Posts Tagged Teaching English

August 28, 2006 – Bad form

Today is one of my scheduled days off. This morning I was woken up by my phone. I got a call from NOVA asking me to work an overtime shift in Fujinomiya.

Numazu to Fujinomiya (thanks Google Maps)

I was totally caught off guard by the overtime request and still half asleep so I almost said yes. Somewhere in the back of my brain an alarm bell started ringing, reminding me that Fujinomiya was about a 40 minute train ride away and that the school was full of group kids classes. I like extra money, but I needed the day off more so I declined and went back to sleep for a few more hours. I found out later that the overtime shift came available due to a teacher calling in sick the day after a party.

One of the annoying things about being a conversational English teacher is that everyone has different days off. This allows the branch to be open 7 days a week, but guarantees that no matter which night of the week there is a party, someone is going to have to work the next day.

Drinking is part of the English teacher culture – many of the fun events after work involve alcohol in some way. In time you either learn how to moderate your intake on work nights or how to work through a hangover. Calling in sick the next day is universally considered to be bad form among teachers, and will make you very unpopular with managers and branch staff (as I learned first hand).

It should be noted that “not drinking” is always an option, but then you risk truly hearing how bad everyone is at karaoke. I don’t recommend this at all.

If you are teaching English overseas, always make sure you can get into the office the next day!

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Memorable students – The Slapper

One of the first things that is taught to new conversational English teachers is that Japanese students generally don’t like to make mistakes. This can be a challenge in a conversational English classroom, where identifying mistakes can help everybody learn. The teachers job was to create a fun, safe environment in the classroom so that students would speak as much as possible without fear of judgement if they tripped over their words.

Most students eventually became more comfortable speaking English, mistakes and all. There was one very memorable student who took his mistakes very personally. By all accounts he was a normal, pleasant person. However, when speaking English he would be very slow and deliberate, cautiously trying to craft perfect sentences. This was not unusual, but what happened if he made a mistake was: upon realizing his mistake he would slap himself right in the face! The bigger the mistake, the harder the slap. A particularly bad lesson would leave him with red cheeks. He came to be known as “The Slapper” by teachers in the area.

Seeing The Slapper in action for the first time was a shock for both teachers and other students. It was something that became less shocking over time, but it was still jarring to see an adult slapping themselves when they made a mistake. Teachers would do their best to discourage his unique form of negative reinforcement, and I was even part of a group class where the other students asked him nicely to stop hitting himself. I was impressed with the students both for taking an interest in their classmate and for asking him to stop in English; “please don’t slap yourself” was not a phrase that usually came up in NOVA lessons!

The staff got involved at one point, politely asking him to stop hitting himself because it was scaring the other students and the teachers. I think the message got through. Over time he got better at not hitting himself in the classroom, but he was never able to fully kick the habit.

Hitting yourself when you make a mistake is better than hitting anyone else, but it’s still not a recommended technique for learning English.

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Memorable students: The Thesaurus (showdown)

This is the second in a three part series about one of the most infamous English students in the eastern Shizuoka area; The Thesaurus, who had a more impressive English vocabulary than some of the teachers I worked with. On one fateful evening I ended up in a vocabulary showdown with The Thesaurus in front of a room full of students. I barely came out with a victory.

The Voice room usually has open conversation or some English activities designed to keep everyone involved. The room was full of students from all skill levels, and the infamous Thesaurus. The previous teacher had been teaching some common English idioms to the students (a common topic), so I decided to turn this into a game.

I wrote one of the idioms across the whiteboard, and told the students that using the only the letters on the board, they had to make as many words as they could within a certain time limit. Words had to be at least 3 letters long, and I would award one point per letter. I divided the students up into teams, leaving The Thesaurus on his own, and started the timer. The game worked surprisingly well; students at lower levels came up with lots of small words, while The Thesaurus worked on pulling out the largest words he knew. Any words that students didn’t know got explained to the room.

I repeated this a few more times with continued success. As the time was running out, somehow the room came up with the idea that I should challenge The Thesaurus. I felt like I was playing for the pride of the teachers, honestly worried about being beaten by a man who read the dictionary for fun. The stakes were high and the pressure was on.

