Monday, August 30, 2010


In an age where so much emphasis is placed on the individual, why does motivating people seem to be so very hard?

There was a time in the not too distant past when the word “vocation” meant something; now on the other hand, it is considered a spelling mistake. It has been replaced with the simple and rather shallow expression “job”; i.e., regular paid employment. The dictionary definition of the word vocation is a good deal more than this though: a vocation is defined in the Longman English Dictionary as “a job which one does because one thinks one has a special fitness or ability to give service to the people”. The dictionary goes further and gives a rather pertinent example and I quote:”Teaching children ought to be a vocation as well as a means of earning money.” Explain this concept to the modern youth and don’t be surprised if you don’t get much of a response except perhaps a shrug of the shoulders; for him, after all, a job is something you do after graduating, rather like a continuation of secondary school which he has suffered through and learnt to accept. Sadly, this reaction will often be replicated in the case of the teaching profession as well as many others like medicine for example, which were traditionally supposed to be performed by a group of selfless idealists. Think again! A lot of life is, to the modern wage slave, monotonous, tedious and even soul destroying; a reality he has given up fighting. Is this the way it was always destined to be or have we lost something precious over the years? Where has the excitement, the anticipation, the self fulfillment gone? Where has that wonderful “high” one experiences on the successful completion of a task which is so much better than drugs or alcohol gone? Does anyone even know what this all means anymore? This feeling of euphoria is more satisfying than any amount of money and it has perished to a large extent because it has been murdered by team leaders who don’t know the first thing about team work, leaving people to drag themselves through a miserable existence which, due to their state of mind, is not even as beneficial as it could have been. Team leaders of all stripes are, after all, ultimately responsible for opening the floodgates of motivation; a fact they have conveniently forgotten. It is, therefore, to them that we must now turn in order to try and underscore, once again, the universal qualities of a good team leader.

The leader

Working as a team, team building, being a good team player… These are all slogans of the modern business community and to be aspired to. Yet these are not novel concepts devised by CEO’s in board rooms but the very core of our existence and as old as the hills. As a species, we draw our strength from team work which lies at the root of some of our greatest achievements. It is team work which has enabled us to conquer the planet and tame nature. It is team work that has enabled us to achieve magnificent progress and even venture into space. However, in order for a team to achieve its aim, there is a need for an individual whose formidable duty it is to coordinate the group, lending support there and guidance here, holding the ropes while at the same time allowing individual talent and initiative to shine. This individual is the supervisor, the manager, the captain, the department head, the teacher; in short, the leader. It is this individual’s task to micro manage all the activities of the group while at the same time encouraging creative talent in order to successfully complete a project, prepare an order, pass the proficiency, lead an assault or simply oversee the day to day functioning of a team completing a series of projects that will ultimately benefit the larger organization of which the team is a part. The team leader is, therefore, a master of ceremonies yet not the principal actor, a master puppeteer who will let go of the ropes when it is right to do so, an expert chess player who can visualize all the moves of the game before he moves his first pawn but who can change tacks at the drop of a hat when the need arises. He does not work alone, however. So as to be able to accomplish the task in hand, he needs to rally the troops and keep their noses to the grindstone for the long haul while at the same time making sure that they derive satisfaction from what they are doing – it is the latter sentiment that will guarantee the outstanding success to which he aspires. This is easier said than done as he doesn’t work with armies of cyborgs but with the most intelligent, complex and advanced mammals in the world: human beings; i.e. individuals with lives, backgrounds, emotions, fears, joys, likes, dislikes unique to themselves. This factor further complicates an already difficult task leading some leaders, like the sergeant major in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, to completely disregard “the individual”. Enter “ leader number one”.

The direct approach: Do it or else!

