Out

So I haven’t posted anything here in a while, and there are some pretty big things that have happened. Thankfully in the end it seems positive, though!

First things first: none of us are working at New Standard anymore. One month ago, Alex and Dessa (without our knowledge and definitely without CIEE’s assistance, wink wink nudge nudge ;) ) left the country to teach elsewhere, while Sarah and I started the long and obnoxious contractually valid process for leaving the school in a way that can potentially get us employed elsewhere.

But, one might say, why would we want to do that? Three factors!

1: The place doesn’t really teach English in any meaningful way. Rather, it sells the chance for white foreign teachers to give hastily-prepared mediocre lessons to children of gullible rich parents. The school is constantly on a recruiting drive, and our days were spent more with things like handing out flyers and giving promotional demo classes than actually caring for the students we have. I suspect part of it is because English teaching is a lucrative business anywhere here in China, and when the school was able to get four new young (and beautiful/handsome! as they often said) foreign teachers, they thought it could lead to massive growth, not realizing concepts like “non-sustainable business model” and other consequences of focusing on bringing in new students and not caring about the old ones.

Activities like holiday parties were constructed from the ground up to be nothing more than advertising performance events. Demo classes that could be a chance to actually teach high school students were whittled down by the Chinese teaching assistants to be “easier” so the students would be more willing to part with their cash. Outdoor field trips were arranged where children were brought to the busy city center to be “taught” English words from flashcards they already knew, all so that the teaching process was visible to parents of potentials students. In the end, our freedom on teaching was constrained to a pre-made list of vocabulary words about mealtimes or the Spring Festival, chosen specially so that students could say the English in front of their parents to convince them that we actually were teaching them something and not robbing them blind. We have ideas, concepts on doing teaching that would be interesting and engaging, but repeatedly the school showed they cared about nothing but us being pushed into a classroom, being a white-faced performer for an hour, and who cares if a thing was actually learned. If we don’t have any autonomy or preparation time for lessons, they will not be good and we as honest teachers cannot feel like we are doing something worth the parents’ money.

2: It was treated as an office job that did not distinguish between Chinese and foreign teacher. As bad as it may sound to say it, foreign teachers here are not typically supposed to have the same responsibilities as the regular Chinese staff. Usually, private school foreign teachers show up, do their lessons, then leave; and public school or university foreign teachers have specific classes they’re working with on a long-term basis. Clocking in and out with a stipulation of being “in the office” for about 35-40 hours a week, only to sit around either doing nothing (because nothing about our classes was communicated to us usually until five minutes before), being pushed into a classroom without any context, or to head out and stand creepily outside of primary schools to push flyers into children’s hands, was not exactly what I signed up for when I decided to go halfway around the world. If I want a job like that I could probably get one in the US, one that would actually further my future career. For the typical Chinese worker, the boss is king and may make any impositions on one’s free time at any time and be expected to get it, as a personal favor to the boss. Our two days of free time per week were usually spaced apart so we couldn’t travel anywhere substantial, we were often off on different days so we couldn’t go places together, and with every week having a radically different schedule (presented on a tidy little spreadsheet one hour before the end of the previous week), how could one ever plan something long-term in the future? I came to China to teach and to see China, not to build up wealth for a business out of the kindness of my heart or an opportunity to work oneself up in a corporate structure. I’m not against investing time in work, to be sure, but the work would have to be more fulfilling than this and provide more stability. Definitely not a matter of lack of work ethic on our part; if four separate foreign teachers all leave in a month, that is certainly indicative of a problem. The only foreign teachers this place has had have either been business-type entrepreneurs (who helped found this very new school last year) or old desperate expats with nowhere else to go (more on that later). The school’s fundamental inability to understand the attitudes and priorities of young, newly-graduated teachers is the root cause of many of our problems.

This was all certainly frustrating, to be sure, but for a time we all grinned and bore it, were it not for a spark that helped set everything off:

3: William. He is a fifty-something expat foreign teacher who was, until we all arrived, the only foreign teacher at New Standard. In short, he was constantly verbally abusive to both the Chinese teachers, as well as us other foreign teachers (whom he considered some sort of threat to his once-secure position at the school). Going unpredictably through (bipolar?) manic and depressive periods, he was prone to explosive outbursts. He indicated at one point he had been in prison. He carries a rather large knife in his suit. On three separate occasions he kicked off his sandals and tried to challenge Alex to a fight (profoundly unwise, and perhaps even amusing in retrospect, considering he was wearing socks on the tile floor). This is obviously not the sort of person a normal school would want around children. But, the school was entirely aware of this sort of behavior throughout, and confided in us that they thought he was not a good person or a good teacher, but they keep him around because he is good for business and brings in new students. Because no one else would seem to get him his visa to stay in China (having nothing for him back in the US from what fragments we could learn), he is fiendishly loyal to his school and possesses an uncanny eagerness for things like handing out flyers, and his teaching style (which everyone — staff included — mock behind his back) is little more than drunkenly yelling English phrases at students who mindlessly repeat them back. It’s similar to a teaching method here called “Crazy English,” which can have some success, but as we’ve seen over these months, not in his methodology. And yet the school encourages him to do his thing despite acknowledging its questionable results, because it’s a great marketing strategy. When parents see a foreigner saying English, and their kids parroting it back, it doesn’t matter if the students remember it afterward or know what is being said. To them, their children are speaking English in minutes!

