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On Finding A Better School

Each time teachers or school administrators resign but expressed intentions to continue with their career in the academia, their colleagues would tell them this – “I hope that you find a better school.” I heard that several times because I also moved from one school to another – 6 times in the Philippines and twice here in South Korea – in the past 31 years.

Hiring committees in the academe consider “school-hopping” as a red flag. Some (if not most) people in charge of recruiting  teachers or  school officials think that when an applicant for an academic position has moved from one school to another several times, hiring them is a risky proposition. To this, I disagree.

You may disagree with my disagreement but I think that depriving applicants of the opportunity to get hired because  they “hopped” from one school to another is b—s–t! Recruiters who subscribe to the notion that transferring from one academic institution to another is an indication of an attitude problem on the part of the applicant think that they are morally better than anyone else – holier-than-thou. They should not forget that there are justifiable reasons teachers and school officials may do so. Of course it’s a different story if the hopping is due to an applicant getting fired from their position for whatever reasons and there are ways of determining if that’s the case.

At the  very least, the applicants described must be given a chance to be interviewed and afforded  the dignity to explain themselves. In my case, I tell you, if you would know my reasons why I left the last two schools where I served as a school administrator (where I stayed only for a year each), before I came here to South Korea, I could almost hear you saying “that’s the best decision to make” and that  you would not have second thoughts doing the same if you were me. 

There are a thousand and one reasons why teachers and school administrators resign. Some of them are justifiable, some are not. Reasons could also vary from professional to personal, sometimes both. But for those whose reason, specifically, is to find a better school, there is one question whose answer you should carefully contemplate on– “Does a school better than where you are presently working (or where you were previously employed)  exist?”

For those who like me “hopped” from one school to another – Did you find a better school? What about me? Did I find a school better than the previous ones that employed me as a teacher and as head of a department or of the school as a whole?

Before I, or any of you who, like me, moved from one school to another, at least once, answer the questions aforementioned (and before those who might also be considering leaving their current academic positions to find a “better school” make their final decision) there is another question that should be answered also:

 “What, FOR YOU, would make one school better than the others?”

Yes, I emphasized the phrase FOR YOU because when you look for a better school you will definitely be using your own standards to guide your choice. Only you know whether the personal norms you will be using agree with the existing (and research-based) measures used  in judging whether a school is good or bad. Only you know what philosophy, if any, informs those benchmarks that you will be using.   

For you, probably, a school is better when it is paying higher and giving more benefits. Nobody would fault you if that’s one of the bases, or it could be the primary basis,  you’re using to judge the worthiness of a school. As I said, I don’t blame you. Who would not want to graze where the pasture is greener? Who would not want a pasture where there are waterholes bursting with fresh water?

But there are other things that should be taken into consideration. In that school, you may be satisfied with the compensation package but what about the organizational climate and working conditions? Will you not consider those things? Would you not check first if behind the bushes in the pasture lions or tigers are not lying waiting to devour you? Would you not check first if in the waterholes submerged are crocodiles and snakes ready to bite you?

Will you not try to find out if it is a school wherein people, from top to bottom, treat each other professionally and humanely?

Is it a school that has benevolent administrators and ideal teachers?

Is it a school where while you are enjoying the pay, you would also be happy and peaceful?

Is it a school where you could grow personally and professionally?

Is it a school where you don’t disagree with the policies because they are perfect?

If the answer to each of the foregoing questions is a yes, then it means you have found a better school. Congratulations! And I think you found not just a school better than your previous one but THE PERFECT SCHOOL.

But do you honestly think you can really find a school that would answer yes to all of the questions above?

I hate to disappoint you but the answers is — NO!

Believe me.

And why you should believe me?

I have more than 3 decades of experience in the academe as a teacher and as a school administrator at the same time – transferred to different schools several times in the Philippines and here in South Korea and worked with teachers from different parts of the world. I have seen the best and the worst in the academe from both sides of the fence – the employers (school officials) and the employees (teachers). I can tell you with all honesty that there are demons and angels in both sides of aisle.

