Reflecting on Suzhou

It’s been only a few weeks since arriving back in Australia after a whirlwind 2 weeks teaching English Conversation classes to university students in Suzhou, China.

While we all hit the ground running catching up with missed classes, study, assessments, meetings, scheduled workshops, family, and life in general here in Australia, a day hasn’t passed that I have not thought about Suzhou. It was a challenging, yet wonderful experience. Not many can say, “Hey, I spent 2 weeks in China teaching English conversation to Masters students.” A-mazing.

This is the last of my Suzhou series and the longest, but it is only now that I feel I can share my learning.

Suzhou Seven

From the very beginning, we dubbed ourselves Suzhou Seven.

Suzhou Seven

Our team leader, Ros worked tirelessly with staff and students in Suzhou, making connections, delivering workshops and running sessions for PhD students who may one day visit and study in Australia. We got to work with 5 young, energetic undergraduate students who possess qualities that are akin to veteran teachers but have no teaching qualifications nor are they studying education.

The Amazing Five (L to R; Eliza, Louis, Jeannie, Gaby & Matt)

Every day we seven facilitated eight ‘Let’s Chat’, English conversational classes, hosting about 240 students from different faculties including Translation & Interpreting, Transportation, Information Technology, Geomechanics/Water Resources, International Business and Industrial Design. We delivered workplace sessions on presenting yourself, networking, and preparing speeches. We collected data for our research about people’s experiences and attended Chineses language sessions every morning. We held planning meetings every day to discuss our workshops and ensure we were meeting the needs of our students. Together, Suzhou Seven was and remains a team to be reckoned with.

Hanging out with our support staff in Suzhou

A cast of thousands

Chris Wen, the General Manager at Monash Suzhou very graciously hosted us with the support staff who worked behind the scenes to ensure our stay was fabulous. They organised our teaching schedules, booked the rooms, bought supplies, booked our cultural experiences, advised us about where to go and how to get there. Matt, our resident Monash staff member in Suzhou, looked after us, giving up his office & the key to the photocopier, showing us around, finding little coffee shops, and giving us invaluable advice on local customs. Winnie, one of our favourite PhD students, took time out of her studies to teach us the language and culture of China every morning. A number of others joined us for evening

Where’s Matt?

cultural experiences including dinners, boat rides, shopping and, of course, karaoke night! Our students were always ready to suggest local eating spots, many helped us order our food when they spied us trying our best to order food unsuccessfully! Some even bought us bubble tea and snacks to try. Peer to peer relationships soon grew and the students began to lead conversations, asking facilitators questions and engaging in ‘small talk’. It felt so good knowing that just being there, taking the time to listen boosted our students’ confidence to communicate in English and made them feel they could do it outside of the classes themselves.

Winnie & Suzhou Seven

Language barrier

I’ve travelled many times overseas, especially over the last dozen years, but this was my first visit to an Asian country. My personal challenge in this regard was the language. For the first time, I experienced a real dilemma in that I literally could not understand the language. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a reflection on the people but a personal realisation. I felt hopeless and even anxious when out and about. I have not felt like this before. Even in countries where I was not overly familiar with the language, I felt I could manage and I did and maybe that was because of my European background. As an educator with many years of experience, I pride myself on being able to understand and interpret what people are saying out loud and internally. I felt I was really in tune with this but now I realise that while my ‘sixth’ sense works in some places, it made little sense to me while I was in China. As an independent, strong middle-aged female I suddenly felt unsure of myself and began relying on my fellow travellers and on the students with whom we were developing strong relationships.

Teaching (and learning) with passion

Buzzing

As a teacher of many years, actually, many, many years I’ve always been open to learning new things but still pride myself on being able to engage my students no matter the content. After all, it’s what I do. I’ve had many experiences also with devising, writing and implementing many programs and curriculum outlines. It was my redevelopment and extension of the existing Let’s Chat units that we based our workshops on during our time in Suzhou. I spent many hours writing, re-writing and meeting with my colleagues to ensure we were on track to meet all the requirements from our host university but still, I felt tense and nervous as I shared in my first and second Suzhou posts.

