labor2

One of the things that makes the whole issue of business difficult to talk about in human terms is that every employed person loses his or her human identity under one of three broad and dehumanizing categories: labor, supervision, and management.  This sorting and labeling is endemic to business and I hate it.  You ever had your boss introduce you to a friend of his?  If your boss says, “This is William.  He runs the pencil sharpening department,” you feel okay and put out your open hand in welcome.  But if your boss says, “This is one of my supervisors at the plant.  He runs the p.s. department,” you feel bad, insulted that you’re not recognized by name as a human first, worker second.  You will still put out your open hand in welcome to your boss’s friend, but you just uncurled that open hand from a fist.

When I work with labor, I meet dozens of different personalities, some honest and motivated, some honest and not motivated, some who’ll stab you in the back with a screwdriver in the employee parking lot for your pocket change.  These labor personalities, let’s call them people, perform a bewildering number of tasks.  Just try writing job descriptions for five of your top workers and you’ll see how wide an assortment of things you’ll have to include in the report.  (Yes, I know I already said that labor only wanted to thieve the t.p., but my opinions change with each situation.  That’s an important aspect of supervising.  Labor ought to go by the book.  Management ought to write the book.  But supervision survives by dynamically interpreting the book as it applies to each real-life situation.)

Now management is another story altogether.  You couldn’t possibly write a job description for them without using “idleness and hovering.”  Management is like a herd of bats hanging around the manufacturing plant.  Sometimes they are startled into a flurry of wing-beating and shrieking, at which time the rest of us duck and cover, but mostly the damn bats just hang and hover idly.  Still, management is people, too, and a rare few of them are human.

Supervision, which is the only category that truly matters (any arguments?) is in itself an enigma, vast and perplexing.  For every type of labor, there must be a supervisor.  And all of those supervisors deal with a different selection of management people.  So, by algebraic multiplication, we see that there are a lot of different supervisors out there.  But no matter what they do, they all do essentially the same thing.  Guide and motivate.  Well, the good ones do that anyway.

When I was a supervisor at a private language institute, it was part of my job to listen in on the teachers while they taught (many classes were as small as one teacher per student) in order to help perfect the teacher’s technique.  The institute used a very rigorous program which was highly successful when taught with precision.  My job was to attain and maintain that precision.  After all, these were mostly foreign businessmen and their wives and families vacationing in the U.S. while learning English and thus returning to their countries and jobs richer for their new language (English fluency in foreign countries translates directly into money for any worker on any level).

So I’m eavesdropping one day and I hear a student ask his teacher, “What is Thanksgiving?”  Then I listen for the next half hour as the teacher explains all about turkeys, corn, natives and pilgrims while the student says nothing.  Finally, the student does interrupt to ask, “But when is Thanksgiving.  That’s what I want to know.”  On his next break, I sit down with the teacher and talk with him about what went wrong.  “When a student asks a question,” I tell him, “You ask the student to clarify the question.  Ask them what they mean.  It’s good practice for real-life situations where they cannot express themselves correctly perhaps the first time and are forced to explain further.  Also, it keeps the student talking in class, not the teacher.  Keep the student talking English, that’s your goal.  Introduce the new vocabulary, then manipulate the student to use it fluently.”  I think I got through to the teacher, because the next thing he said was, “What do you mean?”

So I go back to my eavesdropping and the next class and teacher is a slightly bigger challenge.  All I hear over the microphone is breathing, heavy breathing, and the occasional “Oh, yes!” and “Que, rico!”  Startled, I check the schedule book to see who’s teaching who here.  There’s a rich businessman on his honeymoon with a pretty young wife.  He’s in room 16 with Mrs. Sleeter.  The wife’s in room 9 with the young teacher I call Superman for his truly classic handsomeness.  I’m listening to his class.  And he sure seems to be poking his magic finger into her blind eye.  My years of supervising experience tell me that what I’m listening to can’t be good for business.  The cheating slut wasn’t going to learn much English this way.  So I wait for break and take Superman aside. “Listen,” I tell him.  “She’s not talking.  And when she does speak, it ain’t English.  Keep the student talking English, that’s your goal.  Introduce the new vocabulary and manipulate the student into using it fluently.”

I can’t tell you how proud I was the next day when I dropped my eaves on that class again.  Some of the new vocabulary included “to shop” and “downtown.”  Superman seemed to be using the words like a true professional.

“Do you , unh, shop downtown, unh, every day?” he asked.

“Oh, oh, Yes,” she answered.  “I shop, oh, oh, downtown, unh, every d,d,day.  Ay, que rico,” she also added.

The teacher jumped to correct, “Unh, please use English, unh.”

“This is a good thing, unh, we’re doing, oh my god, yes,” she corrected herself.

“Ungh, oh, thank you,” the teacher said appropriately.  “Did, uh, you shop downtown last week with your, uh, uh, husband?” he asked.

“Oh, oh, no,” the student replied.

What a difference a supervisor can create.  The newlyweds made great strides with their English on that honeymoon.  I heard later that the businessman turned his newfound language ability into a CEOship of a multi-national subsidiary.  And his wife gave birth the next year to a handsome child who was born remarkably fluent in English.  It was such a twist that the wife and husband nicknamed the boy Superman, after his father, of course.

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