updated 6 February 2000

Where's b?

Where's b?


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October 1999 - February 2000 - Singapore


I completed three months of my six-month contract with West Language School. Like most English teaching jobs abroad it was dominated by unsavory qualities. Welcome to the real world of…

West Language School
1 Sophia Rd.
#07-15 Peace Center
Singapore 288149

The Principal

Dan's the principal of West Language School. He's a Canadian car salesman. Literally. He has had two jobs selling cars. That helped him land a job in the recruiting department at some kind of school in Canada. He ended up in Singapore teaching English. He was such a good talker that he moved up to head the program.

He moved on to open his own school in Singapore. He did this with the help of two salespeople from the school where he had been working. They call them "recruitment personnel" in other places, here they are called "salespeople." Ray is Singaporean Chinese; Sam is mainland Chinese. None of them have any training in or knowledge of education beyond how to rook students into taking a class that's "just perfect for them."

Needless to say, I was never comfortable with the whole operation. Nevertheless, I taught the best classes I could with the materials and time I had, which were sparse. My teaching load was ridiculous by any reasonable standard. (20 to 25 hours/wk is reasonable, mine was 33) I did everything but bring myself to fraternize with the crooks that ran the school.

The Demise of Salesman Ray

One of the salespeople and founding partner, Ray, was recently terminated. He had stole money from the school in more than one way. The scam that did him in was bound to fail. In short Ray invented a class that was to be taught by himself on Sunday when the school was closed. In theory he would teach the class, pocket the money, and no one would know. In practice it only took a week before one his students called and the other salesman caught on. The scheme was uncovered and Ray was duly fired. His English, by the way, was well below standard. Ray was an all too typical Singaporean Chinese male: mercenary, egotistical, unhandsome and unintelligent.

Dan had grown suspicious of Ray after finding him asleep at school one morning. He said he'd had a late night and was near school so he decided to sleep there. Sounded semi-reasonable. However, he was actually dodging creditors who evidently knew where to find him. Ironically, he had also borrowed money from the school which he was then using as his refuge from other creditors.

When it rains it pours.

His wife recently struck back at his habitual infidelity. She left a credit card receipt for him to find. It was a receipt for a hotel room-- her signature, another man's card.

I suppose his bad karma caught up with him-
he lost his job, his wife and his credit standing in the same week.

Anyway, this guy unsavory as he is, is actually, in my opinion, a better character than the salesman who is left working at the school. How can that be? you ask. Well, both Ray and Sam had the same dishonest, back-stabbing, greedy character. In his favor Ray had a friendlier disposition.

Business As Usual

Perhaps you've never imagined such an operation. I'm lucky to be out of it, but the students will suffer. The management doesn't care about the learning, the students or the teachers. And this is by no means an unusual operation in Singapore. Let me repeat: THIS IS BY NO MEANS AN UNUSUAL OPERATION IN SINGAPORE. I've only been here a short while, but I've been exposed to four different schools all having a similar structure and "horror" stories to match.

Villainy is no fiction; it is everywhere. Of course you realize these guys were liars, but you probably have some trouble grasping the extent of it. Maybe 60 percent of everything that came from these guys mouths was a lie. Pure fabrication. They do it so much it becomes a sport. I'm sure they believe some of it. And what did I do? Just waded through it and tried to teach.

None of this was lost on the students. They often complained about he salespeople. While I never encouraged the students to revolt, neither did I rush to the salesmen's defense. No doubt this contributed to my inevitable downfall.

To Chop Up or To Crush? That is the question.

One of my students was a Chinese woman who loved Japan. We spoke Japanese together sometimes. Of the salespeople she would say, "Chop 'em up!" Which is what she wanted to do with them. I came to admire her idea of earthly justice. Once she brought a cake to class. We all had a piece and she gave me a big slice of cake to take home. I set it in the office and it disappeared. She was visibly pained to think that one of them had eaten the cake. She hated the idea of feeding them.

The Demise of b at West Language School

Dan had warned me that the salesmen "Had it in for me." If they decided to get rid of me, so he said, there was nothing he could do about it. That was one of those lies I was talking about. My response was, "I know I don't have good rapport with those guys, but I do my job." He said, "In Singapore you won't get any warning."