Believe me that no matter how good the compensation a school will give you, you will not be contented. You will always wish that they give you more… you will always want  more. Humans are hard to satisfy. If you say I am mistaken, that you are satisfied with what you’re receiving now then you are not like most of us. You are probably not human. You are a sentient being… an angel.

Believe me also that no matter how good the school administrators (or owners) are,  some people in the organization will always find something wrong with them. That’s just how people are naturally wired. They are programmed to find faults and trained to see what’s wrong. I am not saying all have that kind of attitude and tendencies. And I sincerely hope that you are the exception.

But what about you? Are you nor really like that? Don’t you have the mindset that those people holding offices are born to make things difficult for their subordinates – that the policies they implement are making your life difficult?  If yes, I tell you this, you will never find a better school. In your next school, with that kind of mindset, you will see the same problems and you will hurriedly pack your things again and leave after a year or less.

The employers and employees, like the administration and opposition parties in the political spectrum, are seemingly locked in an ancient struggle we call the battle of good and evil. As to who’s who – good or evil –  nobody knows What I know is that employees are naturally positioned to think that they are always at the receiving end of the bargain. That policies are inimical to their interest, that they are given too much work but are paid less, and — they think that they can do better than their school administrators. Come on girl! I dare you put up your own school and let’s find out if you would not become the school owner/administrator you hate.

Educators – you teachers and administrators – will definitely find a new forest but one thing for sure you will be the same animal there and don’t be surprised if you’ll find the animals in that forest as very much like the ones you left in your former forest. I will bet my house and savings that the problems and issues  you experienced and had in your former school will be the same you will encounter in your next school. You know why? Human beings are the same where ever you go. And you? Believe me, you will be the same person where ever you go. Unless you decide to change. And that is the prerequisite to finding a better school or a better workplace. You will find out why if you read on.

Oh… so you decided to read on. Thanks!

So, what happened to my quest for a better school?

First, here’s what I found out.

You searching for a better school – one better than your former school – is like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot… who never came. I used this analogy hoping that you are familiar with Samuel Beckett’s existentialist  play entitled, “Waiting for Godot”. For all of you thinking that you can find that school somewhere – that one better than your previous – imagine me as the boy telling Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not be coming tonight and I will return again tomorrow to tell you the same thing – that Godot is not coming… that you will never find a better school.

Why?

Because that better school we are searching is an abstraction –  an ideal. That school exists nowhere but in our minds and in our hearts. We don’t search for the better school but we make the school where we are better by becoming a better educator.

We create the better school when the pursuit of our pedagogical functions as educators is not predicated on the material gains we get in return for the efforts we exert. The efforts you exert, from the creation of  your lesson plans (setting your objectives, designing your learning activities, constructing your tests, and what have you)  to their execution in the classroom is a priceless endeavor that can not be valued monetarily. Its significance is intangible.

When at the end of the month  you exclaim that your pay is not commensurate to  all the efforts and sacrifices you put up in the classroom (and at home because most of the time you have to bring home work you could not finish in school), it is an indication that you may might have embraced the wrong profession. The solution is not to find a better school that gives higher compensation and less work but to search for another job that would give you what you value more – MONEY.  And hey, I’m not saying that’s bad. Me too likes money… lots of it. But if earning as much money as you could, the academe is not the right place for you. You should stay as far away as possible from the academe. I advise you to try becoming an entrepreneur. Who knows you might be the next Jeff Bezos or Warren Baffet.

Those who fully embraced teaching and acknowledging that it is not purely a profession done to earn a living but a vocation at the same time that has to be pursued for a higher purpose – that of preparing young people for life and to become the best they could be – find their pay envelopes bursting  with both money and sense of fulfillment. They receive intangible benefits – happiness and contentment. They are the teachers and school administrators who found a better school – it’s in their hearts and minds. They found joy in what they do.

We make the school where are better when we begin to acknowledge that we are in the academic institutions where we are  not for ourselves, not for our colleagues, and not for our school administrators.

For whom then that we are in a school and why are we teachers?

It’s sad if you don’t know the answer.

STUDENTS.

Yes, the students are the reason why you’re in school. The students are the reasons why you are a teacher. The students are the ones that gives essence to your being an educator.

