Great Expectations: A Teacher’s Discourse

Further learning is only possible after the recognition of what needs to be learned.”

Only now do I realize the folly of the desire to please the powers that be. Am I correct to surmise that Asians, in general, with its paternalistic, autocratic and group-centric culture are culturally ingrained to seek the approval of their teacher over their academic performance? Or is it human  nature compounded by the rigors and demands of formal training?

A few things have been bugging me with my current class. After countless sleepless nights and many hours spent in exasperation over an apparent lack in improvement in one of the students in my class, I have found the link, the missing piece of the puzzle. I had pondered over it long and hard and had speculated to my sounding boards before finally giving up and letting it be.

The pieces are now falling into place. She’s pretty content to parrot words and phrases, roll over, bend over backward, forward and sideways all for the sake of going through the motions and fulfilling a mandate by management to attend the training. I reckon she thinks, “I have a job, and a stable one at that. This training is an absolute waste of time and an odious and unnecessary cause for an overtime.”

Pretty myopic view if you ask me, but such is the cold, hard fact.

A learning endeavor needs to start with a clear and unadulterated picture of what is expected of them and how they fare against the standard. Traditionally, this role was undertaken by the teacher. Yet oftentimes, it becomes an emotionally charged process for the student because the standards seem to be dictated by a seemingly infallible expert. How then is a passive learner supposed to refuse a pedantic approach? A mismatch between a teacher’s view of the expected quality and the student’s view of his performance could only result in a breakdown of the teaching-learning process.

I think this is what essentially happened in her case. Her antipathy towards the new standards being set by management affected her learning process. Even with my role as a Specialist, I am at a bind because I was brought in to effect these new standards and to make sure that everyone is at par with the standards.

As I am writing this, I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a friend/ colleague and former co-worker. She felt betrayed over her manager’s imminent move and the team’s subsequent dissolution because her manager failed to mentor and groom the team accordingly. She questioned her manager about this, and the manager remarked that she had already identified someone and was grooming her for a managerial post. The manager also added that she felt that my friend, along with everyone else in the team, were unsuitable and not ready for mentoring because of their competencies.

“That’s your opinion, not mine,” my friend quipped.

This statement reverberated in my head and it made me realize the value of self-assessment for both my friend and the manager.

In this sense, the teaching-learning process is comparable to a customer service encounter. Both teachers and learners need to know what each other’s expectations are to ensure: both parties’ satisfaction, that activities are occurring as expected, that deliverables or output meet expectations, that deliverables are received when expected and that anticipated value is received.

It is inevitable that during the teaching-learning process, both the teacher and the learner will form a judgment on each other, the teaching pedagogy and the student’s learning curve based on their personal expectations, perceptions, desires, feelings, needs, wants and values.

I remember the time when I was starting out as a Language Specialist a few years back. My manager then was overbearing and rather despotic. She had us jumping through hoops at her bidding and had a tendency to assign us variegated tasks, the sheer amount of which was considerable and almost comparable to our designated tasks. Despite this, I flourished under her management unlike some of my team mates. I learned a lot from her—one aspect that I value over interpersonal skills. As a manager, she exceeded my expectations, but I’m pretty sure not everyone shared my sentiments.

Knowing expectations is instrumental in developing a strategy for meeting and exceeding expectations. These expectations are a vision of a future state or action. It is usually unstated but critical to the success of any endeavour.

Does this scenario not reflect what often transpires in our classrooms? As teachers, we do have expectations of our students which we concurrently use to evaluate a student’s performance. If we, as teachers, were to rely on our expectations and fail to consider our learners’ own expectations of themselves, we might be setting our students up for demotivation or even failure. By conducting self- and peer assessment, we are able to negotiate through whatever differences we may have and come to a workable solution to make the teaching-learning process a success.

You’re Flawed!