While it was wonderful to meet our students on that first day, engaging them was a different matter. You see many had very busy study schedules and these classes were slotted into their day. It was our responsibility to make those classes so engaging and relevant that they would keep coming. What I learned over the time working with my team was that they loved doing Let’s Chat as much as I did. The other thing I learned was that passion for what and how you teach is contagious no matter where you are and we all caught that bug. The students kept coming and while those first few days were tough, our confidence was building, we reflected and planned each day to make each session more relevant and as we got to know our students more and more our classes were buzzing. Confidence was building not only in our students but in us as visiting teachers.

And now?

On returning to Australia, to Melbourne, to Monash and to English Connect, I bring with me a different confidence. In my first workshop this week I shared that I had just returned from teaching English in China and I cannot describe the pride I felt in simply articulating that achievement out loud with our international students who attend our workshops. Their smiles and nods of approval cemented in me a sudden realisation that I just want to do it again! I want to do it better. I want to experience more. I want to learn more. I want to keep making a difference.

We haven’t yet had a chance to meet as a team again and share our experience and our thoughts about our Suzhou adventure. Marta, the reason we went to China in the first place and the driver behind what we were able to do is away at the moment but I’m sure she can’t wait to hear. A special thank you should go out to our team back at Monash who held the fort while we were away. Lucas, who had to do both his and Ros’s job, Belinda, without whose help we would never have been able to get out visas and our money, to Negar and Lilian who love excel files and crunch the numbers for us, to the admin staff who re-formatted and copied all our files so we could use them effectively in our classes. And to anyone else who had a hand in getting us to Suzhou and back. I’m personally hoping that this is the first of many associations we have, not only with our colleagues in Suzhou but hopefully, in time, with other Monash Universities around the world. We’ve got this!

To find out what we do at English Connect please visit our website.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Confidence is building: Advertisements for Suzhou

Students preparing their poster

Having returned from Suzhou, I realised that there are two more posts I’d planned for but as of yet haven’t had a chance to complete.

This will be the first of the two that have been sitting in my ‘drafts’ for a couple of weeks now.

Student posters on places to visit

I titled it Confidence is Building as I wanted to share one of the most engaging and exciting workshops we ran on Day 9 of the 10-day course with our Chinese students. By this stage, absolutely, we knew that their confidence in holding conversations in English had grown exponentially. In this particular workshop, one of the tasks we asked of them was to work in small groups to produce a poster and short advertisement for a place they thought we should visit in and around Suzhou. They had 10 minutes to draw up the poster, one minute to prepare a ‘plug’ and one minute to present. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun. In fact, we saw they were having almost too much fun that we decided to make one for Melbourne and ‘plug’ that back at them!

We are very proud of what they were able to achieve in such a short span of time!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Nervous but excited: Our first day

We got this!

Yesterday was our first official day at South East University / Monash in Suzhou. I left our hotel full of self-doubt and angst. I have never felt so nervous, even though teaching is what I have done for the last 33 years. The welcoming party was wonderful. We met the staff at the university who put on a lovely morning tea but our conversations soon came to an end as it was time for our first sessions.

Gulp – we’ve got this!

Here is Suzhou, we are privileged to be in spacious, well-equipped rooms, the natural light from the giant windows streaming in, everything up and operating AND the students arrive.

Oh what joy!

I’ve discovered that Let’s Chat comes naturally to us and once we start – well, there’s no stopping us. We have a great program and now we get to share it with our partners in Suzhou, China.

I’m with a great team of colleagues who are dedicated and determined to make this work. Our first day was a testament to that!

A toothpick slowly scraping at the mortar between the bricks

When first organising my thoughts for the third prompt in the #edublogsclubs challenge – Leadership, I quickly jotted down some ideas I was toying with while waiting for my dad at a medical appointment.

notes on my iPhone

Reflecting back to my Masters in Educational Leadership, I was happy to recall quite a number of researchers, whose papers we were reading and writing about a decade ago. What did leadership mean in the years prior to my completing the masters 10 years ago?