The said sergeant has a job to do: transform recruits in to fully functioning killing machines to be deployed in Vietnam. He is so “eager” in the fulfillment of his duties and so creative in the extent of his sadism that one recruit finally goes to pieces, going on a rampage during which he kills numerous people before eventually dying himself. This “petty Hitler” stance, it is safe to say, almost always fails as the pure hatred engendered by such behavior impacts loyalty to the team, institution, company or school, which in turn seals the fate of any project in hand. The ever deepening resentment is toxic, infecting the whole organization. When people are seething, motivation plummets, pulling loyalty to the institution down with it. Once things start spiraling out of control, there is no turning back. Knowing how counterproductive it is, it is really amazing how common such authoritarian personality disorders are in team leaders. It must be remembered that blustering, posturing and throwing your weight around works for other species but not for humans who will only do their best for the good of the team if they are appreciated and valued as individuals. This is a fact some have already mastered: enter “leader number two”.

The indirect approach: Good P.R.

There are also leaders like Napoleon the loyalty and love of whose officers was the stuff of legend. It is purported that he was not only acquainted with all his officers by name but was also familiar with the names of their wives and children about whose health he would inquire on a regular basis. There was no personal problem an officer had which he was not aware of. The bond he thus formed with his men lay at the root of his success and renown. There is a former assistant director of the institution I worked at for many years, now sadly no longer with us, who had to contend with a director who would lock himself in his office during times of crisis, a fellow assistant director who was a real firebrand , and a motley crew of teachers each with their own individual baggage. She successfully managed all without seeming to do so, directed operations so to speak in the subtlest and most unobtrusive way possible without once losing her cool. She will not be forgotten. It was thanks to her gentle, thoughtful, considerate form of management that people were willing to jump through hoops at the time. There is also the manager of 250 workers in a big engineering firm, Kemal Bey, who I was fortunate enough to meet while teaching a course. By remaining compassionate, insightful and also forward-looking, he was able to hang on to a valued employee while at the same time gaining his loyalty and love. This is what happened: One morning, Kemal Bey arrived at his office to find an envelope containing the said employee’s resignation on his desk. It appeared that he was too homesick to complete his temporary stint in that particular branch of the firm, and unable to bear being parted from his wife and kid any longer, had decided to jack it all in and go home. Kemal Bey summoned the employee and made him a proposition: he told him he would hang on to his resignation for two weeks during which time he would give him two weeks paid leave which he was to spend taking his family on holiday. The only condition was that he call Kemal Bey from whatever holiday destination he went to. If he still wanted to leave at the end of two weeks, he, Kemal Bey, would accept his resignation. Needless to say, the employee returned much happier and remained with the firm. He kept his job and the company retained his services and most importantly, his lasting loyalty.

And the winner is: The human touch

A good team leader knows the importance of investing in building bridges with the staff. Cast thy bread upon the waters so to speak; what you put in as time, concern and empathy will return in the form of loyalty to you, the unit and the team. It will translate into diligence, zeal and enthusiasm in the work place, raising success rates, helping to attain targets or boosting profits. The obvious precondition of those all important bridges is knowledge of the team: what makes them tick, what their concerns are, what kind of backgrounds they come from, what kind of lives they lead, what daily hassles they have to cope with and a host of other questions. It might occur to some to inquire why the team leader has to be the super sleuth; the answer is simple: their problems are to an extent his problems as it is in his interest as well to sort them out. The current lack of investment in the individual has meant that a lot of institutions have had to kiss goodbye to loyalty which, as already explained, is invaluable. Again, the principle is so basic that it is amazing that managers like Kemal Bey are so rare. With their eye on profits, target figures and success rates, one would think all team leaders would be spending the half hour before class – every morning I might add - in the staff room drinking coffee and chatting like a former assistant directors used to do. Winning hearts and minds is so very simple and takes so very little; just a willingness to not just hear but listen and sympathize. The rewards, however, are phenomenal. At this point, it must be emphasized that although the qualities of “good team leaders” are universal, those of “the team” are not; in fact, there is as much variety as there are teams. One fact remains though: a good team leader must know his team. So let us meet our specific team, who in the case of the team leaders in question- freshman English teachers - is composed of some of the brightest in the country. The country, in this case, is Turkey whose educational system bares all the hallmarks of a pretty scholastic approach and all that this view entails. Turkey is by no means alone in the views on education it espouses; there are many others who will, I am sure, be able to draw parallels to some of their own applications.

