Once again, I find myself looking back on a year past, remembering what I’ve done and evaluating the changes in my life. A year really is an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a familiar one and one that’s easy to use as a metric.
I don’t think I really did any sort of systematic goal setting during the last new year. At the time, I was having too much fun hanging out with my girlfriend of the time, working on the school and reading the sci-fi books Poagao had lent me.
I do remember what my goals were, though. I wanted to really turn the school into something great– not just a competitive business, but something my students would someday look back upon and consider to have changed their lives for the better.
I wasn’t too terribly focused on learning Chinese at that point. I was already well past the level required for daily living, and I’d finished my two children’s books that I’d assigned myself on my 28th birthday. My social life was also great, especially during the summer while Eric was in town.
I think fitness was something of a minor goal, but I can’t remember too well.
The one thing I put the most of my heart into, the school, has done relatively well. It’s still not really making much money, but I’m really, really happy with the quality of the education. My highest level class, which I took from absolute beginners 2 years ago, has read over a dozen level two graded readers (OUP, Penguin and Cambridge), and had few problems understanding a level 3 reader, Sleepy Hollow, entirely from listening to its accompanying CD. Not bad for just 4 class hours a week for two years.
The parents seem to be pleased, too. I still have 80% of the students from my very first class that I opened just over two years ago. One who had left for a year even came back this summer!
It’s a bit difficult to calculate school growth, though. Some of the growth in the size of the school was bought and probably at a higher price than we should have paid when we bought out Ding’s. With the school came a lot of students, many who left when we moved in, and a couple of part time teachers, one of whom is still with us.
Just looking at the total number of students in our evening classes, our growth is an astounding +181% from December 2007 to December 2008. A fairer comparison would be to look at just the number of students in my own evening classes, and that comes up to a less impressive +84% over the past year. The afternoon classes, which I taught for the last two years, but which a new teacher has taken over for this year are up about 40%. Student numbers for our advanced classes have been pretty flat, but we’ve revised our definition of “advanced” sharply upwards.
Being such a small school, growth is pretty easy to come by. The coming year will be the real test. If we can grow by anything like the same rate this coming year, then it will be clear we’re offering something people really want.
I made limited progress in terms of Chinese learning or getting in better shape.
I’m working my way through a children’s book, which seems devoted to making sure Taiwanese children believe in precursor civilizations, the Loch Ness Monster, the bermuda triangle and the existence of great pyramids and a sphinx on Mars. I’m only reading a few pages a week, though.
I’ve been running once or twice a week, but I push myself hard occasionally. My resting pulse is now down from about 67 to 55, and my blood pressure is now on the low end of normal, but I have pretty much the same weight as before.
For the time being, I feel content to continue down my current path. I do want to see if I can start using my Japanese a bit more than I have been, though. Watching Heroes, all the parts with Hiro Nakamura and his adventures have been making me think about looking for a conversation partner some podcasts and a JLPT study guide.
Thoughts on 2008(yuehan.org)
Ever since taking a stake in my school, I’ve been very strict about failing students. Experience has taught me how necessary it is to fail the students who should fail.
A long time ago, when I was at a large chain school, I wasn’t allowed to fail students. Due to business reasons that were incomprehensible at the time, I had to just keep giving students re-test after re-test until they passed. After passing them, these students would drag the entire class’s progress to a snail’s pace over the next semester. Invariably, those same students ended up failing the next semester. Letting them continue was not only bad for their classmates, but it hurt their learning too.
Now, I have a better understanding of how my old boss felt. Many parents are simply too proud to accept the idea of their child repeating a semester. Many would take their children to a different school, rather than let them repeat a semester. Their reaction is even stronger than that of parents who can’t accept the results of entrance tests.
I know first hand the business costs of actually failing students. I fail about 15% of the students in each class every semester, and those that fail are more likely to quit our school than those who pass. I’ve probably lost over a dozen students who would have stayed if I hadn’t made them repeat a semester. Especially for a small school without external funding, that hurts.
However, the benefits of failing them are clear– the rest of a class can move more quickly without them, and they can learn more in a class that’s suited to their level. In the long run, the superior quality of education provided does lead to more new students.
