Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Facepalm Friday

March 21, 2015

I’m a Chemistry teacher, and I’ve started preparing my students for their exams. I get the students to do past papers, so that they can understand what’s expected.

A particular question asked the students to design an experiment that checked how solubility changed with temperature. Will more solid dissolve if the temperature goes up? How do you know? Prove it.

Anyhow, this student I teach understood they needed to pick a temperature, and add this chemical to a fixed volume of water till no more could dissolve, repeat 2 more times, then change the temperature, and repeat for this new temperature.

The scary thing was that this 18 YEAR OLD student didn’t grasp that the mass goes up when something dissolves. He genuinely asked “How will we know how much we’ve added?” I asked him to describe what we would do at a certain temperature, “We’ll dissolve a solid into a liquid till it can’t go in any more.” Then I asked about what dissolving meant. “It means the solid goes into the liquid in really small bits.”

It was at this point I waited for a sign of “Oh ah we’ll have more stuff so we can look at the mass”, but no. He looked at me as if to say “Ok… next step?” When I asked him to think about what we could measure now we know what he’s just told me, he carried on looking at me, clearly thinking “I’ve got nothing, help me out here.” I then changed tacks and asked “Is there more stuff in the test tube before or after?” and he continued to look at me as if to say “Seriously, I’ve got nothing, you’re going to have to help me out some.”

So I’m not sure who my facepalm moment is for, my student (who doesn’t realise mass goes up when some you dissolve something in a liquid), or me, who managed to get a kid to 18 (with great grades) and not know that.

Contextually correct swearing.

October 29, 2014

I have a potty mouth. I’m sorry, I just do. I think it’s because my father has a potty mouth. He swore like a trooper as I grew up, so I guess I picked it up off him, but what does it matter, I am what I am, and I swear like a trooper. I could probably make an effort to change, but I can’t. I’ve tried.

Anyhow, I’ve said this before, but bears repeating it again here. I teach in China, and I spend a lot of time trying to get the students to speak English. It’s hard work. I’m in China. The students are Chinese. They’re going to want to speak Chinese. It’s a battle to get them to speak English, but I’ll keep “fighting the good fight.” till I leave.

I said all that to say this. I was asking the students some questions, when I got a surreal comment from one of the students. He said “Wait, wait, I f***ing know this.”, which made me laugh. Now I don’t usually laugh at swearing, but as far as I’m aware, that might be a correct time to swear. What surprised me was the comment I got off a colleague when I related the story in the staffroom. I was told it was “disrespectful” to me and all staff. Now don’t get me wrong, I told the kid if he said it in future, it wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate,, but swearing comes with a context, doesn’t it? He didn’t mean to be rude by it, so I didn’t offence. It’s not the words that are the offending item, it’s the intention behind them that’s important, and this kid wasn’t being rude, he was just getting excited.

I am right on that aren’t I?

I had one of those “Wait, what?” moments today.

October 15, 2014

I’m the Head of Science at a school in China. It’s a good school, and the kids are decent, but we still get some staff “churn” because we’re foreigners in a foreign land, and China is very different.

Now we’ve a new Science teacher start this term. At best, at the moment, he’s “just so so” (as our students say when their life is ho-hum), so I was worried about him passing his probationary period. My line manager felt the same, and told me that it’d be a “real feather in [my] cap” if I got him through.

So I met with him weekly, discussed what he would be teaching each week, and gave him pointers about how to structure lessons. The result was that in his most recent observation, he got another solid review. He still has a long way to go, but he’s showing signs of progress.

Anyway, after the lesson, my line manager came to see me, and told me that he’s “learning how to deliver the lessons you give him….” but that I’ve “got to step helping him, and telling him how to teach.” It was at that that I had my “Wait, what?” moment. Call me a dumbass if you will, but if you’re an HoD with failing teacher, don’t you try and give the guy the structure he needs to give him the chance to dig his way out of it?

I know I’m not the most naturally funny guy in the world, but come on…. really?

