless pleas from progress managers to give them help in giving study advice. My next step is to make an effective training for them to give quality specific study advice. But also give them a tool where advice can easily be shown on a powerpoint. Up to know, their advice is often challenged by intransigent students. It's time to give them the knowledge and authority to tell students how to improve.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Implosion, division and entropy

The process that began with the slow-motion firing of my ex-boss three months ago has led to a dramatic phase: complete reorganisation. Looking at ourselves this week perhaps the staff looks much the same to three months ago: next week two people effectively leave, the week after a new centre opens moving two people over and in that same week, too, another teacher departs. Compared to April, the school has effectively halved its staff, the schedule will be ripped to shreds and weekends splayed all over the place.
I have been a perceived loser in this process. For most of this time I've been seen as the odds-on senior teacher to go to the new centre, something that was seen as a developmental opportunity: I'd have been the main manager with a Director of Studies only in my school once a week. I'd have had the freedom to manage and organise staff as I would have wished. It would be the intermediary step to becoming a Director of Studies (one of my announced intentions of being in China – to get the experience to be an academic manager). It'd have been a challenge, to be clear. But it is not one that I've lost any sleep in losing. I need more time to get my style and ideas together. I even need more time to get my administration together and teaching consistent. This is my project after all. And teaching is going to be one of the main things I'll be doing over the next few weeks as a shortfall of teacher bites. But there is always a plan for us in this life.
I've been thinking more about those three who were leaving. One of them seems to be in some sort of strife now (something I'm not privy to), but when it gets down to it I still cannot really figure out how he led himself to this path. Of course, I really don't understand him well enough to speculate but I find myself doing so. Speculation is the son of Partial Ignorance and Curiosity. He seemed for a long time out of place, taking time to establish friendships, or perhaps needing time for his workmates to get used to his idiosyncrasies. Idiosyncratic is a good word for him. But nestled in his make-up as a person was an essential negativity or outward facing critique. A lot of the things he verbally has expressed frustration about have been the things that our old boss introduced, ironically where he has been persuaded to leave to.
There were several boiling critiques of particular policies and another department in meetings. There was an oblique suspicion of his drinking during working hours.  (It was an unconfronted issue, addressed indirectly to the whole staff – whether he was embarrassed about it, I don't know.) And there was one flashpoint involving me: I'd noticed that he was late for a Lounge Chat and there were students there waiting, and went over to remind him. He said he'd get to it in a minute. Minutes later he left the office and the building all together, not going to the Lounge Chat, to who knows where. Over lunch with my boss, I speculated that it might have been him reacting to being called out on it. It was about that but moreso that another workmate also appeared to be scheduled for it at the same time as him. It was a mistake on the schedule that I knew about already that day. He saw his workmate was just sitting there watching online TV not going to Lounge Chat and felt he was the being picked on. He hadn't spoken to his workmate to make arrangements to share the duty. He hadn't queried me for why I was speaking to just him. He just did the rather extreme action of leaving without a word and aggravated the situation. He resigned the next day. Yet we know that he didn't resign over this issue. One of the interesting things that my ex-boss taught me was that when someone has resigned or is about to resign yet is doubting themselves, they may subconsciously create a conflict situation that will consolidate their will to leave. Leaving with anger where one can clearly state to themselves and others why they're leaving helps one come to terms with such big decisions. His attitude was one of the reasons that he wasn't approached by management for some flexibility in departure times. He took the fact that he was the only one who wasn't approached to reconsider his resignation as indicating that we always wanted to get rid of him and expressed his feelings to other staff in and outside this department. The most irking thing for me really is that despite all this, thinking back through time, I can't think of any incident involving him apart from the minor. He has had a pretty decent time here from my outside view. I've had no incident with him either – I was disturbed that he'd leave the building over a perceived slight given that we had nothing but a clean past. Given time, he'd have progressed more as a teacher. Our school is pretty good at developing teachers. Or maybe it was just the city. An NZ colleague left the company early in his contract last year stating one of his reasons as Guangzhou itself…
I don't know if he'll regret any of this in time or have introspection on the point. He is still in his twenties, and perhaps that is an interesting range of ages to consider deeply from across the fence of thirty. Most teachers are either in their twenties or thirties and there are those common characteristics for each group. To manage a school you need to have a grasp of those different age groups and work subtly with their psyches to avoid these things coming up early.
The departures of the other two I'm quite sad about: a teacher I've helped mentor and a teacher who was widely seen as the most promising local teacher. I've enjoyed working with both, but I think it's unfortunate that they've chosen to be part of a simultaneous resignation. Does anyone want to be part of an evil plot to harm? Of course, it was expedient for my ex-boss (probably used as bargaining leverage) to get them to leave at the same time, but inflicts a rather savage blow to their former employer, and it's a blow that is not borne cleanly by those who my former boss would like it to hit.
Of course, the other side of them leaving was the option given by the other side. We can only imagine. My colleague thinks that a picture has been painted of what is possible over there. Our school doesn't offer part-time work. For people interested in travel and study (and that is a lot of us, including me if I weren't also interested in accumulating savings) there isn't an option; all three who left my ex-boss knew were interested more in those other areas than in career building. My boss thinks it was the birdy in the ear chirping how bad things were here and how over there it would be better. The birdy in this case is not my ex-boss but a disaffected teacher from the past, someone who general opinion has a very colourful view of.
Our company in this region is haemorrhaging people. Ours is not the only dismantling going on but I always think of ours as mundanely Shakespearean (well I was analogising to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, wasn't I, just a post or two before?) Either way, I hope the promises of the promised land aren't desert mirages for all three. I'm going to try and keep in touch. In crisis there is opportunity and in the haze of this sandstorm, I've been offered a parallel move to another centre. Let's see what comes of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stories to tell

