Saturday, April 29, 2006

Petrol, bicycles, and gridlock

The price of petrol rose to $1.709/litre last week. When we moved here four months ago, the price of regular gas was $1.419/litre. That's a 20% increase in four months, or 60% annualised. I'm sure the increases are similar all over the world. For you US readers, $1.709/litre in NZ converts to about $4.08/gallon in US currency and gallons. So quit your whining. You still have cheap fuel. You just don't realise it.

One thing that Aucklanders and Portlanders have in common is that they whinge (that's the word Kiwis use for whine) a lot about rush hour traffic. The motorways (freeways) are clogged with commuters from 6:30AM until about 9:00AM and again from 4:00PM until 7:00PM. Auckland is inconveniently located geographically on a narrow isthmus. Early settlers obviously didn't consider the traffic implications of siting a metropolis on such a difficult piece of real estate for automobile transportation planners. What were they thinking? There are three major motorways that converge in downtown Auckland, and the transportation engineers have created a nightmare of interconnecting ramps, exits, and bypasses at their confluence, which has been affectionately dubbed "Spaghetti Junction."

My commute from our house in the western suburb of Avondale to my work place in the eastern/central suburb of Newmarket is 16 km (10 miles). We chose to rent a house in Avondale because it's a short commute to Te Atatu (about 4 km) where Megan teaches school and she got a job first so I had to deal with the extra travel time when I got a job. It pays to be first.

For the first six weeks of my job, I patiently navigated my way through gridlock traffic. The bumper-to-bumper morning commute takes about 35 minutes by car if there are no crashes (that averages at 27 kph). If the weather is bad, or if sun strike occurs (eastbound traffic can be blinded in the early morning), or if there is a pile up, the commute time stretches out and can take as much as an hour and usually averages about 45 minutes. The evening return commute is worse. It could take as much as 25 minutes just to drive five blocks from my car park to get on the motorway. I can't remember a day when I sat anxiously in gridlock traffic listening to the traffic report on the radio when they didn't say, "Traffic is crawling from Spaghetti Junction to Te Atatu." The last straw occurred when a major accident shut down all but one westbound lane, effectively closing the motorway, sending me along clogged urban arterial streets, taking a full 90 minutes to drive 10 miles, Ugh. I decided to buy a bicycle and ride to work.

I used to ride to work in Bellingham when my commute was about 1.5 miles, there were no hills to speak of, and I was 20 years younger. I stopped bicycling to work after I got clobbered by an inattentive driver who opened his parked AMC Pacer door (the widest doors in the industry) in front of me just in time to clip my front wheel and send me sprawling in front of an oncoming city bus. When we moved to a new house on a hill, and I had to negotiate busy traffic without bike lanes on Lakeway Drive, I prudently decided to drive to work. A few years later, I started my own business, working at home, and my commute was reduced to walking down the stairs in my bathrobe with a cup of coffee.

Twenty years ago, my bicycle was your basic ten-speed with gear shifters mounted on drop ram-style handlebars, and cost about $220. There were no "mountain bikes" and high-end racing bikes were just coming into vogue. How times have changed. When I went shopping for a bike this time, the selections were endless. You can spend up to $6,000 on a high performance bicycle if you are so inclined, which I am not. I finally settled on a Vivente Novara Sport, a commuter bike which is sometimes called a hybrid and which has 24 gears (3 sprockets in front and 8 in rear), upright seating with flat touring-style handlebars and finger controlled shifters, costing $600. It's lightweight and ideal for commuting on Auckland's hilly landscape.

My bicycle commute to work follows the motorway on an adjacent dedicated cycleway for most of the way. I actually travel faster than the cars next to me much of the time, as I smugly whiz past agitated and frustrated drivers. Eventually, the cycleway ends and the last few kilometres are an exercise in survival as I dodge cars on busy city streets with no bike lanes and impatient drivers with impaired attitudes. It takes a little while to get comfortable with the exposure to dangers and to learn safe following distances and when you can sneak through queues of traffic and when you shouldn't. The bike commute takes about 50 minutes (a few minutes less coming home which is slightly downhill overall), which is about what I averaged in the car.

Here are the advantages of riding a bicycle to work: (1) there's one less car on the road. (2) I save about $3.20 per day in fuel cost and about $8.00 for parking. (3) I get daily exercise morning and evening, releasing mood-altering endorphins through my veins instead of corrosive adrenaline. (4) My commute time is consistently 50 minutes and I don't spend any time worrying about the attention span and driving skills of the guy on a cell phone in front of me or a bimbo applying make-up while smoking a cigarette beside me. It's really quite relaxing on the sparsely used cycleway. (5) Fuel costs are headed north and my bicycle has no gas tank. While George W. Bush is trying to protect American interests (read OIL) in the Gulf (did you really think it was about WMD, enhancing national security by fighting terrorism abroad, or replacing a tyrant with a free and democratically elected government? Ha!), the reality is that oil production (not reserves!) is peaking or has peaked and $4/gallon gas today will seem like a distant dream five years from now.

