Teacher post: Oh, Thursdays…

Generally, I like my teaching job.  I can be very flexible with my lessons, I like my coworkers, and the pay relative to my schedule is great.  I’ve written mostly positive things about my teaching experiences and I try to think optimistically about my classes and students.

When it comes to Thursdays, there’s a little something in me that wilts.  Thursdays are a challenge for a number of reasons.

  1. I teach almost non-stop for 5 hours – the longest break I have is 15 minutes, at which time I try to inhale a few bites of food.
  2. Every class is very different, so I have to be thorough in my lesson plans.  This isn’t hard in itself, but when I combine this with reason #1 on this list, it becomes difficult to keep track of what I’m supposed to be doing for what class at a given time.  I don’t like having to leave my class in the middle of a lesson because I’ve forgotten a material, but it happens.
  3. My Thursday students themselves each present their own challenges, mostly related to personality.

When I say personality challenges, I’m really saying most students I have on Thursdays are not my favorite.  Some are even considered problem students.  In the right class dynamic, with the wrong personalities together, my 50 minute lesson never seems to end.

This sounds like whining, and it is.  Our company sends weekly messages to all teachers, and recently, one message included a note about problem students: “Find something good about the student, and focus on that rather than what you don’t like.”  This can be difficult to remember.  I’ll do a breakdown of my day on Thursdays:

Class #1, 4:10-5:00.  5 students.  Ages 5-7.  4 girls, 1 boy.

When I write the lesson plan for this class, I sigh a little.  This class is noisy, and not in a productive way.  Two of the students are brother and sister – they often show up late and derail the class.  Last week, they were late AND had a bag full of pinecones.  I have no idea how this escaped my manager’s attention.  The boy is 5 and usually participates about as well as a 5 year old boy can be expected to.  His sister, on the other hand, seems to be in a fog unless she is directly addressed by a Japanese speaker.  She frequently sneaks silly putty into class and hides things in it (like paper clips she has removed from my materials when I’m not looking).  I have to literally hover over her and point at things to get her to do our end-of-class workbook task.

Child 3, Yui, is a sweet kid who does her best in class and tries to get along with her extremely distracting classmates.  She is always on time, always smiles sheepishly when she doesn’t know the answer, and will groan “I’m sleeeeeepy” when she’s tired.

The final two kids in this class are buddies outside of school.  One student has been attending lessons for quite a while, the other joined a few months ago to be with her friend.  Maybe you can already see where this is going.

They never stop talking.  They have shrill voices and cackle repeatedly at simple jokes.  These two inevitably crash the class about every 3 minutes.  It is nearly impossible to keep them in their seats, and they dig through my notes and materials when I’m not looking.  They feel the need to yell “You spoke Japanese!” if I say anything to help them understand, or if they heard me mumble something that sounded remotely like their native language.  I realize these are normal behaviors for children, but I’ve thought more than once about what class would be like if I taught with a machete in my free hand.

Poor Yui, the one trying to actually learn, doesn’t get much time to practice because I spend 75% of class controlling her classmates.  My only real weapon is bingo – it’s the only thing that will hold their attention for all of class.  When I am in no mood to deal with them, we play bingo with the vocab they’re studying at that time.  My manager has taken to addressing the class before we start, and he will attempt to confiscate any toys.  Last week I spent 10 minutes playing a vocab game quiz where part of the “game” was to run around the table in the room after they gave me the correct answer.  The result was 5 tired kids who had practiced the work for the day and were more than happy to sit down and write for a few minutes before leaving.  It’s a work in progress.

Class #2, 5:10-6:00.  4 students.  Ages 9-12.  2 boys, 2 girls.

Class 2 of the day still feels new to me in some ways – 3 of the 4 students in this class took a trial lesson with me at the same time, and all three signed up.  They were joined later by another boy at around Halloween.

One boy and girl are brother and sister.  The others are unrelated.  Generally, this class is okay…ish.  This group figured out fast I could understand their Japanese.  Pretending I don’t understand what my students say is one of the hardest things I have to do, and I think sometimes decreases my effectiveness as a teacher – I find myself often in conversations with students where I’m speaking English and they’re speaking Japanese.  As a result, they tend to ask me questions in Japanese rather than English, and I pretend to go “huh?”  “what?”  “I don’t know.”

This provokes a whiny “Sensei’s Japanese sucks.” from the 9 year old boy in this class, who spends most of his time complaining and mumbling under his breath.  He is the most malcontent 9 year old boy I have ever met, and I always want to tell him to suck it up because it’s not going to get any better.  His sister and the other girl help him when he’s unsure of himself, and I do the same, but this guy whines even when he gets the answer right on the first shot.  He mumbles about how bothersome me asking him the question is, then gets to take his turn in whatever game we’re using to drill the structure for the day.  Everything is irritating to him.  I ask the class about their favorite foods, their favorite sports, their favorite animals – I want them to share things they personally enjoy.  I have asked this boy these questions for 6 weeks, and he still consistently whines.

