Hugs and Shrugs: Motivation in the Language Classroom

By Neil Millington

I have been hesitant to write this blog as I am not sure what kind of reaction I’d get, but I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give it go. It’s about an instance in a class that I taught recently that was totally unplanned and that completely took me aback. Reflecting on it now, it seems a little surreal and yet quite magnificent. I’m not sure if everyone would agree with how I handled this situation, but I’d love to hear your feedback.

Before I tell you about that instance, I’d like to give you some background information that’ll help you understand my surprise at what happened. For those of you who don’t know, I’m originally from Britain but have been living and working in Japan for over 10 years. I currently work at a university here and I teach English to both English majors and non-English majors.

The class where the instance happened was a class of non-English majors. I was introducing different ways that British people greet each other. I gave them some scenarios and asked the class to discuss if they thought they would be appropriate in Britain, when would they be appropriate and with whom. The scenarios were; first a standard handshake, second a bow, third a hug, fourth a kiss on the cheek, and the last a high five. The class seemed to have fun discussing which would be appropriate. I then offered my opinions and concluded that if you are unsure, it’s probably best just to hold out your hand as a handshake is pretty common.

Embracing the Lesson

The class continued with a discussion of how Japanese people greet in different situations. For those of you who don’t know, greeting in Japan is usually very different to in many western countries. I also told them that I read a recent study that showed, on average, British people hug about 13 times a day. Then for fun, I played them a video of the “Free Hugs Campaign”. I explained that this wasn’t done in Britain, but I thought it was an interesting video. If you haven’t seen the video, please watch it here.

Now, public displays of affection are not generally part of Japanese culture. This is changing slowly, but it is not so common to see people hugging in public. This, of course, really depends on the individual, but it is certainly less common than in Britain. The class seemed to enjoy the video. I paused it several times to confirm they understood what banned and petition meant, and at the end I got a chorus of ‘wows’. I then jokingly said that that I’d be offering free hugs at the end of class. I was of course 100% sure that no-one would take me up on the offer, so I thought no more about it and taught the remainder of the class. My thoughts were, “This is Japan, and I’m their teacher, so there is no chance of anyone taking me up on the offer.”

After the class had finished, and I was packing up my things ready to go to the next class, the instance happened. One of the guys in class came to the front, thanked me for the class, told me he had enjoyed it, and then asked me could he have a free hug! In that split second my mind tried to process what was happening. I hadn’t intended to really hug any students, but here was one of my students asking me to do something I said I would do. In Japan, it is certainly unusual for a teacher to hug a student, but there was still a full class in the room, so I thought, I’m in public so why not? We had a kind of slightly awkward hug! He said thanks and left. However, as I looked up there was a queue of students forming behind him and they all did the same. One after another they came up to me and asked me for a free hug. I didn’t count but I’m pretty sure the whole class came for a hug.

Motivation & Comfort Zones

After class, I talked to a colleague of mine who comes from North America and explained what had happened. He seemed quite surprised at their response and said it is not something he would have done, but if the students had asked, then maybe I was doing something right in the class. I’m not sure if I have been doing something right in class. However, I am a big fan of Dörnyei’s motivational strategies and I do have a system of implementing them. One of the initial ones is to make the classroom a pleasant and supportive atmosphere, and I do try my best to be friendly, enthusiastic and approachable. Another strategy is to take the students’ learning very seriously. I wholeheartedly agree. Also, as a part of this strategy Dörnyei states that teachers “who share warm, personal interactions with their students, who respond to their concerns in an empathic manner and who succeed in establishing relationships of mutual trust and respect with the learners, are more likely to inspire them in academic matters” (2001, p.36). I hope that this instance helps to encourage the learners to improve their English.

I did however spend the rest of the afternoon worrying that someone from the administration department would knock on my door wanting to know why students had been hugging me, but the more I thought about what happened the better I felt. Not about the actual hugging of students of course, but the fact that they had shown what I perceived to be some kind of trust in me. As I mentioned earlier, to approach a teacher and ask for a hug is not something that is usually done in Japan. They certainly stepped out of their comfort zones.

Creating Connections

The following week, I started class by thanking them for their efforts last week and for the free hugs. I told them they took me by surprise but I appreciated them stepping out of where they are usually comfortable and taking a risk. I then taught the class as usual and by the end of class had thought nothing more about it. A week had passed and everyone in class seemed to be relaxed and enjoying the lesson. I wrapped up the class as usual, but to my amazement, I had another line of students asking for free hugs! I had started a trend! In fact, every class now ends with some of the students approaching me and asking for free hugs! For me, it’s become a great way to end class. I’m certainly not suggesting teachers should tell students they can ask for a free hug, but I believe that implementing motivational strategies does help to create a better relationship with learners and hopefully inspire them to improve their English.