How I Got Out of Retail, Classroom & Workplace Management, and An Idea About Task-Based Leveling Systems in Classes

An office dispute going on in the life of one Korean person I know, and the way that she tells me it was handled, reminded me of how I got out of retail.

Well, really, after a few months, I’d made up my mind to get the hell back to University the next year, because those first few months of my “year off from school” opened my eyes to the way people without University degrees — and people with only a BA — live. That is, I worked in a record store. I actually did relatively well for myself, considering I’d moved cities with only a thousand bucks to spare and no game plan. I got a job within a week at a music store, and went from “trial” status after a couple of months to full time.

And then, sometime after Christmas, a woman named Aiden joined the staff. I’d been there about four months, and just started working the till, but she’d been managing a sporting good store or something, and the place had shut down, leaking her back into retail limbo. When she started working at the record store, for some reason she saw me very, very clearly.

I was, I guess, the kind of person whom she hated most in the world. I very clearly knew this job was beneath me — but I didn’t act like it. I mocked people who mocked me for not knowing their favorite “alternative rock” band, but only after they left, and always by invoking some obscure Renaissance composer. Yet I was hardworking, shy, and — to her, I think, most of all — genuinely thankful for my job, and timid about the possibility of risking losing it, without any other safety net in my life.

Aiden saw that I was vulnerable, and she needed a punching bag…

So she started treating me like garbage. She, newer on the staff than me by almost half a year, started yelling at me in front of other staff members. She would march up to me while I was working till, while I was helping a customer, even, and shout, “What is THIS?!?!?”

“I don’t know,” I’d say, peering at whatever had set her off — a gum wrapper on the floor, a mistake on an inventory card in someone else’s handwriting, almost always something unrelated to me. When it was related to me, I’d answer simply, “A Whigfield CD priced at $13.99.”

“Exactly!” she’d holler, red in the face, and proceed to gift me with a new rectum solely with the power of her voice. “This CD is supposed to be $12.99 until noon today!”

The customer would look up at me in shock, thinking this was my asshole manager chewing me out. What would he or she have thought if I’d have said, “Hey, you’re part time. You go resticker it, then! And watch your damn mouth, too!”

Instead, I “I’ve been busy. I’ll get to it in a…”

“Now!” she’d holler, and march off, leaving me and the customer and an uneasy silence. Heaven help me if I tried to joke with the customer to calm things down.

The whole staff noticed. How could they not? They asked me, when she wasn’t around, what the hell had brought this around, and I’d always tell them the same thing: I had no idea. I’d always been polite to her. I’d never insulted her or screwed over her lunchbreak. That I had no idea why she hated me.

And I’d go home in a sorry state. I was stressed beyond anything I’d experienced then: in shock, wanting nothing more than to quit my job and give up, but needing the money to get by. Totally unable to confront her, afraid to go to my boss and complain lest I be told, “Don’t bring this crap to me. Solve it yourself.” I’d never really had a boss, and I lived in something between fear and awe, unsure how such disputes got resolved, but completely sure that I couldn’t afford to risk losing my job.

I never did go to the manager about it. I ended up in tears sometimes. I ended up sitting in the back room in shock sometimes. But I never complained to our boss.  Instead, everyone else on staff did. So one day, my boss comes out on the floor, and calls me into her office.

Tammy, that was. Tammy was cool. One of the best managers I ever had, working retail. She had been through the ranks, she let on that the motivational videos from head office were silly, though we had to watch them at staff meetings. (We were paid to watch them, you see.) No bullshit, with Tammy; she told you honestly what she thought, and she gave smart people a chance to do more than just work a till. Yeah, it was pretty much downhill in my retail experience after Tammy.

Anyway, Tammy sits me down in her office and asks me what the hell is going on with Aiden. She asks me what this is all about, why everyone on staff is coming to her and saying that Aiden’s acting like a psycho toward me, and I’m just taking it.