Just like a woman that could not be called a mother if she has no son or daughter, adopted or biological.

Right? She’s just a woman (and a wife), but not a mother, if she has no child or children.

And would you call yourself a teacher  without a student. I think not. Those buildings in campuses of schools would be referred to only  as structures, collectively they could not be called a school, if there are no students.

You can make a school better when you acknowledge that you are there for the students.  It is important that you nurture your relationships with your colleagues and administrators but the more important relationship that you must nurture is that with your students.

The school becomes better when you realize that you are there to perform your functions as a teacher and not as  a critic waiting for the slightest mistakes from your colleagues and the leaders of the institution so that you will have  a topic to discuss (or shall I say gossip about)  with  your friends or an issue to hurl against the people concerned.

When you realize that changes being implemented would redound to the interest of the students being the most important stakeholders of the institution – the institution whose very reason for existing is to serve them – then you just made  the school all the more better. When you realize that such changes, and the corresponding adjustment you have to make are necessary, for the good of the student then you become a pillar of the better school where you wish to be.

Good riddance if the reason you leave the school is because you view necessary changes as too much, not too much per se, but too much as far as you and your standards are concerned. I hope that you are not so entrenched in your comfort zone that you construe the demand of existing and evolving circumstances for you to change and to learn something new as being unreasonable and disrespectful of your rights as an individual. That’s why you are at the verge of leaving your current academic position to look for a better school – and your idea of a better school is probably one that will not mind you not wanting changes to happen, one that will pretend not to see the badge of mediocrity displayed proudly in your chest.

The school where you are becomes the better school you are searching when you decide that even if nobody is watching, you conduct yourself within the bounds of professionalism and excellence that all educators are duty-bound to uphold. Your school becomes better when you make it a policy to never short-change your students.

Now, have I found a better school?

Eventually I did.

I found a better a school. It is where I am now. You cannot see it, because it is in my heart and in my mind.

I found it when I started to focus on the main reason I am a teacher – the students.

I found it when I decided to trust my colleagues and administrators that they know what they are doing. I trust that my administrators have got to do what they need to. I trust that my colleagues will do no less. My job is not to mind what they are doing because I have no control over those. My job is to guide my own students into becoming the best they could be and into getting themselves ready to live life when they finally leave school.

In that school, I found joy.

That joy make me not work, but play. Since then, school has ceased to be a workplace, but a playground. Yes, I play with my students. And for playing with them, I am given a reward everyday and every payday. Every payday – a well-deserved paycheck. Everyday – happiness.

Teachers, Leadership Styles and McGregor’s Theories X and Y Assumptions

teachers

Managing people in both the corporate world and the academia industry is difficult and complicated. It requires not only mental and emotional competence  but also toughness. It is an enterprise not meant for the fainthearted and weak-kneed.

Managers need both smarts and grit. They need to be astute and their patience boundless. Perhaps the trickiest part of the job of those in supervisory positions is as  leaders they   have to determine which leadership style is most applicable given the kind of people they are leading and the nature of the business they have.

Leadership theories abound and before managers, supervisors, or administrators  are catapulted into the position as head of the organization they might already have a style which is inherent in them and framed by their education and  personal experiences.

As leaders, they could be any of what Koontz and Weilhrich in “Behavioral Theories” describe as autocratic, democratic, or free-rein leader (laissez-faire). Those in the position of leadership (according to the said authors) have the following options: maintain strong control over their subordinates and lead using their ability to withhold or give rewards and punishment; consult with the people they are leading on proposed actions and decisions and encourage participation from them; or use their power very little, if at all, giving subordinates a high degree of independence in their operations.

As to which of the aforementioned styles is most effective is hard to determine. Those espousing  the “Contingency Theory”  claim that there is no best way to organize  a corporation, to lead a company, or to make decisions. They add that the optimal course of action is contingent upon the internal and external situation. This is the principle that guided me when I was given the opportunity to lead.

