Friday, August 31, 2007

The Tutor Situation

I have complained about the lady I tutored in small ways, and now it is time for a long vent.

Before I even arrived in China I had this job. Brian was tutoring her over the summer with the intent of handing her over to me when I arrived. It all sounded good on paper - she is a wealthy Chinese business woman who plans to move to Singapore early next year so that she can then gallivant about the world. For this she wants to learn English and is willing to pay well for a regular tutor.

The reality is slightly different.

First a few physical annoyances. It gets hot in Shanghai. Mid to upper 90s hot. Dang hot. Sit and drip sweat off your nose hot. But unlike France, China has air conditioners. I've written about them, you've seen them. They work well. They are wonderful.

This lady even has central air, so potentially it could really cool the entire apartment. This is theory because she rarely turns the sucker on. The first day of tutoring I went with Brian and it was probably 90 degrees outside. It was maybe 85 inside. Luckily she lives on the fifteenth floor so I think the upper atmosphere cooled us down a bit.

It isn't like she's some sort of ice queen who doesn't get hot. That very day I watched her sweat. I saw her take a tissue and wipe her forehead many times. I see her husband walking around in nothing but his shorts because he is so hot.

Yet still, no air conditioner. I thought I was going to die. I sweated and sweated. We all sweated.

A couple of times I have showed up and been visibly overheated. The first time I went by myself the tax dropped me off a couple of blocks down and the walk made me perspire like a drunk loon. These times she has pitied me and we have studied in a small office and she has turned on the Air. Not very low mind you, so it went from the upper 80s to the lower 80s which does make a difference.

Our tutoring sessions last four hours at a time, and though she promised a break every hour, we never take any. Usually about two hours into it she will get up and wash her face or go to the bathroom and then we are back at it. I usually don't have enough time during that bit to even stand up.

Again, it isn't like she isn't tired during the sessions, for she visibly sags and has difficulty concentrating and even mentions that she is tired, but we don't stop. We don't break.

That's the physical annoyance, but the real pain comes from who she is and what she wants.

As mentioned initially the plan was to get her ready for travel. When I took over the sessions, I created a three tiered plan to get her ready:

  1. 1. Grammar and vocabulary from the book - She has a couple of books that she has been studying, and they are good for learning new vocabulary and helping with sentence structure and basic grammar.
  2. 2. Conversation - each class we would dedicate time to discuss popular culture or news events to help with her ability to both listen and talk. I also planned some role playing where she could get some practice with the types of things she would encounter while traveling; such as riding a taxi or shopping.
  3. 3. Listening - I planned to record various audio from places like NPR and the BBC so she could get used to listening for understanding and hearing other voices but my own.

That's a good plan right? It covers the basics and should have helped her learn.

She would have none of it. Immediately she changes her goals. Goal #1 is no longer being able to speak English when she travels, in fact she doesn't seem to be planning to travel at all. The premier goal is now for her to be able to watch English television and understand. She seemed to say that she is paying for satellite TV and this contains English language programs and if she can't understand them then it is a waste of her money.

Goal #s 2 and 3 were to listen to English language radio and read English newspapers.

No kidding. TV, radio and newspapers, these are her goals.

Here's the catch - she is unwilling to watch TV or listen to the radio to help her. I suggested these things and to talk to her husband in English and she nodded her head "no."

What we do each day is read and repeat. Each lesson from the book contains a story. I read this story one sentence at a time and she repeats it behind me. Often we read a sentence two or three times until she can repeat it verbatim, from memory. Once done I ask her some standard questions about the reading.

They say the Chinese tend to learn by rote memorization. Education isn't about problem solving or understanding a subject, but simply memorizing facts and figures. They say that and this lady is the epitome of it. She almost always gets the questions right because she is able to memorize almost all of the story.

She will repeat, exactly what the page said. At first I was impressed then I realized that so many times she has no idea what she is saying. A couple of days ago the lesson was on the judicial system. We talked about judges and juries and all of that stuff. We must have discussed the word "guilty" a dozen times. She repeated it. She used the word to answer the right questions.

Then later I asked her a question in which she actually had to understand what "guilty" actually meant. She had no idea. I wanted to scream that she had used the word to answer questions, that I had used it many times and she said she understood, but she really didn't.

Now I know some of this is a basic problem in any language learning. Sometimes you forget a word, sometimes your brain gets tired. Sometimes you pretend to understand because you are embarrassed when you don't. But I swear to you all this woman does is memorize without understanding.

I really think that she thinks that if she can just memorize every word in the English language she will automatically understand what everyone says. I actually kind of understand this thought because as I studied French I would often try to understand every word instead of trying to understand the main points.

This isn't the best way to learn though. I don't know every word in the language, and I've been speaking it for 30 years. I've tried to explain this. I've tried to tell her we need listening exercises but she just won't have it. Actually I think she lies to me because she says she does listen to things - like the audio version of our daily stories - but then we go over the material she doesn't act like she's ever heard it before.

Because she is a business woman (what she actually does is beyond me, but she's constantly getting calls) her schedule is weird. Normally we meet at a set time, but sometimes she changes it up, or as was the case on Wednesday where (as the elevator door was closing between us on my way home mind you) she mentions that she is unavailable on Thursday. Thus the tutoring schedule is and will be weird. If you know me I am very much anti-weird schedules. I like to know what I am doing from day to day.

Lastly working out a pay schedule was murder. She wanted to pay me a low monthly salary (and I know it was low because she was paying Brian more money for less hours) with a large bonus at the end, if she could meet her goals.

Again, her goals were to be able to watch TV and understand. Um, first you'll never reach that goal with read and repeat, and secondly that goal is too vague. I could work my butt off only to find that you don't think you understand enough and screw me out of a bonus.

I said I didn't want a big bonus, I wanted a larger salary. She balked. She argued. She swore that wasn't the Chinese way. I said I don't care, that's what I want. She scoffed. She argued. She promised a bigger bonus. I said I could find another job.

Honestly, I was hoping she'd tell me to take a hike.

She begrudgingly gave in.

The funny thing is, after all that I'm probably quitting. She goes on a ten day vacation next week and I am doing everything in my power to have something else going when she comes back.

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