I burst into tears… 20-year-old, terrified, thinking-how-will-I-eat-next-week me: I cried my eyes out, and told her, when I could talk again, that I was giving her my two weeks’ notice in a week anyway, that I was going to go back to University. She looked at me in surprise and said that was a good idea — that she wanted to go back to University too, sometime — and then gently changed the topic back to Aiden.

I explained what I wrote above. Why I hadn’t come to her for help, how I’d never figured out why Aiden was railing against me all the time, and how shocked and stressed I was by it.

Then Tammy called Aiden into the back room, and sent me out.

Everyone could see something had happened, even though I’d washed my face: you know how your eyes go when you’ve just wailed like a baby. So they asked me whether I was fired. I told them I didn’t think so. They asked if it was about Aiden. I said yeah.

I seem to remember Michael, the shipping clerk, coming out onto the floor and saying that there was some yelling going on in Tammy’s office, and that heartened me. Finally, Aiden was getting some of her own goddamned medicine. She came out and apologized to me, her cheeks flushed, refusing to meet my eyes, and from that day on, she kept the hell away from me. The whole staff was a little leery about her, too, from then on. I don’t doubt that some of that remained for as long as she stayed on staff, at least between the people who’d been there at the time.

But for me, the door had closed already: I was getting the hell out of retail. In retail, you have to make sure the customers can’t hear you scream. In retail, there are some very messed up people, and not all of them are the stinky guy who sticks his hand down his pants and then tries to shake hands with you and ask for some CD or book that you know isn’t in stock.

Sure, some of it was the hours. Some of it was my second assistant manager — not Laine, but Dan, who I always suspected of being slightly mentally ill — he blasted techno music so loudly my ears rang on the subway home. Some of it was seeing thirty- and forty-year-olds subsisting on “full-time” jobs that were purposefully dropped down to 30 or 35 hours so that they wouldn’t get full benefits packages. But mostly, it was dealing with an unbalanced, psychotic witch named Aiden than sent me fleeing.

Anyway, this reminds me of things I’ve heard about the “Korean management style.” I’m told that this is mostly, “Don’t come whining to me,” which is to say, the manager doesn’t want employees to come complaining about interpersonal issues. Now, don’t get me wrong: I certainly don’t think that employees should take every little personal complaint or dispute to their bosses. But when they’ve tried to deal with or resolve the problem, and nothing seems to help, what are they supposed to do?

What’s interesting to me is that, essentially, it seems to me management styles are an offshoot of classroom management styles. Some of my teachers were of the old-school, “Don’t bother me with your interpersonal crap,” style, but others were a little more progressive, trying to help students arbitrate their personal differences and resolve conflicts.

(They also tended to ignore the fact that some problem students are simply morons and don’t belong in primary or secondary schools — that they were dangerous, violent, or antisocial pricks who would be better dealt with if sent to shovel ditches for ten years, so that the real students could get on with learning something in school.)

In any case, moving on to University… I wrote not long ago about some students of mine and their “interpersonal problems.” That is, the fact that four people in one group ignored the exhortations to meet by one group member, and then loaded all the group’s work onto the shoulders of one member — who accepted it and soldiered on without a word to me, as if this were reasonable and the only way to get the thing done!

This didn’t surprise me, of course: I’d heard students complain about group work before — about being stuck with someone stupid, or lazy, or both, or both plus older (the worst combination, since older is all but perfect immunity to criticism) — and how terrible it is to work in a group with someone like that. I asked, always, “Why don’t you kick him out of the group?” or “Why not talk to your professor?” but the answer was always, “I can’t.”

I used to wonder whether that, “I can’t,” was just student timidity, since I too was far too timid to approach my professors one-on-one when I was an undergrad. But among my students, I’m well-known as one of the more approachable people on campus, and even in my class, certain students seemed to have anticipated that my attitude would be what they’re used to: a kind of management that is no kind of management at all, simply, “Put up with it,” or, “Sort it out yourself.”

I don’t know how ubiquitous this management style is in Korea, but it seems pretty common. People seem to put up with a lot before approaching their bosses. Lime, for example, while interning in the hospital, also put up with incredible amounts of horseshit from certain residents who had bad attitudes, who gave out attitudinal horseshit so noxious that it almost killed a patient at least once. What’s shocking is that it took until this asshole resident almost killed someone for his supervisor to give him hell and tell him to sort his bloody attitude out.