I have a confession to make. I’m pretty sure most women can relate. Though we may  pride ourselves for our intelligence, we can’t exactly say the same thing about our appearance – our hair, our body type and our skin color. One may spend her whole teenage years believing her appearance is flawed. I call this a “confession” because we’d love to claim the opposite: that our intelligence has always sprung us from the traps of the beauty industry. The truth is that the makers of products and arbiters of culture have us convinced that we need fixing.

Women from all over the world are made to believe their hair is a catastrophe. Curly-haired women aspire to have straight hair. Girls with fine straight hair go to all lengths to have those beach wave curls those magazines have us believing are beautiful. The message: There’s something wrong with your hair.

Then there is the problem, perhaps the biggest, of one’s body. Oh, what woe the likes of Kate Moss, Kate Upton wrought! A decade ago, the edgy and effortlessly cool heroin-chic look was all the rage and girls would starve themselves, binge eat and purge just to achieve that look. This current age of selfies and Instagram with its specious filters, just-woke-up-like-this, no-makeup-makeup look is enough to send any girl into a major bout of insecurity. The message: There’s something wrong with your body.

Needless to say we enter adulthood deeply self-conscious — that is, exactly where the beauty business wants us to be. The cosmetics industry thrives on fanning women’s insecurities, convincing us that there is always something to be fixed. To a certain extent most women know this. We sense that we’re being duped. But what we know on an intellectual level doesn’t change what we experience on an emotional one.

On a personal level, the culture had lodged an image in my psyche: of a lighter-skinned, taller, just-slept-in waves version of me. Only by buying products could I become this lovelier self. Of course I wasn’t foolish enough to think that beauty products alone would transform me into a perfect aberration that is the Victoria’s Secret model, but that was not the sell. The media had managed to convince me of something more insidious: I couldn’t become someone else but I could be a better me.

Me with better skin, better hair, a better body.

Me considered beautiful, desirable.

I just had to fix my flaws.

It was only when I started working and traveling that I came to see the universality of this must-fix thinking. In Italy, women lay dangerously long in tanning beds to “fix” their skin. In India, women use dangerous bleaching creams to “fix” theirs. My Jewish friends “fixed” their frizz with flat irons. My Japanese friends “fixed” their flat hair with perms. Friends of all nationalities went on inane diets to “fix” their bodies. The messages of my childhood were, in fact, a single message, the same one sent to women everywhere:

Something is wrong. Fix it.

Isn’t this the same message that traditional testing with its pervasive tools of numerical/letter-grading sends? Are multiple-choice tests and true-false questions not a game of chance?

Haven’t we, at one point in our lives, said, “Did I pass? Oh, I wish I could’ve gotten a 90 at least.” A stream of seemingly endless questions flood our mind until the crucial moment when we get to take a peek at our grade—the number that signifies a whole night’s hard work, a tutor’s guidance, a study group, a sleepless night or two. Graduation season repeat the same message: awards and recognition measure intelligence, creativity, people’s skills and morality. Recently, video of a high school student’s salutatorian speech cut off by school officials went viral. I remember seeing this girl on some television shows and my Facebook being flooded with posts about this girl’s plight of being cheated out of the top award. Everyone was quick to laud this girl’s alleged assertiveness and called it an act of bravery.

Yet are these trophies and medals all that they’re touted to be? Do they really mean all that much? Are they a complete reflection of one’s diligence and intelligence?  I remember reading an article in the newspaper argues that most people who graduate with honors intend to graduate with honors but don’t intend to learn and that honors are an investment in image rather than in substance. Is graduating with honors more important that determination, initiative, dedication, the willingness to get grubby and give more than expected? Do grades measure important life skills such as interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and ethics? Don’t traditional tests serve to reinforce this skewed values system?

How do we change this? How do we create a culture that tells learners that there’s nothing to fix, that learning is more than just a number and that trophies, awards and medals are mere accessories? Awards do not define our learning.