Our office has been particularly hit by a nasty cold. In our company you get 60% of your daily salary when you are unwell and it's hard to know if this is a good idea. You don't want people to take sickies; but you don't want sick people forcing themselves to work. The current spate of illness could be linked to a colleague who despite quarantining herself in a small demo room most of the time, but the rest of the time having necessary meetings, triggering two people infected, calling in sick on the same day (with scheduled classes, this is a big issue: the classes need to happen so teachers who are on duty that day sometimes have heavy schedules). This continued onto two other teachers, one of which didn't call in sick either, and perhaps that was why I'm sick now. I kept asking him whether he was OK and eventually sent him home early. I faded yesterday and then felt the full weight, in my head, of a nasty headcold this morning and dutifully called in sick. Fortunately I carpetbombed virus with vitamin C and banlangen (a Chinese herbal treatment) from the very first signs. Either way, I was feeling horrible in the morning and feel about 50% better now. An afternoon nap and a good sleep tonight might be enough to put me right.
Sick leave is a pleasant life pause, anyway. DVDs that were lent and gathering dust are playing. The most awaited was the middle segment of a documentary on modern Chinese history. Of course, when I was not hampered in my access to knowledge, I learnt a lot of what happened in the last century in China. But when you are on site in the country, in the city, in the space though not the time, your desire to know is all the keener. When you speak to those of that time, you are all the more thirsty to know.
And so I watched taking a few notes here and there because I like notes. You hear names in general and names, though in history class may remain just names, are the very tip of a human story, a human story that once suckled on a mother, had first love with limited knowledge believed something did something and perished. Throughout history a name could be deleted. Or stained through inclusion. Do something wrong and people will put your name on a board with your crimes, hang it from your neck, with very thin wire that would eventually burst capillaries and veins, while you kneel in front of a jeering crowd, the blood running down the wire and onto the board. While your father and brother look at you from amongst the crowd. In some cultures, names are face. And then we hear numbers, numbing numbers. Numbers, whether the American debt or people dying because a country wanted to make a leap forward, greatly, have no context or means to be interpreted. We just know they're high, far too high.
But when we get down to it, history should be the amalgam of countless stories, yet only a few that get to impress us as "the" story. I heard words from Jiang Kaishek's son (Jiang was the leader of the KMT who fled to Taiwan), I heard people denounced as they had, upon one moment where their tongue loosened or their heart boiled to say something, were beaten and sentenced to jailtime. We also talk to their tormentors, a gentleman admitted candidly that he liked to hit people, to see their pain. Former disillusion red guards. Former landlords. The son's of former landlords. The son's of former landlords talking about their sons, and how they cut their relationship with their sons to avoid them suffering the brunt of an intergenerational hatred.
This particular DVD set is likely to be a copy, made by someone who knew there was money, sold in a shop by people who knew foreigners would buy it. Of course, none of it would ever be allowed to be sold through any legitimate shop, and it would be interesting to know what would happen to a proprietor who allowed it to be sold. Possession would probably just mean confiscation, based on my experience on the border with a Mao book. Confiscation and taking are a big part of history. I went to an ancestral house on a trip to the countryside during spring festival and noticed that there were marks that things had been removed. I asked and heard it was the Red Guards, Mao fanatics, who for a brief time ran amok destroying anything cultural and assaulting anything that was authority. It was a beautiful stone carving of what I don't know.
History, as is well known, is written by the winners. But sometimes both sides prevail and fortunately eyewitnesses survive too. And, of course, as we know in this Michael Moore era (the filmmaker, not the former Labour leader), the documentary you see is the documentary someone has chosen to do, has selectively edited and purposefully edited. What the purpose, criteria for selection, and importantly the transparency of the desire to make such a film are all very important. This documentary leaves egg on everyone's faces, so I hope that it is as fair as possible. But really the egg is just the worst sides of human nature that we all share. We can be partial to sides but history shows the acts that members of both sides are capable of, and looking deeper will hopefully show how we can avoid the excesses of our own selves, rioting, destroying and whatnot.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Class struggle