Patients in danger aren’t the only people affected by this nonmanagement management styles. It allows people to squeak through with passing grades by riding on the coattails of classmates who aren’t allowed to point out the student knows, and does, nothing on group projects. It potentially penalizes the best students, who are always a target for the worst to take advantage of. And worst, it causes a ridiculous amount of stress, wastes a prodigious amount of time, and so on.

Which makes me wonder whether that’s why all those extra manhours are demanded in the Korean workplace: because efficiency is being hampered by the fact that office behaviour isn’t, realistically, subject to anything like managerial intervention. This certainly could cause a drain, perhaps even enough to explain these numbers from 2005:

South Koreans worked longer hours last year than anyone else on the planet [or at least in the developed world], 30 percent more than Americans and 65 percent longer than the French.

Workers in South Korea put in an average of 2,380 hours in 2004 – about 48 hours a week with a two-week vacation…

As for South Koreans, they could easily cut back on their long hours if they raised their productivity, which on an hourly basis stands at just over one-third the level of the French.

There are, of course, other issues to consider: one being the possibility, argued by a few people I know, that the immensely long hours involved in attending high school here are, essentially, a kind of inherent training in the art of “soldiering” — discussed in this wikipedia article thus:

Ford’s arguments began from his observation that, in general, workers forced to perform repetitive tasks work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished. This slow rate of work (which he called “soldiering”, but might nowadays be termed by those in charge as “loafing” or “malingering” or by those on the assembly line as “getting through the day”), he opined, was based on the observation that, when paid the same amount, workers will tend to do the amount of work the slowest among them does: this reflects the idea that workers have a vested interest in their own well-being, and do not benefit from working above the defined rate of work when it will not increase their compensation…

From which Mr. Ford seems to have decided there must be a “best way” to do things, and that workers should be taught how to do it, so that anyway, efficiency can be as high as possible. In other words, if you can’t make ’em work harder, at least make ’em work smarter.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely sympathize with workers wanting not to expend all their human energy on their jobs, but at the same time, this is not manual labour we’re talking about here. We’re talking about office jobs, and about staff working at a little over a third of the efficiency rate of the French, but 65% more hours.

I’m not calling for increased efficiency so that profits can go up, mind you — I’m noting that Koreans rather often assert things about how hardworking Koreans are compared to the rest of the world. But the truth is, they don’t get so very much done in any give hour of work — certainly less than American or French workers do. This is one reason why they work so many more hours than Westerners, and why their vacations are so short: because stuff has to get done, and if they’re going to work inefficiently, they’re going to have to work more hours.

This matters to families. It matters to children and spouses. It matters to health — and if you don’t think this society is stressed out, you need to open your eyes and pay attention on the subways, where people look as if they are half-exhausdted all the time, where almost nobody smiles on the street, where people walk as if half-zombified. This matters to the foundation of a civil society here, an active polity: people don’t really have the time to think about or debate about political issues, when they’re exhausted by a daily grind that encompasses not just five days a week, but in many cases six, plus night-time outings with the staff when the boss demands it. Of course, there was a time when extreme hours of work served the needs of the nation — the economic revolution that happened here was impossible without long, hard work — but it served as well the nation’s dictators, who counted on people being too worn out and too busy to do things like agitate for democracy or demand reforms in their society. Dare I say the official six-day, 48-hour work week (on average, though in reality it is much longer in many cases) serves the needs of the current government in general — no party in particular, the whole bunch of them as a collective — just as well? For it seems to me this way, and that’s why I noted that efficiency is one reason Koreans work so many more hours than anyone else in the developed world.
What would be practical, of course, would be to begin doing what European, and some North American, employers are doing, which is providing workers with flexibility and freedom, provided they get their jobs done. A very efficient worker is rewarded with free time, because the job is done. An inefficient worker is stuck getting the tasks done, and perhaps doing them again if they were done half-assed, until the project is good to go.