Meet the team and correctly read the public pulse

The education the team has received:

Our public, and by definition the teams, are composed of some of the best the Turkish educational system produces. Most have been carefully nurtured by the state educational system to which we must needs turn if we are to understand their capabilities and failings. The state system is on a mission: to stamp out any grain of intellectual curiosity, any stroke of genius, any ounce of creativity any hint of rational thought and mold students, who are by definition “lacking in most things”, into the kind of adults their vision of society requires. The instruments of the state system set to with gusto on day one and by the time the students reach university, the damage is complete. The university teacher spends five minutes in class and decides the students are all idiots but they are not; it is just that all those qualities which have been carefully deleted need to be recovered either from “the trash can” or more probably from “the hard drive”! The teacher can’t opt out or ask for another team as this is it; these are the troops and he must work with them.

The first thing he needs to do is to be disabused of the tired old mantra the primary and secondary school systems champion that students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge and he, the teacher, is God. In order for learning to be affective, the team, in this case the students need to cooperate as learning, contrary to popular belief, is an active process – not just for the teacher I must emphasize. In order to determine the approach best suited to the team in hand, it is necessary to travel back in time once again to those first years of servitude. There are two aspects of primary and secondary school education that need to be examined: the teaching methods and the material so it is to these that we shall now turn.

The “what” and the “how”

The procedures employed in schools to produce the ignorant zombies the system churns out are very similar to those on assembly lines. For work to fully engage all the faculties of the individual, it has to be properly attuned to his abilities; quite often this work is not. A lot of the activities are boring, repetitive and routine yet students have all manner of problems. To illustrate, students in this country do Ottoman history and Turkish geography almost to the exclusion of all else starting in third grade and going round in circles ad infinitum. One would think that this would be quite effective brainwashing and this information would be so thoroughly learned that it would never be forgotten; such is not the case however; quite the reverse, next to nothing is remembered. This latter fact should not come as a surprise; however, as scientific evidence proves that boring jobs turn our brains to autopilot. According to an article on the BBC website, titled “Dull jobs really do numb the mind”, monotonous duties turn our minds to auto pilot which means we can seriously mess up simple tasks. The article goes on to say and I quote: “We can assume that the tendency to economize task performance leads to an inappropriate reduction of effort, thus causing errors. The brain begins to economize by investing less effort to complete the same task. We begin to see a reduction in activity in the prefrontal cortex. At the same time, we see an increase in activity in an area that is more active in states of rest, known as the default mode network (DMN).” It is not only the content of lessons that lead the brain to switch to auto pilot but also the way the lessons are conducted. I remember a history teacher who when introducing a new topic would call on one student to read a section out loud then assign five minutes to read it quietly. She would then ask one student to get up and parrot what had been read. The deadly tedium was indescribable; needless to say, the only thing I can frankly claim to remember from her lessons is that she would twirl her shoe around on her toes and occasionally drop it under the rostrum with a loud bang much to our glee. My knowledge of Ottoman history comes from my own reading much later. This was, unfortunately, the fate of most social sciences; take geography for instance, a subject with so much potential or so you would think. I don’t remember ever studying world geography but incomprehensibly going into detail concerning meridians, equinoxes, wind patterns, weather forecasting and whatnot. I still retain some rather hypnotic visions of pictures of swirling winds. The same goes for biology: one of my nightmare visions is having to draw a larger than life shrimp – don’t ask me why – and to this day, I remember the teacher’s careful rendition of the animal on the board. Getting it right was a painful experience guaranteed to put you off biology, and shrimps I might add, for life. Yet we all love The National Geographic, History Channel, Discovery Channel, David Attenborough’s nature documentaries, Michael Palin’s travel programs and the like. History, geography and biology for instance can be fascinating and one must really take one’s hat off to people who can make them so very mind numbing.

