Friday, August 30, 2013

Of Naked Emperors

This isn't Taiwan centric, although it seems to happen to a frightening degree in Taiwan. Let's be fair: and elsewhere, too.

Simply put, one great failure of capitalism is this:

A company needs to improve the English communicative ability of its staff. It's a large company with a generous training budget. Some money is allocated to English training. The person who oversees that training is an HR representative. While they generally have a grasp of things like benchmarks, showing improvement, KPI etc. etc., and may know how to achieve that in a managerial/office context (the extent to which this is actually true is fodder for some future post), they generally do not know how to achieve that in a teaching or training context. They know enough to contract that out, but because they have to be involved, they create the achievement benchmarks and try to cram the classes and seminars into their own rubrics.

I'm not against this generally, but the whole point of a good rubric or KPI is that the person who formulates it is someone who has intimate knowledge based on experience and training in the field they're setting achievement benchmarks in. In this case, it means any HR person who sets benchmarks for English improvement (which I'd argue they can and should do, if they have the appropriate knowledge) should be at least somewhat experienced and trained in language teaching. This is usually not the case, but for the money to keep flowing, someone in power has to set the benchmarks, and the flow of the money means that the person doing it isn't the person who best knows how to do it.

But I'm not writing this just to slag off HR people - some of them are intelligent people with a solid understanding of when, where and how much to get involved in training. They're not the main problem.

So this budget is set and a company goes about looking for trainers. Knowing there's a market for such things, companies pop up to provide teacher trainers for such jobs.

The companies that pop up also know nothing at all about training, language acquisition or English teaching. They are not totally useless - they do know about marketing, market potential, negotiating, contracts and sales. These are important skills and I am not arguing that all "management consulting" firms that provide English teachers to foreign companies should just shut their doors.

So the market-potential guy who wants to cash in (not necessarily a bad thing) on this demand hires some teachers. But he doesn't actually know anything about teachers, so he mostly hires people who "look the part", maybe with a few real teachers mixed in there, and some who aren't teachers but as experienced businesspeople who are native English speakers, they do have something to offer.

He then negotiates a fat slice of his new client's training budget, pays the teachers as little as the market will tolerate, set at just a little higher than the rate for the typical teacher in that country (say, Taiwan) - the rate is high enough to attract people, but not so high that he will be able to fill positions with only experienced, talented professionals. He looks up online what sort of credentials he should be looking for - he doesn't know already, because he himself doesn't know a damned thing about the field - and sticks them into his job advertisement, like plastic roses on a cake. Pretty, professional-looking but ultimately just decorative. He'll hire people without them because he doesn't understand what those qualifications are actually worth. To him they are truly just decorative.

He knows nothing about actual language teaching and as such, provides his new teachers with basically no support (what is provided is utter crap - not worthy of being called "training" or "support", but is billed as such because he's the boss, and the boss MUST know what he's doing). The teachers - some great, some good, some OK, some bad, some with potential and some without - do all the grunt work to meet benchmarks set by someone who isn't trained enough in language acquisition to set them with any degree of professional competence.

So he's paying the teachers about a third of what he's getting from the company. In return the company gets what should be talented, trained and experienced teaching professionals but instead gets a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the inexperienced. They're passed off as "the real deal" because nobody really knows any better. Nobody except the few trained teachers in this whole exchange actually knows what a good teacher/trainer is, so nobody thinks to do any QA (beyond those meaningless benchmarks).

The good teachers eventually get fed up with the no-nothing, no-support school and boss, and leave. They're not earning that much anyway. The bad teachers stick around because the pay is better than teaching kids. And there are plenty of bad teachers - the market will tolerate them because they can be paid less, and nobody at all in that system has a freakin' clue how to actually teach English. Not the administrators, not the school owners, not the students and certainly not the teachers. Nobody really cares, because nobody really knows what student achievement could be if they did only hire good people.

The boss, who doesn't know a damn thing about teaching, earns money from this whole teaching venture. The worst teachers earn an OK salary. The good people move on. The competent people (the students, the good teachers) lose, and the incompetent ones (the boss, the bad teachers) win. HR could fall on either side of this equation (I've met plenty of good ones, really).

What should be happening in a utopian world is this:  company needs English training. Company sets training budget and starts a search for competent teachers. Person who is a trained education and training professional runs a firm to provide such teachers and pays them a fair chunk of the course fee, as well as providing them with meaningful professional development. Competent teachers are provided at a fair rate, successfully fulfilling the company's need. HR knows enough to let these teachers set benchmarks for themselves, and they do (without setting bullshit achievement goals), because they are experienced, trained and talented, and assesses based on that. Everybody wins. Teachers who deserve good pay get it for good work, students learn a lot, HR is happy, and the person who runs the whole thing earns a profit they deserve for their marketing and sales.

This beautiful summation of how things should work is how business English training is too often marketed, in Taiwan and elsewhere. Everyone pretends to be a professional, everyone claims they provide a valuable service and that they, themselves, have the knowledge to be competent in the subject taught.

But we all know that's not how it is - the long-winded dystopia above is how things really work.

And here most of us are thinking that capitalism helps direct funds and skills in the most efficient fashion possible. Not so. It's a brilliant host for parasites whose only talents are sucking the system dry. Which, don't get me wrong, is a considerable talent (I certainly won't be entering marketing and sales anytime soon), but not one that deserves such a fat reward.

It won't change, because people trying to tap this market don't really want to hire good teachers - they'd have to pay them more. Good teachers don't want to get in the game because they have a very low tolerance for bullshit. HR isn't about to admit they aren't always the best people to set classroom benchmarks (although, again, I've worked with some really great ones), and bad teachers aren't likely to decide to either stop teaching or get better.

Color me disillusioned (and color me Captain Obvious, because I am sure any half-reasonable person has figured out this game already), but there you are.

Just yesterday I took on a course at a more traditional buxiban-like school, teaching test preparation. I had a meeting with the DOS for basic orientation. The DOS is certified, experienced and competent. He knows what a good teacher is and how to find and retain one. He knows what sort of training and development is required for his staff. He knows what skills to look for in a new hire to give students what they need. In short, he actually knows how to do the job he's hiring others to do. It's not a full time job - I still have my freelance thing going - but I'm looking forward to working there. A school where I get support! A school with real avenues to real professional development! A school where the person employing me actually understands what a teacher does and what a good teacher is worth!

That's such a huge change from the job I just left that I couldn't help but write about it...at length. Now it's out...please forgive me.

But in my defense, we already knew the emperor was naked, didn't we?


Sent from my iPad

1 comment:

Jenna Cody said...

First comment is mine! I will probably edit this into the post soon, but I can't seem to do it easily on an iPad.

I would be OK with this system if:

a.) The boss who knows nothing about teaching were to admit that and say it straight: "I'm here to get you the clients so you don't have to seek them out yourself, and I'm here to make it a company so our clients will feel comfortable working with us. I do the marketing, you do the teaching, and we leave each other alone otherwise, cool?" Cool!

b.) The bulk of the fees for such training went to the people actually doing the training. I'm not against a company making profits, and certainly marketing and sales deserve remuneration, but the ratio of work-to-profit is so skewed that I can't help but mention it as a major problem.