By Kevin Stein
Part of my job as an English teacher at a private high school in Japan is to conduct interview tests for the school entry exam during January and February. The students are in their third year in junior high school. They walk into the room, bow, give a formal greeting in Japanese, and then are directed to a seat. I and the other test proctor sit on the other side of the room. All of the students are dressed in their junior high school uniforms. Many of them have grown over the three years they have used these uniforms. Their pants are too short and white socks stand out against the black pant cuffs. Their jacket sleeves are frayed. Sometimes the collar of their shirt is too tight for them to button the top button. Some of them tap their foot nervously and the sound echoes across the sea of flooring separating us from the student. And the students, hesitantly, in words stitched together with great effort, tell me about their dreams, their reasons for wanting to study English intensively in high school, their past successes and sometimes failures as students.
It is a chance for me to not only to meet and learn about my new students, but also to check my own ideas about just what it means to study English. In my three years conducting these interviews, I have never had a student say that they look forward to the long hard work of learning the 2800 words or so of basic vocabulary that they will need to communicate in English. I have never had a student express an interest in learning how to draft and redraft a piece of writing to develop the skills they will need to eventually produce an academic paper. I have never had a student say that they would like to spend a third of their class time working with language they already know so that they can improve their fluency. What I have come to see as the most important aspects of learning a language are rarely if ever the things that have drawn students to English in the first place.
Last week, a young girl told me the following story. She had visited Korea on a class trip when she was 12 years old and had spent two days attending a junior high school in Seoul. While she was there, she made friends with a Korean student and they talked to each other in the only language they shared, English. She learned about the different types of Korean pickled foods, about the latest K-pop bands, about the different ways to greet older and younger people depending on their social position. She looked at me and said, “I can learn about many countries’ cultures with English. It is exciting. So I want to learn English.” I imagined how many times she must have practiced saying these sentences aloud in her room to be able to say them relatively smoothly in that big empty room during an entry exam.
A few years ago, Penny Ur ran a webinar for iTDi, in which she emphasized that the main job of an English teacher is to teach English. And I too, with one hundred percent conviction, believe the same. At the end of my lesson, I need to be able to look back on the 50 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes of my class and be able to say that I taught English. That my students walked out of class with more developed vocabulary, a better concept of a grammatical structure, an ability to produce certain target language more smoothly and accurately. But lately I’m starting to feel that as I grow and develop the skills to teach what I think needs to be taught, I’ve lost some of my openness to the wonder and almost limitless potential that draws students to study English in the first place. I worry that my interactions with students are more about running down a mental checklist of what I know students need to be doing (are you making word cards? are you reading two graded reading texts a week? are you developing skills to identify chunks of language?) and less an exploration of what students are actually learning for themselves.
Last weekend, a fifteen-year-old girl told me about how English had helped her learn about a country and culture that many people in Japan view with a certain level of rivalry and perhaps even distrust. After the interview, she turned at the door, bowed, and gave a formal parting greeting in Japanese. Just before she walked out of the room, she looked me in the eyes, smiled, and gave me a little wave. I can’t help but feel that my small wave back to her was a kind of promise, a promise that I would help her use English to learn about other countries, to build a bridge she could walk across into a wider world. And perhaps it was a promise to myself as well, a promise that in the upcoming year I would not simply teach what students need to learn, but develop the skills to nurture the larger dreams of all my students. In a world that has grown progressively darker, perhaps it is only the light of these dreams, so bright amongst too short pants and fraying sleeves, which allows my students—all of our students—to walk, step by step, into their own futures.