Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Ten – Something completely different
By Chris Clancy
January 2006. The first semester at ZUEL finished.
I was told that the department was very happy with my performance. As a reward I was given a pay rise of 500 RMB per month. I was now earning the same as I had got at DJK, but for a lot less hours. I was happy with this considering that I didn't think my performance had been anything to write home about.
But, in all honesty, given the general standard of teaching, it wasn't too difficult to shine. All you had to do was make a bit of an effort.
At this point I still had no clear delivery plan for the course.
Certainly, there was no help or guidance from my colleagues in the department – I was very much on my own – a kind of "sink or swim" situation. I can only recall being officially observed once, maybe twice – even then nothing was said.
As mentioned before, whatever advice and support I did get was from the students.
I was determined to avoid the terrible start I'd had at the beginning of the first semester – and the uncertainty that followed – feeling my way week by week.
I couldn't go through that again.
I did my travelling early – down to Gunagzhou to see my son and his wife - this time I paid for a guide. It meant spending a lot more but it was worth every penny.
When I returned I got to work on the course. This occupied me, on and off, for the remainder of the holiday.
In the first semester I had been asked to give a number of talks to classes in other departments. These talks were usually about how I came to be in China and what had happened after. I tried to make them as interesting and humorous as I could. As I gave more and more of these talks I built up a kind of stand-up routine.
By the end of it I had lots of material to choose from.
This was my introduction.
When teaching began I kicked off each class using parts of this material – which parts I used depended on how things went and what questions came up - it lasted for about two teaching hours. It may sound a bit on the long side but actually it was just about right. It was a relaxed and friendly way to get things going – plus, they had an opportunity to get used to my voice and my accent.
After the classes I spoke to each monitor. I handed out a class list and asked them to divide their classes into groups of 4 – 6 students. This was to be done on a "friendship" basis. Each group would have a group leader. At the beginning of our next class they would each provide me with a list detailing group members along with each group leader's mobile number and email address.
This involved a lot of hassle and time for the monitors but I knew it would be done properly and on time. Most monitors take their duties very seriously and actually refer to it as their "job".
For large class sizes, the group system is a very effective management tool - for many reasons. The most important is that it can help to stop students getting "lost" in such big numbers. If they are part of a group then support is available. It's a way of holding classes like this together.
When I met classes for the second time that week I spent the first lesson going through the group system rationale. I also talked about the course structure and methods of assessment. As for methodology, the most important thing was that I would send group leaders a list of key technical accounting words and phrases in advance.
The idea was to "feed" the jargon week by week and let it build.
The job of group leaders was to meet their groups and make sure they were familiar with these key words and phrases before each class.
To my surprise, most of the groups did actually do this. For those that did, it helped the bonding process in their groups and, of course, made things easier for me and them
The second lesson was spent introducing something completely different.
The idea for this, "something completely different" thing, came to me quite by chance
A few weeks before I was shopping in a very large store called Metro. The attraction of this place was that I could buy Western brand products - especially food. It was expensive, but at least it was the real thing.
While there, in the booze section, I met a very large Australian gentlemen. He was stocking up with bottles of spirits. He didn't seem to be too choosy.
He was about my age.
It was his first time in this store. He asked me where he could find a few things. I offered to show him. We chatted as we walked. He told me he was an Oral English teacher.
"How long?" I asked.
"Oh … donkeys' years. Here, there and bloody everywhere."
Yes, he was very "Australian" – down to earth – no nonsense – no sides - no pretensions – speak as you find and call it as you see it.
When we got outside the store we chatted for a while more.
A few days later we met up for a drink. Well, I say "a drink"- that's what I had - he had a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I remember him pouring himself a very generous first measure – he threw in a splash of coke. As he did so he muttered something about his mouth being drier than a kangaroo's jockstrap.
"Up yours," he said raising his glass.
After a little bit of small talk we got on to the subject of teaching Oral English in China.
I mentioned how frustrating I had found it at all at DJK.
He went straight to the heart of the thing – no preamble.
"Look, most teachers, and I include the people who train them, just don't get it. They turn up with their little box of EFL magic tricks and then set about "teaching" Oral English. If the purpose of these classes is to get students talking then for most it's a complete and utter waste of bloody time and money. They won't speak. It's the teacher that does all the talking."
I couldn't argue with this. Not after my experience at DJK.
"The only way you're going to get students to speak is to force them."
"How?" I asked.