January 9, 2014

It’s exam season at our school at the moment, and (as usual) we’re getting a crop of humorous answers in our exam papers. This isn’t surprising, given our kids aren’t native English speakers, but it always gives us a smile when we get comments like “a white prostitute would be made” as an answer in a Chemistry exam (we assume he was going for precipitate, but it speaks volumes for this particular teenaged boy that his mind alighted on that other word instead).

Anyhow, the response of a lot of teachers I know is “Blame the teachers.” It’s a sort of.ironic dig at people who blame teachers for everything from the way 5 year old’s behave, to the rise of teenage mums, to increasing knife violence. It’s a way for teachers to acknowledge that we seem to get blamed for the the fact that that we don’t live a land of picket fences, warm beer, cricket being played on the village green, and the poor knowing their place.

I’ve used it when a kid’s done something dumb, and had it used against me when kids I teach have done something dumb. It’s POSITIVELY NOT supposed to be criticism of something where you (as a teacher) actually did something wrong (I’d let you know privately about that), it’s just an ironic recognition of the fact that all criticism isn’t justified.

Anyhow, we got a particularly silly answer off a student (he’d been asked explain something in pictures, and not used them), and jokingly said “I blame the teachers.” One teacher took issue at this, and assumed I was having a dig at him. Now let’s just disregard, for a moment, the fact that the guy’s got a tonne of experience. Let’s disregard the fact he’s been selected by the firm for potential future advancement, Let’s disregard, finally, that I asked him the yesterday to show a new teacher how to build relationships with students (surely a sign I have some regard for him), and ask what sort or person do he think I am? Does he really think I’m the sort of idiot who’d publicly undermine someone who was being a a sound individual?

Don’t get me wrong, I’d support your honest efforts to improve if you were bad. This might involve talking to other people about you, but I’d NEVER, EVER publicly throw you under a bus. I just wouldn’t.

An interesting conversation with a student.

November 23, 2013

As I’ve said before, I teach in China. This is my fourth year here, and I like to think I’m pretty clued into the culture, the kids, and how the kids at my school think. Well, just when I was feeling comfy about all that stuff, the kids go and do something that makes me think…. wait, what, run that by me again.

Last time I checked, China was communist, so, perhaps naively given the conversation I had, I assumed they’d be familiar with notable communists of the past (most notably Lenin, Marx, Stalin, Castro, and Guevara). Anyhow, the school I work at had an art display by local artists, and I noticed the kids were looking, so I wandered over and saw them looking at a portrait of Che Guevara. I could tell the some of the students were confused as to who he was, so I asked the students who he was, and what he’d done. I got the blankest of blank stares, and admissions of cluelessness..

When I asked them who said “December 7th -a date that will live in infamy” they decided on “the President at the start of World War II” (which I’ll give credit for). I followed this up with “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for you country” and got “US President again the one who was shot” (which I’ll give credit for too). Finally I asked ” ‘Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” They got very excited by that one, and came “Black leader, he was shot too, said in Washington.” It’s been a few hours now, and I’m still surprised the kids knew more about American political leaders than notable communists.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…….

October 30, 2013

I was invigilating our mid term exams today, and during the Biology exam that our first years took, they were asked to “Draw and label the underside of the leaf.” next too a picture of a leaf.

I saw one child draw a perfect mirror image of the leaf in the question, and label it “This is the underside of the leaf on the left.” I don’t know about you, but I think they might expect a little more detail than that.

There are times when I get embarrassed by my fellow countrymen.

August 30, 2013

I was at a work conference at the weekend. In it they ran a bunch of sessions aimed at making you a better teacher in the “Chinese Environment.” A lot of it’s common sense, but I go and “give it some” at those sessions because “Da Management” is always watching you, it’s nice to have an idea what works in other classrooms, and what they’re looking for when they come into yours.

Anyhow, they had this Chinese teacher come to one of our sessions. Now the Chinese in general aren’t naturally forthright, and this guy looked about 12 and a half. In short you could tell he’d be a wallflower if you didn’t involve him. Yet I watched group after group pretty much ignore the guy, and that irritated me. I mean he wasn’t prefect, but they could have done better.

To make matters worse, they have quality control managers working at my company. They pretty much assess teacher quality, and the husband of one of these quality controls was in this session. The manager has always impressed me as someone who knew her stuff, but this guy couldn’t have made any more effort NOT to involve the guy if he tried.