And so it was, one Saturday. I taught two classes. The last class went over time because the students were eager to learn my opinion on the Chinese. I was reluctant to give them one and they understood what that meant.
When class was over Dan looked a bit grave as he explained that Sam had given me the axe. Dan handed me a check and a letter of disengagement. There was little in the way of an explanation. He mentioned that he saw some students talking to Sam, perhaps they were complaining. I asked who. He didn't know. Maybe, "Ji Wei?" I said, "You've taught him for the past two weeks." And what I was thinking and not saying was "He'd have every reason to complain."
The real reason was that my 3 month "trial" period was coming to a close. I would then be due to receive my official salary, a S$200/ mo. raise. This expense could be avoided by perpetually hiring and firing new teachers every 3 months. And so my students and I were given no notice and we weren't able to say goodbye.

The Teaching Job

I taught one 3 hour full-time class from 12 to 3pm with a 15 minute break. It was a small class of about 6 to 10 students. The composition of the class changed as students moved in and out. 2 students were with me the full 3 months. I followed a textbook closely and supplemented it with my own materials.

After 3 o'clock I would teach two more 90 minute classes. 3:30-5:00, 6:00-8:30 or 8:30-9:00. I ended up teaching from 12:00 to 3:00, eating dinner at 5pm and teaching from 6:00 to 9:00pm with no break. I appreciated the routine as an exercise in stamina. When I mentioned the workload, the boss talked about his "12 hour workday" and replied, "…That's why I hired you, you're young." Like a workhorse, I suppose.

He made another slip one time while discussing business in Singapore, "One of the great things about doing business in Singapore is that you don't have to pay your employees!" Of course, I was one of his employees. He caught himself and looked a little uneasy but I changed the subject. As a rule I'm non-confrontational; I save it up (somewhat like Shiva I fancy, the passive master of yoga and the great destroyer).

The Students

The managers of the school don't think much of the students. They prefer to have students who aren't interested in learning. Those are the easiest to please. Here's…

The Racket
In order to stay in Singapore for an extended period you need one of four things: citizenship, permanent residency status, an employment pass or a student pass. I hope my readers are perceptive enough to have uncovered the racket without it being spelled out. The school is registered with the Ministry of Education and therefore is able to issue student passes to foreign "students." These "students" might be women imported from China by Singaporean men. They are able to keep them in Singapore on a student pass. They might be men or women working illegally and in need of a student pass to stay in Singapore. The principal suggested that there was a large market of foreign girls working in karaoke parlors as prostitutes or semi-prostitutes. The government doesn't exactly issue working visa's for this; a student visa works as a nice substitute. The principal dreams of breaking into this market for his profit and titillation.

The actual students

I had students from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. They all wore their nationalities unconsciously and authentically. People decry national stereotypes but they exist for good reasons.

The youngest were two Portuguese girls from Indonesia. They were my only Western students and they fully captivated my Chinese students when they joined the class. They were blonde and brunette sisters, about 13 and 14 years old. My oldest student was a woman who had emigrated with her family from China before the 1949 revolution. She couldn't speak Mandarin Chinese, she thought she'd study English instead.

Sweetness and Charm
Your teacher never graded you on this but why not? Here's how my students stacked up. In line with the stereotype, the Thai girl was by far the sweetest and most affable. Her smile and laugh were natural, immediate, and infectious. She was never deterred by her stern-faced peers; she remained her charming self. Not far behind were the ethnic Malays, and in third place we find the Mainland Chinese and Chinese Malays. If we jump to last place we find the Singaporean Chinese. They had paid and they wanted to learn English and learn it now. Which makes them excellent students, but not exactly charmers. There were, of course, some excpetions, but this was my general impression.

Respect and Style

All of the students showed due respect to the teacher. They only thing that might irk some teachers was the students habit of receiving phone calls and holding short conversations in class. As a teacher I was supposed to tell them to turn their phones off, but I figured they were adults and they were free to decide their course of action under the eyes of their peers.

In Japan the students are extremely passive. They are trained to be so. It is difficult to get them to volunteer answers and ask questions. Chinese students make a distinct contrast with the Japanese. Most of my students here were ethnic Chinese and they were much more aggressive. Some had suggestions as to how the class should be conducted. They were willing to ask questions about English and they were also willing to ask about my background.

The students were great. I wish them luck.

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