Saturday, October 02, 2004


Last night I had a good sleep, and perspective is back. Sort of. Yesterday's problem didn't magically go away, but I know now that what I had decided to do last night is the right thing to do. Well, the only thing I can do.

As I mentioned, I have a student with a mental problem. I don't know what this problem is. I only know that he is not behaving in a normal way. I've had students with problems before, and one whose problems were as severe as this guy's, just last year, but he had some improvement over the year. This guy is getting worse, and I'm afraid he's heading straight for total mental collapse.

He was in my class last semester, too. His behaviour wasn't normal then, either, but I put it down to excessive shyness. I see a lot of that, and usually shy students respond eventually to my method for dealing with them, at least a little. This method is, basically, to treat them as if they are not shy, while at the same time making allowances for their shyness in ways that are not noticeable to everybody else. I give them space to think about things before trying, and time to work up courage, and then pretend not to notice anything unusual when they make a herculean effort to achieve something approaching normal behaviour. I treat them as if they're normal so they don't feel singled out. I give minimal praise for their normal behaviour, just enough so they know they'll be getting points for their hard work. The next thing they know they're chatting bashfully with classmates.

Before I go any further, I should add that this kind of 'shyness' can reach what I would call pathological proportions here before it is considered a real problem. It is not what I would regard as a character trait, more like an induced state of constant fear, brought on by the terror of perceiving oneself to be 'different' in a culture where 'different' equals 'wrong' and 'bad'. I have a Japanese friend who told me that she had never spoken to anybody openly in her life until she met The Man and I - she thought her real thoughts were unacceptable, too different from other people's, and since nobody ever admits to thinking really differently here she kept them to herself. She thought she had a mental problem. She coped with this by being very, very good at wearing the mask of sameness, and spent the first thirty years of her life feeling utterly isolated. She thought she was abnormal, and was ashamed most of the time. The famed 'group oriented' society here is extraordinarily isolating. Ask any foreign writing teacher who has their students keep journals. (The first time an apparently well-adjusted and normal student decided she could be open with me in her journal, presumably because I am a foreigner and therefore harmless and outside of normal society anyway, I was speechless for a good five minutes after reading what she had written. Then I wanted to kill someone. Her father, actually. And then her mother, closely followed by a few of her teachers and so-called friends.)

That was by way of background.

Last semester, my problem student exhibited excessively shy behaviour, but he was coping, if barely. I regularly put students into pairs or groups and have them doing various activities, and while he was not exactly enthusiastic, he could generally bring himself to speak a few words with his partner or group. In the oral testing I did at the end of semester he was abysmal, but he did speak. He squeaked through. I didn't put any pressure on him. I assumed his was the sort of shyness that would do better with less attention. A lot of them are like that - if you pay too much attention they clam up. My decision was to leave him alone and let him sort it out for himself. He didn't seem all that bad a case anyway. (Comparatively speaking, that is.) I've had a lot worse.

But it's becoming obvious that something happened over the vacation to make him worse. This semester we have had three classes so far, and so far I have heard him speak three words. That was yesterday, when I had the students making up a life for a man who was pictured in the textbook. The man was obviously a cook (the white hat gave it away), but aside from that no details were given. I had them inventing a family and hobbies and so on for him. They usually have a ball doing this.

I went around the class asking various questions to students about the man in the picture, and getting variously silly replies. When I got to the problem guy, I gave him a simple one. "What does he do?" I asked. We had just practiced this form because most students get confused - they understand "What's his job?" but when I ask 'What does he do?" they tell me he's cooking. I'd explained the meaning of the question, and was making sure they really got it and responded promptly with the right kind of answer.

The problem guy, when I asked, started out right. He whispered, "He is a." And then he stopped. I waited. Nothing happened. I asked again. No response. I told him the answer, and said, "Let's practice it again. What does he do?"

No response. He sat looking perfectly normal except that he wasn't responding at all. He was staring at his text. I noticed that his eyes were not focused on anything meaningful. He was staring at a corner of the page. I waited. Nothing happened. He was a statue. I asked using the other form, "What's his job?" and got no response from that, either. I asked him if he understood. He continued staring at the page.