Whether you’re the smart kid, the slow learner, the math-phobic, the artistically inclined yet academically-challenged and everything between: learners must be told that they are valued, their efforts don’t go unnoticed and their improvement, however insignificant and minimal, is still an evidence of learning. They may not be all the way there, but they will get there in time. After all, not all of these learners started out at the same level so they can’t be expected to reach a certain level at the same amount of time. The message: Nothing here needs fixing — but we can all do with some learning and polishing, and with sheer diligence and determination we can be a better version of ourselves.

The Year of Hell

Imagine a nation coming at a standstill one morning. The roads are clear and almost devoid of cars save for a few that are seemingly headed to one particular destination. Employees likewise keep off the roads as banks, offices and stock markets open shop an hour later than usual. Even flights are grounded as the whole nation is kept in nervous anticipation of the results of a national obsession. The nation could do nothing but wait, pray and hold their breaths.

No, it’s not the much-coveted Pacquiao-Mayweather rematch. Though it is held that a Pacquiao fight does halt everyone from activity and is a sacred repast for the tiny nation that is the Philippines, the same could be said about the 2nd Thursday of every November when high school students in their 3rd grade (or what is equivalent to the last year of high school to the rest of the world) take the CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). On this day, even the Army halts its aviation exercises, police units would go out of their way to marshall students to the testing centers and the electric company is on standby to ensure that there is no power shortage on this day lest they get blamed by students for failing their tests. This is the day when all students are put to the ultimate test.

I must admit that it does seem a bit too drastic, but the students’ fate is contingent on this one-day test. This exam, after all, shapes a person’s life forever. And the whole nation basically gears itself and mobilizes itself for this event. Considering the fact that student prepare a significant portion of their life ( a good 12 years, to be exact) for this day, it’s no wonder that a patriotic nation such as South Korea and its whole population, even those who do  not have any personal or vested interest in the said assessment would go to extreme measures to show support for the students. Preparing the student for this test may be considered a family affair, but this event is a national affair almost synonymous to a holiday.

Competition for a spot at Korea’s top universities SKY  (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University) is tough. It has to be because it almost guarantees a prestigious job in the civil service or in one of South Korea’s conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics Co and Hyundai Motor Co.

This test system and the immense value that South Korea and other East Asian nations place on education are vestiges of Confucianism. This passion, energy, dedication and sacrifice of families towards education is unprecedented and unparalleled. And a student’s failure can never be attributed  to a lack of effort or support.

But what are the trade-offs of this high-stake assessment and uncanny obsession over top scores? What is the purpose of education? Is performing well on a standardized test and getting to a prestigious university the main goal of education? Does this not promote rote learning while discarding critical thinking and intellectual creativity? Does this over-emphasis on getting straight A’s lead to excess and unnecessary stress while stripping our students and teachers of their humanity? Does this not also place teachers under such unfair scrutiny due to the misguided use of standardized test-based value added evaluation?

My mind is torn as it tries to process all this. Imagine how onerous it is for one’s path and future to be hinged in those nine hours. It does sound a bit excessive. To many South Koreans, it is a fact of life however harsh it may be. And a good number of them are averse to the idea of adopting a more Western and holistic approach. It is a fortress they desperately hold on to in order to maintain equality and fairness in the educational system. It does make sense in a way because this levels the playing field and provides everyone, regardless of current status, with the chance to ascend to a higher social status. It is a materialistic and meritocratic  perspective but wouldn’t the Philippines benefit from  this system? Oppressive as it is, it worked for South Korea. South Korean students have consistently performed well on global standardized tests,  even besting the US and other European countries. The excessive studying does not appear to be for naught. Such stellar performance from students leave every other country looking on with envy as they scramble to pattern their curriculum to that of South Korea’s and emulate that stoic resolve. Such huge investment in education has likewise catapulted South Korea from its third world condition 50 years ago to economic powerhouse status. The country has built itself from the ashes through sheer diligence and hard work.

