Wednesday, 27 April 2011

ATEK 3: Why Bother, and What's the Way Forward for ATEK? Is there One?

So Why Bother with ATEK? Why doesn't ATEK just pack it in?

Let's not lose sight of these facts:

1. ATEK is a good idea.  It's a good idea for English teachers to have an organization that can, hopefully, provide a legitimate voice for them.  A good idea badly executed?  Perhaps.  A good idea executed as well as its officers could manage, given their experiences, skill-sets, and personalities?  Maybe.  A bad organization that deserves to be executed?  Not unless there's another representative organization doing a better job of giving English teachers a voice.

If that other organization comes along, and does a better job... well, awesome, and ATEK's officers should quit and move there, and hand over access to the ATEK facebook groups and such.  On the other hand... ATEK already has a massive communication network, and it would be stupid if the organization disbanded and that went fallow.

2. Any new volunteer organization that tries to develop a democratic process for representing English teachers, will have to go through its own growing pains, and will end up subject to similar criticisms, and going through similar personality issues, and pitfalls.  That ATEK has survived this long speaks well of it, and every time it goes through another rough patch, it comes out a better-built, more useful organization.  The problem? Every time ATEK goes through a rough patch, the other thing that happens is more of the long-term people who should be driving an organization like this and providing it with stability, continuity, and support, instead decide they've heard enough and get out their ten foot poles.

Any organization that doesn't try to have a democratic process for selecting its leaders, and some kind of procedure, wouldn't be able to claim to be representative. Any that does is going to end up with personality conflicts and people jockeying for influence in the organization.  Catch-22. And when somebody catches the short end of a power-struggle... hell hath no fury, you know.

3. ATEK has been having a constant discussion, at all kinds of levels, about what an English teacher organization should, can, and needs to do, and how the best way is to go about that.  They haven't arrived at a final answer and smoothed out every wrinkle (probably never will), yet, but every miss is closer to the mark than the miss before it.

4. There are still English teachers who need help with stuff, because shit still happens.

5. The Anti-English Spectrum remains intact, and active.

6. At its best, ATEK's communication network can be a really effective way to help English teachers pool and spread information.

7. ATEK is by NO means the only organization to have embarrassing public fallouts.  I've spoken with people who play/played parts in a number of other volunteer or expat organizations who have found their organizations similarly paralyzed by "titanic battles of ego" to borrow my own phrase.

8. The great idea of ATEK is that when somebody knows a lot about Korea, or teaching, or getting help in specific situations, they can (through passing their knowledge to other officers, developing resources and training materials and documents), ensure that their knowledge, experience, and contacts remain in Korea, even after they leave. The idea of keeping people's knowledge and experience in the country, perpetuating the learning (rather than reinventing the wheel time and time again) is a good one, and it's why I believe an organization like ATEK needs to exist.  If ATEK is/becomes an organization that facilitates people pooling, improving, and perpetuating their knowledge and experience of Korea, then the English teaching community is richer for it.

Is ATEK doing that?  Discuss amongst yourselves.  We've read lots of words already about how the organization has been getting in its own way at times.

Some of this stuff refers to things said on other forums or in communications with ATEK officers, some of these ideas are borrowed from other commenters in other discussions.

Rob's Prescription for ATEK to get back to being a relevant/effective organization.  Take it or leave it.

Shiva the destroyer (source): destroys, to make room for creation.
So... let's get destroying.

Some of this come from inside information, and some of it's based on comments I've read in other places.  I apologize to anyone whom I accidentally quote without attribution. Tomorrow's post will have comments open, and you're invited to take credit for as many of these as you like.  Meanwhile, I don't think any of the inside information is too scandalous, or contrary to the goals of ATEK.

Apologies for repeats:

1. Shakeup.  Again.

The remaining characters who were key players in the meltdown from last autumn need to vacate decision-making/influential positions in the organization.  Most of them already have.  For the most part, I like and respect my former colleagues as people, but pragmatically, as long as the events of last October can be thrown in the face of any of the people involved in ATEK's efforts and plans, not many people are going to take the organization seriously, at least in any endeavor where that person's role comes into play. Hopefully they'll be given enough time to find their replacements, and hopefully their replacements will be given the benefit of the doubt.

