Posts Tagged difficult students

Memorable students: The Thesaurus (intro)

This is the first in a three part series about one of the most infamous English students in the eastern Shizuoka area; The Thesaurus. He was a middle aged salaryman who believed that to master English, he needed to learn and use only the longest and most complicated words available in any situation. This approach made him challenging in lessons, and nearly impossible in the Voice room where students of all skill levels could attend.

As someone who has taught English while learning a second language, I learned that while a large vocabulary is useful, it is not critical to communication. “Where is the toilet” can be just as effective as “excuse me kind sir, my bladder is full and I am looking for an appropriate receptacle to expel urine. Could you please direct me to the nearest washroom facility post haste?”. If you can imagine the second sentence being spoken in a monotone voice, you would have a good idea of what talking to The Thesaurus was like.

The Voice room was The Thesaurus’s favourite place to hang out. He would come for several periods, making the room difficult or impossible for the lower level students. There are even some students who would check to see if The Thesaurus was in the Voice room before they entered. If he was there, they would take a lesson or go to a nearby school’s Voice room. The Thesaurus had the ability to adjust his speaking to students of all skill levels, he just wasn’t interested in doing so.

I had two tactics for working with The Thesaurus in the Voice room: the first was to stealthily break up the students into two conversations, one for The Thesaurus and anyone else who wanted to test their dictionary recall, and one for everyone else. This wasn’t ideal, but at least everyone could participate. My second tactic was to have one open conversation, and write down the most difficult words that The Thesaurus used on the whiteboard so the other students could look them up. This could work as long as we stayed with topics that were interesting to most, and not more obscure topics like the system of government in Turkey (yes, this was really something he tried to talk about).

To make matters worse, The Thesaurus was the only student I knew who had an Arch Enemy: another middle aged salary man who was generally well liked by other students and teachers. The Arch Enemy HATED The Thesaurus, and wasn’t shy in expressing this to anyone who would listen. The Arch Enemy would make a point of sitting right next to The Thesaurus to make him uncomfortable. When The Thesaurus started showing off his extensive lexicon, Arch Enemy would interrupt and tell him that nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. There is even a rumour of The Arch Enemy throwing his newspaper at The Thesaurus once. The Arch Enemy was intimidating at best, and bullying at worst, but only to The Thesaurus.

This kind of outright hostility was very unusual in Japanese society, and even more unusual in a classroom setting. It was uncomfortable for all involved, and everyone would feel a bit better when one of the two of them would leave the Voice room.

Overall, I don’t think that The Thesaurus was a bad person, he was just a challenging student. If someone wants to pay money for English lessons and has a goal in mind, it’s their right to be there. The problem was that he rarely considered the goals of the other students in the room, which helped make him one of the most difficult lessons that a teacher in the area could experience.

To put a positive spin on things: teaching The Thesaurus was a great way to build classroom management skills, learn some new words (even for teachers), and also a great excuse to go for a beer after work.

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Memorable students – The Twins


During my time at Mishima NOVA, I got to teach some really memorable students. This is about The Twins, who usually came for lessons on one of my days off.

Many students come for lessons on the same days every week. My usual days off were Sunday and Monday, so I rarely got to teach students who would only come on those days. One particular Monday I was working on a shift swap, and noticed that I had a lesson with two students with the name family name. When I asked about it, the other teachers told me that I had to teach “The Twins”.

The Twins are identical 14 year old twin girls who, like many of the younger students, were only taking English lessons because their parents forced them. They were notoriously difficult to teach, with my supervisor warning me that it wasn’t uncommon for them to both stop talking a few minutes into the lesson, turning the remainder of the 40 minutes into an uncomfortable staring contest. To make matters more challenging, they were both in the second lowest level and had been for some time.

If I had been a less experienced teacher I probably would have entered the classroom with an impending feeling of dread. In this case I decided to challenge myself; I was going to see if I could get The Twins to talk.

I walked into the lesson, put my student files down on the table, and introduced myself with a big friendly smile. I asked Twin 1 her name and she responded. I asked Twin 2 her name and she responded as well. I told them I was from Canada and I lived in Numazu (modeling the response I wanted from The Twins). I asked Twin 1 where she lived, and she said Mishima. I then asked Twin 2, who naturally also answered Mishima. I pretended to be surprised that they both lived in the same city.

I then told The Twins that I was an English Teacher and asked what they did. This time I started with Twin 2 who said she was a junior high school student. Twin 1 gave the same answer. I faked surprise again. My fake surprise increased when they told me that they went to the same school. I kept doing this for a few more minutes until Twin 2, who wasn’t sure if I was actually clueless, pointed at Twin 1 and said “she is my sister”.

Score one for the teacher! I just got unprompted dialogue in English from one of the school’s most difficult students!

I don’t think they really knew what was going on, but they did keep talking and I managed to get a decent lesson out of both of them. I proudly returned to the teachers room to describe my accomplishment.

In case you’re wondering, acting clueless was not something that I learned in my 3 days of on the job training when I became an English teacher; that was all me 🙂

(Author’s note) I did get a few more successful lessons with the twins after this, with only brief staring contests.

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