By John Gribble
At the end of this academic year I’m leaving the classroom. I began teaching in 1967, mostly by accident. A friend had a little guitar-teaching job in a local Parks and Recreation program. He was leaving it to move to the “big time,” a job as a private instructor at a music store. He offered to introduce me to the city’s Parks Department. I was interviewed, hired, began teaching small afternoon and evening classes a couple days a week, and have been teaching something to someone almost continuously ever since.
I taught music in California for twenty-six years. I have taught English in Japan for twenty-three. I’ve done other things over the years, too, including retail management, industrial sales, work in a factory and in the mental health field. But I’ve always come back to teaching, or had some teaching work on the side. I do have formal qualifications. But most of what I know about the craft is based on my own experience and on observing other teachers, good and bad.
I like to teach. I enjoy the process of leading, sometimes pushing, a student from one level of skills or understanding to another. I’m also a bit of a ham, a would-be performer. The classroom and teaching studio have provided an outlet, a stage for that impulse. I also like to learn stuff. My own continuing education, both formal and on my own, have helped keep me connected to students’ needs and issues. I do not consider myself an “inspired” teacher. It’s simply what I do and I try to do a good job.
My own experience as a student was a mixed bag. Sometimes I did well. Sometimes I was a fuckup. I was kicked out of school twice and dropped out several times. I also won various student and academic awards and earned a couple degrees. My difficulties have either been because of me (attitude, personal problems, health), or because of a poor fit in an institution. And I’ve had problems in the work area. While I’ve never been fired from a teaching position, every so often I butt heads with superiors. I have chosen to move on several times when I’ve felt hampered in my teaching efforts by institutional policies, the culture of a particular environment, or simple boredom.
I like to think my difficulties have helped me as a teacher. I try to be sensitive to the needs of my students. I am especially concerned with those who are struggling in the many ways a student can struggle, and with those who for whatever reason are turned off by the whole thing. As much as I can, I structure my classes for success. I don’t see much benefit in a student leaving a lesson feeling like a loser.
Over the last few years I’ve thought more about the whys of teaching. While I’ve enjoyed my work, teaching English in Japan is often a Sisyphean task for all involved. Even after years of mandated English instruction, the majority of Japanese simply don’t believe they have the ability to navigate a simple interaction in English successfully. And the prospect of having to try terrifies them.
I am not willing, prepared, or qualified to go into all the issues behind this. Based on the unexpected benefits I’ve received from classes I didn’t like, didn’t want to take, or did poorly in, I believe there will be some future benefit in my efforts for at least a few of my former charges. And there are always some students who due to talent, interest, a good work ethic, or ambition do well in my classes and provide me with a little immediate positive reinforcement.
I remember one class in particular. It was in a well-organized English language program at a good university. The program was well thought out, the teaching materials attractive and appropriate, there were small ongoing adjustments and improvements to the curriculum, and the students were pretty bright. Our supervisors were supportive, attentive to the teachers’ and students’ needs, and open to suggestions. All in all, it was a good job.
But even good jobs have not-such-good days. On one of these, we were slogging through a verb-agreement drill as a group. It was a hot day near the end of the spring term and the students had no energy at all. Zip. Zero. And I wasn’t doing much better. So I decided to try a little singing-and-exercise routine I had learned from a choral conductor to liven things up. It is a silly little thing, but usually works to raise the energy level in a group. If nothing else it gets them laughing and in a better mood. So I had the students stand and move away from their desks and I started to teach them the routine.
Thirty seconds into the exercise one young woman complained loudly, “This is childish. You’re treating us like children!”
This particular student had lived in the US for several years and gone through high school there. She had a rather brash, confrontative manner which I often found refreshing. But she also displayed a higher opinion of her English skills and general intelligence than her performance justified.
“And we don’t need to do so much review,” she went on, “It’s a waste of time.” “Actually,” I told her, “I think we do need it. A lot of the students need the practice.”
“Well, I don’t think so!” She crossed her arms defiantly.
“What, then, do you suggest we do?” I asked.
This stumped her. But it was clear from her face and stance she wasn’t willing to back down. I could see the other students were shocked by this sudden and very non-Japanese turn, but curious as to what would happen. One young man, Yoshi, who was taking the class for the second time, was watching closely.
“Listen,” I said, “I’ve been teaching for a long time. I have a lot of different things I can try to get a class working…”
“This is stupid! It’s a waste of time.” Back to that. Time for a new tack.
“Tell me,” I asked, “Why are you here?”
“Why are you here? Why are you in this class?”
A smug look came to her face. “Well, my mother and father…”
I interrupted. “Listen. I don’t want to hear about your mother and father. I don’t care about your mother and father. Why are you here?”
This stumped her again. I waited for her reply
And saw the look of wheels turning on Yoshi’s face. He was a good kid, bright, but a goof-off, unmotivated. He’d already failed the course once for lack of effort and was in trouble again.
I continued to wait.
The girl’s face began to crumble. Tears began to flow. Taking a packet of tissues from my book bag, I walked over to her. Giving her the tissues, I said softly, “If you’re an adult, then it’s time to start having adult reasons for things.”
I knew my impromptu diversion was past rescue. So to the rest of the class I said, “OK, gang, back to work. Please sit down.” We returned to the drill. The young woman dried her eyes. As a group we finished the exercise and the rest of the class session went smoothly enough.
The young woman and I patched things up. She finished the term with a pretty good grade.
Yoshi, on the other hand, disappeared. He quit attending class altogether. I like to think that inadvertently the right question had been asked.