And who's going to run for president now, when the job description reads like this: "Wanted: punching bag.  Requirements: rhino-thick skin; ability to motivate people, make idealists compromise, and sniff out ulterior motives in the space of a five minute phone call.  Compensation: The people you help the most will send you an email "thanks" on their way to the airport with their severance bonus in hand.  That's it, but your name may be google-bombed if certain online personalities, or certain officers decide you do too much, or too little, of something.  They won't tell you what until you've already done it, though.  Tenure: one year, renewable."

Who's going to answer that bell?  Given the amount of punishment ATEK's president needs to be ready to take on the chin, I'd be surprised if any sensible person would go for it.  That leaves people who are in it for some other motivation... and that introduces a whole other set of problems.

And that's how it comes to be that... to riff on a line from The Dark Knight
this is not batman. this is spider-man. don't be stupid.

ATEK is the organization English teachers deserve, but not the one they need.

What else?

2. Streamline.

There are too many PMAs and too many officer roles. Combine some PMAs so that there aren't so many one-officer PMAs. Rearrange the officer role descriptions to allow more flexibility and play.  ATEK is operating on too wide a bandwidth to effectively accomplish EVERYTHING it sets out to do.  It's time to simplify its goals, and set targets according to what it can do, instead of what it wants to do, and take some of those goals, and either outsource them to other organizations, or put them aside until the organization's big enough to achieve them.  (for example, the conference)

3. Make it easier for people to become, and stay members: require less personal information for membership.  Maybe require it for an officer position, or at least some of them, because we need to know who's occupying these positions, but make it easier to become a member.

If people want to contribute to ATEK, rules shouldn't stop them. Too many people have had more to offer, and been turned away or forced-resigned, because of clumsy rules.

Ways to do this:

  • more effective use of committees (one doesn't need to be a full member to be part of a committee)
  • a third type of membership where people can contribute without NEEDING to be English teachers. ATEK has developed disclosure protocols, in order to sniff out conflicts of interest where they exist. I'm OK with people working certain jobs being ineligible for certain officer roles - for example, a recruiter should never have access to any of ATEK's membership lists - but if a recruiter wants to design and organize professional development materials, why shouldn't s/he?
  • relaxed membership policies
  • Membership, at the very least, should expire when their officer role does.  The lost opportunities coming out of forced resignations mentioned in 3WM part 2 are one of the worst things ATEK did to itself.

4. This one might be hard to swallow for some people: Back away from the NGO goal for now and focus on utility

Take an organization people don't understand, and don't totally trust, which hasn't provided many tangible benefits for the people it's trying to reach, and hasn't done a great job of communicating what it has, is, and will do, and make it an NGO, and you have an NGO which people don't understand, and don't totally trust, which hasn't provided many tangible benefits for the people it's trying to reach, and hasn't done a great job of communicating what it has, is, and will do.  Becoming an NGO won't magically make ATEK a useful organization and automatically overhaul its reputation, any more than joining a religion automatically means I can stop taking my antidepressants and seeing my counsellor.

But if ATEK, after retooling, proves itself an effective tool for helping people to maximize their wish to help English teachers, then it'll be even more useful as an NGO.

ATEK's best moves lately have been things like opening the blood-type registry and compiling a list of mental health services in Korea, and getting Hankyoreh to publish a retraction for an article about English teachers breaking contract.  Nobody was talking shit about ATEK when it did those things, because they were tangible.  Why not focus on those kinds of goals for a while, until the organization's name is tied to efforts like that, instead of saddled to a reputation for having a big, ugly, public scandal every 8 months?

These next three might be repeating.  Sorry.

5. Get better at forming and maintaining contacts with outside bodies and people -- DON'T reinvent the wheel.  Instead, coordinating the efforts of stuff that's already out there is more effective.  As an example: why bother creating an events forum on ATEK's website, when people check for events at 10 Magazine?

If someone's helping English teachers already, or enabling English teachers to contribute to their communities, do they need to be recruited as an ATEK officer, before ATEK can form a connection with them, and help them spread the word about whatever they're doing?

Why not let them stay where they are, and use ATEK's communication network give them a bigger stage to keep doing what they're already doing anyway?  Or give them access to parts of ATEK's communication network, and then let them go to keep at what they were up to anyway? As one example: why not have a quick tutorial on the ATEK site on joining forums for other pages, posting event notices on other sites, etc., which anybody can access, instead of forcing it to go through an officer (when one is filling the position), and requiring officers to go through an approval procedure before communications can go out?  Then, ATEK's network is helping to connect people with the community that's already out there instead of duplicating work and/or bogging it down with procedure.

