And So It Goes
Here’s the story of a friend I’ll call ‘Xena’.
Xena was hired to be the Vice-Principal of a school to teach young Americans Chinese (their parents have hopes and even expectations that their child will later attend a prestigious Chinese university).
Problem is, Xena cannot read, write or speak Chinese. Her only qualification is that she used to be a Vice-Principal of a no-name, regular American primary school.
Thus, Xena tried to look and act the part of a vice-principal without actually having the slightest clue what she was doing. It helped Xena, but not the students, that the actual Principal of the whole school, Mr. Yellow, was also incompetent and had many skeletons in his closet that he had no time to actually involve himself, or care, about the school Xena was in charge of.
Xena’s philosophy was simple: whatever she didn’t understand was difficult, and if it was difficult for her, certainly it was too difficult for the students. Xena has other problems, too…like not knowing how to communicate, how to plan, or even what students really needed to succeed in Chinese universities.
Now, the solution would have been simple – hire people who could advise Xena on how the school should be run, do effective research, set up the courses and programs to reflect those requirements, but it is “too difficult” for Xena, along with the loss of face, and thus Xena prefers to surround herself with younger, inexperienced teachers and staff – too fearful of losing their first and only job, too ever question or challenge her.
It should also be said that the students attending this school are not the most studious or academically inclined, never mind whether or not they have an aptitude or interest in learning another language. There are exceptional students in the school, but they are considered freaks and abnormalities rather than promising young people who should be cherished and polished to be the best they possibly can be – instead, the school caters to the lowest common denominator and failing an exam and even a course, can still result in over 75% as a mark. How does that provide incentive for students to do better and improve? I have absolutely no idea.
So, the students cannot read, write or speak at their grade level, but still pass their courses, and all is well. Or is it?
Every July and August comes the new student recruitment drive. Xena has a big problem because the school’s reputation has taken a nose-dive in the past few years and has no actual prominent student placements to boast of. Instead, the school is known as a way to dodge the high school graduation exams and, worse than that, a baby-sitting service for those parents who want their offspring out of their hair for a few years until they decide what to do with them.
Man, if Xena only could have a few exceptional students to boast about on advertisements, her job would be so easy, but the best-of-the-best want nothing to do with her school after they leave. Instead, there are only a handful of placements in non-ranking, religious, and pay-per-head schools where graduates are unknowing sold off to. It never occurs to Xena that spending time and resources to polish the exceptional students would pay dividends in the future by having them enroll in the better universities instead of serving her fries at the local MacDonald’s…
And now, each enrolment is worse than the previous year. Students can spend six months at the school and still not be able to understand a simple sentence in Mandarin. Chinese geography is beyond them…东、 西、 北、 南? Forget it. Reading a simple article four grade levels below them? Hahahahaha.
As the students lack the basic critical skills, and yet are allowed to progress from grade-to-grade thus exacerbating the underlying problem, the native English-speaking teachers rely on English to conduct 99% of their lessons. Now, I know you think it’s a ridiculous idea to try and teach Mandarin using English almost exclusively, but it’s the path of least resistance.
At this point, you may also want to call into question the raison d’etre of the school. Remember way back at the beginning of this story I mentioned that the students were supposed to be preparing for studying abroad at Chinese universities…hopefully prestigious Chinese universities? If the students graduate unable to read, write or speak Mandarin, how in the heck could they possibly function, let alone graduate from, a Chinese university? Well, of course they can’t. The universities will test the students’ Mandarin prior to being able to attending regular classes and thus the students will be ‘found out’ and have to attend immersive Mandarin classes until they can meet the Chinese standard which may take a year, or two, or three. So, where does that leave the purpose or aim of the school?
It makes the situation even more laughable when Xena’s school has the bizarre idea of forcing students to practise the HSK over and over and over in effort to garner the highest scores possible. Yeah, I know, insane isn’t it to focus 60% of the students’ time on the HSK when they have no basic fundamentals in Mandarin itself.
Back up a bit. “Immersive Mandarin classes”? What a concept! If only Xena realized that the easiest and fastest way for students to acquire another language is to be ‘forced’ to listen, read, write and speak the target language, especially when they are surrounded by it. But again, Xena cannot function at all in Mandarin and feels that she may be missing out on something that she cannot comprehend and thus would seem incompetent and even ineffective if she could not administrate.