Considering my goals of putting education first, I’ve been very, very strict about failing students. Anyone who fails a semester test has to drop down a level, as does anyone who fails a smaller test and two subsequent retests. But this week, I let a student continue after failing two retests of a smaller test.
She told me that she really wanted to stay in her class. She offered to do extra work. Her parents had nothing to do with it. She was motivated to work harder, so that she could keep learning at a faster pace. That was hard to say no to. If she really is self-motivated, she’ll probably do fine. If not, then she’ll fail the next final test and drop down a level then.
Today, a prospective teacher who came in to visit my first and second grade class seemed genuinely impressed with the amount of material they’ve learned so far. They came as complete beginners, and they’ve been in my EFL classes for six hours a week for just under a year, doing the Up and Away series.
I made a comment about how one of my students really struggled with his reading compared to the rest of the class, and the visiting teacher told me that the kid was equivalent to third year students at his school. Then, he went on to ask me several detailed questions about how my students had made so much progress in a single year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to answer everything before I had to get ready for my next class.
I had planned to email my thoughts to him directly, but then it occurred to me that others might have the same questions. Undoubtedly, some readers will have differing opinions, and that’s fine. However, if my ideas help a few teachers and a few more students, then I’m more than happy to share them.
This should be self-explanatory. With only six hours a week of class time, complete beginners need support via their first language. The goal isn’t to minimize the amount of Chinese they use in class; it’s to maximize the amount of English they use. This makes a huge difference and it’s worth it, even though it requires a teacher with more language skills.
In many ways, motivation is the single most important factor in teaching. Every great teacher I’ve studied has been a master at it. If your students aren’t at least trying do to whatever class activities you give them, then the rest is a loss. Personally, I’ve gotten the best results from using a multi-pronged approach. If the kids don’t do what they should be doing, there are consequences. On the other hand, when they go the extra mile, there are rewards. Quick 1 minute motivational speeches here and there also go a long way.
Teaching phonics takes time. There’s no doubt about that. Just getting students to the point where they can hear the difference between the various long and short vowel sounds, the “ar”, “er/ir/ur”, “or/ore/oar”, “air/are”, “ear/eer”, “ire/ier”, “ure”, and “ow/ou” sounds can easily take a couple of months. The “ng” sounds (i.e. “rang” v.s. “rain”) are a nightmare for many Taiwanese people. And after that, it takes dozens of phonics rules before students can reliably sound out most English words they see or spell out words they hear.
This time is well spent, though. Teaching phonics will help students improve their listening skills, will improve their pronunciation, and it will help them read unfamiliar words. Without implementing a serious phonics curriculum, it’s difficult to use Dr. Seuss books or other books for English speaking children. With good phonics, though, the kids learn a lot reading them and they love them.
Unfortunately, an obsession with spelling runs rampant through east Asian EFL. Worse still, it takes a lot of time to get eight year-olds to be able to accurately spell a list of twenty words. Rather than making an effort to do so, I just keep teaching them more material. Comprehension is necessary before I’ll go on. Perfect spelling isn’t.
Maybe while the students are on the Level 2 Up & Away book, they have problems spelling half or even two thirds of the words in the book, but a few months later, they’ll already be on book 4 and they’ll find they can spell quite a few more of the words from book 2. As their phonics skills improve, their mistakes become more and more like those of native speakers (e.g. misspelling “meal” as “meel” rather than as “mil”), and as they read more their mistakes become less frequent.
I can’t emphasize enough how important reading is. It’s the single easiest way for kids to get more English input. It reinforces all the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned, and they usually enjoy it, too.
If you notice most of your students have the same problem, then it’s probably your fault, not theirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to grammar, pronunciation, reading skills, or even classroom behavior. If the majority of the class has the problem then it’s your job as a teacher to find a way to fix it.
Periodically reviewing your notes and looking for things to improve makes all the difference in the long run.
I’ve always loved our bookcase at the school. It’s functional, it looks nice, and it actually draws in our students. None of my previous English teaching jobs in Taiwan have had anything even remotely like it. Some schools have had a mostly ignored bookcase full of things that are way too hard for the students, but not books that the students actually read.
