Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bullying in the TEFL Workplace

TEFL bullies
Excellent article written by Kaithe Greene over at tefl.net about workplace bullying in the EFL industry. While the article is ostensibly about the EFL industry, I found it mainly provided some very good overall information about bullying.

However, it really got me thinking about the problem and specifically how people working as English teachers in foreign countries could be affected by bullying.

Whether in a public school, a private institution, a language centre or a university, bullying is something that could have an impact on all teachers at some point in their careers.

What is bullying?

The tefl.net article provided a definition of bullying and a list of behaviours that is quite thorough (though I will comment on that later in this post). Two items from the list especially struck me as the kind of deceitful actions that are very common and are things that people are able to get away with.

First, "withholding information which affects performance." The old "I forgot to tell you by accident on purpose" stunt. I find this is something that could very easily happen in the TEFL workplace. Especially because in some cultures there is often trepidation on behalf of the local teachers or staff to communicate with foreign teachers. They very often ask one foreign teacher to pass on information to others. Selective forgetfulness is a real possibility.

Second, "spreading gossip." One of the most vile and toxic behaviours in any workplace, it can be even more destructive for someone working as an English teacher in a foreign country. Because the possibility of feeling isolated is always present for the expat, knowing that there are shameless cowards spreading lies about you can be extremely frustrating.

The Intricacies of Gossip

It is important to qualify exactly what type of gossip I am referring to here. It's nearly impossible to never mention someone's name when they are not around. Perhaps you had a work-related interaction with another teacher and now you are passing that information on to someone else. Even in this type of situation, it is very easy for someone to throw in a negative comment and things can quickly turn nasty.

Far more insidious are dedicated back-stabbing sessions where two or more individuals get together and rip another teacher. I have been in a staff-room where one shameless individual announced that he had some gossip to share. It must have thrilled him when a few other like-minded people shot up from their seats and rushed over to hear the latest dirt. In this case, I remained where I was and indicated I had no desire to listen in.

The problem with gossip is that to counter it, you are almost obliged to engage in the same kind of behaviour. In a perfect world, you would hope that people who hear someone insulting another person behind his or her back would not respond and would only form a negative opinion about the creep spreading the gossip. You would also think that if a particular teacher is constantly belittling various people when they are not around, that the listeners would assume that perhaps they too are getting the knife from the little smear-artist.

But it rarely works out that way.

A gossiper will never have trouble finding like-minded people and targets. Maybe the gossiper even has some legitimate grievances against his targets. But instead of respectfully confronting the individual, he will go with the easier option of ripping the person behind his back. And of course, it will go beyond the initial grievance and will turn into a kind of addiction with plenty of positive reinforcement from other gutless weaklings.

Protect Yourself from Workplace Bullies

So what should you do if you find yourself the target of a gossiper and his little sycophants? First, the trouble is determining if you actually are the target. The only real way to know is if the gossip comes back to you in some way or if a teacher you know and respect informs you of the gossip. When you have confirmation and decide to counter the nastiness, inevitably you will be taking part in the same kind of behaviour you loathe.

You can also confront the individual who is the lead defamer. As the article I am riffing off mentions, you may want to tape-record such an interaction. That is fraught with its own perils as gossipers are often skilled manipulators and could turn such an action into something sneaky and underhanded in the eyes of his followers. However, when you feel threatened and feel your job and family could be affected, tape-recording a conversation with someone who has been maligning you is acceptable in my opinion.

It is even more acceptable because of the fact that gossip does influence people regardless of how baseless it may be. I wish people always formed their own opinion on others based only on their own one-on-one interactions and other direct observations, but that isn't always the way things happen.

Another thing you definitely should do is develop your own elevator pitch on gossiping and repeat it whenever you sense a gossip session developing in your presence. It could be something as simple as "Sorry, I think that gossip in the workplace is toxic and we should avoid it at all costs."

This can even be a way to get a discussion going on the destructive nature of gossip in the workplace. If you decide to do this, and I believe you should, then you must adhere to it strictly or risk being labeled a hypocrite. As mentioned, the only situation in which it may be acceptable to gossip is when you are countering things being said about you. Still, very risky.

Discussing the negative effects of gossip may even make some people moderate their conduct. Amazingly, some people may not realize they are such shameless gossips or may not be aware of all its damaging effects.

Passive-aggressive Cowards

The two types of conduct discussed above: 1) failing to pass on information to a colleague so as to damage his reputation or ability to perform his job, and 2) gossip, fall under the category of passive-aggressive behaviour. The easiest kind of bad behaviour to get away with in the workplace.

