Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Passengers and the Itinerants

Being back in New Zealand teaching English is quite different from teaching abroad. The environment is a big part of that: New Zealand is a much more regulated teaching environment; there is even more competition; and it's an export market restricted by immigration and currency fluctuations. But the thing that I've noticed most is the difference in people.

I'll start with the students themselves. Students in my school in China were adults, most of whom had made the conscious decision to learn English, were motivated by the idea of learning another skill and had a degree of buy-in to how we taught. The school focussed heavily on English for life and communication, so that students could socialise, travel and work with foreigners. Even the occasional young or immature students were a minority so most had to temporarily "grow up" to the maturity level of the group while there. In New Zealand, however, language schools don't generally have the same focus. The emphasis is on English for Academic Purposes, which prepares and qualifies students for mainstream study at training institutions, polytechnics and universities. The result of this is that the Chinese students who come are even younger than those taught in China, usually between the ages of 17-22 years old, and they form a majority or a sizeable part of the whole student body.

Some common phenomena of this age-group in China children is a complete lack of any sense of self-determinism, a lack of ability to self-regulate and an inability to respond to the reality of consequences. Their lives have been controlled and planned from an early age. By appearances, their maturity seems a good 4-5 years lower than local students the same age. They by-in-large didn't choose to come to New Zealand. Their future majors were decided by their parents without much buy-in. Of the many I asked about their future study direction almost all began with: "My parents want me to..." Important life choices can't be left to the children, and experience at making life choices, or even day-to-day choices, is pretty low. And most are in a stage of mild rebellion against authority, when their real authority is far away. They are generally "well behaved" though and only rarely have some of the maliciousness that you might see in some NZ teenagers.

They have passive coping mechanisms, too; they will do what needs to be done without being present in mind or body. In China, you are a receptacle for knowledge to be filled by the teacher, which you do without question. They present themselves similarly in English class where unfortunately only actual practice and communication will allow you to progress. There is the slouching. I feel the need to straighten postures, often righting and lifting when required. There is the need to make obvious consequences for lack of homework (it can't be brushed off). Absence must be followed up, or else why come? There is a need to be strict on mobile phone access because if it is allowed there is no self-restraint from social media; 80% of the time phone use is not for the dictionary, and the dictionary isn't going to be helpful for their learning anyway. You get a fair bit of "don't know"ing or other forms of "kicking to touch" in order to avoid venturing guesses or doing cognitive work. They really are just passengers fidgeting in the seat of a journey not of their choosing, young adults living out their teenage years.

Knowing China and Chinese society, you know how this all comes to be. While I was philosophising on all of the above, my wife was a coordinator for a visiting student group of a younger age range, 10-12 years. Worse still, two of them had their parents accompanying. Worse because if you want a young person to experiment, make mistakes and embrace something different, the worst thing you can do is to have a safety blanket and monitor observing. Even worse, one of the parents was a principal of the school group who cannot seem to wear multiple hats. They had the chance to see a local primary school here and how the students were and the contrasts were huge. Lunchtimes, for example, here students are told to sit eating till a bell before they can play and release all that childhood energy running around before another bell signals that they should return to class. In Chinese schools of a similar age, children do the eating part and then return to class. If a Chinese school had a visiting group, it is regimented into a well-practiced performance with only particular classes observed by the visitors and choreographed interactions. Here in one situation the visiting principal randomly requested an explanation and local students quickly volunteered to help her and explained eagerly and easily. She asked my wife later whether the students had previously practiced this explanation in preparation for their visit. How did they know to come up so spontaneously and explain clearly. The answer was obvious: Because that's what they would usually do and do often. The groups also did visits to more touristic destinations. When they had the chance to touch alpacas, all the local tourists jumped off the transport and patted them; but the teachers and parents of the Chinese group told them to stay inside because "it's dirty". The process of growing up over there is usually one of excessive control against risk, which is something that doesn't suit learning. You hear accusation of the latest generation in NZ being molly-coddled. You haven't seen anything till you see it in the Middle Kingdom. And NZ is not a paragon of child-rearing.

