Monday, August 27, 2012

27 August 2012 -- Journal Log

Scooter's Journal Log
Earth Date 27 August 2012

I awoke to the cell phone countdown timer set the previous evening. It was 7 o'clock in the morning. I rose, worked on my journal, and then had a bowl of cereal and sweet milk. I showered and got dressed up in a polo shirt, slacks, and dress shoes; and then I checked my email and surfed the web until it was time to walk to the south gate of our apartment complex to rendezvous with Lena, the AP Literature teacher from Siberia via Albuquerque whom I learned on Friday evening had been teaching most recently at the Albuquerque Academy where I attended for 5th and 6th grade. We then walked leisurely, umbrellas in hand to fend off the morning drizzle, across the street to the International Department Building of the Beijing National Day School (BNDS) to attend our first day of teacher meetings. Our preplanning allowed us to arrive first at Conference Room 2, something, I indicated to her, I had always taught my Public Speaking Students – arrive first and you will be able to (a) select the power seats and (b) control where every other person sits. So, indeed, we selected seats opposite the door, midway around the table – 9 o'clock if one viewed the gigantic table as a clock with 12 at the farthest point from the door. As teachers and administrators began to filter in, Lena commented as to the veracity of my comments about seating.

Soon, the room was a hive of activity as returning teachers greeted each other and introduced themselves to the new teachers. Also, we noted another ring of chairs around the peripheral of the room was being filled with Chinese teachers. We would soon learn that these teachers were our counterparts as there is a Chinese teacher and administrative counterpart for every International teacher and administrator. This is not always an exact one : one ratio. For example, there is one Chinese Biology teacher for the two International Biology teachers.

A paper cup of green tea set in a pink sleeve of a tiny teacup-like shaped silicone form and handle has miraculously been filled by a mysterious person during all of the entrances. Eventually, moments before our official starting time of 9 o'clock, we witnessed the arrival of Todd, our American Principal and Frank, his Chinese counterpart, and our Deputy Principal of the International Department and the Beijing National Day School, Ms Betty Wu – our so-called 'big' boss. I place 'big' in air quotes because Ms Wu is huge of importance and kindness of heart but not necessarily in physical stature as she is approximately as tall as my beloved Grandma Sweetheart – somewhere between 5' 2" and 5' 4". She circulated through the crowd of people quickly, making the sincere effort to recognize and interact with each new person while also very quickly acknowledging all of the returning members of the faculty.

Todd distributed an agenda for the first two days of meetings for the International teachers, and Frank did the same for the Chinese teachers. Todd then introduced himself and Betty Wu. Betty then officially welcomed all of the new teachers in a graceful way filled with plenty of very unnecessary yet characteristic apologies about the school not looking its best for our arrival. I say characteristic because it has been my experience that the Chinese people are so humble and modest they truly are dissatisfied when everything is not up to their desires of perfection, especially, when they are 'showing things off' to the international community. Indeed, it is this modesty paired with a commensurate level of desire to achieve both perfection in the eyes of the world but also according to their own ancient traditions of balance and flow that often emerge as one of their nation's most endearing qualities.

Betty Wu is at once both charming and proud as she indicates how delighted she is to see the International Department family (her word) growing so large, and she knows we will have a "happy and harmonious" year (again her words). One of the things, also in my previous experience in visiting 中國 / Zhōngguó, that is very hard to understand until you visit yourself, is the emphasis on people being truly happy and fulfilled in their lives as being a compelling and driving nature of the Chinese people's existence. It is something that is inherently discussed here out in the open whereas, I think, it is more something taken for granted but rarely achieved in the genuine sense elsewhere in the world.

Betty Wu received a rousing round of applause from the entire group. It was so clear by her emotional reaction that she truly is very proud of her accomplishments in building this department from the ground up.

Todd then led us through the schedule and then initiated our first activity which was, quite simply, introducing ourselves. He started giving a very brief background about himself focusing on how long he had been at BNDS, what he would be teaching at BNDS, how many years he had been teaching and where he was from. Frank was next up. The introductions proceeded in a counterclockwise direction providing me an opportunity to prepare my remarks and still I forgot to mention my Chinese name so given way back when I studied the language for a semester. I did however, ensure that I was able to say thank you to everyone who had worked so hard to ensure the comfortable arrival of all of the new people. This was met with extra applause.

It has been my experience in studying Asian culture that brief, genuine, public statements of thanks help to build up positive feelings in a group even more so here than in the USA, for example.

