Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ka heke, ka piki

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa. 
 Nga mihi nui ki a koutou katoa.

Life has many blessings and at the start of July I had the blessing of attending my first NZ-based ESOL conference. I have a lot of thoughts as a result. Another blessing, or curse, was going alone. I met a lot of people because I didn't have that box of familiarity to be trapped in; but I also had the disadvantage of loneliness. I never had ready companions. I didn't go out any of the evenings. I made acquaintances but never friends.

The conference did have some interesting flavours. One was the most openness and readiness to use te reo Māori. Several of the speakers, regardless of focus, gave proper mihi. So much so that I've realised how much of the language I lost while abroad. Doctor Rangi Matamua made one of the more entertaining speeches but, at least for me as an observer of Chinese minority language, made some great points in the name of something that many people won't see the point to: publishing dissertations in te reo Māori. Quite rightly he admitted that such an action would mean fewer people would read it, but that isn't the point. Most dissertations do collect dust, anyway. But the work to establish te reo as an academic language, to gradually create a corpus of language in which modern topics could be done is important. And even better, or even worse, producing dissertations that weren't about language, as in his example of a hypothetical study of earthworms. The pioneers who chose to publish a non-language topic in te reo really do establish a path and model for that field, and the language. 

For those who don't have exposure to different languages, especially vernacular languages this might seem a little unnecessary, but you can see the effect of this as soon as someone enters education. So many of the concepts are not from your everyday life so your mother tongue would be unwieldy to express it. It's analogous to the children of an immigrant family who speak fluent "household" mother tongue but wouldn't be able to communicate about maths, science, game rules etc. in it simply because the skills to express these are not intuitively obvious.

There were some great presentations and there were some rather average ones. One on a focus topic of mine, from a world leading expert the worst of all, and made worse when it was followed by another discussing the nature of "space" between educators and students. It had a great quote though for those who like scratching their heads: (We're moving) "from spatial mobility to semiotic mobility" (a concept which when I contextualise it the best I could I get but it wasn't contextualised); we also had two lecturers referring to the epistemological continuum and applying it in their presentations with two opposite results: confoundment and clarity. It's an interesting thing to ponder, but not for too long. Some presentations name-dropped theories and theoreticians I knew and others that I did not. It's nice to have a time to think and process and perhaps even re-apprehend what it means to be an academic in our modern world. 

He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

I've been through the busiest period in my current job, a challenging and slightly discouraging phase in which my deficiencies were probably a little too obvious. The course I ran for our sister school was ragged; the initial documentation was poor giving me nothing to work with but I have only finished it with more work to do to make it accessible for the next person. In the coming few days I'll be meeting with my line manager who's rarely had time to meet with me and her attitude will determine a lot. She knows that I haven't got New Zealand experience at this level of administration. I have inadvertently done several large mistakes owing to this. I've also had very little guidance especially from her and I have noticed that others have the scars of the blame-game. She may go in blaming. She may go in with regret that she didn't guide enough. 

I also have to go into this humbly, though: It's very easy to say that I haven't had the time to do an adequate job of this. That I have lacked support. But, especially in the current climate in the greater company, no-one has the time to do their job. There is little time for anyone to support anyone else. My manager has been overburdened and has, in my view, struggled. I hope that I have provided support in my department. And my department have hired whereas other departments have fired. 

I have learned a lot though. Some things are obvious in retrospect; when you're time-poor they are not. 

Take my most recent blunder: In the beginning, we were short of staff. There were two of us and even when the third came, I was obliged to teach on an English course for our sister school. This meant that the additional hand didn't make us any more productive. With the support and approval of one director, I combined our students with those nominally from our sister school. I believed this was well known. I didn't differentiate the assessments taken. (That was doable, but would have added a lot of time. In the back of my mind, perhaps I knew that something should be done but I barely had enough time.) Then the course was over and our two most devoted students, who'd been combined into this course, needed visa renewals. They needed to prove their performance based on assessments they'd done. But all of their assessments were not for the company their visa was issued to, but rather for the sister company's course. My company wasn't approved for the course, yet; that's why I had to help our sister school do the course instead of doing it at our school. When I requested a formal document to help them with their application, the registrar baulked, as a good registrar should. They are after all the people who'd need to put their name on any certification. She couldn't very well put her name to assessments from my company which we weren't approved to do. I tried to be creative - we could change the name of the assessments; also, some assessments weren't specific to that course. My manager vetoed that. As she should. The document that was produced was rejected by Immigration and then suddenly those loyal students were imperiled: what if their visas were refused?

Fortunately, a creative adjustment, not thought of or regarded by me, was sufficient. They should be fine in their application. But for a moment I was feeling ill with distress. How did this happen? Well, I didn't understand the implications of merging classes. New Zealand has the curse of a blessedly regulated industry, one that protects to the point of stifling. One director likes flexibility; my line manager likes the clarity of black and white guidelines. The former had taken early interest in directing me, and she sent me in this direction. And I hadn't known I was heading for this disaster. 

All of these recalls the whakataukii (proverb) above: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It simply means: What is the greatest thing in this world? It's people. It's people. It's people. Despite this whakataukii being wheeled out far too often as some sort of bicultural window dressing, it's got some real wisdom there: it's easy for system to dehumanise people. The customers in this case were distraught at their treatment. I'm distraught about their predicament that owes a lot to my own mishandling. People are what should come first, even in the firing when it happens. The ESOL industry here seems not to treat staff nor customers in the best way. There are many floating in short term casual contracts and they're cut adrift easily or kept in a state of anxiety. I met two such people in the last week: Experienced, older, capable teachers who seem cynical of the industry, tired of the chopping and of the changing.