A broken workplace culture: Episode 2

Last time, in A broken workplace culture: Episode 1 I talked about my experiences working at a unigwon in Seoul. This time, I’d like to share some thoughts and experience related to how things changed a bit. In my previous post I mentioned that I was not the hero of the transformation. I was more of 2nd or 3rd follower. The hero the story, as I see it, was Patrick (again not his real name). You might remember Patrick from such stories as being intentionally given the worst book to teach a particular course.

As shocking as the “wrong book incident” might be I don’t want to suggest it was the reason for Patrick’s efforts . It certainly might have been a factor but I think it is just too neat and easy to say that he behaved in this way just because he was mistreated that one time. I think Patrick was more generally unhappy with workplace culture and believed he could help foster some positive changes.

Neon_sign,_-CHANGE-

I still haven’t told you what Patrick did. One of the first things I remember from this job was Patrick coming over and introducing himself after the first teachers’ meeting. He said that he had been there for a year and was very willing to help and and that his door was always open (note: we didn’t have doors). He also said that he frequently taught listening classes and was most comfortable sharing resources and ideas for that but that he was also ready to help with any classes and was very ready to help or just chat about how things are going in general. He said all this before I really had a chance to grasp how negative the work atmosphere was so I am not sure if I really followed the implications of what he was saying. Now, looking back, I can imagine the hidden meaning was something like, “This place can be tough, so please let me know if you need any help or just need to talk.” I appreciated his offer even if I didn’t take him up on sharing resources too much at that stage.  It was nice to know there were unofficial channels of support for when times got tough. I am quite certain that Patrick gave a similar introductory talk to all the new teachers. I was among 5 new teachers that term and you might recall that tradition dictated one would be let go at the end of the term (and one of us was.)

In the early stages I was still getting adjusted to place and figuring out how things went while trying to avoid too much attention or scrutiny in order to keep my job. Patrick opened my eyes to a few things. One evening on beers with me and 2-3 other teachers, he laid out his vision. It was remarkably simple. If we start helping each other and are noticeably seen as doing so then the other teachers will follow suit. He was full of optimism and conviction. He was certain that if a few of us started sharing and talking about productively about teaching it would spread. Sure, perhaps some of the “old guard” will not be into it but they will follow eventually follow the crowd when they are in the minority and everyone else is sharing and working together. He was of the opinion there were in fact very few bad apples but felt the workplace culture had been damaged by individuals that had already left and incidents that had long since passed. The negative effects remained but the people were gone. He was sure a few committed individuals could dramatically change what was a toxic workplace environment. He was passionate and persuasive and I was a believer and a follower immediately.  I did my best to help people and when I was no longer  in the “fresh meat” stage I tried to make things as easy as possible for the new teachers and I think Patrick’s influence on such behavior was clear. I also feel his efforts paid off in similar ways with other teachers and encouraged a general trend of collaboration and collegiality.

Thinking back, I am struck with Patrick’s leadership style. He never forced anyone to do anything. He provided support and encouragement and a great model to follow.  He didn’t really rally the troops or anything like that. He just was the change he wanted to see and let people know that it was ok to be helpful and sincere. I think he sort of flipped the script and made teaching well and caring about teaching cool. I think his efforts were a rousing success. On a personal level I sort of hated to go the office when I first got there but came to enjoy it later.

When I think about this time and Patrick’s influence I can’t ignore the backlash and I don’t wan to paint a picture that things changed immediately or smoothly. I remember we had a meeting and (while not remembering the specifics at all) there was a need for a few volunteers to cover a lesson or change their schedule or take on a bit more responsibility. Nobody volunteered at first and then Patrick was the first to do so mentioning how he was a team player. There were cynical chuckles at the moment and cynical mentions of the phrase “team player” in the weeks that followed. I distinctly remember thinking at the time how it takes someone with some courage an some willingness to be a target. I think Patrick wore the bulls-eye well. He was charming and confident and talented and it didn’t seem to matter much to him if the haters were hating. No stranger to cynicism myself,  it struck me as sad that people were judging someone on the basis of his sincerity and desire to help make things better. But it happened and Patrick persevered.

Patrick was trying to make a bad situation better and I think he was largely successful. I am happy I got to see it and participate in it.  I am hopeful that by sharing this story I might give readers some hope and ideas for changes in their workplaces if they find themselves in similar situations. Thanks very much for reading and best of luck if you happen to find yourself in a negative situation.