It was likely very early in our history, possibly in our pre-history, that someone noticed that having all the warriors charging at each other on both sides was always inferior to having some sort of arrangement and timing. In chess, I always read: a strategy no matter how feeble is better than no strategy at all. Ambushes, surges, tactical retreats and ceasefires all came into the reckoning and all leaders knew their worth. Soon as an opponent sees the strategy it is a bother to him and he has to think of a counter. And China has never been a cold ground for conflict or war. Its culture was there earliest to codify war and study it. It produced the The Art of War and The Thirty-Six Stratagems.
Of course, modern wars often make a mockery of strategy with one-sided thrashings, descending into guerilla action where it finally begins again. In the business world this remains. And so when we had three resignations in two days out of the blue, it was at first a surprise and then a realization. Our opponent had struck a blow. One adorable thing about Romance of the Three Kingdoms is that the protagonists all knew each other. Cao Cao had shared drinks with Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang's brother was a strategist for the Kingdom of Wu. In the shower the other day, I was reminded of Liu Bei actually, and for the benefit of those who haven't read the book (most readers I presume) let me describe in my own words:
As Cao Cao had effectively usurped the Han throne – holding the emperor as a puppet, Wu (near Shanghai) was already an established kingdom… Liu Bei, however, was the model of loyalty and considered Uncle to the Emperor, and only late realized that the Han could not be restored and fled south, pursued all the way by Cao Cao and the soon to be Kingdom of Wei. Eventually, and it took time, Liu Bei arrived in Chengdu and set up his own kingdom, the Kingdom of Shu. Through charm, negotiation and battle, many strong generals eventually came under Liu Bei's flag and fought strongly to almost take down Cao Cao's evil empire. (It is worth knowing that the original is biased treating one side, Liu Bei's Shu, as the good guys and Cao Cao as the ingenious baddy; history may differ.)
The Liu Bei in my time would have to be my former boss, who from prominence as the Director of Studies at my school, fought battle after battle till he was beaten from his position and was sent lurking on the outside, looking for another position to ascend. This we have all known. And we knew he was about to get what he wanted. Then three resignations came within 24 hours, all with exactly the same text in the letter, almost tempting one to think that the strategy was going to be personalized. There was scrambling in the office as my current boss met with all to see who was leaving or staying. Thoughts went toward whether this was specifically timed: we have a new centre opening shortly, now it is unstaffable; it'd be a great revenge wouldn't it to deliver a blow to the company. And it is in the timing that such resignations become a strategy. It was bidden-time. It was a co-ordinated strike. It was the Twin Towers, albeit on a comparatively much less destructive scale.
Tied into this drama are loyalties. Several days prior to this flare up, there was a big meet up between my former boss and many company employees from many different branches. He announced that he had taken a regional manager position and will start from September 3. Resignations started coming in on August 3. I wasn't invited to this event. In fact, I only found out about it after the resignations started rolling in. (My fellow senior teaching buddy was invited, but couldn't to; now she wishes she had gone to find out this plan ahead.) I've never even implicitly been headhunted or lured. That despite the fact my former boss and I had a very good relationship… good enough for the higher-ups to suspect me of being the inside person. However, I wouldn't have left my job in his school under his leadership. Maybe he knew that.
My school chain could easily be spoken as being an evil empire. It is riven by power struggles. There is a degree of corruption and bureaucratic meddling. But this is not the only company with these issues, especially in China. Will the grass be any greener for the leavers? My senior teacher buddy still believes that this strike was not done by our former boss with spite; these were after all people he built great trust with, whose abilities he is sure of; any addition nuisance he caused to his old employers would be just a bonus. I'm a little less certain. And my current boss and his new boss hate him with a vengeance. I'm not in Wei dreaming of Shu. I'm where I am and I think this is still very much the place for me.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The measure of a man

