Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Impact of Irritability

During one of my private lessons today, a student told me that I was the only American who had ever been nice to her. This came as a suprise to me because her interactions with Americans have generally been in situations where she was a student and should have been treated well.

When she related her experiences to me, I can't say that I was entirely shocked by them as I'd witnessed or overheard teachers behaving in the ways she mentioned. She told me that, 20 years ago, she went to one of the chain language schools and at first had a Japanese teacher of English and a group lesson. While she was happy with the Japanese teacher, she had to move and decided to rapidly spend more lesson "tickets" by taking private lessons from a foreign teacher.

For those not living in Japan, a lot of the large chain language schools sell large numbers of tickets which students can spend on different types of lessons. A lesson with a Japanese teacher might cost 3 tickets and a lesson with a foreign teacher 5 tickets. Spending time in a conversation lounge might cost only 2 tickets. The idea is to allow the student flexibility in how they study and to have them pay proportionally more for the more expensive instruction.

The teacher my student ended up with was an American woman who got angry with her when she didn't speak quickly enough and generally intimidated her. As a result, she decided to give up on the rest of her lessons and stop going to the school. When I asked her why she didn't complain, she said she was afraid of the teacher but also that it just wasn't the sort of thing she'd do. That part didn't surprise me because she's pretty timid and shy. I felt pretty bad for her because she was put off of English study for the next 20 years, lost her money, and was treated with anger and impatience for her limited language skills.

After a long absence, she took another group lesson with an American man as a teacher. There were 13 students and, while she didn't have any seriously bad experiences, she also didn't find that she received enough attention to improve her English. Most of the lesson was spent with the students speaking to each other. This wasn't really the teacher's fault though as it's a common way to give everyone the maxiumum chance to speak in large groups.

When I worked at Nova, teachers often got fed up with students and sometimes for what could arguably be called a "good reason". For example, sometimes students wouldn't pay attention to the teacher and would titter and carry on rudely. Of course, this was generally because they were nervous and uncomfortable but it was still disruptive and inappropriate. Sometimes getting overtly irritated was the only way to get them to settle down and respect the teacher's authority. Additionally, despite the reputation Japanese people have for being polite, students were capable of being intentionally rude. This didn't happen often, but it did happen.

However, it was more often the case that the teacher's frustration was simply a byproduct of being tired, overworked, and unhappy with the tedium. With the intense teaching schedule, almost no preparation time, limited textbook options, and the exhaustion of dealing with passive students day after day, coupled with the fact that most Nova teachers were inexperienced and young, getting annoyed at students on occasion was inevitable.The fast food nature of the language instruction and there being zero recognition of high quality teachers meant that even the most dedictated types would lose their zest for teaching.

Nonetheless, there's no excuse for taking any of that out on the students. It's not their fault that the teachers aren't happy with their lot.

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