 

Notes, updates, apologies, clarifications, links and additional info 

I used the term “2nd follower” above. This TED talk on “How to start a movement” talks about the importance of followers.

I mentioned it elsewhere but it might be worth noting/considering here how the staff I described was overwhelmingly male (maybe 17/20 or so) and people were mostly in their late 20s and early 30’s. You can draw your own conclusions on these statistics but I felt it was worth mentioning. I once described the office as a place where one could drown in a sea of testosterone to a female colleague. Her nods let me know I might be onto something.

Patrick is my brother’s middle name. My brother’s first name is the same as the Patrick in the story. You know, just in case you know my brother’s name and really want to know Patrick’s real name.

I might have been a little overly negative in my previous post. I don’t think I shared anything that was untrue but I might have emphasized the negatives too much. From my experience it was a not a pleasant place to work and it got much better.

I also think I could have been more clear about who I was referring to when I talked about the “management.” I wasn’t actually talking about our immediate manager, the director of the program. I was talking about the higher ups. Those familiar with the situation will know that I surely had my issues with the director but I want to be clear that I was in no way laying the blame on him/her. I don’t wish to say that he/she was perfect in every way but I do think it was an extremely challenging situation and my criticism of the screwed up atmosphere was not meant to be directed solely or even mostly at the former director.

I suggested in my previous post that it would be a nice blog challenge (!) for others to share experiences of change related to workplace culture and atmosphere. I still believe that to be the case.

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13 comments

  1. Sophia Khan (@SophiaKhan4)

    Patrick sounds awesome. It’s great to read something inspiring and positive like this…and not pushy either. It’s a great illustration of leading by example – maybe that’s what we need more of in leaders…of any kind…What’s ‘Patrick’ up to these days, can I ask? I hope he is still the same!

    • mikecorea

      Hey Sophia, Thanks for reading and commenting! I am glad you liked the story. I was worried I went overboard last week with the negativity but it was largely a happy ending (at least for a time).

      The part about leadership struck me strongly as I was thinking about this again (after 5+ years!)

      I think it’s very interesting you asked about what Patrick is doing now. I’m equal parts happy and sad you asked. I actually almost blogged about Patrick last year when he left the field.

      I didn’t mention it in the post really but he is also (to my view though I have never actually seen him teach) an excellent teacher. I was sort of sad about it mostly because I felt like the field was losing a great teacher/person/leader/whatever but he was excited about new challenges. As a man of many talents and interests he wanted to try something else and is doing that now, in fact something totally different.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting and sorry if my answers are too vague.

  2. kevchanwow

    Hi Mike,

    This is a great story and having been fan of your blog for some time (and being a guy you met in Japan), I kind of want to send a big thank you to Patrick, because he helped you become the teacher you are, and that means he helped you help lots of other teachers. Which kind of makes me want to head to work next week and try a little harder to be there for my co-workers. So thanks for some inspiration and introducing me to your friend Patrick.

    Kevin

    • geoffjordan

      Excellent Part 2 – I hope there’s more to come.

      Having worked in a couple of crap schools when I arrived in Barcelona (in 1978!), I got a job in ESADE where I was lucky enough to be with not just the best DOS I’ve ever met, but with a really exceptional group of young, incredibly-enthusiastic teachers. The DOS had many of the qualities that Peter had. Above all, he had that rare combination of leadership and real enthusiasm. for his job. He also had the confidence to trust us to do a good job and let us experiment. He made sure we had the best resources, the best teacher-training, and he spent hours in the teachers’ room and the bar shooting the breeze with us. He team-taught with us,,he was genuinely interested in our opinions and his enthusiasm was infectious. I’ll stop before I start blubbing!!

      • Audrey

        ESADE – the business school that recently laid off sixty teachers, some at just 24 hours notice, right? It is the same place that is up to its neck in a scandal involving ripping off public funds. Just Google ‘Fundación Nóos’ and you will discover that an ESADE student (Iñaki Urdangarin, The Duke of Palma), an ESADE lecturer on ‘Corporate Social Responsibilty’ (Diego Torres) and ESADE’s Secretary (Marcel Planelles) were all robbing the taxpayer blind. The language school — pompously called ‘The Executive Language Center’ — was not directly involved but it is part of the same rotten corporate culture. Anyway, the language school has now closed its doors to ‘outsiders’ shortly after celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Apparently, it was losing money hand-over-fist despite sky-high prices — something that makes one wonder how good a business school ESADE really is and how honest the people running it are.