We took turns identifying words that we could build. With only minutes left, The Thesaurus managed to find an obscure 11 letter word that could be assembled from the letters available. I was on the spot – flashbacks of endless games of Scrabble against my mother played in my head, defeat after defeat coming into my mind. Here I was, a native English speaker, about to lose a word game of my own creation against the most infamous student in that has ever walked into a NOVA classroom in the Shizuoka area. It would be a blow to the teachers, and to Canadian English as a whole. The students were on the edge of their seats waiting for me to pull out a language miracle.

As I was beginning to lose hope, I saw my savior: the glorious letter “S”. I added it to the end of The Thesaurus’s word, pluralizing it to create a 12 letter word, one more than his 11 letter word. The students oohed and aahed as I wrote down my final word, barely claiming victory from the jaws of an embarrassing defeat as the class drew to a close.

I don’t know if this game was as memorable for anyone else in the room, but I won’t soon forget my epic vocabulary showdown with The Thesaurus.

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Memorable students: The Thesaurus (origins)

This is the second in a three part series about one of the most infamous English students in the eastern Shizuoka area; The Thesaurus, who I honestly believe was trying to memorize the entire Oxford dictionary.

During a special topic lesson in the Voice room one evening, I think I accidentally stumbled across the reason for his love of vocabulary: I learned the origins of The Thesaurus.

I was teaching a two period interactive lesson about calling in sick. The first part of the lesson was to introduce words to describe common ailments. I taught the students about flu, headache, sprains, broken bones, and other common topics. When we got to problems with the digestive system, The Thesaurus jumped in with a personal story.

Years earlier, when he was just beginning to learn English, The Thesaurus was on his honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Like many travelers who were exposed to different food, he got the most common of all travel illnesses, diarrhea. He went to a drug store near his hotel and tried to get advice from the pharmacist on what medicine to buy. The Thesaurus didn’t know the exact name of his problem, so he did what every traveler has done: use a combination of small words and gestures to explain himself. The pharmacist misunderstood his pantomime and sold him a laxative instead.

Fortunately for The Thesaurus, he decided to pull out his English – Japanese dictionary before he left the store to confirm what he had purchased (I don’t know why he didn’t do this in the first place). He realized his mistake before making his problem much worse, and left the drug store with the correct medicine.

For the class, this was a valuable story that taught some new words and worked well with the theme of my lesson. For me, this was like getting a flashback style exposition in a superhero movie; I finally understood what started this mild mannered salaryman on his path to becoming a human Thesaurus, obsessed with learning every word that the English language had to offer. Suddenly everything made a lot more sense.

This experience didn’t stop The Thesaurus from being a challenging student, but it did make him more relatable. It also made me extra careful any time I needed to buy medicine in my second language! Remember kids: a dictionary is your friend at the drug store.

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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 – Feeling good

As an English teacher, I always felt particularly proud of my efforts to try to help the weaker students in a class. I can understand how hard it is to learn a new language, and how frustrating it can be to see the people around you having an easy time of it. Conversational English teachers are given the bare minimum of training, so they aren’t always equipped to help struggling students. I tried to see weaker students as a challenge, and loved seeing the results when we were able to make a breakthrough.

I was teaching a level 6 student in Kawasaki NOVA who was struggling in many of his lessons. One evening I was lucky enough to have him in a man to man lesson: unlike a group lesson, we were able to work at his pace and I was able to give him all of the focus and feedback. He ended up having a fantastic lesson. By the time the final bell rang, he was smiling and confident. We both felt like we had achieved something.

As I was leaving the classroom, the happy student said to me “Thank you Mr. Andrew! When I speak English, I feel myself good”.

Different people have different ways to celebrate a good English lesson, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually intending to feel himself.

Part of me thought I should correct him on the awkward phrasing, but I didn’t want to bring down his good mood so I let it go and left him smiling all the way out of the branch.

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Memorable students – The Twins

shining_2twins

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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