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?

The Latinos in Hollywood display at LAX

October 7, 2014

I was at LAX airport on Sunday, and they had this big display about Hispanic/Latino actors and actresses in Hollywood. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Los Angeles has a large Hispanic population, and it’s always good to display positive examples of ethnic minorities (if for no other reason than to say to potentially bigoted white folks that there’s nothing to fear).

As I was looking at it, I decided to make a list about who expected to be on display (it was set up so I couldn’t see all those on display immediately). On my mental list were Desi Arnaz, J-Lo, Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits, Héctor Elizondo, Edward James Olmos, John Leguizamo, Michelle Rodriguez, Andy Garcia, Danny Trejo, and Eva Longoria.

I mean no disprespect by this, but my list was better than that on display in the airport. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I missed some (I’m not a 12 year old girl, so didn’t think of Selena Gomez, I don’t watch crappy reality television, so Missed Mario Lopez, I’d never heard of his wife, so missed Courtney Mazza, and I didn’t recognise the older Hispanic actors they mentioned because I don’t know much 1960s American TV). I’m slightly embarrassed I missed Anthony Quinn, and I was surprised to learn Madeleine Stowe and Rita Heyworth is/was Hispanic.

The ones I got that the display missed were Martin Sheen, John Leguizamo and Danny Trejo. I tried to think why these actors were missed out. I could immediately see why Danny Trejo might not be included. He’s a good actor, and he’s cleaned his life up since he was a kid, but he did have “issues” in his youth which might make people risk averse. to him

The thing that irritated me was the exclusion of Martin Sheen, and I started wondering why. He’s famous enough, so was it because he had an Anglo name? No because they had Anthony Quinn and Madeleine Stowe up on display. Was it because he’d changed his name (making him less authentically Hispanic)? Well he might have been born Ramón Estévez, but Anthony Quinn was born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca. Was it because he’s only half Hispanic (if there can be such a thing, his mothers name is Mary-Ann Phelan)? Hmmm I don’t like the argument, and I don’t believe they’d use it. Is it because he doesn’t speak Spanish (I have no evidence for this, but I read somewhere that J-Lo doesn’t speak much Spanish, and she was up there. It can’t be because he wasn’t born in Los Angeles either, because Selena Gomez was born in Texas, and Andy Garcia was born in Cuba.

Part of me thought “Meh, maybe they just forgot him.” till I read the sign by the picture of Jimmy Smits which said “one of the first people to play a Latino President on network television”. That sentences reads to me like gymnastics to avoid including Sheen, and that really does make me wonder why.

Ok, so maybe America can’t handle what it does to their….. poor? Or minorities maybe?

May 20, 2014

One of the things that I liked about America, when I was living there, was that it made me more aware of my own tendency to stereotype. The thing was that I saw their stereotypes, and they were different to mine, they shone a light into the dark recesses of how I thought.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We all do it. We just do. It’s a simple shorthand, and while they’re not always accurate, we still use them until we stop and think, at which point we’d probably say “Well I don’t mean it like that….”

My favorite stereotypes in college focused on how diverse the university was (it was diverse, the lecturers were white, the jocks were African American, and the gardeners Hispanic). My favourite “diversity” piece though was the college prospectus. They interviewed foreign, white, and hispanic students, asking them to explain how cool the place was. The problem I had was with the pictures. They had picture after picture of students sitting round “discussing” and “thinking deep thoughts.” In a lot of them it had 3 or 4 white kids looking as if they were teaching the African American kid something. I know it wasn’t meant to be that way. The people who took the picture didn’t mean it to be that way, but if you looked at how they were stood, it looked like they were teaching the African American something. And it was never the other way round. It just never was. That made me laugh, because the Americans never saw it.

Today, I read an article (or more accurately, a book review) about the Duke Lacrosse Rape case in the Wall Street Journal. The book focusses on the former prosecutor in the case, as he tries to defend his actions. The article itself was pretty skewed against the book, which shouldn’t be surprising, given the students were described as innocent, and won damages against the District Attorney who brought the charges against them,

What surprised me was the vehemence against what I saw as a pretty innocuous statement of the obvious on my part. I said something along the lines that the District Attorney tried to use intimidatory tactics (to get a confession) that might work with the urban poor, but which wouldn’t wash against the better off, because they were better educated, and could afford better lawyers.