After all of the International teachers introduced themselves, the Chinese teachers continued in turn. Once again, many were very shy and apologized for their English, causing Todd to remark that we would be doing the entire thing again with each of the International teachers giving their intros in Mandarin. I liked this 'joke' because it (a) reminded the Chinese teachers that they have nothing for which to apologize as their English is certainly a million times better than the Mandarin of any of the International teachers, and (b) it behooves us, even though we have been selected expressly to teach as foreign experts in English, to learn as much of our hosts' native tongue as we can.

I was very excited when I learned, at some point in the past few days, that BNDS hosts optional, evening Mandarin classes once a week for the International teachers – and, yes, Chen Laoshi, I will attend dutifully and do all of my homework and take all of the quizzes as it is one of my personal goals to learn as much Mandarin as I can absorb.

After the introductions were complete, Todd issued a challenge to anyone who thought he or she could now name every person. Several people tried and got very close, and then 4-year vet, Jarrod successfully named every International and Chinese teacher. This prompted Todd to shuffle us around to new locations and then Tony (a Chinese teacher) matched Jarrod's accomplishment. I was disappointed in myself because I would have only gotten perhaps a 90% in this challenge. The Chinese teachers then departed with Frank to conduct their meeting and planning sessions which included getting all of the rooms in order.

A catering crew began, at this point, to deliver an assortment of goodies including fresh fruits (grapes, bananas, and oranges), baked goods (traditional Chinese pastries (crispy and flaky dough figure eights – also the symbol of the Beijing National Day School – dusted with large sugar crystals; round dough cakes with a Chinese character baked into the top, filled with a thick jelly, and egg washed prior to baking to give a rich yellow brown color; thin but dense rectangles of dough with air vent slits cut that when baked pop open slightly to reveal the hidden thick jelly inside, and tiny sesame seed-covered sweet dough spheres), and beverages (instant Nescafé coffee, instant Lipton Sweet Milk Tea, and Apple juice). Now might be as good a time as any to remind readers that the Chinese do not, historically, believe in serving cold beverages. Traditions dictate that drinking cold things is bad for the health. Hence the hot tea with every meal. This does not switch to iced tea in the hot and humid summer, in other words.

We helped ourselves to the treats, used the lavatories, and circulated to get an inside look at our new classrooms. It was indeed true that we would each receive our own classroom this year with a couple of caveats though, I should think, would cause no one whom has ever worked in a school an sense of difference. First, our classrooms might be used for homerooms of various sections of students from each of the three grades our department serves (10 – 12 aka Senior I, II, and III). Second, apparently in a huge deviation from last year when BNDS International Department students left the building to take Chinese History, Politics, and Geography with their counterparts in the rest of BNDS, this year, teachers would be coming over to teach these subjects to our students. Of course, they will, therefore, need rooms from our limited allotment of twenty classrooms. Therefore, Todd indicated that if we found that we never have time in our classrooms other than when we taught, we would be given an additional office cubicle to use for our prep and planning work time. If, however, we didn't need this space, we wouldn't be given it. We were also informed that the goal was to have new teachers desks and fully installed room-wide white boards by the end of September as the International Department seeks to make the experiences of the students match what they would get and see in the USA as much as possible.

The classrooms were nearly identical to each other with freshly painted white walls on all sides, windows in all rooms on both sides (ones to the outside world and ones to the hallway allowing in a maximum flow of natural light), chalk / white boards at one end with the teacher's desk, and plenty of space for hanging student work, projects, and decorations on the walls. Everything looked clean, bright, and fresh.

Of note, the hallways were wide, open, and yet lined with lockers. Each locker had a bright LED next to its number. Turns out, these lockers open with a SmartCard – gone are the days of remembering your locker combination, I guess. Likewise easy for the administration to push one button and have every locker in the school pop open for inspection. Gone are the days of students thinking they might hide their locker mess until the end of the year, reminded the once administrator of a certain boarding school in Minnesota.

We returned to the conference room to select treats and refreshments before taking our seats again for a walk through the core elements of the requirements of the IB program. This is an emerging program within the International Department and open this year to 10th graders (Senior I). Todd also informed us as to the many changes and improvements in facilities and staff made over the summer including the appointment of a Dean of Students and Record Management, Phil V.

