Hi. I’m a British woman who has been living and teaching in Japan for thirteen years. I have lived in Fukushima (yes, THAT Fukushima) city for the last ten of those and work at a women’s college. I have an MA in TEFL from the University of Birmingham, England. I am currently days away from giving birth to my second daughter and getting ready to leave the city I have come to regard as my home and embark on a new life in Sendai city. Here are five, very small, contextually specific observations/things I wanted to share on my life as a teacher. I hope you find them of interest. If not, I hope you come up with your own and ask Barbara to share them here.
1. The Letter
I have a treasure; I cherish it more than I should. It is getting old and grubby, it is wearing thin like ancient parchment. It is a letter. I read it when I feel overworked and tired. A student wrote it to me a few years ago. I get lots of thank you letters from students, but this one hit me right out of the blue, it made me cry, smile, sigh, and mostly made me remember what I was doing in my classrooms and why it was important.
She was an incredible English speaker, she had a 900 TOEIC score (which is very, very high!). She was also incredibly modest, polite, fairly quiet and never really got that involved with classroom activities (it was a communication class). I assumed she was bored, even a little agitated. I was wrong. She was being herself.
She was happy to take a back seat, in her letter she described how she had been picked on by teacher after teacher to model sentences/pronunciation/conversations. She had been put on a language pedestal so many times, it had created a barrier to real communication between her and her classmates. Her description of how I taught emphasized one simple rule I follow in every teaching interaction, that of fairness. Instead of being constantly on edge as she was asked over and over to speak out, she could be herself, and that self was quietly motivated by observing others. She had watched her classmates make progress, rather than being asked to showcase her English skills, which often led to her friends simply finding fault with themselves. She enjoyed their pleasure in success, she helped them in quiet ways as a conversation partner. She found a place she was comfortable in.
When it was time for the students to apply for entry to four year universities, we laughed and cried together through their hardships and eventual successes. Her letter described our class as a breakthrough for many students, and it was not their English skills she noted that led to success. She described how through care, fairness, and small successes the students had gained the major component missing from so many of their fragile egos. They had gained confidence. She claimed this confidence led to success in interviews. She got a modest job in a modest city. I know she is happy there.
Now, you can imagine this was a great ego boost to me as a teacher, and later when I studied classroom management techniques during my MA in TEFL I realized that decision making in the classroom has huge impacts, not only on skill development, but on emotional development. We are dealing in the delicate commodity of souls, decisions we make may have huge consequences for our students (or may not – but that is the complex nature of classrooms – and I don’t have space to talk theories of complexity here). Use your emotional intelligence wisely and expect to be surprised by students, who don’t always think the way you think they think.
2. The Outside
I have a secret; I keep it more than I should. I love overtime. It tires me out, it leaves me feeling empty some days. I get home and collapse into a state of quiet intenseness; it used to scare my husband, but now he understands it is me recharging to get up the next day ready to be energetic, to be the motivational teacher I want to be.
I am lucky, the overtime I do is not marking terms papers, or writing endless report cards (I have time to do this in my working day). The overtime I refer here to is ‘time’ outside the classroom. Time spent with my students over a coffee, during rehearsals for a play, at a volunteer centre, at sports events, decorating the hall for Christmas, planning the school festival etc. etc. It is time spent outside of the classroom atmosphere, away from rows of chairs and tables, textbooks, tests, it is time spent talking (mostly in English, but also Japanese) about the things that are meaningful to us.
I know this is not possible in many teaching contexts, but for me it provides the insights, shared humor, points of view, which may one day make my classroom more meaningful and ‘authentic’ for the students. We learn to agree to disagree about musical tastes, we advise each other on relationship issues, we see how our culturally located world views affect all we see, we shock each other with interesting stories, we talk about stuff. Stuff, things, bits and pieces, events, snippets of information, the threads our lives are constructed and connected by, often these threads are the missing ingredient from so many textbook conversations. We learn what we can add to textbooks to make them become meaningful for us in our unique context. I learn what kind of ‘talk’ might provide energy, debate, interest and motivation in class.
This kind of overtime for me is valuable classroom/curricular research. In this time I build an image of what my students might need, what they want from me, from class, from college life in general. I can take some of the ideas I discover to management and try to improve our provision of services and gear our educational methods and classroom techniques towards meeting our students’ educational and emotional goals.
BTW. I have become much better at saving something of myself for when I get home!
3. The Others
I have a big teacher ego (my mum calls it vanity, it lives in the same realm as the me who can’t leave the house without make-up). I call it ‘GT-Jo’ (a pun on a Japanese TV drama a few years ago: GTO – ‘Great teacher Onizuka’). Sometimes it takes me over and believes it can be everything to everyone. This is one of my biggest failings as a teacher (and perhaps as a person), I get upset when I can’t be everything to everyone. I get upset when a student does not leave my class with something new, something interesting, something meaningful. I have to keep reminding myself: you are not alone, there are others.
In schools, we are surrounded by talented, creative, individual ‘others’; the human resource of ‘teacher’ is a precious, glowing, multi-faceted gemstone cave. Yes, there are the diamonds, the beloved, shiny, popular teachers, but there are also bedrock bases, providing stability and groundedness. Are you an anchor rock? An ethereal, flaming light filled stone? A bright, cheery ruby? A caustic, abrasive rock, sharp as flint? A warm, safe, mellow sand stone? Every teacher in the school contributes to the educational atmosphere of that particular institution, every teacher is a rock, some more crumbly, some just always there. Students can get what they need both educationally and emotionally from a variety of interactions with these variations on ‘teacher’ rock. No single teacher can be everything to every student.
There will be attempts to sculpt these variations into ‘perfect’ teacher statues, but try to keep your colours, your shininess, your individuality, the teacher you want to be. The creativity you have is a fascinating resource for your students, your unique way of thinking will add to the students’ own uniqueness as they pass through the system. We all have creativity, don’t give that up on the pretense of becoming a ‘teacher’. Teachers are creativity.
What kind of rock are you?
4. The Development
I have a favourite ELT theory book; it has scratchy, smudgy penciled notes on every page. I have many books, and I keep adding to them. Keeping up to date on the world of theory keeps me excited, interested, and motivated as a teacher in our profession. Connecting with new teachers/writers/school owners through conferences and social networks expands my ideas of what teachers/educators do and the choices they face in hundreds of language education contexts around the world. These new connections help me develop and re-develop my own theory of practice. Observing the vast differences between my context and others helps me begin to describe my own, it helps me visualize my located practice.
I think teachers should be learners first and foremost; learning is the most important part of our job. Getting ourselves educated (and continuing to do so even after we have the certificates) is incredibly important for our community. There are many kinds of teacher education resources available in both our local contexts and online. Use them.
5. The Choice
I have a question, a question you should keep asking yourself: “Do I love my job?” Teaching can lead to other things, it is not an end, it is part of your journey. Don’t be afraid to leave if it isn’t working for you anymore. You have a choice, there are many other jobs out there. If you don’t like books used in your classroom, write your own books. If you don’t like the way your school is run, build your own school, or go back to school and study educational administration or management. If you don’t feel like fighting a system anymore, go volunteer in a country that is in dire need of educational systems. Don’t get stuck. Don’t complain. Make changes, even small changes may make a difference for your students.
Teaching is a lifestyle, it is a choice. Make sure you are happy with your choices.
Forgive me for the haphazard somewhat hastily written nature of these ideas, pregnancy combined with multiple earthquakes is doing strange things to my thought processes.
Note from Barb: If you’d like to read more about Joanne’s adventures during and after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I invite you to read her interview on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog.