Teaching English

In my five years here, how many students have I taught? Though I can make a rough estimate of five times two semesters times 85 students per semester, I have never been any good at math, so I instead I will simply say “a lot”. Add to that private lessons and trial lessons and “a lot” suddenly becomes “even more”. So where did this all begin?

I guess I should tell you that it was never my intention to become an English teacher. It kind of just happened, and I still remember the first time I walked into a class, in a cheap suit and tie with all eyes upon me thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But I sweated, I survived, I persevered and now I can finally walk into a class without asking myself that question. Most of the time. And I don’t wear a tie anymore. One lesson I’ve learned about language schools in Japan: the ones that dress their teachers up the most are the worst.

Oh, yeah. I’ve learned a lot. I am wiser now, but more jaded. I am a better teacher now, but more bored than I’ve ever been. It’s time for a change and I know it. Like, when I correct the “th” sound for the 5,700th time, I have to stop myself from kicking a hole in the ceiling and remind myself how very lucky I am to be making decent money halfway around the world just because I happened to be born in an English-speaking country at this particular time in history. Never before and never again will this sort of pure luck befall me.

– Do you speak English?

– Yes.

– Then get into the classroom.

– Are you serious? Just like that?

– Yes. Now teach.

– Um…okay? And you are going to pay me?

– Yes.

– Sure, but just one question.

– Yes?

– How do I teach?

Well, like they say, it’s not brain surgery. Or rocket science. No, it mostly involves being a good listener, as well as being relentlessly upbeat. The second part is the hardest – showing up every day and smiling throughout. Let me just say that it builds a new respect for daily talk-show hosts and entertainers. Your grandmother died this morning? So what. Your girlfriend cheated on you? Who cares? Get in that classroom and smile. Act interested. You feel like crap? Your nose won’t stop dripping? You can’t stop coughing and your face is red and burning hot and a roomful of eyes is watching impassively? Get through it. Make a joke. Make a grammar point. The show must go on.

Let’s begin by talking about teaching kids, since I’ve been teaching children almost exclusively in the last two years. Here’s a brief run-down. High schoolers: A mixed, moody bag. Junior High Schoolers: Anyone who doesn’t think teachers earn their money try teaching a co-ed junior high school class in Japan. I dare you. Just you try to get them to communicate with the opposite gender for one hour! Elementary Schoolers: Pretty enjoyable, and one of my students has a head shaped exactly like a garbanzo bean (but I digress). Kindergarteners: Fun but exhausting and often leave you running into the teachers room after class screaming, “Vasectomy!” Babies: Sure, they are cute but it’s mindless work that involves a lot of singing and talking to yourself, much like one would do in a mental hospital.

Oh, you didn’t know that English teachers are hired to teach babies? Well, it’s true, and in the Eikaiwa (English Language Conversation School) industry’s unholy drive for money, the students are only getting younger. How can a one and a half-year-old be expected to speak English when he or she cannot even speak Japanese? What’s next? Pre-natal classes? With the teacher kneeling down and singing the ABC song to the mothers’ bulging bellies? Surprise! One school that I know of already offers those classes!

And then there is teaching adults, of which I have had plenty of experience. Many are shy. Some give you nothing to work with. Example:

Teacher: Hello.

Student:{silence}

Teacher: How are you?

Student: How are you?

Teacher: What did you do this week?

Student: Nothing special.

Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?

Student: Sleeping.

Some of them talk a lot, but are so boring you’d rather take a hard slap to the face and be sent home than interact with them for another 45 minutes. Example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?

Student: I buy….{searches electronic dictionary for 2 or 3 minutes}…fingernail clippers.

Make a conversation out of that and you are a champion.

Some of them have physical features that scare me. Some of them don’t know why they are there. Some of them have money and time to burn and have been in the beginners’ class for three years without having shown one bit of progress. Some of them have no social skills and expect to learn them along with a new language.

Flip it. Some of them are great. Some of them learn like sponges. Some of them try so hard you just want to hug them. Some of them are so smart and sophisticated that you wonder what in the world they are doing even listening to you. Some of them go abroad, succeed, and make you so proud and they don’t even know how much. Some of them cry in class because their lives are not going well at the moment and they get frustrated or emotional but they come back the very next week and try hard again and you love them for it.

Some of them make you so happy and you want to know them forever and see how their lives unfold but you know you won’t. Some of them make you so happy and you want to know them forever and see how their lives unfold and you will. Because that is the best part about teaching, and of being here for five special years – when the line between teacher and student blurs to nothing because you can’t help but see each other more as people, and as friends.