By the way, yesterday I got absolutely drenched in a downpour on my way to work. So what. I didn't melt and my riding clothes and shoes were dry by the time I left work.



Curt and I went to dinner at his boss's house one night last month. There were 5 couples there. All the men were engineers. Naturally, at one point the conversation was about why we moved to New Zealand and how we were getting along. As we described our adjustment, the other couples described their experiences living abroad. We discovered that ALL of them had lived overseas! One couple was originally from UK but had lived in Hong Kong for the last 5 years until they came to NZ. Most couples had lived in Australia or UK for a few years. One guy had even lived in US for 10 years. What struck me is how well-travelled these people were. And they hadn't merely travelled to foreign countries, they'd LIVED there for years.

I don't think it was just because these people were engineers, either, because I've found the same level of overseas living among the teachers at my school and among friends at church. Both my principal and one of the deputy principals lived in the US for a few years. One teacher lived in Canada (near the Arctic Circle!) for 4 years, one lived in Singapore for 5 years, one in Japan for 2 years, etc. And that doesn't even count the teachers who immigrated here from South Africa (2) or India or Malaysia and lived in their home country for 20 or 40 years.

I compare that to America and I can't think of a single engineering friend or teacher friend or church friend who had lived in another country. Even Canada. Oh wait. I think the Spanish teacher lived in Mexico for a while. And Bobbi lived in Finland for a few years because she married a Finnish hockey player. Everyone always thought that was so exotic and unusual. Here, it's not exotic or unusual; it's common. In America, people thought we were pretty crazy and a bit of a curiosity to be moving to New Zealand. Here, someone like us relocating to a new country isn't even much of a novelty.

What is the effect of Kiwis living all over the world? Well, I think New Zealand has a much broader worldview because of all the travelling, immigrating, and living overseas. Admittedly, part of the reason for their broader worldview is because they are such a small country of only 3 million people, compared to 300 million in the US. The US is so big and so powerful that it's too easy to forget about all those other countries. New Zealand is so tiny and so unimportant that other countries are what we think about all the time. As a result, the news here includes far more international stories, especially from commonwealth countries and Asia. Besides being a small country, the news is more international in NZ because there's a high proportion of immigrants who are interested in what's happening in their home countries. Many immigrants come from Pacific island nations so the news always covers events there. For instance, I was talking to Boone last week and told him that there had been huge riots in the Solomon Islands. They'd burned the entire downtown except 2 buildings. New Zealand sent some troops to help restore order. It's on the front page here but he hadn't heard about it in the US.

Besides the amount of international news coverage, in New Zealand there is just a universal understanding at a deeper level that not everyone speaks the same language or uses the same money or thinks the same way. People in the US obviously know this too, but most of them have never experienced it first-hand so their understanding is probably a bit more abstract. I was thinking about Americans from the Pacific Northwest who go to live in New York for a while and what a culture shock that would be. Or living in Mississippi. Or wherever. But in spite of the differences you would experience, you'd at least have the security of pretty much the same government, same laws, same justice system, same rights, same freeway signs, same brand names, same stores, same cars on the road, same sports, same plumbing, same TV, same money, same electrical system, same education system, same measurements, same fast food, same publications, same way of doing business, and on and on. If you move to UK you'd lose most of that security, and if you move to a place like Singapore, you'd lose even more!

Around that dinner table, I could tell that these people looked at the world in a different way because they had given up cultural security to experience life abroad. In that way, they had provided a benefit to New Zealand that the US doesn't possess.

Tall Poppies

There's something called Tall Poppy Syndrome in New Zealand. That means that you shouldn't try to be better than everyone else (like a poppy sticking up way higher than the others).

New Zealand is a very egalitarian country with a smaller proportion of very rich and a smaller proportion of very poor. There's not as big of a range in salaries for different occupations, either. For instance, a doctor might make 10 times as much money as a janitor in the US, but in NZ they would make about 5 times as much.

Culturally, it's not proper to brag. Remember my sign that said I was "The Greatest Teacher in the Room"? (look behind my head) It's not funny here because it's slightly inappropriate. It's also not culturally acceptable to be too overtly ambitious or driven like it is in the US.

One expat who moved here from The Netherlands expressed his frustration about his coworkers who weren't exactly slackers, but didn't exactly have their noses to the grindstone either. In the US (and I guess in The Netherlands), there's more of a strong cultural expectation for excellence and for success. In NZ, there are still plenty of excellent workers and successful people, but it just isn't as high of a priority to them. Kiwis are more laid back. From one perspective, being laid back is good because that means a slower pace, priorities on enjoying life more, etc. But the other perspective is that the cashier will not be as prompt, or the employees won't get as much done. From a national perspective, too many top university graduates go to UK or America to work, and the NZ government is currently trying to lure them back.