He said earlier: "I have something to talk to you about," but then looked up to see his next "meeting" rise from her computer and then muttered that he had an appointment and that his topic could wait. An hour later, I was leaving and he said that he'd walk me out. I threw my papers in my bag and headed out with him. He asked a few questions indirectly without getting to the point. Had we been asked about any aspect of his performance? No, we hadn't. And then he just started talking and talking. Sometimes I interrupted to offer a parallel story for comparison, but his eyelids would bounce with slight impatience before continuing on at his disbelief at how his appraisal had gone.
Appraisals are a big part in my life. I'm creating systems for them. I'm being subjected to them. I'm occasionally taking part in the appraisals of others. And it is something that very few people take well. Some just swallow it, preferring to take what is given with passive acceptance. Others raise the fences, and launch spears to discredit the system (which will always have flaws) or the people performing those. Some, regardless of the appraisals high or low view of them, will just ignore it and get on.
He, however, had done what was "expected" of an appraisal, the thing that is often the least expected thing to do: he took it seriously. He spent hours poring over the descriptors and details; he tried to be as objective as he could in his own self-assessment to produce a copious document of reflection. What he was met with, though mostly complimentary, was a meeting that was about dancing the process step-by-step, arguing from authority's superior vision rather than any evidence. For what could they really know about his performance? They didn't ask for his observations. They didn't observe a single training he conducted. His main mentor wasn't there; we, his closest subordinates, were not asked at all. (But, of course, the system was not going to recognise the need.) And he was dumbfounded. And after, the conversation with me really was just him bouncing his experience off someone in an attempt to make sense of it.
He's my boss. And now, in terms of a major project that I and a colleague undertook, he is now a chief supporter. Our project is to have a transparent system of standards for appraisal. When we first talked to him about our project he was a skeptic and said it without blushes: There needs to be some blurriness in the system so the manager can have some discretion. That was a horrid idea to us, and how we were inspired into the project by our previous boss and mentor. Our previous boss had said that appraisal should really be a simple process of ticking off things with as little subjectivity as possible. My current boss had the opposite view until we used our tool to assist him in appraisals. He was shocked. If someone in their self-appraisal said they exceeded expectations, you could show easily that they only met them. It wasn't opinion anymore. And if anyone had any doubts about how to get higher, you just need to point.
Tomorrow I'll submit it higher into the atmosphere, which like the Explorer deep space spacecraft may yield life or may just end up for eternity in a dark void. But whether it is taken up by the company or rejected, it represent work, an achievement, and one that I'm proud of. An item that I'll raise in my own appraisal. Because it is what I've done. And it is what I want to measured on.
(This was written two weeks ago but, due to a technical problem, unpublished.

Friday, July 01, 2011


I might have mentioned that one of my chief sources of Cantonese learning is a radio programme that is a talk-back lifeline. It has been nourishing me lingually for almost a year now. I stumbled on it while listening to the radio (on my cellphone), headphones plugged in, walking back from my regular late night suppers. Once I realised that my foundation was good enough to pick up words and ideas from just exposure to Cantonese I quickly started listening to channels I randomly found. Some frequencies were more to my ears' pleasure, and particularly the drama of talkback on Ziu Gwonggwan Sangming Yitsin (赵广军生命热线). The stories were twisted and quaint. The hosts could be patient and clear; they could be sharp and devastating. Each call in, each text message read out was a little tale of mystery to my nascent Cantonese listening sklls. At first I was catching the general theme and thieving particular repeated words that I'd check at home. Soon my listening vocabulary covered a huge range of themes from family, love, life to career.
It is through repetition that language is learnt and the stories through life are often thematic and similar at their hearts. But ironically it was the most repetitive of language that was the hardest to crack. The programme as it begins and restarts from breaks had a recording with a man saying clearly several sentences with background music. These isolated wise sentences were some of the hardest for me to grasp. They were stripped of context and words that I had often learnt already in Mandarin in passing but were not familiar enough for me to guess. Others were of a deeper meaning so that even though I might have the language knowledge to know every single word, I wouldn't necessary think it was likely because it might seem meaningless unless I trusted my listening to take it one more step of thought.
One of the more fascinating was the phrase in the title of this blog, "mut yau tin'yin dik deui'cho, ziyau bityin dik yan'gwo" ("There is no inherent right and wrong, just inevitable (cause and) effect.") I might translate the last bit to "inevitable consequences". It apparently comes from a poem, or that's what I thought I heard when someone called in to ask. It is a very interesting aphorism and maybe a good reflection of the philosophy of the programme. There are no inherent right and wrong, is a phrase that would make a lot of people argue. But that is missing its true strength. Whenever we are in a dispute or trouble, we see more sharply the rights and wrongs of others and sometimes even ourselves. Seeing that the weight of error ways (more) heavily on others often causes others to abdicate responsibility. He did it! And with so many calls you hear exactly that: parents are unfair; husband is abusive; the boss is biased; my son doesn't listen to me. So how can I change them to see that they're doing wrong? In fact when others have done us wrong, we can feel like we need to get our pound of flesh, because it needs to be extracted, right?
But that's when the second half of the phrase kicks in, all actions when applied to situations will cause changes that will either be adverse or beneficial, or perhaps even neutral. If we are going to enable someone to do something to improve the situation, it often pays to take the right and the wrong out of the consideration and see where different actions will take us. What actions we can take. What can you do? Bothering to list the rights and wrongs (especially when it is from one side of the story, which is the only one you have access to) hardly will give anyone any more than sympathy. But what do we really want? "So why are you calling in?" or "What do you want to achieve?" is usually a question ten minutes into a call.
I'm quite proud of my listening now. I can listen and enjoy the stories. Sometimes I can understand smoothly enough to not realise that it was Cantonese that I was listening to (which is peculiar but a good peculiar). This though is the result of what is crucial to a learner, to understand how they learn. Listening was the sustenance to my Mandarin for the long time that I was in New Zealand without Chinese classes. Japanese radio online was what got me to pass the Japanese test I did in 2005. And now armed with an iPod (thanks, Brenda), archived radio programmes, and live broadcast I can have an hour's worth of exposure. And with my teaching skills I know how best to use this exposure to generate real improvements to listening skill.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Unconsidered Life

