Advice to My Younger Teacher Self
Recently, there was a great discussion on #keltchat about the kind of advice you would give yourself, as a teacher, if you could travel back in time. This was a very useful exercise for me. It made me consider the changes in my attitudes and assumptions over the course of my teaching career. I realized, after some thought, that although I may not have become an amazing teacher (I’m an okay teacher and I’m okay with that) – I certainly have changed my approach to teaching English.
So what advice would I give myself at the start of my career? I would look at that younger man and say, “Don’t try to teach English so much as provide enjoyable opportunities for learners to use it.” While Japanese teachers are busy teaching the nuts and bolts of English grammar, the students’ enthusiasm for the language as a real tool for communication drops real fast. English becomes an abstract notion – a “thing they need to know” for passing a test somewhere down the line, being a university entrance test or a TOEIC test or a company employment test. The communicative aspect of the language takes a backseat and quite often the small grammar mistakes that each student gets marked down for on tests helps to slowly but surely chip away at their confidence. The result is that many students feel defeated by English before they ever step into my classroom.
What I failed to notice early on in my career was that very few students that walked into my classroom had a positive feeling about English. Many of them had a sense that it was important but it was an insurmountable barrier they could never overcome. They had simply given up. A few students even resented the language and, by association, anyone who taught it or spoke it. As a proper Japanese person, English was simply not a part of their cultural or national identity – the better that someone was at English, the less Japanese they were. The problem did not lie in how to properly conjugate a verb or attaining new vocabulary at all. The problem in Japan is much more fundamental and unless this elephant in the room is addressed, EFL teachers in Japan will forever face the same problems in the classroom. What I failed to account for was simple motivation.
I slowly realized later on in my career that the problems of teaching and learning English in Japan were rooted in the insecurities bestowed upon the students by constant testing and grammar-translation method lectures. After talking to other teachers and reflecting on what was actually happening in my class, I came to believe that the best thing that any EFL teacher can do here is to start at the beginning again and give the students a chance to make a new and better relationship with English as a language rather than as a subject. The key to that is for the teacher to provide opportunities for students to use English to interact with each other – as a medium rather than an end in itself.
Earlier in my career, I tended to have the view of English as a subject too. I had bought into the system’s assumptions about what learning should be about and why it should be done. As I found out more about how Japanese students are continually taught from a top-down rigid lecture-style classroom (with the obligatory test at the end of it all), I realized that I could show students what it meant to learn rather than to be taught. As I removed myself from the focus of the class gradually over the years, I redefined success in the classroom on my own terms. This meant giving the classroom back to the students by lightly guiding them through lessons where conversation and interaction about an interesting topic are the main focus. Rather than imposing a grammar point to be learned or vocabulary to be memorized, I simply give students the chance to use English at a level they feel comfortable at using.
Back in my earlier years, I would have scoffed a bit at this idea. I was also taught in a traditional classroom style with very little chance to talk to my classmates. The teacher was always the focus of each class. I also believed that Japanese students just didn’t have the skill to have anything beyond an extremely basic conversation. I believed that because that’s what other English teachers told me – even though they had never given the students a chance in class to try and communicate in English. I later discovered, however, that Japanese students have an enormous wealth of English knowledge lying dormant in their brains from all those years of study. What they have always lacked is the chance to use it properly. If I could have realized all this as a younger teacher, I would have avoided a lot of frustration, misunderstandings, and – to be honest – misplaced anger. As things stand now, I’m glad I learned this lesson at some point in my career. Watching students come out of my class with a smile has been the most rewarding part of this transformation. I hope that the experience I provide to the students has slowly lead them back to English on their own terms, which is sometimes the best we can achieve as teachers.
I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn tomorrow.