Steve Schertzer

We don't learn like that!

Arrogance at the top and the politics of language schools


While teaching at a well known language school in Bangkok last year, there was a three day professional development seminar on classroom management titled "Controlling the Chaos." Interesting and informative though it was, my mind harks back to the closing remarks made by its owner on the last day.

Paraphrasing, the owner said that he didn't like the fact that he found many of the teachers sitting down while teaching. Although he admitted and understood that age does play a significant factor in this--- many teachers at this school are in their 40's and 50's--- he would prefer to see his teachers standing and moving around in their two and three hour classes as much as possible. Then he said something that shocked even the most seasoned EFL veteran.

After talking to people and looking at various internet websites, including ajarn.com, this owner went on to say that a major problem with his school was that, at least in the eyes of many netizens, no one at his school ever gets fired. And, "maybe we should." Yes, he did say that. Maybe we should fire teachers. Of course he gave no reasons why he thought he should fire teachers. But being the boss, I guess he feels he doesn't have to.

At first, I though he was joking. And talking to my friends and many of the seminar's participants afterwards, a lot of others thought the same. But it became clear that he wasn't joking. Never mind that he has absolutely no idea who his teachers are. Never mind that his spends most of his day in his palatial air conditioned office or perusing the halls to see if his teachers are sitting down. The teachers are hired and fired by the Director of Courses and the Deputy Director of Courses. At least I was.

As it became clear that the owner wasn't joking, the seminar was over, and it was time to eat and drink. But I am still living with the regret of not having spoken up. I wish I would have spoken up then. I wish I would have spoken up at any time in the last six months. But recent personal events and my job hunting has put this column on the back burner. Until now.

I would have taken the microphone, and I think, and hope, this is what I would have said:
_____________________________________________________________________________

"Sir:

As I look around, I see perhaps 50 to 55 teachers. There are teachers here from the United States. There are teachers here from England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even India. There are teachers in your school from the Philippines. All very good and capable teachers. Many of us are in your country for different reasons. Some of us came to Thailand to learn about a very different country and culture. Others may have come here to make money and support family members either here or back home. While others are here to enjoy the nightlife, many more are in your country because they love to teach and want to make a positive difference in the lives of their students.

However, there is a common thread that binds us all. We are all human; we are all teachers, and most of all, we deserve respect. All of us have left our homeland to come to your country to teach English, a language that is needed if Thailand is to compete in a very competitive and globalized world. In case you haven't noticed, Sir, it's not easy to leave one's home, to travel to a distant land, and to live and work in an unfamiliar place. So respect is due to us teachers, Sir. We are the ones working for very little money so that you and people like you can become rich. So respect is due to us teachers, Sir. The fact that there are so many teachers here at this seminar is living proof that we want to become even better teachers. So respect is due to us teachers, Sir. Some of us are long standing members of Thai society and have married Thai nationals. And those teachers who have married Thai nationals, support their spouse and children. So respect is due to us teachers, Sir. And all of us, every single one of us, greatly contribute to Thai society and its economy. For that, your utmost respect is due to us, Sir.

So the next time you want to talk about firing teachers, consider what was just said. And then show some gratitude and respect. Thank you."
_________________________________________________________________________________

And with shaking hands, I put down the microphone--- and---- and, would probably have been fired on the spot. Wait a minute. I was fired. A few months later I received an email from the Deputy Director of Courses while I was on a one week holiday in Pattaya. I had requested an internal transfer from the main branch to another branch just outside the city. The letter was short and terse, and requested a meeting with me as soon as I returned to Bangkok. He also accused me of not being what is lovingly referred to by TESOL management a "reflective teacher."

So there I was, in the office of the Director of Courses with the Director and the Deputy Director. The Director of Courses held a thick file. It was just after I had met with the owner, who told me that my services were no longer needed. In the folder were copies of emails that I had sent them regarding my transfer request. In them, I had also criticized the management for what I considered to be mismanagement regarding not only myself, but also the students and other teachers. In the folder were also copies of previous columns that I had written for ajarn.com.

The Director of Courses took one column out of the file and began to quote from it. It was the October 2005 column titled, "Touch Their Hearts and Their Minds Will Follow", in which I speculated that Thais use the right side of their brain far more often, and to much better effect than we Westerners do, and, perhaps our teaching style and methodology should reflect that. I also speculated that the poor choices we Western educators make in regards to textbooks for EFL classes, especially academic writing classes, do not reflect how the majority of Asians in general, and Thais in particular, learn.