I might arrogantly propose that my local chinese swimming pool could be taken as a microcosm of many aspects of Chinese society. It is a fifty by twenty metre pool with lanes painted on the bottom but no lane dividers on the surface. People swim both lengthwise and widthwise, standing splashing at all areas of the pool. Crashing and weaving. There are signs not to dive and jump into the water but the sound of bombs, dives and near misses (screams) prevails. Life guards watch from their platforms but only to blow the whistle when the pool needs its lunch break. Then it rains and people, for some reason, run out of the pool and to shelter...
The key themes are that words whether spoken or clearly written don't matter as much as what is being done. Even with a clear design of how things should work, people will find a way to subvert it, not with malice but with apparent laziness, or just a bizarre can-do attitude (it can be done so why not). People don't seem to consider their actions in non-set situations. (E.g. standing on the escalator they will think about everything except about how they are standing on the escalator and how their position affects others.) And even obvious supervision is not for the purposes you think they are there for. But anything unexpected can elicit the most unusual primal responses.
The general la-di-da-ness of your average swimmer here is depressing. They really don't seem to check where they're jumping, swimming and who might be coming from where. In the subway, people seem to treat getting to the scarce but hardly comfortable seats a matter of utmost urgency, worth preventing disembarking passenger getting out, worth pushing the elderly and women carrying babies. Apparently Guangzhou isn't the worst city in this regard but it is still a travesty.
I'm not sure which of the hoi polloi Socrates was musing when he pondered that the unconsidered life wasn't worth living. Was it just one that was considered for its Grand Purpose, or merely the correctness of their actions like I might like to regard it now? Probably both. Of course the relativist in the corner of my brain (he's often locked in his room) may cautiously aver that everyone has someone who looks at their lives as unconsidered.
All of this thinking while I attempt, in a wish though not a death wish, to swim a length of backstroke might lead you to think I've mastered the art of swimming while meditating on the universe. Regrettably this isn't the case. Getting back into swimming has been a relief as I've lacked a regular fitness habit but it is a recent thing for me. Swimming is perfect, and at 12 yuan (NZ$2.40) it is pretty cheap even though at peak time you'd be lucky to survive. And so close, barely 5 minutes away from home. Swimming in a hot climate is something I haven't had the pleasure of much prior to the recent months. The water is now at a constant air temperature close to 30 degrees, which allows entry without any shock at all. The "cold" shower after the swim is a pleasure. In fact, I might swim just for the freshness of the shower at the end. Swimming hasn't yet returned to the ease it had prior to my initial departure in late 2009 but that is just a matter of time.
The sooner I swim off this belly the better.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sound and vision

The city management swooped in, in a matter that could only be coordinated. Two vans shot up next to the roadside and proceeded to take away tables and chairs from the pavement in front of the restaurant we were eating at. The owners and service staff swarmed out onto the street to occupy the ground. Apparently it was not theirs to take. People talked in strong words. The owner struggled to retrieve his plastic chairs from their confiscation. Cameras were always out on the city management side, quickly recording the proceedings, whether to protect themselves later, or for recording identities, who knows. And where were we, sitting at a table that should really have been confiscated too if there were to be any consistency, but we sat there at the tables while the others were take away. One colleague got up in tautoko of the establishment that we regularly ate. The rest of us watched the scene.

"You can't do this, we're Chinese!"

"You aren't Chinese!" such petty name calling. I was off to the bus.


"Blue, Blue, that's the colour of my room, where we will live…"

And the Guangzhou tower glowed red as the bus proceeded home. I had my iPod on giving a tune to the world I observed. The bus was a new thing for me in commuting. I had been loyal to the subway but now it seemed that bus could easily beat the subway. This was something paradoxical: apparently the small transitions in the subway system: from home to station, from station to platform, wait for the train, get out of the train for first line swap, wait for train, board and get off train, cross platform, and board again, get to the station and emerge once more; all of these transitions though seemingly short make it a very long journey, while the bus takes all the changes and swaps out and make a simple long journey. The tortoise wins this race.