"Make them stand out in front of the class and do ten minute group presentations. No singing, no dancing, no reading. Everyone has to talk – no exceptions – week in week out for a full semester."
"What about topics?"
"Whatever they want."
"Six, no more, that's tops."
For the next hour or more he went through his teaching method from start to finish. He drank liberally as he did so. I can't say I noticed any discernable effect, adverse or otherwise. I asked more questions as he spoke – he had pretty good answers for most of them.
I remember saying it didn't sound like much fun?
"It's not supposed to be," he replied. "It can be, but that's up to them."
I also remember asking how he got them to take it seriously?
"I tell them right at the start there's no 80% minimum grade."
This needs a little explanation. The course grade for Oral English is usually determined by a one or two minute interview with each student at the end of the semester. The grade given will normally lie somewhere between eighty and one hundred percent.
The reason is that most employers in China will reject students with course grades lower than 80%.
I suppose you could call it an "unwritten" rule.
In my department at ZUEL, for example, we all gave students a good indication about what their end of semester exams would contain. The majority would score above 80%. If they didn't they only had themselves to blame.
It may sound ridiculous, but that's just the way it is and people have to deal with it.
Therefore, as a useful learning point, if you ever want to get the attention of Chinese students just mention the magic words, "course grade".
The man from Oz made it clear to his students that he didn't play the 80% game.
Each student in each group got an individual grade per presentation. He scored them using a number of categories; speech, pronunciation, participation and so on.
At the end of each week progress reports were sent to group leaders by email. Every student could see how they were doing. If it looked like they were heading for a sub-80% grade it was up to them to do something about it.
At the end of the semester all grades were aggregated and a single course grade given to each student.
And that grade was final – no negotiation.
"Everyone has to talk," he said again, "not just a handfull in the first two rows." He poured the last of his JD. "This is a better way of doing things - more honest too. If students want good grades then they got to bloodywell earn them!"
"But does it really work?" I asked.
"Damned straight it does! Providing you got the guts to put it in place and stick with it. Remember the old saying, 'Teacher first, friend second'."
He drained his glass and slammed it down on the table.
"Ripper," he declared loudly, "fair dinkum!"
This is what I like about Australians – you always know where you are – even when you don't know what they're talking about.
He had signalled that the evening was over.
We exchanged a few friendly words, shook hands and parted.
We didn't meet up again - which was probably a good thing – I can drink with the best of them, but that guy was on a different level. However, he left me with plenty to think about.
When I was looking for that extra "something" which I could use on my course I briefly considered using things like presentations, debates, critical thinking and so on. But I thought they'd turn out to be either non-starters or disasters or both.
Yes, I had planned to use a group system but I hadn't actually thought about using the groups to make presentations.
Obviously, I couldn't do things in the same way as him – for a start I wasn't teaching Oral English and, even if I was, I had too many students.
However, I could use his ideas and do something similar for part of my course.
I had four 45-minute lessons with each class. How about if I used one of these lessons each week for a group presentation?
I could let them choose any topic they liked but had to steer clear of sex, religion, politics and accounting.
I sold it to the students as a way of developing their presentation skills using PPT – an essential skill in today's business world. It would also help to develop other skills such as planning, research and team-working. The whole thing would be in English, last for at least thirty minutes and everyone in each group had to participate.
A single mark would be awarded to each group which would form part of their overall course grade.
The reason I gave them for the exclusion of accounting was that I wanted to get away from the seriousness of the whole thing. They would have one lesson each week when they could relax and, hoperfully, have some fun for a change.
The real reason for excluding accounting was that I thought, at that time anyway, that any such presentations would be a flop – that they could not be made interesting and entertaining – which was supposed to be the main purpose of the things.
The great benefit for me was that I could meet each group for up to two hours outside class. The first hour would be spent discussing and planning their presentation. The second, a few days later, would be spent watching the students rehearsing – usually the night before the actual presentation.
The hope was that this would help to break down the non-interaction barrier in class.
OK, I was dreaming, but it did bring other benefits.
I didn't mention anything about this to the department. I knew if I asked for permission they'd just say "No". Saying "Yes" would mean that someone somewhere would have to make a decision about introducing something new.
So I just went ahead with it.
This was the first time I'd raised my head above the parapet in China.
Unbeknown to me, a few people in the department took this as an opportunity to quietly lock and load, hunker down and take aim.
How fortunate I was not to be aware of this. Had I known I may well have abandoned the presentations.
Thank God I didn't.
There are times in life when ignorance isn't such a bad thing after all.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.