Committed to learning
After 20 years in the EFL classroom, I still learn new things all the time. Certainly, here in Japan, the students are completely different than they were back in 1989; in those days, they all sat up straight, had their hair braided back and always made an effort (or pretended to, anyways) whether they liked English or not. These days, things are a little more… normal, for want of a better word. The students make me work harder to get their attention, and they don’t try, if they are not interested in my lesson. I’ve had to grow as a teacher and adapt my lessons over the years. Here is a glimpse of my context, my approach and my challenges with my junior high school students at this particular point in my career:
I teach in an all girls, Catholic, junior and senior high school in Osaka, Japan. I’m in my 16th year in this school. I currently teach all grades 7 – 12 (called Chu 1, 2, 3 and Ko I, II, III). There are only two Native English-speaking teachers in the school and we have earned complete autonomy to decide and implement our own syllabus and curriculum. I teach both Oral Communication and Writing II & III. Our students are generally “nice” girls from “decent” middle-class families. That is not to say that we don’t have our share of puberty, friendship angst and other typical teenage syndromes. Additionally, we are constantly battling against a very busy school calendar where English competes with something pretty exciting almost every month.
What I’ve learned after 20 years (finally…)
Here are 10 things that I’m quite sure of – in my classes with my students:
- They want to get to know me and are willing to share things about themselves IF I can become a meaningful person in their lives.
- They love to work in pairs or small groups because it is safer, less stressful and more social.
- I need to ask myself 3 questions when I plan what to bring into class:
Is it interesting enough to cause an emotional connection in their brains?
Does it lead to giving opinions, sharing ideas, or exchanging information between us?
Can they succeed at it and add another layer to their small, but growing, confidence?
- They need to trust me before they will learn from me, and therefore I must spend as long as it takes to make a connection with them.
- Knowing their names is not only helpful, but is invaluable. For both praise and for discipline, nothing works better than a name at the beginning or end of a statement to a student.
- Praising effort is the only way to go. Acknowledging results and outcomes is great, but highlighting a student’s effort leads to further efforts by that student and by other people.
- Motivation is king: there is quite simply nothing more important in my EFL classroom.
- Classroom interaction is where I have the biggest chance to make gains: learning to improve how I interact with students, during lessons, is the key to becoming the best teacher I can be. Planning lessons and evaluating lessons are both important, but pale in comparison to the return on investment that comes from improving my questioning, feedback, correction, listening, discussing and eliciting skills.
- A balanced 4-skills approach is vital to succeeding in an EFL context. Without a balance of input (reading and listening) and output (writing and speaking), students invariably lose interest in studying English, or worse case scenario, come to hate English.
- Junior high school students need a lot more input practice than output practice. Piling on the reading and listening really adds confidence to their young minds. Of course, there are outgoing types in every class who need and thrive on output, but that can be easily accommodated.
What I do specifically in my classes
I focus on specific things for each grade, starting with a motto:
“Everybody – Think BIG – Maybe you will be an English teacher, a translator or a flight attendant. Maybe you will live in Canada or get married to a foreigner. Many of your seniors still use English today (gesturing ferociously and using Japanese when my gesturing only scares them)”.
They all learn that I want them to focus on 3 things in their first year: 1) to learn to write English quickly, 2) to learn to read English, and, 3) to learn to talk a little about themselves. Everything I do in the first year is somehow connected to one of these goals. For example, last week they had to introduce a classmate in front of another class. They asked questions to their partner, wrote about their partner, memorized it by practicing it, then performed it in front of another class.
“Some girls give up on English this year. Chu 1 is very easy. Now we start to learn the past tense this year, and some students don’t make an effort. IF you try, you CAN do it. At the end of Chu 2 we have two kinds of English students: the girls who give up and the “Yes, we can” girls (gesturing ferociously and using Japanese when my gesturing only confuses them).
In the second year, I really focus on learning to manipulate language between tenses, especially the past tense. There are countless opportunities to talk about their weekends, school events, family outings, etc. I also tell many stories about daily happenings with my two young children (son, 8 and daughter 6), then elicit to check their comprehension. Last week, they read some writing by their seniors – the grade 12 girls (Ko III) – who wrote “100 things about me”. It is ALWAYS exciting and meaningful to show students their seniors work. Then, in pairs, they had to write 50 things each about themselves. When they finish, they’ll have to present their list in front of small groups of friends.
Consolidation is a guiding principle in Chu 3. I expect them to be able to put more together in their final year of junior high school. I don’t introduce very much new material, but I do expect them to be successful with longer, denser material. Last week, they were reading graded readers in pairs (Cengage – Foundations Reading Library Level 1 & 2) and then retelling the stories to friends in Japanese (focusing on meaning rather than straight translation). In another class, they were translating “Frog and Toad” stories (A. Lobel) so their juniors (Chu 1) could enjoy them. For a recent final test, they had to design a poster, “Things that make me happy” with at least 150 words of text. The poster stays on the wall of my classroom for a year!
I hope it is easy to see that I want my students to use English to enjoy interacting with me and with each other. I want them to clearly understand that I care about them and expect them to improve and ultimately succeed at English. I’m willing to share my world with them and hope to learn more about their lives as well. As for challenges, I still want to learn how to get the most out of students who are pulled in so many different directions. I also hope to see the day that all teachers in Japan take a more balanced approach to teaching English – for the sake of the students, and in order to get more reasonable results that we can all be prouder of as teachers and as learners.
Steven has an MA TEFL from Birmingham University. He believes that being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning. “First, we must connect with our students, then expect them to grow in some way; the rest we just work out day by day.” He is an avid collaborator and is always looking for new ways to grow.