Monday, June 04, 2007


Today I had a crisis in my classroom

The class was one of the ones I meet only once every fortnight (that's once every two weeks to you Americans), and they have a Japanese teacher every other week. This means that today was only the fourth time I have met them, although we are seven or eight weeks into semester. They are one of my good classes. These are first-year students who are studying to become kindergarten teachers, and although their English level is generally low-to-nonexistent, they are keen and well-behaved. We do not make very much progress (what do you expect, meeting so infrequently?) but at least we have fun.

Today three students were absent. The Japanese teacher who has them on alternate weeks told me that was the case last week, too, and she will look into it. I am wondering whether I might have been given a clue today.

At the beginning of class I told the students we would be using the text for the first half of class, as usual, and for the second half we'd play an English game. For the game we needed teams, so I divided them and asked them to move into their teams at the beginning, to save time later on.

At the time I did this, one student - let's call her Keiko - was already asleep. She had come in, carefully folded a small towel, put her head down on it, and fallen into a deep slumber. I asked her friend to wake her up so they could move, and she did. Her friend explained to me that Keiko was 'very tired,' so I asked Keiko if she wanted to sleep instead of attending class. This was not a threat. I asked kindly. She had been absent only once before, and it would not hurt her grade to be absent once more as she has generally been a good student. But it would make it easier for me if she decided first, as I could organize the class better. If students are in pairs and one falls asleep, the other cannot complete the work.

Keiko said no, she wanted to attend. I asked her to try to stay awake, so that her partner would not have a problem. She nodded.

Once they were in their groups, I asked for questions about the page in the textbook we would be doing, and explained the tricky bits. That went well, except that Keiko fell asleep again. I left her until we'd finished that part, figuring that her partner would explain it to her later. They're generally good at helping each other.

Then I set up the listening section. They are all familiar with this part. One of the good things about the textbook we have to use is that it uses the same simple format for every unit. I cued the tape, and asked if everybody was ready. Keiko had not moved, so I called her name.

"Kei-ko!" I called in a sing-song voice. "Listening tiiiime!"

Her partner touched her shoulder and called her name, but she did not move. I shrugged. "Never mind," I said. I did not want to spend half the class trying to wake up a student who was clearly not able to stay awake. I would mark her absent and rearrange the groups after the listening section.

(Here I will interrupt myself to explain that at Japanese universities, attendance is more important than almost anything. As far as I have gathered, in lecture classes teachers do not particularly take note if a student is awake or not, as long as they are there. I explain to my students that since in these oral classes most of their grade comes from what they do in class, sleeping will lose them points. They generally seem to understand this, although occasionally some will accuse me of being hidoi - cruel and merciless.)

I was just about to hit the play button on the machine when suddenly Keiko's partner leaned over her, then urgently asked the student behind her for a plastic bag. Keiko was making funny noises.

I thought at first she was throwing up. She was clutching the small pillow-towel to her face, and had her eyes closed. But she was not throwing up. She was hyperventilating.

The other students leaped into action. One produced a plastic bag for Keiko to breathe into, but had trouble getting it to her mouth because Keiko would not let go of the towel. A couple of others gathered round and stroked her shoulders and back, and held her hands, saying soothing things. Keiko panted rapidly.


When this did not stop, one of the students asked if anybody knew where Keiko kept her medicine, and another found it in her bag. They produced a bottle of water, and managed to get her to swallow the pills. She choked a little but got them down, then continued with her hyperventilating.


One of the girls was timing her.

"Five minutes," she said, and for a wild moment I wondered if in fact Keiko was going to produce a baby.

I turned to the girl standing beside me, who was watching Keiko carefully and occasionally saying something soothing.

"Did this happen because of me?" I asked. "Did I frighten her?"

"No," she said, and laughed reassuringly, and added, very quietly, "She does this all the time."

That explained why the other students knew what to do while I was in the dark. (Shouldn't teachers be TOLD when have chronically hyperventilating students? Shouldn't we be advised about what to do?)

"I think somebody should call the nurse," I said. "This is going on too long."

"She might be all right in a minute," said one of the students.

"Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" panted Keiko.

After few more minutes I insisted that someone go and get the nurse, and two girls rushed off. (I have hyperventilated once in my life, when I was very ill, and after about three minutes had gone blue around the lips and thought I was going to either throw up or pass out, or both. Keiko was not going blue, but I was worried and wanted a properly qualified person to deal with the problem.)

Five minutes after that the two students came back, and a very long ten minutes after that a tiny, elderly nurse appeared. (Did she get lost?)

The nurse then proceeded to do exactly what the students had already been doing for the last fifteen minutes, with exactly the same effect.


I suggested that perhaps Keiko might be better off lying down (in the clinic, I meant), and the nurse agreed, and with the help of a couple of students got her lying across four chairs pushed together. This did not help. Keiko lay there and panted, clutching the towel to her face, with her eyes squeezed shut.


