So, now I`ll take you through a typical “bad” class and a typical “good” class. It really is about fifty/fifty, I get one good class a day and one bad class, typically. I think the best way to show you what a typical “bad class” is like is to take you through the one I just had.
I got into their room (remember, teachers move from room to room, not students) about 8:55. They were really excited to see me. I`m not sure it`s because they actually enjoy my classes (which I hope is the case) or because as a rule set by the powers above me I`m not allowed to give them any grades or assign them homework. So my class is sort of a “blow off” class. Realistically, I think it`s a combination of the two. Anyway, some of them greeted me as I came in with “Ghost Busters!” or “Mississippi!” funny-sounding words from our previous lessons. At least they remember something! I was hoping that today the “bad class” might be different. The biggest trouble maker bowed low to me and said something to the extent of “I am very honored that you have humbled yourself to teach our ignorant class today” in Japanese. Then the whole class, directed by the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), stood as one and bowed.
“Good morning!” I greeted them.
No response. The act was over. Half of them had already fallen asleep. The “bad kid” yelled back “Good morning!” very loudly, and got a few laughs.
“What American holiday is coming?” I asked.
“Dona Americano matsuri?” I asked in Japanese. I gestured toward my Thanksgiving Day poster and made an exaggerated pantomime of raising my hand.
More blank stares. One student raised his head, muttered, “Halloween,” and went back to sleep.
“Good guess. Halloween was two weeks ago. Next week is Thanksgiving!”
“Yea!” the bad boy cried. “Thanchusugivinu! Ghostbusters!”
“Thanksgiving means to “Give thanks” or say “thank you.” To our friends. To our family. To God.”
The bad boy repeated each phrase as I said it, half a second behind, with an awkward accent, sometimes inserting different words.
I ignored him. “So let`s start with a fun Thanksgiving Day poem. This poem talks about what we`re thankful for!” The previous week I had showed them the “Ghost Busters” song and they filled in the blanks, but that turned out to cost me a lot of money, because every time I pulled it up on I-tunes, my cell phone company charged me a dollar. I`m not doing that again! I found the poem free domain on the internet, so I didn`t have to pay for it. The students had to fill in the missing words using hints at the bottom of the page and the pictures I so painstakingly pasted in via clip art. I had spent quite a bit of time on it, making sure it would be easy enough but still a challenge. I had two versions, medium and easy. This class had easy. Their hints were in Japanese, which wasn`t exactly simple for me. In return, I expected them to at least try. Most of them laid their heads on their desks and promptly fell asleep.
I was expecting this, of course. So I went around to the sleeping students saying, “Okite kudasai” (wake up, please) and asking “wakarimaska?” (do you understand?) They all answered, “Wakarahen” which is the impolite way of saying “I don`t understand,” not quite as strong as “heck if I know” but somewhere along those lines. I then pointed to the directions and read them in Japanese, which they were already in. Most of them just waved me away, saying “bye, bye,” and laid down their heads again. Today I let most of them get away with it. Most days I`m insistent, but even then they just lay down their heads as soon as I walk away. I didn`t feel like fighting with them; there seemed to be a few students who genuinely wanted to work, so I helped them instead.
All during this time the bad boy was yelling and waving his hands in the air and just making a genuine JA of himself. I tried a few times to get him to quiet down, but that only encourages him. At least he didn`t scream obscenities at me this time.
So what`s the JTE during all this? Absolutely nothing. This is the bad class because it belongs to the teacher that just stands there saying, “eh…toe…” and looks at me with horrified eyes when I ask her to actually help with anything.
After ten minutes I came back in front and asked for volunteers to give their answers. Dead silence. Even the loud boy was instantly quiet. If there`s one word in English they know, it`s “volunteer” and I think they`ve assigned it the intrinsic meaning “utter embarrassment.”
“If you volunteer, you get a stamp!” I declare. My one and only means of motivating them. At the beginning of the year I gave them a “stamp card” with the names and flags of fifteen English-speaking countries. When they collect all the stamps, they get extra points on their final test. How much depends on their teacher. For the good students, this is a decent motivation. Not the bad kids. Most of them lost their stamp cards a long time ago. I tried candy once, which was a decent motivation, but then they were all screaming the answers over each other to get the candy. And that gets mighty expensive mighty fast.
But for some reason today, after about two minutes of utter silence, they decided to shout out the answers, candy or no candy. So I just ditched the stamp card. Let them yell out the answers, and I`ll write them on the board when they say the right one. Of course that means a lot of random, stupid wrong answers, like “kitty” “kill turkey, yum!” and “I am buffalo!” I have the strong suspicion they don`t learn anything from this type of question and answer, so I try to avoid it. Someone suggested to me that I have them all say the answer at once, like “one, two, three, turkey!” If you can get them to do that, you have more power than I do.
Then I went into my Thanksgiving Day explanation. Again, the bad boy repeated everything I said half a second after I said it. It was really distracting. I told him to stop of few times, but of course he only repeats me louder. Finally, I glared at him and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Kiite kudasai!” He stared at me, laughed, and continued. Though I think I`ve told that story before; that actually happened a few weeks ago. Today I actually told him to shut up. He did for about five seconds. All it takes is that one kid to ruin a whole class. And almost every class seems to have one.
Then we had a “making reservations” dialogue. One person was the restaurant staff, the other was the customer. They talked, all right. But none of it was in English.
As soon as the bell rang, they all perked up, smiled, and gave me high-fives as I left the room. As if to say, “didn`t we do a good job?” Ooooo…If only I had the power to grade these kids. I would be more than reasonable. If they try, they get an A. But if they don`t, their grade goes down. And if they keep others from learning, why should they pass at all?
So why are these students taking English? you may ask. Because they have to. It`s required until they`re a senior. Some schools offer other foreign languages, but whether they do or not (my school does not), English is always required. It is on the exam to get into most Japanese colleges. And believe me, the exam is tough; I`ve graded it. I see a huge improvement between the first year and third year students, I think because they suddenly realize that if they want make something of their life, they have to know English. And if having an Assistant Language Teacher who`s a native speaker on staff is not exactly a law, it`s certainly an unspoken requirement. Since high schools compete to get students, not having a native speaker when every other school does would put a school out of business. But I and a lot of other assistant language teachers feel that this is a grudging realization. We are not considered to be full-fledged teachers, and if they could, the teachers would avoid using us. I don`t think this is the case at my school, though. Everyone is very kind to me and I feel they try to use me as much as they can. Usually.
Here`s a picture of a typical class room. Sorry I can`t include pictures of my studnets. It`s against the law.