So Chinese students here are different to our students in China. They're younger, passive and disengaged. But the teachers have a different situation, too. In China, all teachers were on one year contracts by necessity. Local teachers had two year contracts. These contracts protect teachers coming from so far away at some expense that they will have security. It also protects the schools vulnerable labour supply - planning your supply of teachers is difficult. In New Zealand there is a plentiful labour supply, liberal labour laws and fluctuation in demand. Most schools lock in decent reliable teachers and reduce the less desirables to short term contracts, and this has a huge effect. We've been hiring for quite some time now and 90% of the applicants are floating, often for obvious reasons: accent, attitude, mentality, mental issues, bad-fit, correctable lacks of skills and competencies etc. They often float from school to school and their CVs show their short-term wanderings. They're like itinerant journeymen and women, disposable hired hands, although a little messed up from the constant lack of stability.

A month ago I interviewed the two people who looked pretty decent on paper. (That is actually a bad sign. We've seen too many paper-great; reality-loopy teachers. Boy, are there some cracker over-qualified people out there.) Both were ridiculously hard to get hold of, despite being keen in their cover letters. Once pinned down to come, one barely smiled for the first 10 minutes of the interview, before I finally found a way to build a rapport. He eventually showed enough promise and I called him back to see if he could come in for a demo. He said he was moving house and would call me the following day after work to confirm if he had the time to come in. He didn't call or contact me again. And I had to teach the class.

The other was almost comical: We agreed to interview at 3:30pm. She mentioned she would need to leave by 4:30pm for appointment. I'd told her it was fine. I found her by the reception at 3:10pm and so I approached her:
"You must be Marsha." (not her real name)
"Yes, hi," she said nervously
I introduced myself and said that we normally get new staff to fill in a Application for Employment form. The receptionist wasn't there so I went around to check if I could spot it.
"We might have to wait for Mickey the receptionist to come back."
"I can come back another day," she said.
"Er, no, she'll be back in a moment."
"I have an appointment later."
"And you need to leave at 4:30pm, right? We should have plenty of time. Perhaps have a seat here. I do have some students to speak to now so I'll make sure Mickey gives you the form and I will be back shortly."
When we finally got down talking she seemed to have ants in her pants for the first five minutes. Clearly she didn't like interviews but relaxed later and presented herself better. She was aiming to do the DipTESOL later and she went into the nuances of teaching theory. But I had not confidence that she'd be able to demonstrate those to real people.

Both of them pretty much were lost because they'd presented badly to the HR manager even before the interviews. But we needed staff badly so I met them (the HR manager was on vacation that week.) But they were lost to me upon the first interactions. Both are bad indications in a very short sample time that they might be difficult to handle. I knew from the second halves of the interviews that both however were desperate to get out of their vulnerable work situations they were in at the time. It felt like a kind of self-sabotage that they were unaware of. These are two tales of what comes out of the soup of slightly-less-than-adequate teachers. And regrettably it's the soup that my wife has entered. Her ethnic name puts her in suspicion of similar inadequacies in the same way that it would at our school. (So often interview times are wasted because the person is clearly unable to maintain standard pronunciation. There is also the desire of most schools for marketing purposes to keep to a mostly Caucasian workforce that leads to a not so subtle discrimination. For what it's worth we've employed two teachers of East Asian extract as relievers and a half-Taiwanese ABC as a full-time teacher.) In her first teaching job, she wasn't given a contract. They did pay on time though. This wasn't racism: That's how the other school, a respected language school in Auckland, handled relievers.

So the Itinerants teaching the Passengers, that's what a lot of what's happening in the language schools, it seems. There are of course a lot of great teachers and refreshing, motivated students as well but it's these two groups that I'll remember most. The ones with too much character and pathos trying to teach those without any character or presence at all.

Our school has been blessed so far. Two of our full time recruits are able and responsible. We also got both of them "fresh-off-the-boat" being their first employers in NZ. Our other full time teachers are both experienced and mature but can handle most things that students do. My staff are pretty darn cool. (And our reliever is pretty darn awesome, too!)