The nurse and three or four students who were hovering near continued to make reassuring noises, and to tell Keiko to relax and breathe more slowly. She didn't. After another ten minutes or so the nurse said that perhaps we should get Keiko to the clinic (FINALLY!), and sent two girls off again. I thought they were going to get someone with a stretcher, and organized the moving of some desks and chairs to make a clear path to the door. However, after fifteen minutes or so (of "Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu! Hu!") the students came back with a gym teacher, who carried her on his back out of the classroom, followed by the nurse, who was supporting her bottom. One of the students went after them with Keiko's bag. I heard them "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!"-ing down the corridor.

We moved the desks back into position and I looked at the class. They looked back at me. Everybody looked serious, even grim. It seemed very quiet suddenly.

I looked at my watch. Almost one hour of class time had evaporated into "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" and my lesson plan was in ruins. I am supposed to be doing the same thing with eight different classes over two weeks, and this class was now behind. They're all supposed to get the same test at the end of semester.

I made a rapid decision, and wrote a note. Leave Unit Four out of the test, I wrote in my notebook, in red ink so I couldn't miss it. After all, I write the test. I can leave out whatever I want and nobody will check.

"We don't have much time left," I said. "What do you want to do, the text, or the game?"

"The game!" said the students. (Was that a loaded question, do you think?)

We played the game, and it distracted them so much that they were concentrating VERY HARD and laughing a lot by the time the class ended. I think that they probably learned more from the game than they would have done from the text. It was actually more difficult, although I would never tell them that.

But mostly I wanted to reward them, for reacting so calmly to a difficult situation.

My problem now is figuring out what to do the next time Keiko falls asleep in class.

When I got back to the office, after sorting out my things I told the secretary I was going over to the clinic to see how my student was.

"Oh, she's fine," said the secretary. "I just talked to the nurse. She's gone home."

"What was the problem?" I asked. "Does she have a heart problem?" I was thinking of the pills.

"No," said the secretary, cheerfully. "It's mental."

"Oh," I said. (Nobody tells me ANYTHING.)

"Is there anything I should know, or do?" I asked.

"How did it happen?" she said.

"She was sleeping, and I called her name," I said.

The secretary laughed. "Maybe she had a bad dream," she said, and shrugged. "Don't worry about it."

But I AM worried about it. If I have a student who is going to "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" in my classes I think there should be some sort of quick response routine in place so that we don't waste more than half the class time dealing with it. I am totally sympathetic towards the student. (I might be inclined to "Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu!" in my classes too, if I were my student.) She obviously has problems, and I hope she can get help that actually works instead of the pills, which had no effect at all, BEFORE she becomes a kindergarten teacher. I do not want to think about what would happen if she did that in a kindergarten class. I don't think four-year-olds know how to deal with hyperventilating teachers.

Oh, well. I will just have to see what happens, and talk to Professor Hatayama, who is in charge of these classes, if it happens again.

I just hope I can catch the professor on a sane day.


Lia said...

That's a pretty serious case of hyperventilation; I've never heard of it going on for so long. You're very right that it could become a serious problem in front of a kindergarten class.

On the other hand, that's a pretty funny situation, in the abstract, if there weren't any people involved.

kenju said...

For me that would be scary and very frustrating,and I would be mad had I had not been told about her tendencies. If it happens again, call the nurse immediately. She should not be allowed to disrupt the class in that way, since it has such a negative impact on the others.

Wiccachicky said...

Holy crap! That's insane!! You seem to have handled it well, and it's a shame that the university doesn't do anything to support you. Having attended Japanese university, it always makes me laugh when you say students are sleeping -- because it happened in Japan all the time and I couldn't understand it since we would be told to leave university classes here if we were caught sleeping. That puts a whole new spin on the sleeping!!!

Badaunt said...

Lia: I think it was more a sort of panic attack than real hyperventilating. Her breathing was very shallow. I remember when I did it I breathed DEEPLY, because there just did not seem to be enough oxygen in the air. It was low blood pressure, I think - I really was not getting enough oxygen. (Hence the blue lips.) It was a peculiar feeling.

I think the girl also didn't want to be 'absent,' but didn't want to wake up either, and her response was a sort of passive-aggressive 'punishment' at me for not giving her the choice she really wanted. (To sleep, but to get points for attending class.) Kids get forgiven all kinds of things here, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is a pattern to her attacks, although of course I don't have any other information.

When I told a colleague about it (who works at a place full of spoiled young women) she just brushed it off. "Oh, another hyperventilator," she said. "We get those all the time. I bet it was conveniently timed."

I'm not saying it's a conscious decision, but perhaps it's her way of dealing with the inconveniences of life. The Man told me it has become quite a common thing with young people.

Kenju: If it happens again ... well, I'm going to talk to the boss about it anyway, and explain how her precious syllabus has been disrupted, and perhaps I'll be able to get some sort of procedure into place. That was far too long a disruption.

Wiccachicky: Students sleep ALL THE TIME. It's a ludicrous idea of education they have here. Seat-warming = class attendance = higher education! I sometimes wonder if they believe in some sort of osmosis theory of learning. You get clever by being in the same room as a teacher and a textbook.