We then broke for a two-hour lunch on our own giving a large group of us the opportunity to go to Pizza Hut at the Wanda Plaza. Pizza Hut, in Beijing, is not like Pizza Hut in the USA. Here it is an opulent place with marble floors and granite counters, linen table clothes and decked out to the nines. The giant menu includes a variety of gourmet and traditional pizza, salads, and pasta dishes as well as decadent desserts. There are fixed meals for two and three people which include a drink, pizza, side dish, and dessert for a shared price of 145 CN 元 / 182 CN 元 ($23 USD / $28 USD or $11.50 / $9.33 per person). As you can see, this is an expensive restaurant by Chinese standards. I ordered a chicken meatballs over rice dish with a peach smoothie for a total of 50 CN 元 ($7.93 – basically my food budget for the entire day until reimbursement day and then pay day). Remember that one can eat a combo meal at McDonald's here in Beijing right near our school for 15 CN 元 ($2.38 USD). So, you can get an idea about how nice and expensive the Pizza Hut truly is. We took the 308 bus back to our apartments where I picked up shirts to take later for professional ironing believing that the garment steamer provided to us by the school will be ineffective at getting the proper creases in shirts that I like.

We reconvened at 1:30 pm where two returning members of the faculty led us through the use of the online grading system called Engrade which I then tested on my iPad and found that it works great and is full of robust features such as online quizzes, flashcards, and discussion boards that go along with the online grade book and assignment calendar for the faculty, students, administration, and parents. The ability to put in daily / weekly practice and real quizzes that are scrambled both in question order and answer order to prevent misuse that are then scored and entered into the grade book automatically seems like a dream come true especially for teachers who may have been used to a student load of 45 and will now be carrying nearly double that like myself. The system also allows teachers and students to message each other within itself. It was a pretty slick system that I think I will enjoy using very much.

We were dismissed at 2:30 pm into our planning time. A returning physics teacher named Santosh had previously agreed during lunch time to escort me to his favorite dry cleaning service location to get my shirts ironed as we will be needing one for Wednesday's big faculty introduction and official BNDS welcome lunch where we will finally meet the BNDS principal, Mr. Li. Another returning teacher named Rob (Economics) accompanied us on the journey which was just past the restaurant from which we acquired our first Chinese dinners on our arrival night. I dropped off five, clean shirts for ironing and was charged 15 CN 元 ($2.38 US) – yes, that's the going rate to have 5 shirts professionally pressed in Beijing!

On the way back, Rob treated me to an Iced Cold Milk Tea from Jack Hut.

What is a Jack Hut?

Jack Hut is a chain of cold beverage spots around Beijing. How far the chain expands outside of Beijing, I do not know, yet, but I have seen them all over Beijing. They are not quite as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Seattle, but close. They do, surprisingly enough, sell iced cold beverages. They do not have ice in them, but they are stored in the cold and pre-made in sealed plastic cups with thin film lids through which a large diameter straw (standard in China) is popped for drinking pleasure. Rob told me this would be a very good introduction to the joy of Jack Nut. I noticed a tiramasu layered tea on the menu that also looked quite interesting for next time.

We walked back to our apartment complex.

Upon arrival in my apartment, I delayered from my steamy, humidity-collecting attire and donned comfy fresh clothes in the air-conditioning of my apartment. I had begun to feel light headed from the heat index of the day, and this welcome respite made it possible for me to skim two entire Biology resource and activity manuals of nearly 400 pages each, work on my journal, and chat with a few friends on Facebook. Then for reasons to which I can only attribute the fact that I was still enduring residual effects of jet lag exacerbated by the high heat index, I got an overwhelming urge to take a very long nap until 10 pm. I awoke with a start to find it dark outside and myself needing a snack. I consumed a FunPie™ and a Snickers® bar and then sat down to work on my journal which I was noticing as the hour approached 11:52 pm had grown to 21 pages of text from fewer than seven days. I feared, of course, that I am writing way too much detail and definitely over-sharing. Yet, I know that there is much to be gained herein, and much that I will want to remember in the future when my memory fades of these experiences and all they entail. As much as so many people have asked me in advance to please write and please journal about my experiences here each day, I have to remember that this is first and foremost for me. I also have little doubt that once school actually commences, and I find myself engaged in the lively practice of teaching, I will be fortunate to be able to provide a quick list of bullet points and a handful of brief comments every few days. So, perhaps, this is just fine that the details be rich and insightful now before the real harmonious chaos that is the life of a high school teacher, no matter where on earth, begins. With that thought, I put myself to sleep.

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