I won’t particularly begrudge someone for not being an efficient teacher in an environment like this, especially since I know I’m new at this teaching thing and really need to improve. But there’s no excuse for the way he treats people. It took him swearing loudly at Dessa in front of a group of students, and then again trying to provoke a confrontation with Alex, that we decided enough was enough. It took contacting CIEE and getting the local government involved for him to get enough of a talking-to to stop that sort of thing, at least for a while.

So Alex and Dessa headed out for other exotic lands and Sarah and I gave notice. And the whole month as we prepared to head out, the school incapable of realizing that we actually were really going to do it, not just bluffing like William seemed to do every few weeks as a bargaining tool. Normally giving an employer notice is partially supposed to help them smoothly transition for one’s departure, not to give the boss time to attempt to convince us to stay with empty promises of raised salaries and less marketing duties. The trust between us and the school was fundamentally broken, and we know that either they wouldn’t come through on such reforms, all future marketing endeavors would be painted with a veneer of teaching as if that would fool us, or would be held over our heads as a favor done to us that we should repay with endless loyalty.

The worst bit of it was that they asked us not to tell the Chinese teachers about our upcoming departure… which I at first assumed was because they wanted to tell them but rather was put off until the day after we left out of some sort of face-saving defense mechanism. Even Cindy, the employee in charge of writing up our schedule, wasn’t told and didn’t know until she called us to ask why we weren’t at work.

At the very least we were able to spend a hastily-arranged last evening hanging out with Tory and Natalie. I love those two so much, and I really hope that we can keep in touch because they are really amazing people and I’d hate to just lose that after all these months with them. I really am frustrated with the school for not telling anyone until they absolutely had to.

So this morning we were able to get our masses of luggage out of our apartment and put into a car for Nanning. It’s impressive how wide the links of personal networks go here: we were transported by Kelvin’s boss’s (Matt) long-time friend’s (Mr Wang) friend (Mr Qin). As frustrating as it is that we got placed by CIEE into this substandard situation here, they are seriously doing a lot of amazing work behind the scenes to get things arranged hopefully for another placement. We don’t know if it’ll happen in the end, but certainly not for a lack of trying.

As for where we are??? Right now we’re in Ken’s apartment! But Ken isn’t actually here; he’s doing a trip to Vietnam over the break. So he left a wonderful series of notes detailing everything nearby that’s interesting, and left us some keys he made copies of. And where were said keys placed? In someone’s hands to deliver to us? Certainly not! They were hidden in a crumpled and duct-taped cigar box secretly placed under the cement cover of a grate outside his dorm. Oh Ken.

And that’s where we are now! Since a lot of government offices are closed for the upcoming Spring Festival, CIEE is really focusing on the search for a placement after that point. So now we’re finally getting the nice long vacation we never had gotten before. We bought some tickets to go up to Beijing for the Spring Festival, and to visit a Chinese friend of Sarah’s. Going to be fun!

3 thoughts on “Out

  1. I’m really sorry you guys had such a negative time here. You just hit into a bad school. Most, if not all, private schools are bad.

    I would, however, like to say that not all teachers in their 50s are bad. I know a few in town who genuinely care and teach well.

    I did once meet the American teacher to whom you refer. Yes, he is a piece of scum who should be deported and certainly not allowed anywhere near a teaching environment. Chinese immigration law law does say you can’t be admitted if you suffer from any mental illnesses.

    I know the people in Liuzhou foreign affairs office pretty well, and in all the years I have never heard any of them criticize any foreigner, no matter how insane they were. And believe me, there have been a few. But they openly told me this guy was beyond the pale.

    Hope you have better luck in Nanning, but the lesson is that private schools in China (or anywhere else) don’t care about education. I’m glad you do.

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for your response, and thanks for mentioning that there are truly some good older expats. During our program’s first week in China, we had an orientation in which a couple teachers in their 50s gave some helpful pointers on living and teaching in this country. They were great and welcoming people who truly did seem to care about teaching and being a good resource to a pack of young and confused college graduates. :)

    It is interesting that you mention that the foreign affairs office also had their opinion on this guy. A few weeks ago Sarah and I found ourselves involved in one of those big foreigner stage performances down in Nanning, where we and a few other foreigners from the city represented Liuzhou. Apparently New Standard had volunteered William before the two of us, and his erratic behavior in just one afternoon of practice left everyone — fellow foreigners and the head of the Foreign Affairs Office alike — openly mentioning their concern about him.

    Also, thanks for your continued blog posts on Liuzhou; I’ve always found them helpful. Liuzhou is a pretty nice city, despite any crummy schools that may be there.

  3. I’ve also appreciated your posts, Liuzhou Liaowai. I love to see the city and country from your perspective.
    Well, yay for you, Dan, to be on the move. Have a wonderful time in Beijing! Keep posting. We’re keeping you in our prayers as you look for your new post.

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