102 - Working in Beijing

We have moved yet again and I have not had the time, inclination and enthusiasm to write about what we have learned here - yet. Apologies to all who have been expecting something and thanks to Timo from Finland who has reminded me to get around to it.

Or, for those who might remember such things, usually sixth form near Christmas, a round tu it.

So Chinese New Year 2013 is happening now, as the dragon bows out and the snake worms its way into the national consciousness. Being a snake oneself, I’m not too happy with the connotations: “Here’s an apple, you might want to wear the leaf to cover that”; Slytherin, when I thought my house was Hufflepuff. And so on.

We moved to Beijing (that’s Peking for Luddites still living in the first half of the 20th century) because Kaplan didn’t want me anymore. I conclude I rocked the boat too much for their taste and I would claim that I cared more about the future of the company than the senior staff I met and rubbed the wrong way. May their competence levels bring them deserved rewards. Someone who writes in a similar way to me really let fly on the ISR website, I noticed. We liked Qingdao a lot, especially the people outside school and the locality.

Since there has been three months delay in getting around to writing, I think I had better separate the ‘moving to BJ” topic into various parts. Let this one be the work position; Australians, ‘work position’ means bent over and ready to act as British public schools are portrayed; Brits, just stop complaining for a bit, will you?

So, to Beijing. We’re both (note, both) working at the British School. I’ve come down or gone back or risen (depending on viewpoint) to classroom teacher of Maths. There is no Further Maths and I have had no small difficulty adapting to teaching Middle School; the students are international (meaning holders of non-Chinese passports) and the biggest fraction seems to be Korean, followed by German, though I’d love to find what the school says the divisions are. The lady wife has a post as a 1:1 Teaching Assistant, helping a Year 3 girl with her problems; C’s job has very little respite time (far less than mine) and is paid adequately for a local. That last is untrue for someone with C’s qualifications, which exceed my own, but is a consistent reflection of the way this country treats its people, heavily coloured by business balancing what it can get away with and what it thinks the customers want to see. It is racism under a different guise and worthy of an essay covering an uncomfortable issue.

I think this is the Llamasery, taken from Outside the wall of the Forbidden City (no longer much forbidden, unlike, say, Facebook access), taken  20080501 in the late afternoon, my camera says.

The school is a modern facility with three interconnected buildings, the middle one sensibly housing central services (admin, theatre, pool, canteen, etc) and two separate wings for the Juniors and the Seniors (division at y6/7). The school, I’m told, is 1300 pupils, 700 in the Juniors, but I don’t see that many heads. Y11 is about 40 and a similar number across Y12 and Y13, so the bottom heavy nature of the school - having undergone recent huge expansion - will only even out slowly. Understandably, then, there is a Middle School feel throughout the Senior site. Some of the staff find the A-level work too challenging and that creates an atmosphere that is new to me, where competent people hold admin posts and are not comfortable with their own subject knowledge. That in no way weakens the school and I find it delightful. After the constantly shifting sands of senior management it is very pleasant to take a rest and accept the daily tasks as they appear. Of course, one can’t help but fault the system every time it hiccoughs (hiccups, for those that didn’t recognise the word, or other bodily accidental sounds) and what needs to change is the attitude of staff to constructive repair of process. As I have seen too often in Britain, the staff feel overworked and stressed, with the result that some are in work-avoidance mode, partly defeated. The upper senior staff are not succeeding in changing such attitudes. Been there, done it, fixed it and now labelled too old to be relevant. This is agism; I can’t be bothered to get stressed about it: that would be a pointless, fruitless action. I will do what I can to bolster confidence and push improvement into action - practice that ‘management from underneath’ that I have written at length about.

The Maths is the Edexcel syllabus and the A-level seems to me to be deficit in many respects, so much so that I think students may well be going to university thinking they can do maths (or worse, think they use it well) and having a really bad experience when they meet the expectations of others, especially those who’ve studied under MEI (good applied understanding) or CIE (more academic and far wider in scope). From a school’s point of view, Edexcel is attractive because it is going to provide loads of ‘good’ grades. What I do not understand is how the AQA can be persuaded that the MEI, Edexcel and CIE exams are equivalent. The Core content that is common is far less than I led myself to believe when teaching other syllabi. As the daughter might say, supervision Fail.