There are times when I can’t understand myself.

August 29, 2013

I was looking at my results today, and there’s a bunch of reasons I should be proud. More that 50% of my kids got an A or better. I got more A*s at A Level than I’ve got in my career to this point. More kids got A* to B than I’ve ever got before.  85% of the kids I taught got A* to B at AS. The figure rises to 93% for iGCSE. In terms of A*-B scores, I did 33% better than my closest rival at PAL. At A2, I was 1.5 grades better, on average, than my nearest rival.

Can somebody tell my why I’m still ticked about these results, telling myself I need to do better next year?


June 25, 2013

I’ve said earlier that the GaoKao is scary. It’s the exams that assess entry into Chinese universities, and the pressure on kids is huge. Areas round school go into police cordoned lock-down,  with cellphone masts being cut, and parents sending “Do well or die” vibes over the school walls.

Anyhow, the kids got their results Monday. I’m assuming that if my province is anything like what I expect, 80,000 – 100,000 here kids took the exam this year, and the school in which my centre is based got 5 of the 10 best marks in the province. That has to be remarkable doesn’t it? I mean they didn’t have 1 kid in the top 0.01% of students provincially, but 5. And that’s not a particularly good year, by all accounts they get between 5 and 7 of the to 10 every year.

I wish I could say that my students are just as talented, but I can’t. Some are clever, but they aren’t that clever. Our redeeming feature isn’t the great number of A* grades we get. It’s that we get the kids to think. The GaoKao tests how much information the students can learn by rote. We teach them the usefulness and importance of thinking. GaoKao kids can’t give you a good “Why’s that important?” answer for toffee. And that’s why I’ll always argue our kids are better than the GaoKao nerd herd. This is the 21st Century. Since when has memorisation been the best way to prepare kids in today’s environment. I mean these bright GaoKao kids can recite the textbook, but our kids will become leaders. Not because they’re cleverer, but because we’ve got them intellectually close to GaoKao kids, and given them the guts to “step up” in an argument.

GaoKao always impresses me as being surreal.

June 5, 2013

The GaoKao is the Chinese university entrance examination. It’s a really intense experience for any kid who has any chance of doing (even remotely) well academically.

Put simply, the students do exams in Chinese, a foreign language (usually English it seems), Maths, Chemistry, Physics, and History over a 2 day period. This year it’s on Thursday 6th and Friday 7th of June, and the pressure on the kids is huge. The whole “One Child ” policy, combined with the fact that their lives won’t be that great if they don’t do well means they’re aware of the potential downside if they fail.

Our school is a host school for the GaoKao. This means that the students run round like crazy, trying to get the school in ship shape. The process is amusing to foreigners, because Chinese classrooms are a pigsty from about the third day of the year. The kids seem unwilling to use their lockers (the result is desks piled high with books -their heads poking up from behind them), and always smell of takeaways. In short, they’re a pigsty, and Western teachers hate how their Chinese counterparts let the kids treat the classroom. We run a constant running battle out make our rooms better (but after 9 years of “anything goes” it’s hard).

The preparation process involves the students removing every scrap of evidence that the room is a classroom (save the blackboards), nailing 2 nails into the wall (presumably for a clock, but I’m not sure, and I’m not sure why they have to do that every year), making the floors spotless, and having a man come round to check if the desks and chairs are stable, and are exactly 80cm apart (they seem to make rulers that length especially for GaoKao), and 20cm from the wall.

What gets my goat about that is if there’s even the slightest issue, the chair or desk is replaced. I wouldn’t mind but our parents pay 36x more than the parents of the “main school” kids (yes 36x more), and yet you can guarantee that our stuff won’t work, and trying to get it replaced requires a stubbornness about things that boarders on dogmatism.

On the day of the exam itself, the kids and staff are turfed out (noone’s allowed on site), the police block access to the road, cellphone masts are turned off (to prevent cheating) and parents congregate in areas round the school sending “Do well or you die” vibes to their children.

So all in all, the experience is strange, and the pressure intense. We had a child commit suicide our first year here, because of the pressure placed on him from pretty much everyone and his dog.