Over the last twenty-three years, I have taught English to people in every demographic category other than homeless people. Over that time, the issue that continues to pique my interest is their motivation for carrying their feet across the threshold of my classroom. I have an idea about what gets my college students into class, but what about other hard working folks that don’t need a credit?
On most Tuesday nights you’ll find me with my Community College class from 6:30 to 8:00. Then another group from 8:10 to 9:40. They are there in all kinds of weather, through family loss, marriage, retirement, job changes, and personal illness. I admire them greatly for their initiative, but when I gauge the improvement in their English ability, I’m flummoxed.
For the majority their language ability improves slightly or remains unchanged. When I ask them if they pursue their studies outside of class, most of them reply that they do not.
The rare learner takes advantage of my suggestions to keep an interactive English journal with me, to read and listen extensively, or to make the most of DVD’s. Through informal questioning, my conclusion is that around 20% continue their learning outside of class, while 80% do nothing.
So I have to wonder what brings these people out to my classroom, and these are 10 motives. Some may have more than one when they start, and they definitely change over time.
1. Curiosity gets people into the classroom at least in the beginning. There’s no question that this is at least part of the equation at the start of everyone’s learning adventure.
2. Parents drive young people to start, and may replace all other motivators over time.
3. Social interaction is extremely influential, especially in classes that I teach at the Community College. When there is a break between sessions, they make arrangements to socialize during that period. In some cases, strong personal connections are formed between students.
4. Social requirements sometimes force learners into the classroom, especially retired people. Society expects them to take up hobbies in their free time, and “learning English” can be a low risk, comparatively low cost option.
5. The Boot Camp phenomena is where an employee of a company is going to be sent off to a country where he or she will need to use English, so they come to class to help them prepare. They don’t stay around long, but have been known to return to class after their assignment is finished. (See filling station below.)
6. Prestige is a motivator that I would not have considered as I studied to be a teacher, but in Japan studying English has a definite cachet.
7. New family situations bring a surprising number of people to class. Some have a new son or daughter-in-law that speaks English. Others have grandchildren born and raised abroad that don’t communicate well in Japanese.
8. A filling station pit stop is what some students who have lived abroad seek. They have acquired English after being transferred or studying overseas, and want to keep their ability from running out.
9. Intellectual stimulation through learning English keeps some of my students coming through the door. They enjoy discussing ideas, some even adopting a debating style of interaction for the sake of conversation. Especially in the advanced level class, people have told me that they enjoy a good conversation about weighty themes.
10. Habit has got to be one of the reasons a few people come. I think they just don’t know what else to do with their Tuesday evening, and don’t want to expend the effort finding another gig.
The metaphysical study of the coming and going of students in a classroom over time fascinates me. One night they come, we talk in English of our lives, and sometimes they continue many nights or years. For some our first class is our last. Sometimes they tell me a version of why they are there or why they are leaving, and as a teacher I can listen to what they tell me and learn, but in the end, why they are there and why they go will always be a mystery. These 10 motivations are the closest I can get to pegging down why some of them come so I can arrange learning experiences that will address their needs.
Dan Kirk currently teaches at Yokkaichi Nursing and Medical Care University in Yokkaichi, Japan. Whether he’s in a classroom or his fields, cultivating English as a Foreign Language or rice, horticulture is his work. He has lived in Japan for 23 years and teaches English as a Foreign Language, Professional Speaking, and Teacher Development. In addition to his career as an educator, he is also a professional farmer. You can follow Dan through his teacher blog, EFL in Japan, his farmer blog, Jinriki, and as yokkaichi1 on Twitter.