There were a number of areas we explored including change, context, quality learning, leading authentic learning, but one area that stayed with me was that of authentic leadership.

Contemporary approaches to leadership are defined within the context of the authenticity of a leader. “Authentic leadership implies a genuine kind of leadership: a hopeful, open-ended, visionary and creative response to social circumstances, as opposed to more short-sighted, precedent-focussed and context-constrained practices typical of management” (Begley, 2003 p. 101).

My own reflections on leadership at the time were such that I have almost been catapulted back to 2006. Could these same thoughts still to be here in 2017?

In my own leadership at this school, I found it very difficult at first trying to get others to move with me, especially those who had been there a very long time. Sinclair’s (1998) comment that quotes a company CEO who says that the same old people sitting around talking equates to no change at all is reflective of the practices I found at this place. I have run up against such brick walls many times in my own leadership roles where this attitude is prevalent. I like to use the metaphor of a toothpick slowly scraping at the mortar between the bricks. It has taken a long time to get to this point already, where people acknowledge your passion for change, and begin to see it as non-threatening but as a means to improving the current practices in order to align ourselves with our ever changing environment in which our students are expected to survive.

It reminded me of this:

Twitter feed from Research Ed 2016

and sadly even this:

“instead of risking…” via https://marketoonist.com

To some degree, no I won’t colour it with ‘fancy’ talk – THIS IS the reason I moved out of full-time positions in schools. I became very frustrated and torn at what was happening and just how hard it was to break through that mortar with a toothpick. I left in search of a wrecking ball! Don’t gasp! I’m better now. I have my sights set on this tool called a mortar rake which speeds things up a little!

much more practical than a toothpick!

But seriously, my experience of leadership has been both positive and negative. I have worked with many wonderful leaders who gave me plenty of opportunities, who trusted me and let me shine and who I will never forget. Sadly, I have also worked with those who seemed threatened and unhappy no matter how hard we tried. Each experience assisted me in forming my own skills in leadership which I will continue to develop for the rest of my life. You see, I believe leadership is like learning – it never ends.

I often wonder whether there is such a thing as ‘born leaders’ and while I can name a few I think may be, I can’t help but think – really? They were born with leadership skills? Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and his associates found that it may indeed be in your genes!

But for me…I say…No… A leader ‘learns’ the skills… from other leaders, who in turn learned them from others and so it goes… .

Giancola and Hutchinson (2005) emphasise that the transformed leader’s primary focus is “to build a team of leaders who are going in the same direction based on the similar belief that a leader’s main focus is to serve and support the growth of others” (p. 74).

To be a leader

This is a little closer to what I think leadership may be… an opportunity to empower others, only it may also be fruitful if some are going in a different direction just so to add a bit of spice to the journey. I like to be challenged – but not to the point where I feel I cannot go on. I felt that sometimes throughout my career.

I moved on eventually but it did eat me up for a while.

I like what I do now.

For many years I imagined I could do more as a Deputy Principal and sometimes I even considered Principalship but I’m glad I came to my senses even though it did take 20 years! As an education consultant, I get to lead but more importantly, I get to serve and collaborate. I like that better. My passion and vision for better learning continue to spur me, to speak out, to help others, to serve, to learn, to collaborate. I don’t think I’ll ever give this up.

Thanks for reading 🙂

References (from my paper ‘Dimensions which shape contemporary approaches to leadership.’ (2006)

Begley, P.T. (2003). Authentic Leadership and Collaborative Process: Foundations of School Community. Leading & Managing, Vol. 9. No 2, pp. 100-105

Giancola, J. & Hutchinson, J. (2005). Elements of transformed leadership culture. In Transforming the culture of school leadership. (pp. 78-98). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Sinclair, A. (1998). The traditional path: Heroic masculinity. In Doing leadership differently: Gender, power and sexuality in a changing business culture (pp. 37-53). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Take Outs: Day 2 Evidence-based teaching summit 2016

University of Bologna by Laurentius de Voltolina c.1350

University of Bologna by Laurentius de Voltolina c.1350

Take a close look at the medieval painting above what do you notice?