"Well, honestly, I don't remember who you are…"

The iPod moved on and I've got off the bus. It was already after ten-thirty but there was a daylights worth of people on the street. Why would the shops shut? I guess no-one looks for real estate at this time. I go into a dairy for a Pokari Sweat. There is a cat on the counter. Miao! I pat it. Miao! I pay for my drink. Miao! I pat it again! Miao! it comments with a big mouth. I head out again. The night sight of people is always a worthy scene in China. I pass a small supermarket. The shifu is still working directing people to the good fruit. He's "solid" as my colleague would have called him. The shifu is the kind of person who'll tell you that there is no fruit ripe enough and to come back another day. We've eaten two durians over the last two weeks and he was right about all of them.


I got home earlier than expected and gladly so; it'd only be then that I'd blog.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Swings and round-abouts

We're on the verge of Dragon Boat festival and have entered the teeth of summer. It is pumping hot. Hot in the morning; even hotter in the day; and steamy in the evening. I've done better than last year in the simple act of keeping hydrated. Pokari Sweat (an isotonic drink) and pineapple beer (a local product, quite nice, but would kill for a Phoenix Ginger Beer) are staple drinks, I drink them on more days than I don't. I'm fine but don't ask me next week. At least I've discovered a swimming pool in the neighbourhood which is surprisingly cheap and surprisingly big.

Work has been waist-deep and though still fascinating, it is more than one can do in a forty hour week. I'm doing overtime, but I'm hoping that will end next week when the new boss takes the Continuous Professional Development off my list of things to do. The new boss is an American probably about the same age as me. He has had experience leading teams and centres, and is approaching the task earnestly. He gives me another point of reference as I create my own way of managing. He's revived policies that haven't been seen before for a while (an English-only environment in the office) as well as some quite original ideas that can only be from someone who hasn't been in this environment for long.

China is about to swell with national pride as one of a billion did what none of the others, or their predecessors, had done: won a major tennis tournament. Li Na is a sensation here. China will long have an instinctive craziness as it breaks through ceilings and goes into fields it hasn't achieved in. Let's see if it is the exception or the breaking of the rule forever onwards.

Monday, May 16, 2011

So this is the aftermath...

You might, from previous blogs, think that my mind has been completely immersed in work. And to be honest, work has been the number one priority for me in a way that it has never been before. It is an absolute necessity now, for a period, to think through every facet, get everything as right as I can and try to manage the things that don't go as right as they could.
My boss has been neutralised by the company, but not fired. He can't tell us exactly what he was given to keep his voluble mouth quiet, but he had at one point been asked by the company what it would take to persuade him to "resign". He made a list. He was probably given most of that list. He wouldn't have expected that. The company hasn't had a good record on dealing with staff on their way out. He said it was a complicated negotiation and it took place at a cafe. The result is that he is leaving in just over two weeks. We have to wring all the distilled management wisdom out of him till then.
One other factor is that my senior teacher buddy is leaving for several weeks to finish the practical side of her advanced teaching certification on the coming Friday. I might not have explained it before but that being the biggest branch in our city (and with a new centre opening soon) we were entitled to have two senior teachers instead of the regulation one. It meant that we have had an academic management team of three, my boss and the two of us. We could put our heads together to produce plans and nut out strategies. Each of us covering key responsibilities. Come June, I'll be the only one at the bridge for several weeks, with no support but the team in my hands. The boss has even told me that his last week he's going to step back even further to put me in the deep end but with him as a lifeguard at the fringes if things get life-threatening. Either way, with the imminence of the change I'm focussing like never before.
The last few weeks have been a process of gradually switching to the leadership figure. If I had to write what I had learnt, it is a little bit difficult. Many of them are knacks. Others are concepts.
  • you are not the company: this is an interesting one because it went against the sense I understood. With customers you are the company and must reflect that. As a leader, though, you must have a set of priorities of who you really have to consider: The team, the branch, and then the company. They are all high priorities, but the team ranking at number one means that it'll be a functional, strong, motivated group of individuals. When the team is strong even when they are dealt a load of crap by the company, they will take it and get through adversity together. If a manager takes a "I'm the company" approach with staff, quickly the see there is no recourse to them in adversity; there won't be trust. As a company where teachers become managers more often than not, we are forever troubled by managers who will just be messengers of the company, and they'll be one-way valves for information. Staff need to know that their voices and ideas are heard, even if they do in the end amount to nothing. And as my boss often says, his team are his eyes and ears - if they trust, they do say everything.
  • leave the details to one on one discussions: this is the most common mistake by the other senior teacher. Meetings are ruined when you have to tell individuals details information verbally. a) the people affected won't necessarily "get" it, b) and the rest of the staff are left wondering how useless meetings are.
  • visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learners are in the office too: teaching is a funny field because we're taught about the different learning styles (and you can even put Gardner's intelligences on that too) and have to make our lessons as accessible to different learners as possible. But anyone who's been through teacher training knows that there is no practice what you preach - it is delivered in the same traditional style. The quality of training and meetings are affected by these different styles so a manager must use a variety of styles.
  • for trouble staff, make behavior as felt and answerable to the team, not management; and if it continues give them a rope to hang themselves: the area of discipline is one that regrettably has to be handled delicately. My boss has taught us how to make sure that documentation is just a statement of something happening. They can word it how they want as long as it is documented and signed. Don't intervene before the mistake, and where possible emphasise that wilfull bad behavior impacts the team, to the team - in fact make sure that the whole effects of the team are borne by all. Letting something happen was one of the hardest lessons; but only when it happens is it real and something to discuss with the person.
  • praise, check on people and encourage and follow documentation: praise and documentation is a part of recognition and in difficult situations people do need to be checked on. Three teachers got slammed yesterday by their own workloads when we had to cover a sick person's classes on a tight day. One teacher did six contact hours, one of which was observed by me, in an eight hour period. He thanked me at the end even though in the past teachers have been upset when they have sick cover, not to mention on a day they're being observed. Many of the appraisal descriptors relate to willingness/enthusiasm to help out and these can all be noted.
  • everything is important: It is easy to downplay concerns, but to an individual what may appear minor is actually a major. You need big ears and a good memory...
  • get your hands dirty and make sure your seen to be doing so: senior teachers are in a horrid position because with negligible teaching hours at times, and many of the outcomes of our work not easy to see, it can cause some resentment if one is not seen to be doing something.  
 And even when that is all done, things can still go wrong. Well, I've still got a lot to learn...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The dirtiness

