Saturday, September 08, 2007


I'm sort of down in the dumps today. And I had so wanted to show you the progress I'd made yesterday! Will you forgive me if I dwell on negative things instead. I'll perk up tomorrow, I promise.

As you know, I teach English to kids in the neighborhood. I have four classes of three to five kids in each at different grades. Most of the classes are fun and noisy and I really do enjoy teaching. BUT... I have had one class that I just cannot get any life into. They've been coming for more than four years, you'd think we all jive together pretty well, and at first we did. They were cute 1st graders and embarking in the new world on English, eager to learn, eager to get praise, eager to try new things (we sometimes make cookies, crafts, play American games, etc.) But as they got older, this particular class got quieter and quieter and I wondered what had happened to my smiley, noisy students.

Actually, this is not limited to this one class. There are always kids, mostly girls, who are shy and sweet and can't speak above a whisper. After kindergarten there are rarely any hand waving, jumping-in-their-seats kids who want to let you know that they have the answer on the tip of their tongue if you'd just choose them. Japanese kids are more cautious, they don't want to stand out, they don't want to make a mistake. I know, I'm blatantly stereotyping , but this is something I've noticed for a long time. Is it personality? Is it behavior? Whatever, I have five of this type of student in one class

Shall I go off on a tangent? When my kids were little and I took them to the States, I remember one time at church I introduced them to some of my old friends and their children. My kids (I think it was Takumi) responded to the introduction by looking at his feet and mumbling and when asked a question just cocking his head without answering. Of course, adults would make excuses for this kind of behavior. He's shy. He isn't confident in English. He hasn't been trained well. (That was true.) But the child of the other family turned to his mom and asked "Is something wrong with that boy? Is he retarded?" What a lot of shushing and apologizing that ensued. On top of that, Takumi who actually had excellent English comprehension, was shocked that his behavior could be taken as "something wrong". From then on, I taught my kids to look at people in the eye, answer clearly, smile and when at all possible make the first move in conversation. And they realized that at least in America if they behaved shyly and didn't take part in the conversation, they were certainly misunderstood!

Back to my class. For the past year it got so that I could not get any of the kids in this class to answer me. I understand that they might not know an answer to an English exercise but even things like "Do you want to play SET today or UNO?" was met with downcast looks and cocked heads. Before class, when they'd come in, I'd ask (in Japanese) "What did you do this week?" No, answer. Not even acknowledgement that I'd ask a question. "Tell me in Japanese, it's ok." Nope. Nothing.

You know. That's rude. When someone is talking to you, you look at them. You let them know you know they exist! But I'd get nothing and that's even before the English lesson! You can imagine when I'd start asking them to do an exercise. Silence. Easy stuff too! Ok. No volunteers, pick one child and ask him by name. Nothing. Look at the table. How long can I wait? Go to the next child. Same thing. And the next, and the next. It was contagious. Over the months, of course I've talked to the kids about how this makes me feel, about how this isn't going to work in society. How English is a verbal language, you have to used it. I'd ask if this is how it is in their class at school. Silence. Do you not like me? Silence. Are you afraid of peer pressure? Silence. I'd talked to the parents and suggested that maybe these kids really didn't want to be taking English. No. The parents insisted that the kids wanted to come. That they'd been properly reprimanded and they promised to try. Not much change.

I fully expected to start a new season with these kids yesterday when they showed up. I was eager to show them American pictures, give them the presents I'd bought them, do a bit of review and get into the new book we'd started. I got zero reaction from the pictures (they barely looked at them), no thank yous for the presents, and silence from questions about their own summer. I just stopped. I just said I really didn't think they needed to come anymore, ever, and that I would talk to their parents after class. I didn't particularly get angry though I think in trying to make them understand that their behavior wasn't acceptable I did ramble and my voice shook. They never said a word or looked at me. I said the rest of the time we could play a game, what would they like to play? Nothing. I finally pulled out a couple games and we played for a half an hour. They played grudgingly.

Ok. Do you know how I feel? I feel like a lousy teacher. I feel like a failure and a quitter. I feel like I've given up a good chance to be a positive influence in their lives. I feel like because of me and my final ultimatum they will go through life with a bad taste in their mouth for English in general.

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
~William Arthur Ward


Quilt Pixie said...

Don't judge yourself too harshly. You never know what long term effect you've had -- Each of these "hard" students may look back with fondness at the English teacher who tried so hard, and "just didn't understand"... Whatever the reason THEY choose not to learn -- a teacher is responsible for teaching, not for the learning, that requires the student's participation too. I hope you find the class a little more "fun" next week...

Tracey said...

Wow...that must be a difficult class to teach. It sounds so frustrating for you. Please don't feel bad that this class doesn't seem to be connecting with you, it sounds like the issue is not you, but these children.

Maybe having them not contue would be for the best? Perhaps the parents are a lot more interested in having the kids learn English than the kids are. Do you know what I mean? I know that sometimes, as a parent, I'm more enthusiastic about one of my daughter's activities than she is. Maybe that is the case here.

nonchi said...





Melinda said...

Hang in there. :) I know it's hard, but hang in there.


Mary said...

I'm afraid I don't have any insight for you. I can tell you feel bad and I know I would feel the same. It would be worse if you didn't care and just kept the status quo. Too bad you can't add a new kid or two in that class to change the dynamic.

Lindah said...

Wow! It sounds like everyone is unhappy. Reading with my American "filter," it seems like the students really don't want to be there. Have any of the parents ever visited class? Do the students feel they are "too old" to be taking the class? You know, since they have taken the class from early childhood, could they feel like the class is too "baby-ish" for them now that they are older? I'm sure your materials and methods have "grown" with them, but their perception of the "same" class might be the problem. I'm no help--just lots of questions. I'm puzzled, too. How disappointing! I pray it works out for the best for students and for teacher.