In some ways our bookcase was a symbol of my long struggle to set up an extensive reading program. Ron, to his credit, was the most open and reasonable boss I’ve ever had. He actually read the entire Day and Bamford book on extensive reading that I lent him. In the end, though, I wanted to take reading a bit further than he did. After deciding to move to Pagewood, I finally had the chance.
It’s also a nice bookcase. It’s wide, it can hold a lot of books and it lays pretty nicely against the wall. That’s why it was worth it for Simon and I carry it all the way from our old building to the new one and then take it up to the eleventh floor via the stairs. I must have sweat out 3kg water during the trip and my forearms still haven’t recovered, but look!
Our students have their old bookcase back.
Recently, I’ve found myself in a position to be hiring EFL teachers for the first time. While I did gain some management experience as the owner of a three crew house painting business back when I was trying to pay my way through college, this is mostly uncharted territory for me. With the house painting, training was brief, and I was only looking for short-term help throughout the summer months. Some degree of physical exertion was involved– carrying 30 gallon tubs of paint, climbing ladders, walking around on slanted rooftops and that sort of thing.
My current search for an EFL teacher, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite. I’m looking for a long-term hire, someone who will build up from part time into a full time position and stay at it for at least three years, there’s not much physical exertion involved at all, it’s far more intellectually demanding, and people skills are of primary importance.
I’ve started looking well in advance. We have some good teachers now, and they aren’t at a full schedule. It’s a good thing, too. This might be a lengthy search. I put up an ad both on this site and on a free Taiwan classifieds board, and the applications have been streaming in. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people emailing me resumes have been woefully unqualified for the position. Of course, I’ll respect the privacy of all our applicants, but here are a few general examples:
It’s difficult for me to understand how someone living in Toronto who can’t speak Chinese at all, has no teaching experience and wants to “try Taiwan” could see himself as a good match for the following:
“Need a dedicated, professional Chinese-speaking N. American teacher. Long-term position.”
I can understand how someone who is a little weak in one area, but motivated would take a shot and hope for the best. An applicant with weaker Chinese skills could study intensively prior to opening classes and make it. Someone who only has 6 months of prior teaching experience rather than a year, might be able to make up for that inexperience through hard work. But if an ad says extensive training is involved and the applicants have to be willing to work Monday through Saturday, it’s a bit unreasonable to apply just for one class time slot and be unwilling to train first!
To an extent, I can understand why a prospective employee would want to get as much money as possible for as little work as possible from the very beginning. In general, everyone wants the best deal they can get. I suspect that the reason so many people looking for this job are looking for the best short-term deals they can get are due to the low-trust nature of the job market for teaching English in Asia. Local message boards are full of horror stories about bosses who promise the stars and renege once they’ve got leverage over their teachers. I’m sure that many of the stories are true, but it’s so bad that many foreigners I know living in Taiwan discount job bonuses completely when they evaluate potential schools. If people think the raise and bonus system is some sort of scam, they won’t be willing to put in the work necessary to get started. Maybe in a year or two, when I have a teacher making well in excess of 100k/month and telling his friends, then recruitment will be easier. For now, sadly, there isn’t much I can do to make applicants trust me.
So far, everyone who has actually come in for an interview has been a pretty good candidate. Obviously, no one has all the necessary skills before training begins, but I’m happy with the people I’ve seen so far. More than anything, they seem to have a genuine interest in education.
The difficult part will be finding someone looking for a long-term position. Most EFL teachers are understandably cautious about taking a multi-year position.
Last week, I encountered a dilemma of the sort that I’m really not qualified to deal with… and yet I had to. A new virus has been all over the news in Taiwan. To me, it doesn’t seem like much more than a particularly nasty flu, but a few children have already died from it. Some of the more excitable newscasters have even compared it with SARS. While I fully understand the need to effectively quarantine outbreaks, I felt that the media and the populace at large panicked to an undue degree during the SARS outbreak a few years ago.
One of my students’ schools closed her classes down for 10 days. She wasn’t sick herself; it was a precautionary measure. I hadn’t even been aware of this fact, until some of my other students’ parents started suggesting that we not let her come to my classes for a week and a half. I thought this was ridiculous. If they felt the risk was that high, they could keep their own kids at home. Barring any occurrence of conclusive symptoms in her, or a fever at the very least, it seemed unfair to bar her from my class.