Well in the last 12 hours I’ve been accused of “Seeing racism everywhere.” Apparently it’s African Americans who are holding themselves back, with their anger against white society, and despite the fact that Americans have a number of laws that disproportionately target minorities (crack vs. powdered cocaine sentences, and the enforcement of the death penalty), I need to get over myself and stop seeing racism everywhere.

This made me laugh. Is America such a “Look out for number One” society, that they can’t see institutionalised racism when it’s slapping them in the face with a wet cod?

I’m still going to claim I’m Ningbo Foreign Teacher of the year…….

April 19, 2014

At work, I’m in a strange situation. I’m employed by an Australian company to teach Chinese kids an English curriculum so that they can go to university in America. To achieve this, they place the teachers in “specialised units” within Chinese High Schools. These units only teach the foreign curriculum, and sees the staff sign 2 contracts, an official Chinese contract to keep the authorities here happy, and another contract with the firm. This puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the kids and teachers to produce good grades (there’s no Plan B for the kids, they’ll struggle to get back into the Chinese system once they’ve been through what we teach them).

I’m of an age now where I should take my career seriously, and as a result, I’ve been pretty open with the school I’ve been working about being given extra responsibility with the firm. I’ve been here 4 years. I get really good results from the kids. There aren’t many major issues within my department that I can’t deal with, and we don’t bitch, much, about the obstacles the school put in our way because they’re from a different cultural background to us (it’s us foreigners who are the cultural oddities after all, given we’re from a different background).

Anyhow, I’ve been angling for this promotion within the firm for a while now. It took me 18 months, but I finally got word I got the promotion this week. At about the same time as I started talking openly about this promotion, I was nominated for “Ningbo Foreign Teacher of the Year”. This required me to write a 1500 word essay.and generally suck up to “Da Management” to keep them sweet. After I wrote the essay and had it edited by my bosses in the firm, I submitted it to the school, along with 4 other things the school were asking for.

The school came back to me 4 times to tell (not ask) me to change things. This narked me a little, I’ll admit, because the changed/additions were a pain (I’d not even asked to be nominated), but I went along to get along, hoping to get a few brownie points with them I could bank for later, when I asked for something. Anyhow 5 minutes after my line manager told the school I was being promoted out of the school, they wrote to someone else congratulating him on his nomination. They didn’t e-mail me to give me the heads up. They didn’t tell me at all. The first thing I knew was when the new nominee asked me what was going on.

Now quite frankly it’s not the de-nomination that irritates me. I’ve got the e-mails to prove they nominated me. It’s the fact they put me to all that trouble, and didn’t think I was worth the effort of a talking to beforehand. That’s what irritates me. I’m probably the Chinese’s school’s biggest cheerleader amongst their western teachers, and they still blow me off like I really don’t count.

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.

Does this comment sound maybe a tiny bit suspect?

November 22, 2013

I saw this post about the lack of diversity at UCLA the other day…….


In it the author argues that there’s something wrong when there are only 48 African American males enrolled in the freshman class at UCLA this year, and 32 of those managed to get in (at least in part) because of their sporting prowess (they’re being selected for collegiate athletics programs), and of the original 48, only 36 will graduate in 4yrs.

Now I know the arguments about it being a socio-economic issue (African-Americans and Hispanics tend to earn less, and so are less likely to have the expectation of college in the future because of impoverished family backgrounds), and I know that people are wary of affirmative action, but part of me is still somewhat shocked by a woman saying “I was the first person in my family to get a college education. You have to elevate yourself. You can’t blame someone else for not elevating you.” Part of me wants to yell “Oh come on really? You’re really going to make THAT argument?” I mean 150yrs ago in American African-Americans were property, women couldn’t vote, and poor children we sent up chimneys and down mines.

Sure, things are much better now, but women and African Americans still earn less (it’s actually GOT WORSE FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS SINCE 1979), people still dressing up in black-face and assuming its ok, Jim Wright (the Texas Democratic politician) unable to register to vote (for reasons which WILL harm minorities disproportionately), and we’ve got people saying you can’t blame someone else for not elevating you.

I mean…… Jeepers.

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?