In her office, the Director of Courses called my comments "condescending", and implied that I was looking down on Asians and Thais in particular. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I did reminder her that we teachers are entitled to our opinions regardless of whether language school managers agreed with them.

The Deputy Director of Courses went on to say that he had "interviewed" a number of my lower level two students. A "few" of them had trouble understanding you, he said. Although he had absolutely no proof whatsoever of this "interview" or the results for me to look at, he used it as evidence of my need to be terminated. It is interesting to note that in a previous level two class, I had received a wonderful gift and a very beautiful card signed by most of the students.

Unlike the seminar a few months back, there was no microphone in the room. But I do have something else to say regarding the Director's comments towards my columns and the Deputy Director's comments about his "interviewing" the students.
____________________________________________________________

"Madame Director:

Your comments about my ajarn.com's columns, although legitimate opinions, were wholly inappropriate and unbecoming for a Director of a major language school. To simply disagree with its content or message, is one thing. To openly accuse a teacher of being condescending and looking down on his students, especially with no proof whatsoever, is something else. If you were to have sat down with this teacher and attempted to engage in an open and honest discussion about this teacher's opinions and beliefs, whether it be learning theory or the day to day handlings of management and administration, that could have made headway into solving any problems there may have been. But your heavy-handed, almost dictatorial approach to teacher/management relations makes this practically impossible.

I'm sure running a language school isn't easy. Several things must be done to please teachers and students alike. As far as the teachers are concerned, whenever problems arise, as they invariably will from time to time, honest discussion, open dialogue, and fair and balanced debate are sure ways to help solve the problems. Teachers must feel that they are a part of the problem solving process. If we are not part of that process, then you as a Director have failed in your role by alienating us and not bringing us into the fold. This can never be allowed to happen.

Again, you may not agree with certain things that the teachers say or believe, Madame Director, but we do have the right to believe and say them. In fact, we not only have the right, but the responsibility to speak out against any injustice, in your school or outside of it, whether perceived or real. The vast majority of teachers at your school are far better than you give them credit for. They are professional, dedicated, and well prepared. Gratitude and respect is owed to each and every one of them."
_______________________________________________________________

As far as the Deputy Director's "interviewing" skills are concerned:
_______________________________________________________________

"Mr. Deputy Director:

Interviewing the students from time to time to see how any particular teacher is doing is a fantastic idea. In fact, I am all for this system of teacher assessment. I have even used it myself on occasion--- without the "help" of management--- while in Korea. It can be used to great effect in helping the teacher improve his or her skills and confidence, but only if it is done properly.

Let me tell you a little secret about teachers, Mr. Deputy Director. Most teachers, especially those in the TESOL profession, are not as confident as we let on. In fact, a lot of us--- far too many of us--- are just a little bit scared and down right paranoid. One day someone may find out that we are not the great EFL teachers we claim to be, and then our hoax is uncovered.

If "interviewing" the students is a way for you to help a teacher to become a better teacher, then I must thank you honestly and wholeheartedly. After all, you would have the teachers and students best interests in mind. But if you are "interviewing" the students as a way to drive a wedge between the teacher and the students, and to falsely prove to yourself that the teacher is inadequate, then you Sir, are undeserving of your post. Interviewing the students with the sole intention of denigrating the teacher is not only extremely unprofessional, it is also highly unethical. At the very least, you should be "called to the carpet" to explain your actions for this.

As for "a few students", (in your words), not understanding the teacher, whatever happened to "different students will have different levels of ability" in every EFL class? Or do they not teach that anymore, Mr. Deputy Director?

You see, Mr. Deputy Director, you can neither disparage nor denigrate a teacher without disparaging or denigrating his students. Conversely, you can neither compliment the teacher's ability to teach without also complimenting the learner's ability to learn. To call a teacher inadequate is to call his students inadequate. (Remember my January, 2006 column on ajarn.com titled: "The Teachers and Learners as One: Towards a New Theology of TESOL.")

You may think me an inadequate and bad teacher, Mr. Deputy Director. That's fine, and it's your right. But in so doing, you also think of my students, any by extension, your students as inadequate. And that's NOT fine. Any dedicated teacher should be upset by this abuse of your position, and I am no exception.

