Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Poor Teaching

About a month or so ago, the referral agency that provides me with students sent along a new potential student. This was a 61-year-old man who had been having lessons with another teacher for several years but she was leaving Japan and he needed a new teacher. The agency had sent him to another (male) teacher but he had corrected his pronunciation "too strictly" and the student had rejected that teacher.

One of the plethora of things you learn early on while teaching Japanese students is that they won't like you unless you use a soft touch when correcting them. It's okay to correct frequently (if the student desires it) but not okay to do so sternly. I'm not sure if the teacher who preceded me was inexperienced or oblivious to this fact but he alienated my student pretty thoroughly and instilled in him a nagging insecurity about his ability to be understood.

One of the things the teacher made this fellow do was repeatedly count ("1, 2, 3, 4...") to practice pronunciation. Boring, pointless types of practice are generally the hallmark of a poor teacher who has a limited bag of tricks that he or she trots out in order to pass the time in the lesson without actually addressing the short-comings of the student. In this case, if someone has a pronunciation problem, it's in enunciating certain sounds, not in numbers or colors or types of animals. This new fellow's biggest issue is pronouncing "see" and "she" properly. How is counting off again and again going to help him except when he hits the "6" and "7" words? It was a particularly poor choice of pronunciation exercise for a 61-year-old man capable of discussing politics and social issues to be reduced to elementary school recitation exercises. I'm sure he was humiliated.

Unfortunately, the fact that most people come to Japan and stay for a short time and the fact that teaching English is seen as a crappy job which is regarded with disdain by those who have moved on to other work keeps Japan populated with people in the English language business who don't know what they're doing. The former simply never get enough experience to be good at it and the latter think it isn't the sort of thing you need to be good at (or even can be good at).

You find that the vast majority of teachers are spending their lessons teaching what is easy for them rather than what is useful for the students. When I was at Nova (15 years ago), we were mainly teaching 40 units of American Streamline per level. The teachers weren't trained in how to teach the grammar point of each lesson nor were they given sufficient time before each lesson to review the teacher's text (when they had one to work from). The student information sheets had a list of numbers, 1-40, and you marked off the lesson you did so another teacher wouldn't repeat it with the same student. When you got one of these sheets for a student who was stuck at a certain level and couldn't advance to the next, you'd find that the student had repeatedly done the same lessons with a lot of reading content again and again and had never done the ones with very little text to read. The reason for this was that inexperienced teachers would waste class time having students read aloud rather than practice the lesson points in a meaningful way. This meant less work for the teacher both in terms of preparation and imagination. Since Japanese students grow up in a school system which emphasizes rote memorization and often repetition to that end, they don't even realize how crummy the lesson they're getting is in terms of helping advance their English skills.

Teaching well is very challenging and generally unrewarding in terms of how you are regarded by fellow foreigners (who love nothing more than to climb on their high horses and look down on the English teaching rabble they've scrambled away from to their Japanese office jobs) or by the Japanese students and employers who believe what you do is a doddle because you speak English already. While a student may benefit from your skill, she tends not to realize that it is extraordinary in nature. Most students generally can't tell the difference between the gaijin monkey who fills the lesson time with pointless games or prattling about himself and the teacher who is working to improve the student's weak points while still making the lesson interesting.

All that being said, a few of my students have left teachers and language schools specifically because they felt they were getting nowhere. One of them recently told me she'd started doing a conversation exchange with a British friend and that she realized from trying to deal with his Japanese that it was extremely tiring. She wasn't even teaching him but just focusing on his mistakes and correcting them was exhausting for her. After this experience, she told me she really respected what I did. I must say that that was an immensely gratifying thing to hear as it is all too rare for anyone to spend time in my shoes.


Luis said...

Oh God, Streamline! I had forgotten about that thing. We used it at the Toyama YMCA back in the 1980s. Haven't seen it since.

You're absolutely right about the way people treat the job, which is a bad way of doing it. I mean, I would hate to go back to selling popcorn in a movie theater... but if I did have to, I would treat it the same way I did before, as a job that should be done right.

I remember one coworker at one theater turning to me just after a crowd went in to see the movie, and saying, "Luis, why are you so polite to them all the time?" Seriously. I mean, all I did was smile, say "please" and "thank you," greet people with a warm manner, and send them off with a "hope you like the show." My coworker, in contrast, yelled out "NEXT!" followed by, "Whaddaya want?"

Somehow, some people think that just because there are better jobs that they don't have, it is somehow a reason to do the one they're stuck with badly. Of course, if they're working the "bad" job, it's because it's the best they could get at that time--so they should be thankful, if anything--and a person always has the responsibility to do any job they take on as well as they can do it. If you don't like it, then quit; if you don't quit, then it's because it's good enough for you, so you be good enough for it.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned....