What do I learn from that? How are the students best served? There’s an argument that says it is in everyone’s (local) interests to have the highest rated grades as results, which would mean that those same localised interests say that the ‘easiest’ course of a collection with the same name is the optimum in terms of results - for all, at an individual level. A collective dumbing down is of individual benefit, apparently. I’d prefer to see academic levels have a standard maintained or even escalated (lessons always set targets on wheels so as to move them further away as students respond, why shouldn’t the external targets move too?)). There’s another argument that says school is preparation1 for university and therefore (presumably) we have standards to reach to enable university to provide its form of teaching (far more nearly independent learning than school). I worry that we are providing students with incorrect impressions both of their own ability and that scope of their subjects. I imagine someone going to study Maths on the basis of a single A-level, never having studied complex number, whose limit of calculus is integration by parts (the last chapter in the last module of Edexcel C4). I worry, conversely, that I successfully taught the whole of C4 in five lessons - well to be fair, I’d like one more so the kids agree with me - I told them that I’d just demonstrated university standard, but, I’m afraid, compared to teaching Further CIE Maths last year, this was a walk in the park, as the CIE course required the same scope and speed for more like 15-20 weeks. And even I think that maths is difficult, since I get a sizeable chunk of it wrong.

It is extremely interesting to mix with the primary students. Our grandchildren in kiwi-land are year 1 and 2 I think, and this school goes from Nursery (which means, I guess, not nursing), through ‘Teddies’ (no teddies seen yet) to reception (they were received two years earlier) and then onwards through to year 6. The labels are no dafter than still calling years 12 & 13 ‘the Sixth’. The primary staff mix only a little with the senior staff and that mixing, like my own, is largely due to spousal interaction. I see little mixing between the year teachers (Y3 doesn’t talk to Y6, that I see) and there could be a lot more interaction even within a year group than I am seeing (I see virtually none). Because the Senior school teachers change students each lesson (where Junior teachers see the same kids all week), there are perhaps fewer reasons to interact - and, indeed, there’s precious little interaction among the seniors. What I already want to see is far more mixing, cross-curricular messages and the better learning that comes from that. PMC and Shiplake (staff and pupils) can pat themselves on the back here; this is what happens when the Common Room is strong, has continuity and where staff have capacity for doing more than the minimum. At BSB, as the snapshot view is showing, the staff retention is not high enough to help, the staff themselves are not coping well with the rate of change  [d/dt (Teachers)...] and there are employee reactions that are not good for the well-being of the school long-term. Staff at the top are able and aware and trying to tackle this, but there’s an element of recursion that makes the problem continue. As ever, some of the people moving on are the very ones one wants to keep; what we need to see from HR agencies is something much more like the US Navy ‘recruiter’ whose task is to fit people into the best places for them and for the Navy. Staff I might want to lose (I’m speaking generally, not with any part of BSB in mind) will often fit very well into a school of a different character; I am unaware that Heads interact openly enough for such implicit honesty to be applicable. Nor would I like someone telling me “He’ll fit in really well at your place” when coupled with the opposite message for where the person under discussion is right now. I have written comment in recent references (where people have successfully moved upwards) to the effect that the teacher needs support, to be enthused, to work in a positive environment - such people find working overseas difficult. Similarly people who have worked in China will find neighbouring places like Singapore very easy living, where people who have only worked in Britain will be in for a shock - culture shock. From my recent perspectives, not only agents, but local HR and school governors seem unable to recognise these difficulties. Of course, combined with the wish to say whatever people would like to hear (in interview) doesn’t make the process particularly good. I’d love to see how companies measure their success at recruiting.

On which, a little more un-called for not-quite moaning. We have a great need for more competent staff in China (if you’re BSB staff and reading this, you can wear the cap if you think it appropriate, but I did not write that, I meant what I wrote). To do that well, senior staff often need to go offsite to do interviewing in volume. Those same senior staff are not (despite the scuttlebutt humour) useless nor are they a waste of space. When they’re away, lots of trolleys fall off their wheels - a lot is not done, but not in any way that the same management could notice in a short time. It would be far better in my view, to send away some other senior staff, preferably those who will be interacting in a daily basis with the folk being recruited. Another solution would be to use the older staff (I can think of more than myself at BSB) or the recently retired - people who have the experience and the time to do this; give them a good brief and they can go, surprisingly cheaply, to find the best available candidates for the posts to be filled. That may even change the objective; it might even change it for the better. It seems to me [this is repetition] that I’d like any sort of agent acting on my behalf to find the best available candidate. One might even redefine what ‘best’ meant under those circumstances.

2130208 DJS

1 I mistyped and put reparation for preparation for university. Having a hard time at university is reparation for an easy time at A-level, the direct opposite.           20130314

For very little of this was I thinking critically of the current employment. Fo almost all of it I was and have been reviewing my view of various aspects of school in a general sense as prompted by a close encounter with a different model from those of the previous 5 years. I could be critical of BSB’s business model, but would far rather look to find answers to questions such as “Why is this the preferred model?”, because the reasoning is what actually interests me. This is not too different from asking how to skin a cat (I gather there are many ways) - in the same way there are many ways to run or model a school and there many which are successful. Understanding why some models are appropriate in one situation and not in another is, I think, worthwhile. Even if no-one is going to reward me for that understanding.                                                   20130314

© David Scoins 2017