His sister and other female classmate are good students – they are very enthusiastic participants.  The unrelated girl, Moe, is a bit of a know-it-all, but with good reason – she picks up English fast.  There have been a few instances where she tries to pre-empt me in class with a very smug look on her face.  She tries to guess what I’m going to say next. The look fades a bit when I initiate a verbal smackdown and say something completely different.  She’s smart and fast, but she has a lot to learn.

Boy 2, Shunya (12), took a trial lesson with this class the week before Halloween.  His second lesson was taught by me dressed as a cat, so I’m pretty grateful he’s stuck around.  He’s a generally quiet guy who is pretty good about using only English in class.  When he’s unsure of the correct word, he’ll point to something and look at me inquisitively or ask: “What?”  Recently, he has become progressively more and more sneaky.  He loves to play games, and occasionally will try to give himself little advantages.  He has a good sense of humor, and when I see him sneaking to the board to erase one of his classmates’ scores, he’ll walk away, innocently smiling and saying: “What?”  His classmates find him hilarious.  He’s nearly as tall as I am (which isn’t saying much), but I’m grateful that he seems to enjoy the class.

The real challenge in this class is keeping the students motivated.  They tend to learn pretty fast (with the exception of Whiny, the 9 year old boy, who occasionally removes himself to a corner of the room and frowns at the rest of us, refusing to participate.  My manager has talked with him several times about his behavior).  I try to keep the pace of the class quick, and we learn new things a little faster than other classes might.  It’s fun, for the most part, except when dealing with Whiny.

Class 3, 6:00-6:50 (Note: This class is supposed to start at the same minute the last class ends.  This rarely happens).  5 students.  3 girls, 2 boys.  Ages 9-11.

I refer to this class as my “life judges”.  These 5 kids are what we call “returnee students”, or kids that have spent several years abroad in an English speaking environment.  As a result, these young children speak English with little to no accent, have pretty good grammar, and a large vocabulary base.  The pace at which they speak English is very close to native.  I would argue 3 or 4 of the kids in this class are English fluent.  We focus on learning new vocabulary through units of study focusing on a topic like Health, Space, or Nature.

I call this class my life judges because unlike my other classes, they tend to ask me questions about myself, and then form opinions about me.  I spend the first 10-15 minutes with this group engaged in a free conversation about what they’ve been up to in the last week, what they’ll do the next week, and any other topics that come up.  They tell me about school, field trips, tests, etc.  Then, out of nowhere, the ask questions like: “Do you live alone?” “Are you married?”  When I answer them, the reply is always: “Why?”  “Aren’t you gonna get married?”  “How old are you?”  “Do you have a boyfriend, at least?”  The girls then usually launch into their future plans (keep in mind, they’re 11).  They ask me what kind of children I want to have, how many, and where I will live.

It’s typically the girls that ask me these questions.  The boys, 9 and 11, mostly try to irritate me.  I ask what they did in the last week.  Takuya, who I’ve mentioned in the blog a few times already, will usually answer “human life” or “I used the toilet”.  Nobuharu, the other boy, has probably the lowest English level in the group, but he hilarious.  He always asks me to write his name as “Nob”, which I can’t figure out.  He has a good sense of humor and tends to use more Japanese than the other kids, but he’s very fun.  He, along with some other students of mine, frequently breaks into Michael Jackson-esque dances.

Generally, this class is good, when they aren’t asking me details about my personal life.  Takuya has taken to calling me “round” recently because I told him that calling people “fat” was rude.  Thus, “round” has been his substitute word.  The real challenge here is finding things that interest these kids and keep them engaged for all of class.  They like to compete with one another, so they love the quiz/game/vocab review section of class.

Class 4, 7:10-8:00.  3 students.  2 boys, 1 girl.  Age 13.

This class is my most difficult.  These three students are probably the worst possible combination of kids in my school.  Junior high school students in general are the most difficult group of kids to teach, but these three take it to a new level.

Student 1: Haruka -13 years old, female.  Haruka is awesome.  Haruka is a cool girl.  Haruka is a super cute, smart, funny girl who does well in school, gets along well with her peers, and has a lot going for her.  Therefore, Haruka is deadly in the context of this class.

Student 2: Ryota – 13 years old, male.  Ryota is an insubordinate kid with authority issues.  He is the ultimate in “too cool for school”.  He plays baseball religiously, and it seems to be the only thing he enjoys.  He gets in trouble frequently at school, and acts out purely to piss me off.  He brings food and drink to class, writes on the table, and provokes student number 3 while flirting endlessly with Haruka, who giggles madly and joins in.

