Learning to ask for help… from the inside

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 7.c

Graduating Teachers work co-operatively with those who share responsibility for the learning and wellbeing of learners.

I’ve been wondering about whether to make this post, firstly because it breaks vow not to blog about specific incidents but more importantly I’m blogging about work on the internet.

However I am in need of advice, namely how to ask for advice.

One of the issues that came out of my Teaching Experience is that I need to be more proactive about asking for advice and guidance on my teaching. So I’m putting this out here, how do you ask for advice from colleagues?

As a bit of a backgrounder most of my working life thus far has been spent in Asian workplaces, or more specifically Korean and Japanese workplaces with two very old-school (read Confucian) bosses. Teaching Experience was my first time working in a western environment and more importantly the first time in over 8 years that I’ve been a workplace were the language and culture are the same as my own.

Obviously there are some bonuses to this experience. Firstly I can adapt to challenging situations. Secondly I am very good at cultivating professional relationships outside of the organisations I work in (this blog and twitter are obviously part of relationship building I’m doing to become a teacher) to help develop professional skills. Finally the only time I would call in sick for work is if I had lost a limb and even then I’d probably drop by and let the boss send me home rather than making the dreaded phone call (far better to have the boss send me home).

But there are some downsides, my style of communicating and dealing with co-workers has become mired in eastern ways of doing things.

But how is eastern communication different? One example I often give is from my first summer of teaching in a public school in Korea. It was so hot that on occasion I would wear a sleeveless top. It wasn’t a spaghetti strap top and would have been fine in 99% of New Zealand workplaces. However in the 35 degree  + heat and humidity one of my co-workers kept asking if I was cold. It took a few days for the penny to drop that she wasn’t asking if I was cold, she was asking me to cover up my arms in a way that didn’t cause offence to either me or her. Group harmony was seen as being more important than getting the message across. Vague (at least to western sensibilities)  comments would be made and then it was the listener’s job to unravel the context to find the actual meaning.

As a result of these sort of interactions, I’ve adopted a bit more of an indirect style of communication when dealing with people who are senior than I. For instance instead of saying: ‘I’m having trouble with time management in class what do you think I should do?’ I will say ‘this week I am working on managing my time in class’ and then let the context of a student asking a teacher do the talking. It’s a way for me to raise an issue without having to say ‘I’m struggling’ but more importantly it gives the person I’m asking a way of not being put on the spot or saying something that could cause friction or signal incompetence. To the westerners this sort of behaviour is known as ‘saving face’ and something to be discouraged. But in group-orientated societies having good instincts or an ability to read or sense the mood or non-verbal atmosphere and respond to it is a highly valued quality.

Perhaps the the downside of this experience is that I while I’m happy to ask equals and the internet for help on job matters, I’ve gotten into the habit waiting for the senior person to give guidance rather than force a discussion. From my viewpoint it’s up to the senior to give guidance when they need to and me as a junior to implement their suggestions. However I can now see how me being respectful of a senior’s time and feelings could be perceived as lacking initiative in seeking out guidance on my teaching. It’s definitely something to work on during my next Teaching Experience. I am no longer the lone ranger within an organisation and need to start using people’s expertise a bit better in the future hopefully this will enable me to work smarter rather than harder.

Nevertheless unpacking my problem has also been a fascinating exercise in how culture shapes behaviour.

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7 thoughts on “Learning to ask for help… from the inside

  1. Hi Teacher Trainee,
    I’m an Auckland teacher and found your post to be very interesting. I try to relate things back to what I’d hope my kids would do. Ideally I want my students to be reflective, problem solve and use their intuition so I do my best to do the same thing. Easier said than done sometimes I know!
    When’s your next prac? I’m sure you’re fabulous being so reflective!

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  2. My culture comes from growing up with elderly parents who taught me that one must respect one’s elders or those in authority… what I struggled with on TE was feeling that it was not my ‘place’ to sit in the teacher’s chair, nor to change anything to do with the way she did things.
    Next placement I shall grow some balls so to speak…or try to. lol

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  3. Pingback: Advice needed: finding your first teaching job « Teaching the Teacher

  4. Hi TT

    As a school leader I often have a similar problem when it comes to addressing issues I can see. I tend to avoid the direct conversation (default position) rather than coming right out and saying it.
    You say, “It’s a way for me to raise an issue without having to say ‘I’m struggling’ but more importantly it gives the person I’m asking a way of not being put on the spot or saying something that could cause friction or signal incompetence.”
    I find it far easier when other people raise the issue with me! That way I can avoid the friction of raising an issue that they may not be aware of or have not noticed.
    I think as a trainee teacher and next year as a beginning teacher your colleagues around you will love being asked for advice, help, suggestions etc. I agree with Sarah above, the fact that you are so reflective now puts you in a great position for your years of teaching ahead.

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    • Hi Janine,
      Communication is hard one and being out of the western workforce for so long (most of my working life has been in Asian workplaces), getting to grips with a very different working environment is challenging. Based on my experience so far, I think teachers by their very nature tend to be generous with their knowledge.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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