“Literature” I hear you cry “Surely literature was a source of enjoyment.” Not if you are reading everything in a foreign language you were learning on the hop! Most literature students are exposed to early or late Ottoman works, the language of which is so totally incomprehensible to the modern youth that it is a wonder that anyone reads anything at all. The Turkish literature teachers in schools are a breed apart; a fearsome bunch and at the top of the hierarchy. They will try to impose Ottoman poetry on you with the ferocity of tigresses and woe betide if you fail to correctly parrot what you have been told or worse, if you dare to voice an opinion. Needless to say, love of poetry or good literature has precious little to do with what students learn at school. This is not a problem confined to Turkey I hasten to add; poor Shakespeare is given the same treatment by being foisted on twelve year olds for instance. For a person like myself, who weeps when reading Macbeth or Hamlet, – which I studied at university having been through the Turkish state system - this is sacrilege and it is truly amazing that similar practices persist. Any country where it is traditional to force literature which is conceptually too difficult on young minds not yet ready for the challenge, suffers the same fate: Young people run screaming from those immortal works of literature. Misguided teachers, overenthusiastic to expose unsuspecting adolescents to the very real beauty of classic literature, expose them to works way over their heads and Shakespeare is just one example. I don’t believe adults, even educated ones, give this much thought, remaining completely oblivious of the very real long term damage this does to the development of a reading habit. I remember one occasion at lycee; we were reading or trying to read Ottoman poetry. I was one of the lucky ones having managed to lay my hands on a translation of famous Ottoman court poetry and was sitting under the teacher’s nose. She, meanwhile, was sobbing over what seemed to most to be complete gibberish. I was suddenly prodded from behind: “What the devil is a Tuti?” someone hissed. “The word is tuuuti.” I said trying to do justice to the teacher’s rendition of the word “And it’s a parrot” I explained primly. “Why the devil is old S…… crying?” she asked quite bewildered. “It speaks of miracles apparently” I explained, looking very superior. “You’re nuts.” sighed my friend. Another beautiful poem by Fuzuli was thus murdered, leaving the students even more convinced that literature was designed to torture “these slaves of the education system”.

This is the diet our students are exposed to as of the age of six. Six I hear you say; slight exaggeration you might think. But no; start as you mean to go on. I remember the daughter of a dear friend of mine being told in her first month at primary school to write a certain sentence for a few pages. Knowing very well how to write the said sentence, the child turned her exercise book on its side and scrawled the sentence across the page in block capitals, the task was complete, directions had been followed and her sanity was intact. You can imagine the reaction she got; rebellion is not tolerated. The child did not give up though; I remember an occasion when she was asked whether she could state Ataturk’s main teachings. Her answer in her exercise book was “I can”. “I will state them when the teacher asks me “she insisted. She got punished for impertinence. So don’t blame your students for not reading directions or questions carefully, or anything much; they learn not to at a very early age.

The “why”?

Concerned parents make an effort to intervene and do some damage limitation by trying to pep up “this prison fare”. I remember trying my best to make the story of the fate of Kanije Castle – a source of contention between the Ottomans and the Russians - interesting for my daughter who had already started to develop that glazed look when confronted with social sciences. “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” I said trying to look curious. We read on for another page and the wretched castle changed hands another two or three times. Even I began to wonder where it would all end and what the point of all this was. You wouldn’t have a couple of pages about a castle being conquered first by one side then by the other if there wasn’t some point to it all. But tell you what, there wasn’t. The castle was conquered by the Russians and this time, they hung on to it. That was it; there was nothing more. There was no reason why the story had been inserted at that point of the book; it didn’t connect in any way to what followed. One was left, as a teacher, with this horrible, uncomfortable, sinking feeling in the pit of one’s stomach and with a desire to somehow justify the whole thing. My daughter looked resigned; she had already learnt that nothing connected to anything else but remained suspended in a vacuum along with a lot of other random facts. It is hard to believe that an educational system would have the learning objective of avoiding critical thinking skills but the fact remains that for whatever reason they are avoided. Years of this kind of teaching by, I am sure, well meaning but seriously misguided teaching staff has the following inevitable result: information passes through the consciousness of the student at a crawl eventually disappearing into nothingness as the permanent state of “zombiehood” is well and truly established. Classical conditioning comes into play and lessons are equated with “doing time” to be suffered “if one is to get anywhere in life.” It is a truly sad fact that many students will tell you – and this includes the very good ones as well – that there was no single lesson the students felt the remotest bit interested in or the slightest bit excited about. Not surprisingly, any activity that can’t be properly tackled without critical thinking is studiously avoided during this period. These activities include – for our purposes – essay writing proper, summary writing, analysis of a reading passage and reaction essays; the pillars of our program at university. They are, obviously, the hardest to teach for the staff and the hardest to learn for students. During their year at prep, the students are obliged to develop a reading habit, reacquire those critical thinking and reasoning skills and also a new language. They have to accomplish this formidable feat in seven and a half months and pass a proficiency test. Under these circumstances, I take my hat off to those who succeed; quite a goodly number I might add! I also take my hat off to the dedicated staff who attempts to guide them through this year.

