Friday, February 16, 2007

Goodbye Magic English Pill Woman

Those who have served (or are serving) their time in an English conversation school are familiar with having a student (or students) who everyone dreads teaching. They look at their schedule and groan when they notice they have this particular person and are glad when other teachers get stuck with those students.

Back in my days at Ikebukuro Nova, we had several of these students because it was such a big school. One of them was "the seaweed salesman" who always smelled funny, had bad breath and had a lot of trouble stammering out anything. Students with odor issues were always particularly unwelcome because we taught in small cubicles with almost no air circulation.

The most infamous student is one I'll refer to as Mr. M. From all appearances, he looked to be a tired-looking businessman in his middle to late 40's. He always wore a suit and tie but he actually did not work. In fact, he tended to spend all day at the school. At that time, Nova allowed anyone who bought tickets for the conversation lounge to hang out all day there for the price of one 2000-yen ticket. Mr. M. would take one lesson and camp out in the conversation lounge for the remainder of the day.

Mr. M. had some issues. One was that he would unpredictably get angry or annoyed by something a teacher asked or did. This tended to happen as time went by and he attended more often and grew bored with the routine and patterns the lessons followed. He's simply refuse to answer the warm-up questions at the start of lessons after awhile. What was more difficult though was the fact that he seemed to have petit mal seizures or drift into some sort of fugue state in the middle of lessons. His head would drop (his eyes still open) and he'd just be out like a light for seconds to nearly a minute of time.

I'm pretty sure Mr. M. had some psychological issues or possibly some neurological issues. I felt sorry for him but that didn't make teaching him any more enjoyable. It just mitigated the frustration you'd feel about having to deal with him to some extent. Mr. M. was representative of students with personality issues that made teaching them uncomfortable or tiring.

On several occasions, I've posted about a student who has been particularly difficult to teach and she reminded me of all those students we all didn't want to see in our schedules back in my conversation school days. At Nova, fortunately, the impact of dealing with such students was blunted by the fact that you didn't have to teach them all the time as they tended to get shuffled around amongst all the teachers and the fact that other students were present in the lessons most of the time and this blunted their acting on their impulses and allowed you to find a way to work the lesson with the other students.

In my case, as a private teacher teaching one-on-one lessons, there was not going to be any relief from "magic English pill" woman. After struggling to find a lesson plan that was within her skill level, I gave up and decided to just do the best I could to chat with her and forget about actually teaching her.

The last lesson I had with her was around the middle of December and she was really pleased at the end of it because she felt we'd had a really good "conversation". What we had actually done was pass the time with me filling in the huge gaps in her English and letting her sprinkle in Japanese. I felt dirty but she couldn't have been happier.

Since that lesson, she has either been absent or cancelled her lessons. This means she has been occupying a time slot in my schedule and I've been wasting time preparing for lessons she doesn't show up for. Since I only get paid for absences or late cancellations, I haven't been paid for about 50% of this wasted time and effort. What's more, I have to notify the referral agency when she does these things. If I forget or don't bother, they won't pay me so it's not like I don't have to do any work when she doesn't show.

After nearly two months of this, I finally gave in to an impulse I should have acted on after her first lesson and asked the referral agency to find her another teacher. I hesitated to do this early on for a variety of reasons. The primary one was that rejecting her seemed pretty cruel. After all, she couldn't help her spastic nature.

My motives weren't entirely altruistic though. I also didn't want the agency to feel I was going to make pat judgements of students and reject them for fear that they'd refer fewer students to me in the future. Frankly, I also felt this was a personal challenge for me to be more flexible in my approach to teaching. I wanted to believe that I could find a way to adapt to her. In the end, I believe I did though I didn't necessarily enjoy it or respect myself for what felt like "giving up" in the end.

With all her absences (due to helping her son get into school in the U.S.), I could finally tell the referral agency I didn't want to teach her anymore because she was wasting my time. It was a reason that didn't reflect poorly on me nor would it hurt her feelings if she's told the truth.


Helen said...

Congratulations! It's a little sad, but so is keeping a good time slot open when you can make money teaching a student you enjoy teaching.

I've had some doozies too over the years. In the north I had a guy who came right out and told me he had mental problems. He came every Saturday for 2 hours. Sometimes I thought he was sleeping. For the longest time he was the only student in class. I loved Saturdays. Then, there was the girl who came back from Canada and only wanted to talk about cats. She cancelled after one lesson. I didn't cry over her. Or the guy who was borderline OCD or autistic or whatever. I lost so many students because no-one wanted to be in a class with him.

We should swap stories sometime!

Shari said...

I was wondering about a student you mentioned recently who was troublesome. I think you said he kept kicking at your chair or something?

It seems we definitely do have some stories to swap. ;-)

Helen said...

He's a 10 year old who is only studying because his mum wants him to. His worst personal nasty habit is breaking wind in my class, every class.(He's "graduated" to the silent but deadly version.) He also likes to take off his socks in class, and put his feet on my table. There are other things he does, but those are the most annoying ones!

He has moments when I actually think I'm getting through to him, but by the end of his time I'm not sad to see him go. Still, he's better now than he was at Le Eikaiwa in a group of kids.

Shari said...

That kid sounds like a nightmare who is limit-testing you like mad or at the very least acting out because he doesn't want to be where he is.

Your experience with him is exactly why my husband chose a school with almost no teaching of children (he teaches one 14-year-old but he's studious and well-behaved).

I realize that you've got a school to keep afloat and have to put up with it. You have my empathy and sympathy!