Lazy Gal Tonya said...

sounds miserable. Ending the class sounds like a good decision. Hope you're feeling happier and positive soon.

Jane Weston said...

Oh I'm not sure what to say...I'd be tempted to invited the parents to attend the class with the students to see if you can get a dialogue going. I was going to suggest games, but it sounds like you've tried that with no success. It sounds like more than just a difference in culture'd think they would say thank you for the gifts...that's just courteous. Hope if gets better and that you cheer up.

Take care,

Jane Weston said...

Just had another could use reverse psychology and just sit there making no eye contact or verbal contact til they do...I know a bit extreme, but it might get them thinking.

anne bebbington said...

I always remember when I first met Nigel he was a Venture Scout Leader and his unit had a selection of kids from 15yrs up to 20 but mainly at the lower end of the age group. Some of the kids (mainly girls) were chatty, one boy was extremely unresponsive and I thought it was me until I saw him with other adults and realised he was just that sort of teenager. However not even shyness is an excuse for rudeness - I've always taught my three to answer people politely - Nick the middle one comes across as uncommunicative but will always answer albeit quietly even though this is not his true personality but I always pick them up if they don't answer politely or if they interrupt any adult who is talking. Maybe getting the parents to sit in on the lesson will mean they can see how uncooperative their children are or if the kids suddenly develop a voice while in the company of their parents you're quite within your rights to refuse to teach them stating the reason why - Good luck Tanya - a real awkward one this

comicbooklady said...

Wow, that is so frustrating. It sounds like something is going on with the children. I don't think you should blame yourself. You said it was one particular group of kids, it may be there is a bully in the group that is intimidating them into this type of behavior, or a strong-willed parent that is countermanding your work...? Can you talk to these children one on one, away from outside influences?

this really is a tough one, my sympathies.

Rosalind said...

Wow, no wonder you are feeling so glum :o( You must feel as if you are banging your head against a brick wall trying to get through to them.
It almost sounds as if they have made a pact with each other? It is unusual to meet such bad manners isn't it?
Think perhaps inviting some of the parents one day and some another , or moving half of kids into another group may do it?
It sounds like a "divide and conquer"technique might work as a last resort before closing that class?
Good luck!

QuiltingFitzy said...

Just some points for you to ponder. Remember you are way Westernized, and so is your own family. Japanese Culture is 180 degrees different. Unfortunately, one class, one teacher, cannot make these kids Westernized. It's just the way it is, you're a GREAT teacher, I can tell!

You have, on the other hand, given them exposure. They will know what to expect, and have been told how they will be perceived. That's about all you can do, you've given them their tools.

I suggest you move on and replace them with bubbly kindergarteners who are eager to learn. Perhaps your own style of teaching is more successful with the 5yo? Perhaps only promote your class for "one year of English lessons". That way no one feels obligated to return, they will have to ask you to continue.

Just some random thoughts, because I care. I've had lots of experience dealing with Japanese teenagers as manager of 6 counties for an exchange student program.

Kathy Wagner said...

Never underestimate your influence with these young people. It's a really difficult situation and I have no ideas about what to do. Your writing reminded me of a passage in a book on creativity by Gordon MacKenzie called "Orbiting the Giant Hairball" where he noticed the same the children get older, they are less enthusiastic, less interested in being an artist, and quieter. This is a great teaching challenge for you that's for sure!!

Shelina said...

Oh Tanya, I so feel for you. And I completely understand, having been on both sides. I had a hard time communicating with Ayaka for the same reasons.

You are definitely not a failure. I have a feeling that they really enjoyed the class, but just couldn't break out of their cultural norms. I'm surprised though, especially when you explained how that made you feel.

This is the ultimate culture clash. You are trying to teach the American way, and they don't know how to handle it. Maybe if you had an American student sitting in on the classes, showing the students the ropes on how to participate in class? Or maybe mix up the classes so some of the more outgoing students join this quiet class?

Now I think that as an adult, I pretty much participate well in group meetings and such, although it still feels like I am being too bold when I say something. And almost all of my performance evaluations say that I need to work on my communication and that I should advise my managers of my accomplishments.

Holly said...

I don't have any advice or insight. I think you did the right thing by telling them they needn't come back for any more lessons. I would have done the same. You have incredible patience and tolerance. You have given it your best and your all. The rest is up to them. I hope you feel better soon.

atet said...

Tanya. I wish I could give you a great big hug. You have done everything you can. Not every teacher is the right one for every student and vice versa. My first year teaching I had an entire class of 25 students who were like that. What was really awful is that the hour before I met with those students I had a wonderful group who were the polar opposite! I'd leave the first class feeling wonderful. I'd leave the second feeling as though someone had beaten me up for an hour. The same lesson. The same school. The same general group of students. At some point I had to give myself permission to say -- this one is not my fault. Something is not clicking with these particular students and I've done everything *I* can to make it work. But it goes both ways. The students need to work on the problems as well -- and it seems like they are unwilling to do so.

To not even say thank you for gifts? Oh my -- my mother would KILL me. Or, more accurately, make me give back the gift I was too ungrateful to say thank you for.

From what I can tell you are a wonderful, caring, and enthusiastic teacher. Please don't let one group of students get you down -- there are others who will enjoy and value what you have to give!

Marcie said...

Hi Tanya, I have had you on my mind since I read this post the other day and I wondered how your students might respond to music? I don't know how old they are, but there are so many silly songs that they might enjoy and that would also help them learn English. Just a thought. Hope things are going better!