"Are you telling me that floors don't get dirty in New Zealand?"
It's a good question, of course. But I think I still emphatically say that Chinese floors accumulate dust faster than any other surface known to man, woman or cockroach. As a barefooter in the house, I can accurately measure dust accumulation from a morning of wandering around the day after we've mopped the floor. Today, a seemingly reasonable floor browned the soles of my feet in barely minutes. Where does it come from? The doors are shut overnight yet by morning there is dust again. Where does it all come from, I ask?
Of course, I'm not that much of a clean freak when it gets down to it, but there are other sorts of hygiene that are tragically lacking in China in ethical and business practices. With the benefit of not having my name mentioned here and no company brand to be tainted, I can dare open my mouth. In the blog age, we shan't mouth off about our employers for the risk of dismissal etc. if we do. And I can attest that no potential students would have the patience to get through my content. (Even capable high-level former students on mine in New Zealand told me they struggle with the sheer content of expressive writing.) And besides they'd need software to get past the Great Firewall to see this blog. And I'd still steer potential teachers to my company anyway because it is very good for professional development.
My company is a western company in China. We're told from the start that it works via western rules but the more you stay the longer you see that it is more of a fusion of approaches. Some might cynically say it selectively chooses which approach benefits the company, especially its finances but also its management. I could talk about that general topic, but I'm more interested in the dirt right now, and especially practices that would be illegal or unethical in other countries. It is depressing to keep it all in. I'll work my way from minor to major, and along the way describe what to avoid in management. I should also add a little note: The evils I'll talk about aren't specifically relating to Chinese business nor am I claiming they don't exist in the West. They shouldn't happen anywhere except where they are allowed to flourish.
Many jobs are dictated by a fancy acronym, KPI, or Key Performance Indicator. This is intended to be an objective numerical measure of your performance. Of course, it is hard to quantify performance and so a set of KPIs might be needed to evaluate it. In an ideal world, these would be unfudgeable and would be decided by those in an objective position. Regrettably, this is not the case here. My boss's boss's pay is determined strongly by one KPI. This is one related to the number of classes and how many students are in there. Unluckily for me, the scheduling of classes falls into the ambit of my job, to schedule classes at the right time so that they are mostly filled. Because the boss of my boss's boss wants to look good, they set the target very high; the pressure is high because its a big part of his pay but the ability to add (fictitious) classes is completely at the hands of us at the lowest levels. In terms of our academic team, it was a compromise we had to make and there was no recourse to complain. Several levels up the chain are all happy about this cheating because a high number reflects well on them. There is with all likelihood complicity quite high up the level. In China, there is a poor man's version of the prisoner's dilemma. There is no virtue to honesty nor any benefit whatsoever. So no team can meet the targets without cheating. So many targets cannot be left to doubt. Of course, you get into all sorts of irony. We get told to cancel classes because of a lack of demand... yet the classes are "full". One week I taught lots of classes without ever entering the classroom...
My boss is about to be fired. It is a salutory story, which I won't attempt to explain in its entirety here. But he is one that has tried to make an issue out of following procedure and standards. The latest idea the company had made him quite irate, and in a way that neither I nor my fellow senior teacher could understand at first. Now we know: They introduced an appraisal system that would be linked to pay. They described each level of performance with descriptors like: "The teacher prepares his class in an appropriate way = 1. The teacher prepares his class appropriately considering potential contingencies etc." The staff member being assessed will assess themselves and then will meet the centre director and academic manager to discuss their evaluation of him. Then the combined assessment will be sent to the the area academic manager for a sign off and a monetisation of their performance, their bonus for the next year. My colleague and I thought this was an improvement on what we had, great teachers will be rewarded. My boss, however, explained how it was an unacceptable system. First of all, the descriptor is flawed. "Appropriate" is insufficient for anyone to give an objective evaluation, and so it becomes opinion. If a staff member challenges the assessment, the manager can just say that they weren't appropriate enough. In practice, an appraisal system must have concrete criteria. He illustrated it well in a directors meeting where he gave our dress code to everyone and then the standards in the new appraisal system for dress and asked everyone to assess their colleagues as if they were perfoming the appraisal. Not surprisingly, on a scale of 3, some people's scored varied from 0 to 2, demonstrating that the existing criteria would be too subjective and staff in some centres would be advantaged by lenient grading leading to "nice" centres and "mean" centres. I gave myself a zero because the standard for a 1 was to follow all the requirements in the work manual, one of which was to wear a tie. I don't. Others ignored that aspect and went for a nice mark of 2.