At that point I moved on. There were 35 other students in the class and I'd already spent far too much time on something that should have taken 10 seconds at most. The others had finished the activity and were starting to get restless. Well, all right, they had finished being restless and were getting out of hand. A couple of the rowdier students were throwing things at each other across the room and shouting and everybody on that side of the room was laughing like maniacs. It was time to move on to something else. (This is the biggest problem with problem students in big classes - while you're dealing with them everything else goes to hell.)

We moved onto the next activity, and I kept an eye on the problem student. I noticed that his partner, who is a very good student, was just sitting there, looking patient and resigned. We exchanged a bit of body language - eyebrows, tiny shrugs - that said, "Sorry, can't do anything with him." "Not your problem. I understand." I made a mental note to make sure the shy guy ended up in a group of three instead of a pair in future so that even if he didn't respond to anything at least his partners could do something.

I also collected homework yesterday. Almost everybody did it. (I scared them last semester.) Three didn't. Two apologised. One, the problem student, didn't produce anything and didn't offer any apology or reason. He didn't do or say anything. Last semester he always did the homework. At the beginning he was almost the only one who did. That was one of the reasons I passed him.

I looked at the points I'd been giving to the various groups. Everybody was getting some, including his group, but I'd made a note that he hadn't done anything to get graded on yet..

When the class finished everybody stormed out noisily, and he took a little longer. I stopped him and sat down to chat a wee bit. Sometimes a word of encouragement helps. Also, if there's a problem sometimes they'll tell me. (Some students have problems working with particular partners, and I try to accommodate that.)

I asked if there was a problem. No response. I asked if he could do the homework and give it to me next week. No response. I explained the grading system to him again (which he should know, but I thought it was possible he didn't really get it). No response. I paused and waited. Nothing happened. I asked if he was understanding me, should I use Japanese? No response. "I need to know," I said. "Can you understand?" No response. I asked again in Japanese. "Do you understand me when I speak to you in English?" I asked. "Just tell me yes or no."

No response. No movement. No flicker of eyes. No expression. No nothing.

I told him he would need to do some work sometimes in class, since this was, after all, an oral English course, and if he didn't speak English or do anything I wouldn't be able to give him any points and he'd fail. I explained that he would need to do the homework as well. I asked him if he could try a little bit harder next week, please. I said it was difficult for his partner when he didn't speak, because that meant his partner couldn't either. I went on and on, far too much. In English. In Japanese. In English. In Japanese again. He sat like a frozen lump, apparently catatonic.

I was really, really irritated by his lack of response, and could feel myself getting angry.

Fortunately another student turned up at this point, from my next class, to explain to me that she couldn't attend today but here was her homework. I chatted with her a bit, and she left. I took a deep breath and went back to the problem student, who was still immobile. My irritation had gone and I was feeling anxious instead.

I touched his shoulder. "Don't worry," I told him. "Just come next week, and we'll work something out. OK?"

No response. I wanted to leave the room, to grab a coffee before the next class started. I started to gather up my things to leave. He didn't move. I went back to him.

"We'll sort something out next week," I said. "You can go now."

He got up and left.

He can understand me. He was able to speak last semester, and he did respond, if minimally. He responds physically to commands that require physical movement, so he is still listening and understanding. When I put students into groups I count them off with group numbers, and then tell them where to sit. He follows these instructions obediently. He sits in his group, opens his textbook to the right page, and then just... stops. You can tell him to move somewhere and he'll do it. You can tell him to stand up or sit down and he'll do that, too. But he doesn't speak, he makes no eye contact, and never looks up. He doesn't look at the other students, or acknowledge that they've spoken to him, or respond in any way that indicates that he even knows they are there. He doesn't speak, in any language.

Next week I am going to give him a written note, and a small notebook. I will tell him, in the note, that I can see that he has problems speaking, and that although this is a speaking class I will give him a passing grade if he does some work. Instead of speaking, he can use the class time to write. He should write at least half a page in every class, in English. I will give him topics to write about, and these will be from the textbook, although he can choose other topics if he wishes. He should give me this notebook at the end of every class, and I will respond to what he has written and ask questions for him to answer the next week. But at least that way he will at least be communicating in English. Nobody else will see his notebook, only me.