Show me a nasty little gossiper, and more often than not, I will be able to show you a chronic late-arriver—another classic passive-aggressive manifestation. This is not to suggest that all punctually-challenged individuals are gossipers but I believe there is often a correlation.

Another weapon used by the passive-aggressive type is the silent treatment. Another cowardly method of failing to deal with various situations in the workplace in an honourable and mature way. The silent treatment is  another low-life tactic that people can get away with and it can make their target feel excluded.

Other types of TEFL workplace bullying exist that people more commonly associate with the playground bully. In other words, violence and aggression. The article at tefl.net uses a multi-point definition of bullying that "stresses the negative and ongoing nature of bullying as opposed to an occasional display of aggression or unfairness."

However, I think that definition misses the point that aggressive behaviour can also be ongoing. Perhaps the assumption is that something so brazen in the workplace simply couldn't go on for very long without being detected and sanctioned. But in fact, it can. And some of the unique aspects of the TEFL workplace in foreign countries make that even more possible.

The TEFL Workplace and Bullying

Now I will answer one of the questions posed by Kaithe Greene in her article on workplace bullying in the EFL industry: "is it [bullying] any different in the EFL industry to any other workplace?"

Yes, I do believe so.

In particular, in some Asian cultures and some types of educational institutions, the conditions are in place to allow the bully to get away with actions for a longer period of time than they would otherwise.

As mentioned, in some cultures there is still some uneasiness in interacting with foreigners, even if they are colleagues. The sentiment that "they (native English-speaking EFL teachers) are a necessary evil" does exist to some degree. With this comes the tacit understanding that disputes among foreign teachers stay among the foreign teachers. This sentiment is further strengthened by the foreign teachers themselves who don't want to cause problems for their hosts or to perpetuate any possible negative stereotypes about foreigners that may exist.

In addition, there is a certain kind of thinking that is ingrained in most people at an early age that benefits cowards, bullies and criminals. It results in the belief that to ever take a concern to someone in a position of authority is the most reprehensible and unforgivable sin possible. The fact that so many people continue to believe in these juvenile concepts long after they have become adults, thrills bullies to their manipulative little cores.

The notion that informing those who sign your pay-cheque about someone in the workplace who is out of control is somehow worse than the original bad behaviour, gains traction with many, many people.

Bullies understand this and use it to their advantage all the time. Listen to a bully start puking up sad clich├ęs that reflect this kind of thinking when his behaviour is finally highlighted. Things like "grassing" and "can't deal with things on your own," all delivered with indignant outrage. Anything to deflect attention off the initial actions that may have led to a person trying to protect himself. Again, many people will fall for this type of garbage.


The problem with dealing with the most unhinged bullies is that while they often engage in some of the passive-aggressive behaviour discussed above, they can also be, at times, tantrum-throwing wackjobs. At first, the two don't seem to go together: passive-aggressiveness and the kind of outbursts associated with adult temper tantrums. But in many ways they are similar and can be displayed by the same individual. Both involve the inability to deal with things in a straightforward and respectful way.

Someone who throws temper tantrums is usually responding to the outrage of another person daring to disagree with him or to not do something he wants them to do. So he shrieks and yells and gets aggressive in the hopes that  his opponent will back down. Sadly, many people will back down. And the bully knows this.

While the ongoing nature of the behaviour seems to be one of the identifiers of bullying, in the case of violence, a single act can have long-lasting effects. Imagine, for example, if a tantrum-thrower committed an act of vandalism in the staff-room. The coward would be unlikely to have the guts or decency to stand up and take responsibility and would count on most people not getting involved and not "ratting" on him. So the cowardly bully continues on and the shadow of suspicion hangs over others as a result.

There also may be some reason to believe that the individuals who work as English teachers in foreign countries are more damaged to begin with and thus more inclined to engage in sinister, bullying behaviour. In Bangkok Filth, there are a number of stories that involve the EFL workplace. One theme that emerges is the alienation that many expats experience and the irony that instead of helping each other through difficult times, foreigners living in Thailand often turn on each other.

Finally, the point is not to bend to the will of the workplace bully or let him get away with either his passive-aggressive behaviour or his temper tantrums. To accept the bully's way of dealing with things will only result in further bad behaviour from him and in the end, a situation that escalates. In the TEFL staff-room in a foreign country, this is a sure-fire way to violence. And even if you are able to mash the coward's head into the concrete, it's not worth it because you will be the one who ends up in prison.