The home front: Education continued

There is another aspect of the package aside from the basic state education that an unsuspecting teacher in Turkey or the Middle East needs to be aware of and that is the extent of molly coddling involved in childcare, “adolscentcare” and “teenagecare”. The basic principle that everything is good in moderation is an alien concept to the Turkish parent; love gushes forth in an all smothering torrent until the child – for so he still is – enters university in a city other than his hometown when it is abruptly ceased leaving the unfortunate victim to sink or swim. There is naturally a lot of threshing around as “the child” tries to remain afloat, and it is during this critical period that freshman English teachers like ourselves enter his life. The cutting of the umbilical cord has been delayed and delayed and delayed with disastrous consequences.

It all starts when it should have stopped: in primary school. I remember a friend of my daughter’s whose mother used to rush freshly baked pastries to school midmorning so her little darling – God help his partner in life – could have a tasty snack. The parental protection and general hovering invades every area of a child’s life well in to the teens, and the effects thereof are compounded by the fact that young people in this part of the world don’t get the chance to engage in so many club or extracurricular activities as, for instance, their US counterparts do. The life of an American teenager with its emphasis on developing personal talents and proving oneself is as different from his Middle Eastern peers as chalk and cheese. The inevitable result is of course that the American teenager is much more streetwise, competent and confidant than his Middle Eastern counterpart who is learning at eighteen what the former learnt at fourteen or fifteen. The social development of “the child” lags behind his UK and German counterpart as well as the latter enjoy an all important gap year before university which properly utilized, can be invaluable. A lot of young people use this break from their studies to travel, see the world spread their wings, discover their strengths and weaknesses and generally grow up. The Middle Eastern or Turkish student is catapulted from one structured environment into another with a new set of rules without so much as an if you please and expected to “cope” – as he is after all eighteen.

It is all very well to say “They should grow up” or “It is high time they grew up” but they have been sat on and held back all their lives and have, in some cases, become “dependent children”. The extent of the dependency can vary – according to parental attitude as well – from a generally forlorn, lost look to downright clinging. I remember one occasion in class: we were reading “The Great Depression of the 1930’s” when our concentration was shattered by the dulcet tones of the theme from “The Fast and The Furious”. This was a red rag moment if there ever was one; the students knew perfectly well that telephones in class were completely unacceptable. I remember bounding down the aisle like a greyhound on steroids as the student had actually had the audacity to answer the phone. “Hello?” she squeaked; “It’s my mom” she explained her eyes as wide as saucers whereupon I skidded to a halt fearing the worst. “Is something the matter?” I inquired. “No, it is just she’s worried because I didn’t have breakfast this morning” I didn’t’ hear the rest; something snapped. “Give me that phone” I demanded and what followed was a harsh lesson on “teenage upbringing” dotted liberally with superlatives. I don’t actually remember her mother saying anything in reply and in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have lost my temper but “Errare humanum est” . It did solve the problem though; she never rang back. There comes a time when the cut has to be made sharp and clean and this was one of them. This is not by any means a random example; it is not uncommon for mothers to descend upon their offspring who are in the dorm or in digs to cook – meatballs, pastries, stuffed vine leaves or stuffed peppers – wash, iron and to generally make sure that the precious chick is alive and kicking. There is worse: parents – both of them – will on occasion venture to the university to ask how their little darlings are doing at which time it is your moral obligation as a teacher to teach them the facts of life and suggest a part time job or a hobby. Cats, for instance, a species I have great respect for, have it right and do a far better job than many Middle Eastern or Turkish parents by having no qualms about accepting the fact that their kittens have grown up. Agreed, childhood goes on longer in humans compared to other animals but it doesn’t need to go on quite that long.