In my experience as school administrator (1994-2012), I figured that  there is no one-size-fits-all kind of leadership.  I realized that the way to supervise people is a decision that designated leaders could arrive at only when they assume office. They may have a blueprint on how to lead when they take the reins of leadership in their organization but such is not set in stone. Whether as leaders they become autocratic, democratic, or free-rein depends largely on the kind of people being led.

Douglas McGregor, in his Theory X and Theory Y,  presented two opposing perceptions about employees. Theory X assumes that employees inherently dislike work, avoid responsibilities and seek formal direction and should therefore be coerced, controlled, or threatened with punishment. Conversely, in theory Y, they (employees) are viewed quite the opposite. They need not be controlled and closely supervised because they love work, exercise self-direction and self-control, accept and even seek responsibility, and make innovative decisions.

When leaders have already determined under which set of those perception the people they are supervising belong, they begin to devise what they think is the best way to lead them.

Experts in human behavior are saying though that people working in organizations are not necessarily either one type or the other. They said that between the two extremes, there could be a combination of behaviors. Thus, leaders need to be careful not to implement policies and operate in response only to either (or both) of those two assumptions about employees. They need to be flexible.

The best leaders are those who could devise a way to have a complete inventory of the different personalities of people in the organization they are running and calibrate their approaches to leadership to the categories of personalities that would emerge from the inventory. That of course is easier said than done especially if they are overseeing a big group, company or association.

What about teachers? Generally speaking, where should teachers be classified – under theory X or theory Y?

It is hard to imagine teachers disliking their work and avoiding responsibilities. To be in-charge of the teaching-learning process is not a walk in the park. It demands  the highest form of professional competence which means doing a lot of work and accepting a lot of responsibilities as well. The list of the things that teachers are expected to perform is long – prepare lessons;  construct exams, mark tests, quizzes and assignments; prepare reports; attend seminars and trainings; and keep abreast with the current innovations including using technology in instruction. The teachers’ primary function, of course, is instruction. If they are in universities, they are also expected to do research and get involved in community extension programs.

That’s a lot of things to do for teachers and with their plates that full  the teachers cannot possibly be theory X type. When they embraced the profession, they know the kind of work they are doing. They know that  they don’t stop working after class hours.  Teachers always  walk an extra mile or two.

The prevailing perception about teachers is that they are consummate professionals – the  embodiment of the theory Y assumptions.

Teachers are responsible and independent.  They don’t need to be micromanaged because they are happy to work on their own initiative and their strong sense of professionalism and self-motivation always lead to the successful completion of their tasks and responsibilities and strict adherence to policies and guidelines. They also need not be told as to what to do because they have strong sense of self-direction and self-control.

Are these assumptions about teachers true?

I have been in the academia for almost 31 years as a teacher. I worked with different kinds of teachers across demographics – age, gender, race, education, religion, and philosophical persuasion – as a colleague and as administrator (for 18 of those 31 years). Based on my experiences (most particularly here in South Korea where I have been teaching since 2013 and was briefly a head professor for 3 semesters), I can say that that prevailing perception about teachers is not true.

Some teachers are theory X type, some theory Y, and some are in-between.

The worst assumption that school owners and administrators could make is “all teachers conduct themselves within the bounds of professionalism.” They ought  to check carefully the background of the teachers they hire. They need to strictly monitor the performance of the teachers and ensure they are following school policies and guidelines.  This should not be construed as lack of trust but rather enforcing excellence and ensuring that the students get what they deserve, what they pay for.

The ones leading schools ought to make sure that their teachers are not engaged in what I call “mercenary teaching” – interested only in the money and disregards professional ethics.

When Students Don’t Learn

studentsOne morning, I witnessed how  an English teacher masterfully discussed the intricacies of the English language. It would take a paragraph or two should I explain in details the things he talked about. Let me just say that he is every inch a native English speaker. His knowledge of the phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntax and context is impeccable. He dissected the language so skillfully  and the way he did it almost made me envious.  I was reduced to being a listener uncertain whether I just wanted to make sure not to miss anything new (something I don’t know yet) from what he was saying or I have nothing more to share because he had everything covered about what he was discussing. I wasn’t really sure what prevented me from saying anything. Maybe I was intimidated by his evident mastery of grammar, semantics, and pragmatics or I just did not like to gatecrash into his moment to showcase his brilliance.