Perhaps a bit of "reflective management" is in order here, Sir."
_____________________________________________________

If I've made this column about me or any one particular school, then I apologize. This is not my intention. This column is not necessarily about me or any one particular school, although what happened at this school did happen to me. Being fired from a language school, for whatever reason, happens to so many of us everyday. Listening to some fat cat language school owner say that he should fire more teachers just because he can is just one of the things that we have to put up with on a regular basis. Listening to an out of touch language school director calling a teacher names may not be pleasant. But it's something that happens hundreds of times in the ELF world every day. Listening to an assistant director or a manager telling a teacher that your students don't understand you--- or worse, don't like you--- is something that happens hundreds of times a day in this business. It happens to me. And it happens to countless others. Sometimes these things happen because some of it is true. Most of the time these things happen because it is not true.

Outside of methodology, teaching and learning philosophy, and location, language schools are not that different from one another. But one thing is certain: Language school directors and managers must start listening to their students and teachers. We know far more about our students and how they learn than they care to admit.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my role as an ELF teacher; about our roles not only as EFL teachers, but as Western educators teaching in foreign countries. I remember a student I had in an academic writing class a while back. He was very bright and had been attending this school off and on for a number of years. Flipping through the textbook he told me, "We don't learn like that." I asked him what he meant. I was fortunate enough as a teacher that he elaborated. "I mean, the communicative way. We Thais don't learn like that. In our schools it's all listen, repeat; listen, repeat. It's very repetitive. Maybe it's boring, but that's how we learn. Put us in a group and tell us to talk, and we don't know what to say. This Western way, it's very interesting. But we don't learn that way."

He was, of course, speaking from the Thai point of view. His point was well taken. It could have been a Korean speaking. Or a Japanese person. Or a Chinese person. The message would have been the same.

Now I'm learning. Very slowly, and a little late in my EFL career. But not too late. I'm learning that every country and every society has its own way of learning; its own way of processing knowledge and information. I'm learning that we EFL teachers must work within each country's boundaries, and within their own system. I'm learning that it's not right to take our fancy-schmancy Western learning theories and attempt to apply them somewhere else. I'm learning this because I'm listening to the students. And what I'm hearing is, "We don't learn like that." Perhaps it is time to dispose of our Western arrogance in regards to how others learn. Perhaps it is time for Western directors, deputy directors, and managers to stop ramming their Western learning theories down the throats of their students, and to start listening to their students. This starts at the top. Teachers cannot succeed until their students succeed. And language schools and managers will never be successful until their teachers and students succeed first.

I realize that many language schools have a huge problem listening to their teachers, especially the native English teachers. It's as if they want us to shut up and tow the party line; don't rock the boat; don't try to fix things. How is anything suppose to change for the better in an atmosphere like that? It's not enough for many language schools to tell us what to teach; they also feel they need to tell us what to think. It's their way or the highway. "If you don't like it, then leave", many of them tell us. This simplistic statement comes from simplistic minds. Minds that are caught in a time warp. Minds that have not even considered the realities of a changing world for English language learners. It's one thing for a language school not to listen to their teachers; it's quite another for any language school not to listen to their students. "We don't learn like that." To me, that message is loud and clear. And any language school that doesn't listen to that message runs the risk of being left in the dust. Language schools that don't move forward have teachers and students that don't move forward. And this should never be tolerated.

Good teachers look for three things in a language school:

1) Honesty
2) Honesty
3) Honesty.

And good students look for three things in a language school:

1) Results
2) Results
3) Results.

There's an important point here. Things are changing. Economic realities are causing the world to globalize. For reasons of business and commerce, many of the world's people feel that they must learn to speak English, or watch their businesses and futures disintegrate. Economies may stagnate from time to time, but societies never do. Societies, cultures, companies, and even schools must continually move forward. If they don't, they die. So new language schools are continually opening up. New schools with new ideas and different methods of learning English. Those schools with outdated models of teaching English will have to change or perish. These old schools not only have to change their ways of teaching to ensure that everyone succeeds, they also need to change their mission.

A language school's mission and ways of teaching so that managers, teachers, and students succeed in this brave new globalized world, is something I will get into in more detail next month.




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