The Life of an Unlikely ESL Curricula Composer
The deal is done
I enter a Chinese mall in a Vancouver suburb and walk over to a currency exchange store. Instead of exchanging currency, I do a different kind of transaction; the operator behind the counter gives me a pay cheque for the compilation of some English language tests that I have recently made for students learning English in China. And that’s it; the deal is done in a matter of seconds. Strange, weird or mysterious? Yes it is, but as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction. It also seems very simple and yet it isn’t, because within my remit to write tests I have certain cultural demands, which I have to fulfill or follow as instructed.
Don’t give me any contractions
I create online curricula. It’s a position that fits seamlessly into my schedule as a musician and voice over actor because I set the hours and I can do as much work (or as little) as I want. I get to work from home and listen to anything from Tame Impala, Muddy Waters to Vivaldi’s suites. I don’t have to spend anything on transportation to and from work. Nor do I have to be stuck in traffic, bemoaning existentially over my life choices. The only time I feel comfortable in front of an audience is when I’m on stage playing music. Besides, I was never quite at ease as a teacher, so making curricula is a good fit. However with this work, there are strict guidelines.
My Chinese employers frown upon the use of verbal contractions, so any sentences I write must be written in full, “I cannot, I do not, she has not.” It all seems rather too formal for me but as a contract curricula creator, I can only oblige with what I am asked to do. I have been working for my paymasters for a year and a half now, and all I know about this company is that they sell tests to China and are based in Vancouver. But what more do I need to know? I just focus on my work.
My bosses want only American spelling on the tests, not British or Canadian, so I must drop the superfluous letter u, as in the color of the harbor I must be constantly vigilant about this, as I learnt to spell in Canadian schools.
The emphasis for my online students is on receiving an American style education. My Chinese students learn American style spelling and history from a Greek Canadian who makes English language tests. Welcome to the new international world of education!
Structure is (almost) everything
Each test must follow a sample, which they originally sent me: one part vocabulary, one part grammar, and the final part a reading section. I have to use the same wording for each section. I initially would add a phrase of encouragement after a student finished each section like “nicely done” as it was on a sample that was given to me. However after a few months of making tests, I was told to stop using “jargon” on the tests. I decided not to clarify this minor issue of semantics by giving them an actual example of jargon, so I dropped all the “nicely dones” for more laconic instructions. Sometimes success is about knowing which battles not to fight.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing however. Initially my bosses didn’t quite know what they wanted and it was only through a series of trial and error with me having a Herculean amount of patience, that we finally came to an agreement about how I should construct the tests.
Creativity saves the day
It might seem that the work of someone making curricula can be dry and formulaic. Yes, there is structure (see above), but with structure comes freedom. For the reading section I can select articles from the BBC Culture, from National Geographic or from wherever I see fit; I like to put in articles on the history of the American States. The (TOEFL) vocabulary and grammar come from the company’s online database. While I’m creating curricula, I too am acquiring an education. I learn about Bleeding Kansas, tornados that race across Oklahoma to the names and functions of various Norse gods. The freedom that I’m given to source good reading passages stimulates my mind. That’s a far cry from some of the other jobs I’ve had that have been mind numbingly boring, so I never complain.
Confucian Culture Club
A key aspect to keep in mind when dealing with bosses from mainland China is to stay calm and always speak in a tactful manner. Western individualism prides and reveres those who tell it as it is, who get things off their chests. However, when misunderstandings arise (as they often do in this line of work), I always try to stay calm and not let minor issues irritate me.
The Confucian mentality that governs the Chinese workplace often revolves around saving face and avoiding confrontation at every opportunity. While a good confrontation may be perceived as a way of cleaning the air in the West, I highly recommend that you avoid this approach. Instead, try to receive clarification regarding an issue, and always end with a “thank you” and if you are talking to them in person or on camera, end with a smile. That way, your boss will feel comfortable around you and you’ll gain his/ her trust. And, of course, always be polite in your correspondence with them.
Another key difference I’ve discovered is that compliments for work well done are pretty much non-existent. In a Western work setting, bosses often praise employees who work hard and are willing to undertake new responsibilities. The (only) praise I’ve received is continued work assignments and an increase in hourly pay. Sometimes that’s the only praise you need.
I choose to work in isolation. My only contact with my bosses is through the computer and yet I still have had to deal with cultural differences. For the many hundreds of non-national English teachers working in China, these differences must be multiplied and magnified. I would love to hear about some of these challenges.