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.