Miko said...

I think I have the worst (or best) of both worlds. I have a bread-and-butter job teaching at a cram school for several hours every evening. It's very demanding, but it keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. And my days are kept busy dealing with my 40 private students (who have nicknamed my little school "Miko's Bootcamp!). Most of my adult students have had very bad experiences with English teachers before, both Japanese and native teachers. It's not always easy finding a nice balance between "teaching" and "entertaining," but I really care about my students, and I think it shows.

I can't stand those snotty gaijin (corporate drones themselves, mind you) who look down on English teachers ... but I have to admit, some of the teachers around do give the trade a bad name.

Roy said...

No I agree with you too Luis.

Many English teachers in Japan treat their jobs like it was a curse or something. Luckily, I was at a school where most of the teachers were quite positive. This was mainly due to the fact that there was no curriculum and teachers could do anything they wanted in the classroom. Some teachers were very creative and others were lazy and awful but students could choose their classes and so the variety of teaching "styles" satisfied most of the students. If a student didn't like a particular teacher they could find another that suited them. As a result most of the teachers had students that enjoyed a particular teacher's style or personality. The negative of this type of school was that it was hard for lower level students to develop fluency in a progressive manner without a proper curriculum. But it wasn't so much a school as a place to have fun anyways so no one seemed to care.

As for teaching pronunciation, I think there is validity in the drilling approach as long as it is focused on certain problem areas like you mentioned. But I don't think drilling should be done for more and 5 minutes as it gets tiresome quickly. There was a great book called "English pronunciation for Japanese speakers" which had some challenging drills that focused on the areas Japanese speakers tend to have problems with. It was a really good book but I don't know if it is still in print.

Shari said...

Luis: My former boss and I used to gripe about temporary workers who were half-assed about the job because it was temporary because he and I both felt the same way that you do - if you take a job, then you should do it as well as you can regardless of the conditions. I think this is an ethic that parents instill in their kids or fail to instill in them.

Miko: I think you make an excellent points about snotty foreigners who look down on teachers and I especially like that you point out that they are corporate drones themselves.

It's always struck me as ironic that everyone says education is important but teaching is regarded with disdain by anyone who does not teach. I guess it's worse in Japan because it is mixed with "entertainment" but the truth is that all good teaching is both interesting in educational in any culture.

Roy: My husband's school structure seems to be a lot like yours. I think this is actually a pretty good way to run a school since great teachers get more students and so-so ones get fewer hours and paid less. It also shows the employer exactly who is worthwhile and who may not be the best.

I think drilling is essential for weak points but it has to be useful drilling. Counting numbers off again and again is pretty pointless. With my students, I tend to prefer situational drills if they have a problem where I give them a variety of circumstances and they have to craft an answer which fits the point they have to practice. The students love this because they can see the use and it's challenging but it requires the teacher to think on her feet and to have experience with such things.

Thanks to all for the comments!

Helen said...

Your comment really hit home for me today. I worked really hard to come to Japan to teach. I didn't have a teaching degree (and still don't), but I took a non-credit course at a University to learn more about teaching ESL, then I did some volunteer tutoring (language and literacy) to see if I'd even like teaching. When I was hired by Le Eikaiwa I was thrilled.

Then, I came to Japan planning to work hard and do my best, only to find that other foreigners thought I was a little bit stupid to want to do good work, and that the Eikaiwa teachers were all looked down on.

It's true that there are some teachers who come over to meet girls (as one of your earlier posts discussed) but I think most of us come over to do the best we can. The companies are the ones that often let us down.

My old employers have changed many things, and not for the better. I was actually glad when my school closed as I could see things wouldn't be as good for the students or teachers in the future. Until I left, we were given a certain amount of freedom with lesson planning and if we wanted to focus on a topic we could. We could use outside resources as well as our textbooks. However, a change was made to have more "prepackaged" lessons, so the individuality was taken away. Sigh.

I'm quite glad that I don't work there anymore!

CMUwriter said...

That's what my father taught me about having a job. If you're a ditch digger and you have hate that job, it doesn't mean that you can't be the best goddamn ditch digger in the world. Doing a good job is having respect for yourself. Right now we have an intern at the paper who wants to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, but he can't take responsibilty for anything he does. To be sure, Thompson was a loony guy, but he got his assignments in on time, and didn't do shoddy work.
He as screwed the pooch on a couple of important, albiet easy to cover, assignments and I have had to pick up the slack for the guy, which is frustrating. He wants the so-called "power" of being a news reporter, but doesn't know how to cut the mustard. I know he is an intern, but these were some major things, that even if I did them i would be in hot water.

Alex Case said...

I heard Nova is still using Streamline. Wicked rumour?

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