By Kevin Stein
About 10 years ago, I was working at an international centre in rural Japan. My time was almost evenly split between teaching classes of very young learners and classes of adults. But I did have one small class of junior high school students. One exceptional class of 2 students, a 13-year-old boy named Tacchan, and a 14-year-old girl named Misa. Every week they came and chatted in English and were willing to try almost anything I threw at them. Take Peanuts cartoons, swap out low frequency words for more common words, and then stage them as mini-plays? They did it. Role-play meeting each other in the back of a bus when you are in your seventies? They slumped over and tried to take on the body language as well as voice of their older self.
About halfway through the year, a new student joined the class. He was a bit shy. His name was Kenji. He was tall. His hair was long and the bangs hung over his forehead, so it was hard to make eye contact with him. And he was much quieter than the other students. Misa and Tacchan didn’t stop doing what they had been doing, but something changed in the class. The temperature dropped a degree or two. At least, that’s how I felt to me. I remember we did an activity where one student free talked for 2 minutes about what they were good at and then the other two students had to make a suggestion for that person’s perfect future job. When Kenji’s free talk turn rolled around, he said that he didn’t think he was very good at anything. And the activity ended just like that.
A few weeks later, Misa and Tacchan, were exchanging CDs. They both loved music. Misa was a pianist and Tacchan a drummer and they often hung out in the classroom and listened to music after the lesson ended. On this day, Kenji was interested in the CDs and he stayed as well. I was cleaning up my papers when I heard Kenji say that he played the jazz saxophone. I kind of got it into my head that what Kenji needed was a chance to really shine, that if he had a bit more confidence, he would be willing to talk more. So during the next lesson I suggested that maybe, to get to know each other a bit more, we could have a bit of a jam session in class. Misa and Tacchan were excited and Kenji agreed to bring his sax as well. At the beginning of the next lesson, Kenji took out his sax and immediately began to play, ‘Take the A Train.’ I’m not an expert on saxophone, or Jazz, but I felt there was something so smooth about Kenji’s playing. The notes filled up the small classroom with a liquid warmth. Five minutes of Kenji playing solo, and then Misa joined in, and finally Tacchan. They made music for most of the lesson.
I remember the first iTDi webinar I ever attended. Penny Ur was talking about classroom management and I remember her saying something along the lines of, regardless of method, regardless of teaching philosophy, the most effective teachers all have one thing in common. Highly effective teachers keep their students on task. I believe this to be true in the way that addition is true. Adding up hour after hour of focused learning leads to greater language acquisition. But I also know that sometimes my students can’t step into the place where they can “be on task.” Sometimes I need to take a minute out of class to talk about a student’s family, in their first language. Sometimes I listen happily as a student shifts out of English into their L1 so that they can fill me in on each and every detail of their favourite manga. Part of me thinks that if I were a better teacher, I would be able to preserve that sense of excitement and alway, each and every time, bring the conversation back to using English. No matter how much I see the value in creating a space where students can feel comfortable and happy, there is this lingering doubt, this sense of guilt. If I was truly good at my job, wouldn’t I be able to make the students happy and comfortable as they used English?
I’m still in touch with Misa, Tacchan, and Kenji. They are all in their third year of university. They are all still studying English. In fact, Kenji just came back from a year abroad at UCLA. I would like to say that their jam session had something to do with their love of English. And maybe it did. But the truth is, even after the jam sessions, Kenji didn’t talk very much during lessons. And maybe that 40 minutes of music making could have been more effectively spent on language learning than music making.
Probably I will never have an answer to this question, this problem of finding a balance between meeting my students’ non-english-learning needs and being an English teacher. But reading the beautiful posts by Naoko and Aline, helps put me a little more at ease. Because I believe that in order to see my students as people first, I have to see teaching English—as important as it might be—as something that does not always have to come first.