These are extreme cases but as a teacher you must remember that your team is going through a pretty rough patch during that all important first term; a far rougher patch than their counterparts elsewhere. They are, however, your team and you are hitched for better or for worse for the duration of the term or school year and no, you can’t turn and flee. Another thing you can’t do is deny who they are and assume they are different. In order to move forwards and achieve success, the very first thing you need to do is accept them. Not only this, but also remember who they are throughout your time with them. Having established this fact, let us once again go over what it is you are going to be doing as a team in the intensive language course you find yourselves in. Your goals can be listed as follows:

1. Helping them to master the basics of English grammar

2. Helping them to become proficient in reading

3. Helping them to become proficient in writing – essay writing, summary writing, reaction writing, term papers, projects and papers.

4. Helping them to develop the listening skills they will need as students

Do you recall those activities that are not touched upon during secondary school? Compare the list to your goals stated above and no, you cannot turn and run. Do you also recall why these skills are not touched upon? So there is another additional and far more difficult set of goals you need to accomplish and these are as follows:

1. Helping them to master reasoning skills

2. Helping them to learn critical thinking skills

3. Helping them to unlearn the fact that all school work is deadly

4. Helping them to develop a reading habit

5. Reawakening intellectual curiosity which has lain dormant for so long

And lastly and most importantly;

6. Helping to make their year with you both one of the turning points of their life and one of the happiest and most fulfilling.

A tall order you might think; but there is no room for a defeatist attitude here because it is a tall order. You won’t win all the battles but if you are careful, insightful and play your cards right, you will never lose the war. The practical applications of the principals stated above to the teaching of reading, writing, grammar and listening will be examined in detail in the forthcoming chapters.

The magic formula: use your common sense and hey presto!

The task outlined above seems so daunting to many that they give up on the second group of objectives and roughly continue the approach in our state schools helping to create a bunch of second class citizens who will never amount to anything in this new global world. The task is challenging, not impossible though. The answer to your woes is so very simple that it is truly amazing it is so often overlooked: you need to avoid, like the plague, every teaching method and approach used in secondary school and do the exact opposite. If you stick to your guns, achievement of the goals stated above will be guaranteed in most cases. What is more, you will be remembered as one of those legendary teachers who people eulogize about long after leaving school and surely no teacher would ask for a better reward. Here are the general rules of thumb:

1. Avoid all formulas, lists of rules, set procedures, clich├ęs, teaching patterns and all routine. In short, don’t get into a rut and go plodding along all year. It didn’t work in secondary school and it won’t work now.

2. Be imaginative, unpredictable and inventive. Vary the ways you approach a topic and never state the rules; instead let them deduce them.

3. They won’t necessarily enjoy reading or writing about what you may want them to so prepare to be flexible.

4. Never, ever forget that you are also an entertainer, a standup comedian and a source of useless knowledge.

Most importantly,

5. Enjoy yourself! If you don’t, they won’t either; and you can kiss goodbye to any learning.

Next year, when you walk into class, your new team will look up to you full of confidence that you are the guru that will imbue them with English and a whole lot more. They will be prepared to believe in you. It will be the prerogative of having classes with you that they will have been working for so you will have a brief window of opportunity to get them on side. A wrong move in the first week and they will retreat into the vegetative state they briefly emerged from. Are you up for the challenge? If you are not, quit now; our students have been abused for long enough.

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