While it's a good bet that the bully is also a feckless wonder whose other actions in the workplace may eventually trip him up, the sad reality is that often, the bully wins. Still, take steps to protect yourself and remain as professional as possible at all times.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Eight Best Books on Writing

Eight Best Books on Writing
I am always amazed at the number of people I meet who self-identify as writers and who subsequently register shock when I ask them what kind of instruction they have had or what books they have read on the subject. The very notion that someone who sets out to write a book would deign to seek guidance seems to be an affront to many.

Perplexing. What other profession or vocation would someone undertake without any instruction or training? But many writer wannabes seem to think that they are naturally imbued with what it takes to bang together a sellable book.

Many of these individuals may well have good writing skills. But to think that you naturally possess the knowledge of character development, narrative, dialogue and numerous other aspects is a grand delusion for the majority of novice writers.

On the other hand, some writers devour all the books on writing that they can lay their hands on. There must be a happy medium in there somewhere. Reading a book on writing does not mean that you will necessarily alter all your habits and and adopt all its recommendations. But I have no doubt that if you read some good books on improving your writing, you will pick up some incredibly useful advice.

Plenty of excellent "how to write" books exist, for both fiction and non-fiction. I have compiled a list of the ones that I believe are the best.

I have discovered something interesting as I have read these kinds of books over the years. While many of the authors have been published many times over and have made a comfortable living as writers, I have found that the superstar, bestselling authors with whom most are very familiar are not the ones who write the best writing books.

On to the list!

1. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

Techniques of the Selling WriterThe oldest book on this list and in my opinion the best. A comprehensive look at all facets of fiction writing, Techniques of the Selling Writer is rammed full of practical advice. While many books about writing are good for their inspiration and overview of things that can help you, this book gets into real, step-by-step instructions on how to write fiction. In fact, it is so granular at times that it may be too much for those who already have developed their own approach to writing.

Swain covers the motivation and inspiration side of things as well. For example, he discusses at length that oft-repeated sentiment that you should write what you know, and in particular, explore those emotions and ideas that intrigue you the most. He does it in such a concise and convincing way that you wonder how you could ever set out to write what you think you are supposed to write instead of writing about that which truly interests you. Yet so many writers do just that and tackle what they think is subject matter appropriate for a novel.

I like Swain’s take on the exercises that many a popular writing book espouse:
Won't exercises give the same result less painfully?
Regrettably, no; at least, not in my experience. The man who cottons to exercises generally isn't cut out to be a fiction writer. He's certainty-oriented; reaching out for a sure thing.
Most potentially successful writers have little patience with such. They're too eager to get on with their own stories; too intoxicated with their own euphoria; too excited over their ideas. Exercises excite no one. Palpably artificial, only tenuously related to the difficulties that beset you, they turn writing into drudgery for anyone.
Never once have I been motivated to perform the end-of-chapter exercises provided in some books. Practice implementing suggestions in my own writing? Sure. But exercises make my eyes glaze over. Then again, some people may like writing exercises, and some of the other books listed below satisfy that need.

Techniques of the Selling Writer is so good that you may even find out something about yourself. As the author asks the reader, what is good fiction but insight into the character of human beings?

2. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Stein on WritingStein on Writing is one of the most popular books on how to write and for good reason. A plethora of insight is contained here that will make you look at your own writing in a completely different light. While the book focuses on fiction, it also provides many sections and loads of great advice on writing non-fiction.

Stein makes the point numerous times that people's tastes have evolved over the years and readers now demand to be instantly entertained and have very short attention spans when they decide whether or not to keep reading. In one passage, he talks about the difference between description, narrative summary, and immediate scene, and why, especially in this day and age, you will want to focus on immediate scene.
An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable That’s an important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate. Theater, a truly durable art, consists almost entirely of immediate scenes.
As with all of the very best writing books, Stein on Writing devotes a good portion of its advice on how to create interesting characters. Stein provides some absolutely great advice on how to introduce each character through interaction with minor characters, how to delve further into your character when you find that you are lacking the knowledge of him or her to complete a scene, and other practical tips.

3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King

Self-editing for Fiction WritersAnyone who has written seriously knows that the difference between garbage and quality is in constant re-writing and editing your own work. Self-editing for Fiction Writers provides you with an extremely knowledgeable and accurate lens through which to edit and improve your writing. The chapters on writing and improving dialogue are the best I have ever read. The comments regarding “on-the-nose” dialogue versus dialogue with subtext should be studied carefully by every novice writer who has vomited forth awkward and embarrassing lines of dialogue.

Great chapter as well on the different types of point of view and how to choose which one suits you best and which character you should use for the viewpoint character.

The authors are experienced editors of numerous published novels and include many real examples of work they improved. I found this extremely helpful. When an author includes his own examples, they tend to be contrived and the “problems” evident in passages written solely to demonstrate a point just don’t work as well.