That teacher held court in his impromptu lecture. He had the attention of everybody present. It was difficult to judge the intentions of my colleagues whenever they (unsolicitedly) share their expertise like that. Was it to impress upon us (their co-teachers) that they know that much or they simply would (good-naturedly) like to help us learn more about the subject (English) we’re teaching.

Later that day, I changed upon a student  who attended my English class in a previous semester. That student was one of the best in my class. Like me, he was heading out of the campus. After the exchange of greetings, I asked “Who’s your English teacher this semester?” The student already started responding before I recalled that I have previously made a promise to myself never to ask any of my former students that question for the reason that a few of my previous attempts led to the opening of “a can of worms.”

But it already happened – I asked that stupid question again.

The student named the teacher – he was the one I heard deliver an impromptu lecture about the English language earlier that day. After that, the student heaved a sigh and said, “We could hardly understand what he’s teaching.”

I looked at him seriously and all I could say was “Really!?”.

He nodded and said one more thing, “He is also very serious.”

Before he could open wider that “can of worms,”  I told my former student to give that teacher more time to adjust since the semester is still a long way to go. Then I quickly redirected our conversation to another topic after that.

What’s amazing is that the occurrence – of me one day hearing a  colleague deliver a brilliant impromptu lecture but later that same day (or within the week) I would meet one of his  students (who used to be my student also) claiming that they, in the class, could hardly understand what he is teaching – did not happen only once.  If my memory serves me right, that’s the fourth time.

It finally made me reflect. That’s the reason I wrote something  about it.

It made me wonder (again) how my former students rate my performance as a teacher. What do  they really think  (and how they feel)  about me as their teacher? What would they say to a colleague or their fellow students when asked about me?

Students evaluate the performance of their teachers every semester. It’s hard to tell how reliable and valid are the results of such evaluation. Whether or not the results is a reflection of the true professional and personal qualities of the teachers is a matter of debate.

But valid or not, reliable or otherwise, it’s hard to ignore what students say about the performance and behavior of their teachers. Teachers get to read what students write in their evaluation. They could either agree or disagree with the results of their evaluation.  But what the teachers would not know is what students say about them in informal discussions. Only the most naïve among teachers don’t know that students talk about their teachers.

In gatherings, teachers do talk  (or should I say gossip) about their students – their performance and behavior in the class. Conversely, students do the same. They talk (or gossip) about their teachers. There are only two possibilities – they either praise or curse their teachers.

One of the  most unacceptable things that students could say about a teacher is – they do not (or they could hardly understand) what he/she is teaching.

Witnessing first hand an English teacher discuss with ease the complexities of the English language and hearing a student claim that he and his classmates could hardly understand what that teacher is teaching is quite paradoxical.

So I asked myself this question that night – Which is true… my impressions about that English teacher or that of his students?

What could have gone wrong?

My former student said that their current English teacher is very serious. Is that the problem –  good rapport does not exist between him and the students? It is no secret that teacher’s personality is correlated to students’ academic performance.

I tried to think of other reasons.

Then I recalled my teaching demonstration when I was applying for a job right after my graduation. When the high school principal called me to her office to discuss the results, she told me I did great. But she said there was a problem – I explained things in a way that only students enrolled in a graduate program could understand.

Could that be the reason?

If that teacher carry out discussions in the  class in the same way he explained the grammar topic to us in that gathering earlier that day then that exactly is the problem. You cannot discuss a grammar point to students trying to learn the language the way you would to teachers teaching that language. I think that is not a rocket science.

There are two things I learned before I officially began my teaching career – adapt my strategies and materials to students’ levels and simplify my language.

The problem is there are teachers who have a “one-size-fits-all” mentality thinking that educational processes and approaches to teaching and learning are standard and could not be tailored to meet individual needs. They wouldn’t buy into the idea of differentiated learning and teaching.

They will never accept responsibility when their students don’t learn.

Their standards are as immovable and high as Mt. Everest. The students have no other choice but to climb their Mt. Everest.

For them, it’s the fault of the students when they fail.

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