Yet it’s come at a big cost. Everything does have a price. Reaching that pinnacle of success has exacted a heavy price along its people, particularly the learners. It has produced robots and machines that can scarcely feel save for the masochistic experiences one willingly subjects him/herself to.

It is a grueling schedule these students take upon themselves at such an early age. It’s a bleak existence that doesn’t  seem to have an end in sight as they transition from  high school to university and eventually that much-coveted job at Samsung and gradually realize that they’d have to repeat the cycle all over again to prove their worth in the company.

It does sound awfully like living your life on heavy cycle in the washing machine. Anyone up for a tumble in the wash?,

The Candy Crush Saga

You failed!

Retry?

No More Lives

candy crush saga

And the saga of the Candy Crush madness that came too late continues. X number of weeks, countless lives and several power-ups later, I find myself at the thick of the same maze that downed me like a teenage girl holding her first girly mag. I never could put my finger on it, much less wrap my head around this almost child-like fascination over a mobile game. One thing I do know is this has got me ensconced in a time warp with its impish mechanics and wildly colorful jelly beans. It may very well be the anti-prosaic, carefully calculated verbal feedback that just leaves you tethered to this obsession, brittle as glass. “Delicious!” “Tasty!” “Sweet!” “Candy Crush!”  It is as saccharine as the name suggests, though some levels like the one I’m stuck in could be devilishly difficult.

At the moment, this contraption has tasked me with the objective of clearing all the jellies. Oh but wait, while at that I should do that within the amount of moves allowed. Oh wait, there’s more! It would be better if you could also reach the target of 60000. Don’t feel compelled to do it, but it would be more splendid and you’re guaranteed to get the much coveted three stars if you do so.Competitive achiever that I am, I caved in and fell hook, line and sinker. Challenge accepted! Bring it on! Why, oh why did I have to say that?

There are times when I’d get so close, but I inevitably end up running out of moves. A sly window would then appear and ask me if I’d like more moves. Ummm, thanks but no thanks. I could, of course, ask my Facebook friends to gift me with lives but   a) I’ve caught on with the trend a little too late, and my Facebook community might already have moved on   b) the idea of panhandling is just beneath me. The idea of groveling with real world friends and Facebook acquaintances for in-game handouts is uncomfortable and a little too aggressive for my taste.

But if I may go back to Candy Crush’s clever ploy of leveling, it does seem like Candy Crush has tapped in on the concept of holistic assessment by allowing a good mix of formal and informal assessments.  To date, I’ve gotten scores of 156660 and 138380 which normally should be more than enough for me to progress to the next level, but my skills level has been deemed to be insufficient for me to be bumped up since I’ve failed to clear all the jellies which is ultimately is of crucial importance over a bunch of numbers which when you actually come to think about are rather easy to hit. As long as you keep on moving the pieces over horizontally or vertically, you should be set. Rather basic. The challenge lies on the strategizing which apparently I have yet to master.

candy  crush saga2

It’s getting frustrating to be almost there and for your grades to be overlooked ad passed on as though it were of paltry significance, but that’s what education is about. Does it really matter that they know the technicalities of grammar and that they know the nuances and the forms of the five conditionals (yes, there are five!), the fourteen verb tenses, the true and the periphrastic modals and Chomsky’s  mathematical phrase markers, the hallmark of transformational generative grammar? (This is just about the only mathematical formula I truly and unequivocally understand, I must admit.)

The minute I start talking about grammar, I cannot help but notice my students’ eyes start glazing over. The what grammar? Isn’t there just one? Isn’t learning the 12 tenses dreary enough as it is? Now you have to add two more? Conditionals? You mean I can’t put will in the If- clause? But it does sound right! Welcome to my world.

As I start grading assignments and exams, I do have to challenge myself to go beyond the results of the exams. Is it enough for me to take the results of the formal assessments at face value and say that student A is proficient in the language? If I do so, am I not just compounding the problem of the deteriorating English communication skills of Filipinos?