Without my knowledge, the secretary called her parents and said something to the effect that all the parents would need to meet before the next class and decide what to do with her. Her parents mistook that to mean that we didn’t want her there, and decided to pull her completely. They were wounded at the idea that everyone thought of their daughter as a “disease carrier” or something to that effect. The speed at which these events happened was pretty shocking. Others seemed likely to pull their own kids if she weren’t kept out of the class. Virtually as soon as I knew anything was wrong at all, parents were taking sides and passions were flaring.
What a mess. In the end, a great deal of talking and smoothing of ruffled feathers (along with a drop in media coverage of this flu) smoothed everything out. We really should have a standard set of procedures to deal with this sort of problem.
I’ve been glossing the Penguin Reader version of White Fang for my students tomorrow. It’s the story of a 3/4 breed wolf/dog who lived around the Mackenzie River. The book’s a bit harder than what my kids have been reading, but it seems pretty accessible to them since it has so many animals in it. After having read Pocahontas last semester, some of the kids like the idea of reading another book with Indians in it, too.
I kind of wish I’d had a chance to see some of the natural beauty in that part of Canada myself. Unfortunately, I fell into the same trap everyone else does during my last visit. I made a beeline for Vancouver and stayed there the whole time.
One of the great things about teaching EFL is seeing the different responses of each class to the same material. My old Monday/Thursday class finished reading Pocahontas (the 45 page Oxford Bookworms version) a bit back, and they enjoyed it quite a bit. One student had a few difficulties with all the new words, and the Indian names in particular, but even she got into it by the end. The interesting thing with this class, though, was their reaction to the story.
Most classes talk about how they think it was great that Pocahontas lived with in Jamestown and learned English, or how it was exciting that she went to England, or how John Smith should have married her, or how the Indians should have killed the English settlers. Not this class, though. Nope. All they wanted to talk about was how bad John Smith was. And not for how he handled the Algonquin, either. Nope. He was veeeerry bad because he went back to England while nearly dying from an illness and didn’t send a letter to Pocahontas, who was only 14 and didn’t know how to read yet anyway. What an insensitive jerk!
This last week has been the roughest work week for me yet. I’m very pleased with the progress of my students, and the development of my EFL curriculum, but the business side of things has been disastrous. I had thought that I’d be opening two new classes this Monday, but neither opened.
We had a list of several students who wanted to attend my evening classes but couldn’t find space this spring. None of them were still interested when we called. The only three remaining students who want to take the class are ones I’ve given entrance tests to over the last couple of weeks.
What’s worse still, is the fact that nobody wants to enroll for my 1st and 2nd grade class. Originally, there were four students who were planning on enrolling, plus a few maybes, but now there aren’t any. There was one mother who was planning on signing up a pair of twins just last night, if we could move the class time half an hour earlier, but when we talked to her today, she said she’d found something else. Ditto for the other two who had signed up.
Of all of my classes, there are none I’m as proud of as my 1st and 2nd grade class that just finished this summer. I’ve never had a class make such great progress in my entire life. Some students who had studied for years at Sesame Street or Uncle Jason tried to join that class after it had been going for just over 6 months, and it was too hard for them in every aspect. It’s was no surprise that students were much better at phonics and spelling than those from other schools. However, my students also had learned more grammar, and had far, far larger vocabularies. Over the last year, I’ve poured so much of my time and my effort into designing and teaching the best classes I possibly can and the results show. Being faced with the idea that nobody wants these kinds of classes felt like being punched in the gut.
I feel like we’re always right on the cusp… if we can just get the number of students we need to open a class all at the same time, then it’s great. If we come up a few short, though, those who have already signed up leave by the time a few more kids trickle in. All of my summer students’ parents are pleased with class and have decided to continue. The problem is getting new students in the door to replace the older ones who can’t continue. Direct mailing has been almost completely ineffective. We need some better way.
I passed out stacks of fliers at a local elementary school yesterday, but not even a single prospective student came into the school today.