Is it possible to backload this into an educational “classroom management” style? What would the educational equivalent look like? This is the question on my mind. I think, honestly, that this would be the way to go, in education. Task-based not in the sense of, let’s meet and kill X number of hours a week in the classroom, but task-basedin the sense of, “You, the student, are going to fulfill the following tasks this semester. We’ll use classtime to meet and discuss your task-fulfillment, and if you get them done, you’ll move on to the next level, and the next task.” Like in a video game, going up levels gets one to more rewarding and exciting tasks — and better grades. It’s an objective way of measuring progress, and a good way of tracking who’s actually working.

Perhaps I’ll use something like this is my writing class next semester. Or maybe my Popular Cultures in English-Speaking countries. Optimally, I’d be using it in conversation classes, but it looks like those are going to be standardized (with a specific textbook) due to an adminstrative change related to a departmental merge where I work.

4 thoughts on “How I Got Out of Retail, Classroom & Workplace Management, and An Idea About Task-Based Leveling Systems in Classes

  1. Ah, the joys of wage slavery in Canada. I don’t miss it one bit. One of the most effective weapons against surly female co-workers is a smile and a laugh. I’ve been a similar situation, and while speaking to management and confronting the co-worker about her behaviour did give me some satisfaction, I think the most effective stake through that she-devil’s heart was the fact that she never saw me frowning. I’d always smile around her, and if she was looking especially grouchy, I’d laugh at her as she walked by.

  2. These days, I would never take that kind of crap from anyone. But in those days, I was younger and meeker, and also desperate to keep my income.

    Laughter is indeed a great defense. So is ignoring the person, as if she or he is simply not there.

  3. I’ve dealt with some of the same group-work problems you mentioned and one thing that helped to get the slackers (almost always older males with their undeserved sense of entitlement) to contribute to the group was to have the students in each group grade each other. I set it up so a student couldn’t give themself any points, they could only give points to fellow group members. For instance, in a group of four a student would give 11 points to student J, 10 points to student K, and 9 points to student L. Most the time the outcome was that the slacker student, student L in this case, recieved the low score from all the other group members. This made it easier for me to identify the slackers as well as the overachievers and reward them accordingly.

    On another note, I’m sorry to hear the poetry reading didn’t go so great. How did the students like doing a chapbook? I’d like to organize something similar at my university but have it open to all the students at the university, an extracurricular type thing. But if it’s not something students have to do for a grade I’m worried no one will participate. Yeah, now that I think about it I don’t think any students would write a poem or story (I’m certain many would submit pictures, you know how they love to take pictures) if they don’t get a grade for it. Anyways, cheers.

  4. Trevor,

    Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day — how if the students evaluated their group-mates, the slackers would suffer. I’d be a little freer, allowing them to flunk group-mates on participation. The thing that’s a killer is all the paperwork involved — I have mutual evaluations for other projects, and it’s an incredible amount of stuff to have to do. I’m looking at how to automate it on my class-related site wtith software, so students can do regular evaluations without adding exponential amounts of paperwork to my life.

    As for the chapbook — yeah, without some form of credit, or other incentive, few people will participate. The incentive needn’t always be grades, but the other incentives are harder to come by. You might be able to get your department to offer a prize to the top three submissions? Like a fiction or poetry contest, with a chapbook as the final stage?

    It’s hard not to get frustrated with how rare it is you meet a student who’s really interested in doing something sans grade or some other widely-accepted carrot. I remember undergrads being into all kinds of things. Sure, some were just doing homework and drinking, but they were the ones the rest of us all called “lame.” Here, that seems much more to be the norm, and people seem to feel that even if they are, on occasion, interested in something else, that doing anything besides studying (and for some, drinking) will result in a lifetime of unemployment and poverty. What a great distraction from the kind of poverty in which so many people really do live, never daring to do something unusual, or something they feel really passionate about.

    There’s probably a photography club on campus who does exhibits. Maybe they’d be happy collaborating with a writing class in making a picture book with photos and accompanying fiction stories? I’m thinking about that for my next writing class…

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