Are those discrete facts all I wish for my students to remember from my classes? Frankly, they don’t seem to remember some things to the end of the training duration. Quantitative assessment in the form of grades and marks are good, but the way I see it, qualitative assessment in the form of bite-sized “assessments”, if I may call them so, such as topical tests, free writing, role play and communicative games and various range of assessments from questioning, providing feedback, peer- and self-assessment  is just as important because it provides the learner with more opportunities to experience success and build his/her confidence and desire to learn. It turns them into independent learners with a keen awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. It also helps the learner formulate steps to improve his/her learning.

At times, I feel there’s  a need to de-emphasize these formal assessments because they do not accurately paint the whole picture of the teaching/learning process. Numbers do lie as evidenced by the sheer volume of ESL learners who flock to the Philippines to learn English because their stringent educational system with its heavy emphasis on preparing them for the national tests which will basically chart the course of the rest of their lives from their qualifying for a spot at university, their choice of university, their job eligibility and even their chances of landing a suitable mate.

So perhaps getting stuck in this Candy Crush level isn’t so bad after all. I am learning things entirely immaterial to Candy Crush strategizing. Allow me to keep saying this and pretending that getting stuck in level 33 for weeks is not as embarrassing as some tout it to be for the purpose of my sanity. Let me bathe in this luxurious, sugar-coated world of jellies, hard candies, lozenges, lemon drops and that delectable yet elusive chocolate-covered candy. This may very well be the addiction talking because right now no amount of lost lives is going to deter me from clicking Retry again and again. The downside, though, is I do have to wait for my lives to regenerate because there’s no way I’m forking any amount of money to purchase extra moves and special abilities.

But come on, I have been stuck at this level for a very, very long time. Don’t I get any sort of immunity or consideration at least? Well, I do have the option of playing with gummy bears and matching their colors instead of eating them, though I reckon it’d probably result in sour tears. Anyone else with me?

Pesky Prepositions: final thoughts from the assignment

“I’ll meet you at SM Aura” or “I‘ll meet you in SM Aura”?  Which sounds better? Which one is grammatically correct? Do you sometimes wonder which preposition to use? Is it “in the plane” or “on the plane”? Those are the questions we resolved to address in our assignment.

I must admit I’m one of those rare dying breeds who find grammar fascinating and magical. I learned the Reed-Kellogg system of diagramming at 10 and was addicted to it. I was introduced to the phrase structure rules and the hybrid diagram not much later on and to the amazement of my professor, managed to catch on pretty quickly. I spent countless hours diagramming sentences, and like a cat that has caught a mouse, I would take my notes and practice sentences to the Faculty Center for consultation.

Over the years as a trainer, I’ve corrected a lot of people. (Now a part of me is beginning to wonder whether I became a Language Trainer for precisely that reason.) I have been that person who rants about misplaced or missing apostrophes, confused homophones,  incorrect sound production and other abuses to the English language. I would join other in ridiculing mistakes in signage and other print materials and poke fun at errors shared through social media, but I’m starting to turn a corner.

As a self-confessed language pedant, I had to ask myself my intentions behind my policing efforts. A part of me insists it’s the genuine concern for sliding standards and the duty to preserve the beauty of the language. But over the course of identifying possible misalignments in the assignment, it dawned on me that this insatiable need for error correction must be done with utmost caution to avoid sounding supercilious and egotistic.

People’s reactions to poor grammar are manifold and could range from quiet smugness, mock derision, actual derision, on-the-spot correction or a cursory tut for reproof. Don’t these serve to compound the cultural cringe phenomenon and the ESL learners’ feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness?

The speaking barrier

I must admit that in my years as a Language Specialist, I never really paid particular attention to the quiet ones who tend to fade in the background. Yet in the course of working on the assignment with my group mates, I found this muted minority being given careful consideration in the criteria. I realized that in assessing student knowledge and performance, it’s it important to understand the communication profiles of each learner and uncover the root of the speaking barrier for the quiet ones. More often than not, it’s easy to dismiss the quiet ones as the ones who lack the necessary language skills to express themselves. And it’s even easier to adopt the “horses-for-courses” attitude with them. It’s a language class after all. If they don’t want to talk, then so be it. The more I thought about it the more I realized I wasn’t being true to myself.