There were other issues raised (it was going nationwide of course so the area manager in the room was never going to do anything), but the one objection he raised that makes this slip from incompetence in system design to dirtiness was a specific problem my boss never broached in that meeting but later over a meal in a restaurant with us. The performance appraisal is not just verified by the area manager and ticked off. Internationally, managers just need to tick off the objectively observable strengths and weaknesses, and the area manager should agree because there is no room for doubt. But because there can't be too much excellence in the school (which would cause budgets for bonuses to be exceeded) the area manager needs to be a gatekeeper to knock scores down. Who goes up and who goes down? Opinion, again. What does each appraisal score equate to in terms of a bonus? Completely at the discretion of the area manager. Our top performing teacher stepped on the area manager's toes a few months earlier and despite what would have been a complimentary appraisal of his performance, his performance bonus was barely above the lowest possible rise. A moderately performing colleague got more than him. The system is not only biased to favoritism, it is open to use to punish those who have gone against the upper management. It becomes a tool. But nevermind, talking about salaries is a fireable offence, so punished staff member will never know, will they? And thus we get to the crux of my outgoing bosses argument: there is no reason to improve these things because with the vagueness comes their utility. An objective system cannot be a tool, but they need it to be a tool. It sounds almost dictatorial and, shall we say, communist.
This brings us back to the western company in China situation, and perhaps exposing what is just human nature. In Christianity and even the secular values of western nations, there is a belief that humans need to be reformed with systems. With the developing nature of the Chinese economy there haven't been the struggles yet that created strong institutions and managing principles that have taken a long time to establish in western nations. Playing with numbers and using your opinion when only reason should suffice is very human, not specifically Chinese, and we can only look to those who established the system here for their lack of nous. And the later is probably one of my central theses from my experience so far. Don't expect teachers to be able to do the jobs of managers unless you train them. The worst of human nature will come out when a system is poorly designed.
My bosses imminent departure was never going to be good for me. He has been something of a mentor, and still we learn daily from him, but at least I've managed to step up a lot in the last month. I've had many achievements - I stopped the area manager in her tracks with a brilliant presentation (saving my boss from a sooner dismissal, he was planning an all-out assault) and also designing a more effective way of presenting notices. He may go next week, next month or if they are patient, August. I still have a lot I'd like to learn - he is a goldmine of experience. But all the same I should also try to go it alone without the back-up he provides by simply being in the room. He believes by going, in the long term, the school might become a cleaner place.
I'm not so sure.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lethal Vegetarian

I've conspired in the death of another rat on the office floor. This one was more of a struggle and required the coordination of three people for five minutes to corner and then kill the poor blighter. He and another had fallen from the ceiling and after a brief scurry around the computer lab had bolted into our office from where he'd never return.  For three minutes of the pursuit a service manager (not our staff) stoutly stayed in the corner on what would presumably be a very important call. Her bravery was shattered when it dashed to her corner crawled up her leg and into her jacket. One staff member was in tears and she hadn't even been in the office when it came in. Another felt uncomfortable just being in the office again.
If my boss had been on duty, he might have led us all out. I didn't feel brave enough or qualified enough to do that without some ground laid with the centre manager. He reacted quickly coming to work and getting an exterminator for the next day.