Conditions at the College of the North Atlantic in Qatar (CNAQ) continue to deteriorate, rather than improve. That's the opinion of David Berry, a former employee who holds nothing back in his criticism of the college.
I have written about the CNAQ several times since November of 2007, when I talked about the college's poor state of morale.
A subsequent post suggested that human resource issues at the college were just the tip of the iceberg.
I was first to report, in June of 2008, that a Qatari court ruling on severance law would cost the CNAQ millions.
Soon after, I posted a powerful essay from another disaffected employee, alleging that, what started as a "technical college" was now devoting half its staff to teaching English as a Second Language. The writer also said Qatari society was racist, class-based and abusive of migrant workers from other countries.
David Berry contacted me in August of last year, with more shocking allegations. We've been playing a game of correspondence ping pong since then, and have exchanged more than 15 notes. Now it's time to pull back the curtain on another dysfunctional aspect of the CNA in Qatar, in particular on the Language Studies and Academics (LSA) Department.
"I fear that the bad management of the college is not only making life in Qatar nightmarish for College employees, but, long-term, will serve to tarnish Canada's and Newfoundland's reputation abroad, as it disastrously ill-serves its Qatari clients," Berry said. "The management of LSA is currently, for example, facing a complaint by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, for firing an instructor suffering from depression, rather than, as the contract stipulates, allowing him sick leave."
According to Berry, the individual in question had asked his superiors for their understanding as he dealt with an anxiety problem, for which he was receiving medication. Instead of receiving the support he was seeking, the employee was dismissed.
"No malfeasance was claimed," Berry said. "The pain and suffering of the employee and his family were grossly exacerbated by being required to vacate their home and the country, as well as the job, on a few weeks' notice. The family had just had a new baby."
Berry added that other employees have not had their contract renewed, at the last minute, without previous warnings of any concern with their performance. In fact, he was also dismissed in a manner that he considers highly questionable.
"I have this medical condition that is called lazy eye' by some but is professionally known as strabismic amblyopia'," Berry said. "I believe that this may have had a role in me not being renewed at the college. This is common practice in the Middle East: to not hire people who seem to have a visible medical condition even if it doesn't affect their performance."
Berry reminds us that numerous complaints have already been made against the college, in courts in both Qatar and Canada. "Some are now at the appeal stage, the college having lost in the first instance," he said. "However, the college has deep pockets, and seems ready to fight every step of the way. Kevin Baker, responsible for the Qatar operation, has warned present employees in public meeting that, should they take the college to court, they will be blacklisted and never hired by CNAQ again."
But the allegations don't stop there. According to internal memos supplied by Berry, at least five individuals have been dismissed who were among the most qualified teachers on staff, each with Masters degrees. In fact, most were heavily involved in various committees at the college. On top of that, all five had Asian wives. Whether this was a factor is difficult to say, though East Asians, it should be noted, are not looked upon highly in the racist society of Qatar.
How can this be allowed to happen? Partly through the teacher performance review process, which is grossly inadequate by any measure. And these are my words, not David Berry's. Any fool can look at this system and recognize immediately that it is unfair, woefully incomplete and wide open to abuse.
In essence, a teacher's contract can be renewed or not based on a short period of "classroom observation," anywhere from 50 to 100 minutes. That is, someone from management can sit in on one class, then decide that teacher's future as an employee unilaterally and with no other form of appraisal or oversight.
Berry said he was assured that classroom observation was intended for professional development purposes, and not meant as the sole criterion for renewing contracts. "Instead, they are now used as a weapon by management. They are used because managers can control the results. They can shape, interpret, and manipulate the results of a classroom observation. More reliable and accurate alternatives to classroom observations are ignored and not used because they are less easy to control by management. For example, many colleges and universities in the Middle East use student evaluation to evaluate teachers. But CNAQ management has consistently refused to use student evaluations."
After such an observation, Berry had a surprising meeting with his associate dean. "She said the class was terrible and I had only confused the students. She clearly exaggerated and blamed me for things that were beyond my control (e.g., "your students were late to class," or "didn't like the way I taught this grammar point"). I disagreed, but was allowed no formal input. She had the results of her observation already typed up. She didn't leave any space for me to write comments (which previous observers have done). I believe that this associate dean is barely qualified to make such a judgement. I believe that she has no direct EFL experience, nor even much adult education experience. Indeed, I have a Masters degree in EFL and a CELTA (a highly regarded teaching certificate), and I don't even feel that I am an expert. There are several others who are in positions of power in the EFL department who are unqualified, but are there because of cronyism and willingness to blindly obey management."
Berry was advised that his contract would not be renewed. When he pointed out that many previous observations were favourable, and that he had contributed more than his share to committee work and the development of materials, this was ignored.
"In not renewing my contract, the dean said none of that mattered," Berry said. "The dean said that, outside of the classroom, collegiality' was the only contribution that mattered. All my work for CNAQ on committees, material development, etc. was minimized into this vague term. The judgement, then, was based solely on this one classroom observation, by a marginally qualified observer."
