Thursday, May 15, 2008

What would a real teacher do?

The bird in my last post reminds me of an experience I had when I first started teaching. I hadn't been in Japan very long, and had no experience of teaching language before coming here. I didn't know what I was doing, and was amazed that anyone would give me a job. They seemed to think (and still do) that anyone who speaks a language can teach it. This worried me (and still does), so I read as much as I could find about how to teach, and talked to other teachers, and tried not to rip off the students too much. But I still felt like a fraud, and frequently the thought would pop into my head, What would a real teacher do right now?

This was one of those occasions. (I think I may have written about it before, but perhaps on my old blog. I can't find it now, but if you have have a moment of déjà vu reading this, that's why.)

I was teaching at a conversation school, and one of my classes was a one-to-one lesson with a university student. He was very, very shy. In fact he was so shy I used to wonder why he was there at all, because he could hardly speak even to the secretaries, in Japanese. In class he barely raised his head from the textbook, and getting him to speak above a whisper was almost impossible at first. I realized that he would make no progress if he didn't trust me, so was as kind as I knew how, and gently tried to coax him out of his shell. It was about a month before I even saw his face, he kept his head down so low.

A few months into our lessons some progress was being made. Occasionally he would volunteer a comment that wasn't something he was reading from the textbook. Now and again his voice rose above a whisper, and sometimes he even looked up from his book. We had reached the chapter in the textbook about pets.

"Do you have a pet?" I asked him. The question was in the textbook.

"Yes, I do," he replied.

I was encouraged. Maybe he would talk about his pet.

"What kind of pet do you have?" I asked.

"I have a bird," he said.

"What kind of bird?" I asked, and he reached for his dictionary.

As he started leafing through the dictionary, I continued to question him.

"Is it a canary?"


"A budgie?"


"A parrot?"


"Is it a small bird?"


"What colour is it?"


"Does it sing?"


Then he found the word in the dictionary, and looked up. He even smiled. I glowed with pride. What a good job I was doing! The shy kid was actually smiling!

And then he came out with his first ever entirely independent English sentence. It was a good sentence, too. It was grammatically and semantically perfect.

"I have a white tit, and it sings!" he said.

I had one of those moments.

What would a real teacher do right now? I thought, as I stared at him, goggle-eyed with a suppressed snort.

Today I told an experienced teacher about this moment, and asked him what he'd have done. He was entertaining, but unhelpful.

"I would have said, 'And what's wrong with the other one? Does it only hum?'" he said.

I must confess that I hadn't thought of that response. The horrible temptation I'd had when it happened was to lift my shirt and declare, 'Well, I've got two, and they don't!' I'm glad I didn't, but it would have been a language lesson to remember. (It probably would have also traumatized the boy for life.)

What I ACTUALLY did was to stare at him for a moment, compose myself, and say, weakly,

"How nice. Let's move on to the next page."


Keera Ann Fox said...

It's not too late for you to lift your shirt, you know. ;-)

(But what bird did he actually have?)

Anonymous said...

but I've just checked the word "tit" in a dictionary and it says: "a common small bird found in the northern half of the world". Why do you think he thought about breast? I know that teaching is difficult, I'm a teacher too but in Poland. Good luck!

Faerunner said...

The problem with the question "What would a real teacher do?" is that the definition of a real teacher varies widely by age, geographic location and other factors.. :D I think you are the real-est teacher I've ever met (well, read, anyway)!

Although I admit when I was doing student teaching last semester, the question crossed my mind as well, especially when one little boy found a bad word inside a perfectly innocent one and proceeded to loudly point it out to me.