6. Be facilitators

One of the biggest ways ATEK was getting in its own way was all the different ways people were being told not to do things, and given constraints on their actions.  For ATEK to become an organization where people want to contribute, it needs to earn a reputation for helping people do what they're already doing faster, or more easily, or to a larger audience.  Then, people will be flocking to the organization, instead of dithering about joining, or quitting out of frustration.

7. Kill the stuff that isn't working, or that's duplicating what others are doing.

The forums? Aren't working. Kill them. It's a good idea to have some discussion forums which are more positive and productive than... that discussion forum, but Hi Expat and and AFEK have open discussion forums now, and people who are already putting time and work into developing, moderating, and improving them. Why not use ATEK officer time and talent in other areas, and send ATEK members to those places, with ready-made communities, instead of trying to become the all-hub-of-everything, all at once?  KOTESOL has conferences that are quite well-attended and successful.  They have experience and know-how. Why not support them instead of putting together ATEK's own?

The Employment and Legal Issues role? Isn't working: there hasn't been a labor officer in months. Kill it. has a list of legal services expats can call. Add to that a flow chart of "have you tried...X, X, or X?" and maybe some downloadable examples of letters that have been written to employers for certain situations, and a checklist of pertinent cultural points to remember for conflict resolution in Korean workplaces.  Then, when somebody comes along with talents to improve the system, let them.  Until then, promising labor help that can't be given is leading to disappointment.

How many of the things ATEK promises to do, has it been unable to do, because it's understaffed? How many of those vacant officer roles could be replaced with links to other places where people are already doing those things?

8. Focus on the local

Busan and Gyeonggi PMAs are doing quite well.  This would be a good time for ATEK's leadership to work on finding ways to facilitate and empower the local organizations to develop themselves.  Maybe Busan and Gyeonggi can make it their goals to work on building PMAs adjacent to theirs, and let it go from there.

9. Stop claiming to represent...

Add the line "ATEK represents X general members" to all promotional materials press releases and info kits.  One of the most common gripes from the screeching complainers is "You don't represent me, and I never asked you to."  So keep hammering home the point that ATEK only represents its general members.  Yeah, I know the screechers don't listen... but that's their problem.  ATEK's job is to make sure it's because they weren't listening, not because ATEK was talking too big.

10. Close that chapter for good

The first edition of the English Teacher's Guide To Korea (Sparkling) was recently removed from the website.  The organization name and the logo need to change too, to erase the legacy of that one former communications officer who pissed off a lot of people who should have been ATEK's allies from the start, and whose name comes up every time somebody who doesn't like ATEK needs to throw something in ATEK's face.  The name ATEK's been bogged down with too much crap as well, at this point.  I was the PR guy for half a year and even I tense up when I hear or read "ATEK."

11. Expectation management - let's be reasonable here.

ATEK should be talking, and setting goals, according to the number of active general members and/or officers it has, not according to the number of associate members it has, or the number of contacts in its mailing list.

12. Get all private information about members off the ATEK website, so that it's easier to give people moderator or administrator access, without people worrying about them getting access to information they shouldn't have.

13. Transparency and news:

ATEK should be making its successes known.  English teacher avoided getting ripped off because an officer brainstormed some coping strategies?  Take out personal info and put that up on ATEK's twitter account, or in a little window on the front of the webpage.  English teacher decides not to do a midnight run?  Put that up on twitter, or the webpage.  English teacher found a much-needed counseling service? Remove the slightest hint of personal information, and let the world know on twitter.  That stuff happens.  People get helped.  Let people know about the little victories as well as the big ones.  Get pictures from all the volunteer events happening down in Busan, or in Gyeonggi (another of ATEK's most active PMAs), and let's see them on the website!

ATEK's organizational bodies/decision making bodies should have regularly scheduled meetings, and those meeting minutes should be available at least to general members, and maybe also to associate members. A version of them should be available for the general public.

14. A rhetoric tip:

It's a fallacy, or at least a false dichotomy, to assert that those who don't join ATEK aren't helping English teachers, as if ATEK is the only way to contribute to the expat community. So let's never again hear anything along the lines of "at least ATEK is helping people.  What have YOU done?"  I think "If you know how to do it better, please join and show us" is fair game, but speaking as if ATEK is the only legitimate outlet for supporting the English teaching community sounds smug.  It's off-putting.

If people who like to help English teachers, and do it a lot, are not finding ATEK a good venue to do what they do, then ATEK needs to look at why.

After part 4 tomorrow, when comments come open, you're invited to add your input to the comments.

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