Berry gave me an internal memo, highly critical of the classroom observation process, which used scholarly works to demonstrate that "administrators reserve the highest ratings for their friends or protégés." or, conversely, they "use the evaluation system to get rid of people they dislike."
This raises special issues for CNAQ, the memo said, with its "unfortunate history and press coverage."
"If we are already dealing with a toxic atmosphere,' this form of evaluation seems liable to make it worse," the memo reads. "It is not just that evaluation through classroom observation by administrators has no empirical foundation, but that it is too obviously open to deliberate abuse or unconscious prejudice. Just as an evaluator will naturally favour someone with the same teaching style, other prejudices are also likely to emerge. Evaluators are logically equally likely to favour teachers like them in other ways as well. However honest and fair administrators actually are, the process by its nature will produce suspicion and ill-will."
The memo made some incontestable points. Yet, it was roundly ignored. Life continues on in that otherworldly kingdom of Qatar.
Things seemed to reach some kind of head late last year, when it was announced that the contract for the CNAQ President, Hal Jorch, was not being renewed. I have a copy of the memo, from college president Jean Madill, making the announcement. Below is an excerpt. Note how little is said of Jorch's non-renewal, and how much is made of Enid Strickland's renewal.
I want to take this opportunity to update you on the CNA-Q Campus President's search process and to inform you of a decision regarding the CNA-Q Vice President Academic position.
As many of you may know, Dr. Jorch's contract is coming to an end in August of 2009. As a result we are beginning the search process to fill the contracted position for the next three year period.
(This is followed by six paragraphs, outlining the search process.)
On a related note, the Vice President Academic's contract was also coming to close in August of 2009. Given the dedication of Enid Strickland to the campus, the learners of the State of Qatar and the strong relationships that she has built in Qatar over the past five years, we offered and Enid has accepted a new two year contract.
It would seem that Dr. Jorch was not damned by faint praise more like no praise at all. I have no idea about the back-story on this one. However, based on what we've seen so far, it would seem that Dr. Jorch made the mistake of rocking the boat somehow.
Meanwhile, The Gulf Times, the daily newspaper in Doha, Qatar, reported late last year that the Qatari government was planning to launch the country's "first community college." The article makes no reference at all to CANQ, even though it was first, which raises questions about the Qatari government's commitment to the college.
In closing, in case you haven't read enough already, I present the full text of a post that appeared in the CNAQ forum at Dave's ESL Café, about morale among employees at the college. It appeared October 13, 2008.
My sense is that things are getting worseat least, morale is. A year ago, you heard complaints about incompetent management, and complaints about unmotivated students. Now, you generally hear only complaints about management. Are the students that much better? Not likely. Management must have gotten worse. Students now look like fellow sufferers. Much of this is that, a year ago, people were still prepared to give management the benefit of the doubt. They had gotten rid of a very unpopular Dean, perhaps now they would set things right. For a time, it was still possible to blame many problems on the previous Dean.
But the promised improvements mostly did not happen, or turned out to be only window dressing, or seemed to be deliberately scuppered by management when they felt the heat was off. Now the only disagreement is whether it can all be explained by incompetence, or whether there must be malice involved as well.
Some details: It is less possible than it was to keep your head down, mind your own classroom, and ignore the chaos around you. Management remains as incompetent, but is now increasingly micromanaging.
Cronyism seems as bad as or worse than it has ever been. Lack of transparency is as bad as or worse than it has ever been. Almost all communication is by rumour. Now management has begun to fire instructors or not renew seemingly arbitrarilyoften terminating the better-qualified instructors.
The one thing that has improved: pay keeps going up.
So much for the good news.
There seem to be a lot fewer students this semester, and a lot of instructors who have no teaching duties. Management insists this is temporary, but one wonders whether the offal is hitting the ventilation system. Qatari businesses may be realizing that the 1950s public school approach at CNAQ is not the most efficient way to bring their staff up to speed in English.
And why would it be? Besides defying all current research in language acquisition, it makes little sense economically. If these students were going to pick up English easily using old-fashioned little red schoolhouse methods, they would already know Englishthey studied it through high school. And if such non-communicative approaches are the answer, far cheaper to hire Egyptian and Syrian schoolteachers than to bring schoolteachers across the Atlantic Ocean and the African continent, paying them huge and growing salaries, and accepting their cultural peculiarities. If you're not going to do the immersion or communicative approach, any trained teacher would do as well.
Iceberg, meet Titanic. Titanic, meet iceberg.
Cue credits. Celine Dion voiceover.
UPDATE: I have received three comments so far from people at CNAQ (presumably instructors), all critical of this piece, but all anonymous. I contacted each, by return email, but none will use their full names. In a nutshell, they are accusing me of "spreading lies and smears" and "using only the statements of a disgruntled former employee."
If my source for this story was just one person a voice in the wilderness I would not have used it. However, I have been contacted over the last year by several people; all former employees, and all saying essentially the same things as Mr. Berry. In the interests of fairness, I will not be using any more anonymous sources for this story. I do invite current and former instructors of CNAQ to leave their comments, no matter what their opinion of the college may be. All I ask is that you sign your name, and leave a verifiable email address.