Now, please don’t say that Xena is incompetent or ineffective! She was chosen to lead the school after all. There must be something that she does right. If there is, I have yet to discover it. Take scheduling for example. In order or the teachers to effectively prepare for their lessons, they naturally need to know what course(s) they’re expected to teach, which grades and classes they’ll be teaching, and how many contact hours those courses and classes will be slotted for. Xena doesn’t believe in pre-planning, and the concept of a static schedule is beyond her. Schedule are decided mere days before (or even hours) before the commencement of the semester then then undergo countless revisions for weeks, sometimes months, after. Wow! Talk about living on the edge!
You’re probably thinking that this is a joke – an extreme bad example ‘Frankensteined’ from various schools. It’s true and it gets worse.
Xena did hire a few native Mandarin speakers to teach at the school. Two were full time, with many years’ experience teaching American kids and preparing them to go abroad. Two others were hired because they came from some organization that peddles inexperienced or otherwise unemployable/undesirable ‘teachers’ and thus, although the two others are paid for through the local education bureau, they cannot be responsible for much more than ‘facetime’ with the students. Whatever, someone, somewhere gets kickbacks from the organization and the local government. Doesn’t matter - all native-speaking teachers are just a necessary evil.
One would think that the teachers at the school would have the experience and wherewithal to speak out against the status quo and try to invoke some positive changes that would benefit the students and the school as a whole. They do but their input is only solicited during “meetings.” “Meetings?” More like endless discussions where Xena either sits there, not comprehending a darn thing because she doesn’t understand anything (as the meetings are conducted in Mandarin) or because she has already decided on her course of action unilaterally and the “meetings” are only going through the motions, at the end of which, she will dictate her orders without consideration for what the qualified, experienced teachers had brought to the table.
The two experienced and qualified teachers try different approaches to get Xena, anyone in the school, to understand the need to change. Xena’s retort is that “It’s the same all over America” although she has never worked outside of the city she is in and although the other two native-speakers have worked in many other cities, for many other organizations, and have more experience than she does. “I’m the boss and you’re not,” is Xena’s end-all Ace card if the native-speaking teachers get too big for their britches.
Let’s add some delicious irony to the situation – Xena has a daughter who is currently studying at a Chinese university. You’d think that her daughter would be able to coach her mother as to the realities and necessities of studying abroad, but Xena is Xena and can only operate in her own comfort zone – just like she couldn’t conceive of the students being expected to function outside of their comfort zones – egalité!
There is, or was (foreshadowing), a light at the end of the tunnel. The school applied for validation to run an entire elite program from an exclusive international organization that has requirements and standard operating procedures in place that cannot be deviated from. The native-speakers were elated. Finally, a structured program that must be conducted entirely in Mandarin and whose academic standards were overseen by external examiners thus removing the artificially high scores that the students were being “awarded” under the current system. Best of all, Xena was not meant to have any command-and-control over this program.
But every storm cloud has a blacker lining. It turns out that Xena still has control over the recruitment for the new program, and expects to recruit the nucleus of the new program from the existing pool of non-performing students in the school rather than trying to attract the best-of-the-best from other schools. Xena still has no intention to change the core values of the school nor listen to any calls for change. Compound this with Principal Yellow’s (remember him from paragraph three?) showing of his true colors: he agreed to every stipulation of the outside organization’s demands (hell, one of the native-speaking teachers even wrote all of the documentation necessary to gain their approval) and heralded the school’s acceptance, yet now is reneging on all of those promises. The required training budget? Forget about it! The necessary infrastructure and IT requirements? Forget about it! The necessary student preparation to partake of the program? Hahahaha. Forget about it! The requirements for weekly meetings and plenary sessions? We’ll just continue our periodic discussions (without Principal Yellow’s attendance, naturally) and fake the rest.
And so my friends, let this be a lesson (or a warning) to you that although you may be altruistic and have the best intentions to “make a difference” as a teacher, there are many Xenas out there…perhaps even one or two here in China.
19 years in China. Married. Insane...or does the two previous statements already give that away?
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