4. How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

How to Write a Damn Good NovelAfter reading this book, you will probably never read fiction books again without quickly identifying the elements that are highlighted by author James N. Frey. From the “every protagonist is the best at whatever he or she does,” to a discussion on how to choose a viewpoint, How to Write a Damn Good Novel breaks things down in an entertaining and easy-to-follow way.

The book also provides many practical ways to create your characters and plan your plot before you actually get down to writing. Well, you are writing when you plan, but as Frey points out, just diving in without any sense of where you’re going is almost a sure-fire way to splutter out at 10,000 words or so.

The detailed instruction on creating well-rounded characters should be followed by writers who find themselves making things up as they go along. Here, Frey writes about character biographies:
If you do a thorough job on your biographies you will know your characters well—at least as well as you know your brother, sister, or best friend—before you begin your novel. It is not possible to make a list of all the elements that should be included in these biographical sketches. You should include any detail that affects the motivations and actions of the character. Include anything that influences his relationships, habits, goals, beliefs, superstitions, moral judgments, obsessions, and so on—all the factors that govern choices and behavior.
Frey also wrote a good follow-up called How to Write a Damn Good Novel II that is worth a look as well. It picks up where the original left off and provides more great insight into writing fiction. While Frey does repeat many of the ideas he discussed in the first book, he expands and adds more helpful information as well.

5. On Writing Well by William Zinsser

On Writing WellA superbly written book on how to improve your non-fiction writing, On Writing Well is enjoyable to read regardless of whether you plan on taking on board any of the suggestions. An advocate of clear writing and slicing out the clutter long before it was popular, Zinsser presents methods for tightening up your writing and developing your own style.

He does not generally include the nuts-and-bolts type of advice that tells you exactly how to craft sentences but instead provides overall strategies that will benefit your writing. Plenty of interesting anecdotes and examples of how not to write well make for an entertaining and helpful read. The concisely written chapters are grouped into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. I go back and occasionally read a chapter or two of Zinsser’s book when I want some inspiration and to jog my memory regarding some of his great insight.

As with all of the books listed here, On Writing Well gains credibility because of the fact that Zinsser himself is such a superb writer.

6. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

50 Writing ToolsThis compact book is one of the most practical guides for quickly improving your writing that I have ever encountered. Most of the tools listed here are described in two pages or so. To-the-point, concrete and easy to implement tools that without a doubt, will improve your writing.

The advice in here ranges from sentence construction to ways to develop your own style to habits that will make your writing more engaging. Writing Tool #7: Dig for the Concrete and Specific is an example of a simple way to improve your writing. While the book is aimed at non-fiction writers, I believe that fiction writers would also benefit from reading this book.

Absolutely no filler in this one. I constantly refer back to this book when I feel that I have let my writing stagnate or regress. Highly recommended.

7. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

War of ArtOK, this isn’t strictly a book on writing. However, I have included it here because it is a very good motivational book for artists of all types. And, the author is a writer so many of his references are in relation to writing.

The early part of this book and its focus on resistance is one of the best extended pieces I have ever read on overcoming obstacles and creating art. He also hammers away at the notion that serious artists are the ones who put in the hours every day and know the value of hard work. Hardly an original idea, but Pressfield has a way of really stating it in a way that motivates and inspires you to get off your arse and do some writing.

While, for me, the second half of the book lagged a bit, overall The War of Art is well worth a look for those writers who are looking for a metaphorical kick in their writer-blocked asses.

8. Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins

Getting into CharacterThis is a very interesting book and, as far as I have seen, quite unique in the field of books on improving your writing. Brandilyn Collins focuses on using ideas from the world of acting and applying them to writing fiction. Specifically, she uses characterization methods that actors have used for years to develop memorable characters on stage and in film and translates those ideas into ways fiction writers can create similarly intriguing characters in their novels.

Some of the seven secrets she discusses include subtexting, inner rhythm and emotions memory. Collins really delves into useful methods for developing believable and interesting characters. One thing that made this very useful for me is that all the suggestions are so instantly plausible (no doubt as they are tried and true in the acting world and adapted here) and just plain enjoyable to utilize.

So there you have it. Eight books on writing that will provide all sorts of reading enjoyment and some great advice and motivation. I suppose I could have found two more to make it an even ten, and for sure there are more than two more great books on writing out there, but I decided to go with the most memorable ones I have read and benefited from.

So take the time to check out some of these books or otherwise seek out ways to improve your writing. But above all else, keep hammering away at the keyboard and churning out the words!