    • mikecorea

      Wow, what a lovely message. I will try to ensure that Patrick sees it. 🙂

      One thing that comes to mind is how these ideas can be used in situations other than the terrible one I found myself in. I guess they are also applicable to ok and even good ones. Somehow this didn’t occur to me before.

      In any case,thank you very much for the comments. It is nice to know that sharing the story can potentially have an immediate impact.

  3. Micaela

    Reading these posts takes me back to the years I worked for language academies here in Málaga. The ‘contracts’ and working conditions were simply awful. They did things like pay us (a very small amount) for only the hours we taught so holidays were more like a punishment and we were in constant competition for any new classes that came up. Much like your experience, this all created a tense atmosphere where collaboration and sharing were definitely not valued but I did come across some ‘Patricks’ during those years and I even tried to fill those shoes more than once. After enduring quite a few years of being exploited (and even a court decision in my favor!) a friend and I decided to become self-empoyed and start our own program. That was five years ago and we’re still going strong. I will never understand why administrators would create that kind of negative and competitive atmosphere. It’s unproductive and very short-sighted in terms of economic gain.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for reading and responding Micaela. I don’t to go too far here but something I often thought about when I worked in that job was that the admin wasn’t doing much except signing up students, cashing checks and paying the electricity fees (as far as I could see). It seemed to me that most of the money was made based on the name of the uni (ok …not a trivial point) and the blood sweat and tears of the teachers.
      (I feel compelled to mention that there were some amazing teachers there who did great work and turned lemons into delicious lemon-based drinks).

      I commend you and your friend for starting up on your own. It is great to see that things can work out.

      As for the admin at my previous place, I really think they just needed numbers to justify their positions so they took actions that would look like they were doing something. I am still confounded by the whole thing.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  4. Kristin Walters

    Aha, the story I wanted to read….I wonder how many of us have a ‘Patrick’ in our staff rooms (or in our past staffrooms, in our lives)?? I have a DoS who gets in and does, and inspires like nothing else. I am really happy to be working with her and to have the benefit of her time and her calm wisdom that she just doesn’t even need to think about, it just is. It is due to this approach that I too feel empowered to be a little more out there…..although I don’t want to agree totally with Vygotsky when he says “through others we can be ourselves”, I think there’s some truth in that.

    • mikecorea

      Hello again, One of my takeaways from the Patrick story is his bravery to be out there and stick out a bit.. My concern is that there are lots of Patricks around but they feel pushed down by system or whatever and don’t get a chance to shine and share.

      Thanks for sharing about the person that inspired/inspires you. Perhaps there is a blog post in there as well. 🙂 And thanks for the reminder about the importance of someone allowing us to be a bit more out there!

  5. Pingback: A broken workplace culture: Episode 1 | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  6. Ma Wan

    If Patrick had been teaching in Hong Kong, some of the veterans would have made up a false story to report him to that bad management mentioned, get rid of him and keep things as before. Patrick would have been seen as a troublemaker trying to portrait himself as a better teacher than the others and he would have been vilified and bullied out of that working place. If that was not the case it says quite a lot about that working atmosphere not being so bad after all. Some places are beyond redemption because the people staying want the status quo to be what it is. I have seen and experienced much worse cases in my life as a foreign language teacher. This story strikes me as a bit naive, but I would like to emphasize that even if Patrick would have ended up defamed and fired his actions and behavior would have been worth in the long term. Where I live, I witness very often so much hidden guiltiness and frustration in those who always look down and pretend that what is abnormal is normal in this city that I am happy to have reported bullying when I was unfortunate enough to witness it and to have shared my work and materials with everyone, no matter their opinions and actions against me, even though the first thing has costed me a couple of university contracts and many of the materials I have done through the years circulate in language schools and departments under somebody else’s name (nothing really elaborated, just some sets of exercises and Power Points plus a couple of internal syllabus for language courses, no big deal indeed). Do not compete, collaborate. Do not destroy, create and build up. Respect even if you are not going to be respected. That’s a teacher code. Those who love this profession will understand. Greetings from Asia.

    • mikecorea

      Hello from Seoul,
      I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I also appreciate you giving me a different perspective on this story. I guess it wasn’t sooo bad afterall. I do think the “old guard” might have tried to stop some changes and keep the status quo but I guess it wasn’t so bad if things were able to change.

      I find myself wondering if you think there is something particular to HK when it comes to this sort of thing? Or if it was some places you had experience with? If so, what is it about HK that makes it so?

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