Realising this cultural difference helped me understand my students more. American students who walked into my class expected to work the entire time. Their parents expected them to work. If I showed a movie one day, I felt guilty – like I was cheating somehow and not doing my job properly. Parents even complained if too many teachers showed movies on the last day of the term.

But my Kiwi students don't expect to work the entire time non-stop. (I was shocked. What did they think school was for?) In class, it's not that students are teased if they have the right answer; it's just that there's not the same competitiveness to be the one with the right answer. It's a slight cultural difference. There's no glory in being the tallest poppy.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good News/Bad News: End of 1st term

Here's the good news: I survived my first term of teaching. And there's a ten day break from Good Friday to ANZAC Day.
Here's the bad news: I cried a lot. I feel like quitting a few times every week. I'm miserable.

I can't quite identify one single cause for my job being so miserable. I guess it's a combination of the following things:
1. My students are younger, less mature, and not as well behaved as what I'm used to. There's a lot of nonsense going on all day every day and it wears me down.

2. The style of disciplining students that worked for me in America doesn't work here for whatever reasons. I used to be able to win students over with my personality (ha), and then they would want to be good for me. I would also keep the lessons fun and interesting so they wouldn't misbehave. I don't really know the formula for success here, but it appears that these 12-year-olds don't respond to cajoling or disapproval.

3. The curriculum is different and the planning is time-consuming for me as a new teacher. Everyone has to turn in unit plans for the entire term ahead of time. The first problem is that I don't even know what I'm going to be teaching! In addition, unit plans are done in an unfamiliar format with a lot of unfamiliar jargon about learning intentions and achievement objectives, etc.

4. My students are of lower ability than what I'm used to. There's a couple of reasons for this. First of all, my school is located in a mixed neighbourhood. New Zealand schools each have a demographic decile label from 1-10. A decile 1 school is in a very poor neighbourhood while a decile 10 school is in a very wealthy neighbourhood. My school is decile 4, which doesn't seem that bad – Alder Creek might have been a 5 or a 6. The second reason is that there are 2 classrooms at my school full of the "accelerated" 7th and 8th grade students. The remaining three 8th grade rooms (like mine) have only the middle and low kids.

5. I haven't been as successful at brainwashing my students into enjoying reading. Most of the books in my classroom library are too hard for them. The 30-40 thinner books I had for reluctant readers (low ability/high interest books) are the ones that most of my kids read. Nobody's reading Holes. Nobody's reading Frindle or Among the Hidden. Actually, there's not a whole lot of kids reading at all. In previous years, about 95% of my students would read during class and again for homework, which was required. Here, about 50% read during class and only 10% read at home for homework, which is still required but isn't getting done. Some fake it and just look at the pages. Some misbehave.

6. I haven't discovered the motivation for kids to do the work. There's no grades at the end of the term. There's no points to add up. There's descriptive remarks at the end of next term which will say the child reads at a certain level, etc. But there's no concrete reason for them to do their homework or to finish an in-class assignment. As a result, many students stall and go R E A L slow. Wouldn't you? The only consequence that works is making those kids stay inside during lunch to finish their work ... so I miss my lunch too. I'm pretty sure other New Zealand teachers are able to motivate their students somehow, but as I say, I haven't mastered the system yet.

7. I was spoiled in America with more supplies and more technology. My school doesn't have internet or networking or email. I do have a teacher computer in my room but no printer and it's not networked to a printer, either. The only TV is in the library. Each teacher is allowed 1.5 reams of paper per term. There's no construction paper anywhere in the school, even in the art room. There's no scissors or rulers or glue. I was issued 4 whiteboard markers and 4 overhead transparencies. (I've been spending a lot of my own money) The lack of supplies and technology hinders so many of the lesson I teach. How can I do the fun and interesting things like show Schoolhouse Rock? ... or make Schmoo ads or parts of speech booklets?

Individually, each of the problems listed above are probably surmountable. Together, they weigh me down. Add to that the fact that I'm adjusting to a new country and whatever stress that entails, and you can imagine my frustration level is quite high. I'm not sure what the solution is. Curt says perhaps I need to lower my expectations just so I can survive. Perhaps I should quit. Perhaps I should gut it out. Perhaps I'd be better working at a different school. Perhaps I'll look for a job in a library instead. But I'm coming to the realization that this job just isn't the right fit for me.

Meanwhile, I like the country fine. Curt likes his job. I like the people I work with. I like the gi-normous 1kg chocolate Easter eggs. I like the view. I like the 80ยบ weather today. It's Good Friday, a national holiday, and all the stores are required to be closed. There's also no commercials allowed on TV today! Easter Monday is a holiday too, so Curt gets both those days off. Plus April 25 is ANZAC Day, which is a holiday similar to Veteran's Day or Memorial Day. We thought about flying to Sydney during my 10 day break. It's only a few hundred dollars. Besides, exploring this quadrant of the world was one of the reasons we moved here! Ultimately we decided, however, that I needed to loll and recover instead. Maybe we'll go to Sydney during my next break.