I am unsure how I will implement this in the classroom (if he does it at all) - whether to put him with a group while he is doing his writing, or what. I don't like singling students out when they have problems, because it makes the problems too obvious and tends to make things worse. But he is a handicap to any group he is in, so I'll have to figure out some way to have him doing something different while at the same time not isolating him too badly.

Perhaps I'll have him do the writing at home instead. In fact I like that idea better, come to think of it - it doesn't single him out so severely. But then I still have the problem of what to do with him in class, and the problem of when I'm going to read and respond to the notebook... The only thing I can think of right now is to put him into the odd-numbered group every time there is one, and change the classroom arrangement more frequently if there is an even number of students, so nobody gets stuck with him for too long. And perhaps instead of a notebook I'll give him loose leaf paper to write on, and a folder, and he can hand in a page every week. If he starts to speak again, I can tell him the writing isn't necessary.

In a real university (i.e. not a Japanese one) this sort of student would not pass my class. But I have to accept that I do not work in a real university. Learning is not really the point, here, and passing my class does not mean anything anyway in the grand scheme of things. If students fail my class (and they frequently do) they know they can just join another, 'easier' teacher's class next year and they'll get by without doing anything much. So there's really no point in failing him. There is, however, some point in being kind to him. It's fairly clear that he hasn't found life very kind so far. That's about all I can tell, really.

I think one of the reasons I got so irritated yesterday was that last year, when I had a student with similar symptoms, chatting with him when the others had gone did help. He didn't respond, exactly, but he hung around one day when he was the last one to leave and I said something to him, and he stood and waited. I continued to blab away at him, feeling slightly foolish because he wasn't responding, as I was cleaning up. He didn't respond by answering, or smiling or anything else normal like that, but he started staying behind after class every week to listen. In class he didn't do anything active - he'd sit with his partner, put his huge bag on his desk, and hide behind it. He never spoke to anybody, just stared at his textbook. But he was studying hard and listening carefully, something I only found out when I did a listening test and he scored highest in the class. When he handed in his paper I thought at first he hadn't even done the test - he'd written his answers using a very faint pencil and the paper looked blank at first glance. Then I peered more closely and could see these hen scratchings on the paper, wobbly old-person's writing, done with a violently shaking hand. I passed him the first semester on the strength of that, mainly.

But his problem was different. He was afraid of everybody. I think he'd been bullied. He was in a state of mortal terror most of the time, and it had made him mute. He apparently found me soothing, and hung around after class because I was one of the few people he was not afraid of. I talked to him about that (he didn't answer, of course, but he listened, with his head cocked minutely to one side, quivering and shaking as usual, but staying). I said that I was watching the others, and would always make sure he was in a group with kind students, nobody who would hurt or tease him. In the second semester he even started talking to the other students when I finally asked him to (it was the first hint I'd had that he was understanding anything I was burbling on about), and they responded to him with somewhat amazed attempts at normality, and asked for his help with grammar problems, at which he excelled. By the end of semester he even smiled once or twice, a wee twitch really, and some of the naughtier students had started treating him like an eccentric but inexplicably clever younger brother who would explain their homework for them. (He was weird. I really cared about that boy, but there was no way he could ever pass for normal.) In the first semester I'd warned some of the students who'd shown a wee hint of possible bullying, and word had gone around, apparently. I'd told them that I was counting on them to help him, and they did. They were lovely.

But the guy yesterday has a different problem. I don't know what it is, but it's not the other students. They're a good-natured (if noisy) bunch, and not unkind at all. The guy he was paired with yesterday is a gem. I can usually count on him to bring out the best in the most difficult student. He is intelligent, mature, kind, funny, and sensible. And he got no response from the problem student at all. Zilch. His own reaction to this was typically mature: he sat quietly and looked peacefully at ease.

And that's what I need to do. I need to be at ease about this. I need to do what I can, and not let it interfere with the rest of my job. And I need to not get irritated when he doesn't respond to me. I am not some sort of miracle worker. I felt like one, last year, and my ego got in the way when it didn't work this time. Me, the miracle worker, failed? Can't be true. It's his fault! He's just being stubborn!

I was frustrated and angry. I hope I didn't show it too much, but I'm afraid that people like him pick up on every emotion whether you think you've hidden it or not. The frustration and anger had gone at the end, when I spoke to him again and told him we'd work something out. I just hope it wasn't too late.