Student 3: “Green Man” – 13 years old, male.  Haruka and Ryota call this kid green man because he literally wears green to every class.  For a while during summer he wore the same blue shirt every week, but recently, he’s returned to green man.  Green man is insane.  Green man flies into fits of rage when he realizes he forgot to tape that week’s Pokemon episode (this includes table pounding, wall kicking, and yelling).  Green man has no concept of social boundaries.  He attempts to flirt with Haruka by getting up, crossing the room, and pretending to punch her repeatedly in the face.  He occasionally grabs her by the arm and refuses to let her go.  He doesn’t even look at me when I address him, and more than once I’ve had to pry his arm off of her.  He smiles creepily the entire time he does this.  He will crawl under the table and grab at her feet.  He cups his hand over his mouth and whispers incantations from the popular Japanese TV show “Kamen Rider” before he takes his turn in our game for the day.  When I ask him what he’s doing, he says it’s a secret and he can’t tell me.  He has a freakish knowledge of beetles, and knows their names in English – the genus, species, class, everything.  He does awkward yoga-like postures in his chair to itch himself in places no regular human would publicly itch themselves, much to the disgust of his classmates (and me).  My coworker and I note that when he speaks (Japanese or English), he sounds like he’s being electrocuted.

So, to recap: we have a super cute girl, an insubordinate jerk, and a batshit crazy kid.   This is a recipe for madness that I have only recently learned to control.  I initially tried to make this class what it’s supposed to be – conversation practice.  This failed miserably every time for several months.  I’d leave class feeling angry and fed up with these students.  When we worked solely on conversation, Ryota would inevitably not participate, or when it was his turn, purposely speak English so badly that it would make Haruka giggle and initiate conversation with him.  This typically makes Green Man feel like he needs to join in, and when he does, he makes the situation uncomfortable.  Green Man doesn’t like it when Ryota gets all of Haruka’s attention, so he typically gets it the only way he knows how – by making her uncomfortable.

So, I sacked the idea of trying solely for conversation.  Instead, I now spend about 35 minutes of class at the board with their text book in hand writing sentences from the book, and asking the students for the answers.  This, miraculously, has solved most issues.  Haruka and Green Man consistently answer my questions.  Ryota puts his bag on the table in front of his book and doesn’t write a thing, but I have finally given up trying to make him do anything he doesn’t want to do.  We start class with a tiny bit of free conversation to give Haruka and Green Man a chance to practice speaking.  Ryota, who is always late, usually misses this part, so I start the real lesson when he walks in.  When he is there, he refuses to participate, or participates poorly on purpose.  We play a game for 10 minutes max at the end of class to drill what we’ve worked on that day.  Any longer, and it gets crazy.  I always breathe a sigh of relief when this class is done.

Class 5, 8:10-9:00, 2 students.  Female, High school and University.

This class is the exact opposite of class 4.  I have 2 female students in this class, and they are both lovely, lovely girls with a great deal of English  knowledge.  Yuri, 19, is a University student, and Chiaki, 16, is in high school.  Yuri spent a couple weeks studying and practicing English in Australia this summer.  Chiaki has studied with our school for years, and has spent some time in San Fransisco.  They’re both nice girls with interesting lives, but are reluctant to speak in this “group” setting.

I work with them on grammar and vocabulary.  They don’t think their English is very good, but I know their greatest problem is confidence.  I ask them after each teaching point if they have any questions, and every so often, they actually ask me a few.  I love that they have a proactive role in their learning, and aren’t complete sponges.  Getting them to open up and give a little more information is the most challenging part of the class.  I’m trying to transition them into actually telling me about their weekend or their interesting activity rather than saying “I went to a festival.”  I have to pull the information out of them.  I know it’s in there, they’re just reluctant to speak.

I recently had a private lesson with Chiaki on a day Yuri was absent.  We just sat and chatted for about 10 minutes because I really want to increase her conversation skills.  She was very talkative, and more apt to make mistakes.  She looked to me for confirmation when she wasn’t sure about something, and spoke more than I’ve ever heard her speak in class.  She is so worried about speaking when there’s another student in the room that I think she limits herself.  When we worked together on the lesson for the day, she even specifically pointed to things on the page in the book and said “this is difficult for me.”  When students are active about their learning and help me help them, we all win.

I try to remind them that their English is very good.  A native English speaker will understand either of them with very little trouble, and if they do make mistakes, they are not fatal.  Even native English speakers still make mistakes!  They get so caught up in being correct all the time that they forgot how important making mistakes are (and I’m guilty of this too, with Japanese!)

Once their class wraps up, I sit down at my desk and put my materials away, pack up my things, and head home on the train.  Grabbing a drink at the supermarket to enjoy once I get back to my little cubby of a room is pretty common.  Although Thursdays are my least favorite day of the week, I do occasionally feel like I’ve gotten through to a few of my students and have hopefully assisted in their learning.

Easily, though, the best part about this day, and often times the only thing that gets me through is knowing that the next day is Friday.  Whew.


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