There is a difference between people being shy and people being quiet. They shy ones are insecure by nature and would have to be coaxed gently out of their shell, no matter what language they’re speaking. The quiet ones are stark observers who opt to accumulate and absorb information and reflect on these before going out and speaking. Looking back, I realize that as a learner, I was a sanguine observer who preferred to keep quiet and process the information before going out there and expressing myself.

Since we designed a program using the communicative language approach, the team activities might prove to be too overwhelming for the quiet ones, thereby compromising the results of the assessment. The initial silent period is a salient part of the learning process for the quiet ones and must be taken into consideration when planning assessments and activities.

From “Oh shit” to “Aha”

I was having a conversation the other day with a co-worker about our “Me First” generation’s often delusional capacity for entitlement and why so many people feel like they deserve the best life has to offer all the time, right out of the gate. While many valid theories were offered up, one that seemed to crop up time and time again that caught my attention, was that of the notion of independence.

Unlike many of you, I didn’t grow up playing sports. Physical Education classes were an agonizing gauntlet of stupid stunts, embarrassing flubs and undignified moments of mortification. It was one of my regrets, and to this day my utter lack of the sense of eye-hand coordination fills me with wonder. I wish basketball had been a more enjoyable experience for the ten-year old me, but alas, such could not be the case. If it had, the value of being part of a team would have been ingrained in me early on. It’s a lesson I will never take for granted and has proven invaluable to me especially when I started in the field of training. There’s a sense of security and comfort that fills you when you know that someone else has your back. It’s an exhilarating feeling knowing that all hell is not going to break loose if you suddenly have those off-kilter moments, that you’re not expected to put out every fire that breaks out.

Being the lone Language Specialist and a project manager with no team to speak of is a good reality to experience but also somewhat of a disappointment. It’s a challenging experience but I’m choosing to look at it from a different perspective for the benefit of my sanity. But this assignment has made me miss being part of a team. I must admit that at first I struggled with it as I found my ideas being vetoed and shelved. But once the shock wore off, I viewed it as a moment of pure indulgence.

When you are part of a team you realize you can’t do everything on your own. There may be stars on a team, those with exceptional talent who make your team special and carry more than their fair share, but they are nonetheless part of a greater whole, who no matter how exceptional can not thrive on their own. They need each part of the team to do their job in order to succeed. This is what I often forget. Life is not something you do on your own in a vacuum, especially when it comes to your career. There really is no independence. Relying on someone else’s effort, especially when it has a significant effect on your ultimate success, is hard. But it’s a fact of life for most of us, unless you work for yourself or you are a hermit living in the woods, hunting your own food for survival. Did it feel good to have my ideas questioned and shelved? Absolutely not! But I can either complain about my circumstances and teammates, or I can work to make my part more effective while helping others to be equally effective.

There is NOTHING like being part of a team where everyone contributes and we achieve success, not because of what I did, but because each team member, working together, accomplished their individual goals. Double plays turned, touchdown passes caught, corner kicks headed into the net. By the time we submitted our assignment, I began to see the collective effort and how every person’s abilities contributed to the overall success. I know that I don’t operate independently of the group, and I am rewarded based upon how WE do. I have been lucky enough to be a part of a great team for this assignment. Our group was like a well-oiled machine even though most of us hadn’t spoken a word to each other prior to teaming up.

This is how the world operates. As a collective. As a community. There is no independence, there is no “me”. People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have said time and time again that in order to be successful in business, you need great people who work together. The more people can move away from “I” and to on to “we” the more we will be prepared to change the world, and that is what truly brings the best of what life has to offer.

Building a team that works well together isn’t easy, but we managed to do just that.