Has anything changed in classrooms today? Of course yes there are no devices, I’m speaking mostly about engagement – 24:1, only 6 paying any attention, the rest seem disengaged, with more than one having a little snooze.

Now how about this one?

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11

Ron Canuel (CEA) opened Day 2 of proceedings giving us insights into the research done at CEA. He says that much of education has been hijacked by others and that it is indeed time we took it back. We certainly all know (I hope) that standarised tests do not lead to improvement in the educational outcomes of students, however, they do benefit real estate agents! According to Canuel – everyone wants to live in a catchment area of what is considered a ‘good’ school (and no I’m not elaborating).

Oh and the second painting above? Well, Ron mentioned something that really struck a chord with me, he said that education change should look like the Renaissance with a lot more emphasis on all subjects. School of Athens is how I imagine a classroom should be, collaboration, thinking, genius, excitement, movement, passion, reflection, ordered chaos —–> can you hear it?

26% & rising...kids who are not dealing with school recommended reading from Daffydd Wiesner-Ellix (CBD Strategic)

26% & rising…kids who are not dealing with school recommended reading from Daffydd Wiesner-Ellix (CBD Strategic)

My next take out is about teacher quality. There is no measure for an effective teacher (Gary Marks, ACU). A teacher who may be effective in one classroom may not be in a different one let alone in another school. So where is the teaching profession heading? Tania Aspland (AITSL) argued that we could easily devise a how-to manual becoming an expert teacher the same as one might consult a how-to manual on becoming an expert golfer or tennis player. The first chapter in this manual would, of course, be OBSERVATION and the STANDARDS provide us with something against which to measure our progress. So, where can we make the greatest impact in the context of our place and time (Neil Barker, DET) in schools? Can educators, as Susannah Emery (Curtin University) asks, be ‘quest givers’ given the strong attachment our current students have towards gaming? Perhaps the Teaching & Learning Toolkit presented by Tanya Vaughan might just assist us in making the greatest impact happen in our classrooms, where they belong.

The highlight of the summit for me was meeting and sitting next to David Mitchell, Adjunct Professor (College of Educational Studies and Leadership), University of Canterbury, NZ. He delivered the final keynote address. Of course, while chatting at the table over the two days, I did all the talking about my research before it dawned on me just who he was – for those who don’t know his research is in diverse needs of students and inclusion and if you follow my blog you would know that my PhD is in special needs!!!! I spent the night after the first day of the conference reading up on Dr. Mitchell and got my hands on an online copy of his book. I have since read a number of journal articles and will hold true to emailing him to discuss his research, ask questions and gain first-hand insights as I journey through my PhD.

Dr. Mitchell also commented on my note-taking so here I place the sketchnote I completed as he spoke…now I would have added so much more but I really enjoyed just listening. I think I’ve got enough for you to get the picture of just how much wisdom this man has offered me especially as I continue my PhD. I secretly hope too, that Dr. Mitchell might read this post one day and see it for himself for I was not confident to show him on the day.

Sketchnote -Dr. Mitchell's keynote

Sketchnote -Dr. Mitchell’s keynote


 

Question: Can Principals significantly influence learning in their schools? (Helal & Coelli, 2016)

Fact: 24% of ALL students and 40% of those who are disadvantaged are at risk of reading failure in Australian primary schools. The explicit teaching of literacy covering the BIG5 may assist (Kerry Hempenstall – Case Study presentation).


 

One more thing – Whilst Radmila Harding was a little apprehensive about being the very last speaker of the conference and wondered if there would be anyone left to hear her presentation I have to say it was engaging, and well I’m also going to say … FUN! There were hands-on activities and videos to make us laugh… and so it ended… happily. The take home message not only from Radmila’s presentation but I think from the whole conference:

Let’s work collaboratively to build a team that won’t fall down so all may benefit and grow in their experience and journey of learning and living.

And yes there were enough people left who enjoyed it right to the end.

End of Day 2

Thanks for reading 🙂

Day 1 – EBT reflection