Tape recorder, debate partner, or something in between?

Happy October, everyone! I hope the weather is to your liking– it certainly is to mine. I’m having all the hot tea, all the time. It’s lovely.

Anyway, so, teaching! Particularly in ESL/EFL. I’ve taught a wide range of ages since I started, from toddlers up to senior citizens. Every student has their own expectations from their teacher, be it the bare minimum, or something exceeding the usual classroom duties. I’d like to share two experiences I’ve had with students to highlight this.

The Tape Recorder

I once taught a junior high school student, a young man determined to pass his tests at school. The tests involved a large listening section. His family decided the best way to ensure he passed it was to get drill books, pass them to me, and have me read the conversations aloud (rather than using the CDs included with the books) while the student wrote down every word. He then would answer any questions I asked him using the exact language from the conversation–no paraphrasing allowed.

This is what a number of teachers in Japan refer to as the “living tape recorder” type of job. Don’t explain anything, just read what you see in the book. I livened it up by making funny voices on occasion, but that was about as creative as I was “permitted” to get.

Even the warm-ups were strictly regulated: two minutes into the lesson and it was time to break out the book and drill, drill, drill. I think it was rough for both of us.

I never did hear if he passed or not. I assume he did, because I didn’t see him after he took the test.

The Reluctant Discussion Partner

Another time, another place. (No, this isn’t a RENT: The Musical reference, though now that I think about it…)

I was working with a university student, majoring in philosophy. The student had a habit of springing deep, complicated topics on me, and almost had the language capability for me for us to have a proper discussion on the topics. But some topics were definitely taboo.

Each person has their own limits on what’s okay to talk about, especially in the classroom. When I was in university, my professors often said, “If you want to know my stance on current events, meet me at the bar after I’ve graded your final paper.” Fair enough. I rarely knew my teachers’ religious beliefs, relationships, or anything of the sort.

When a student asks me about my opinion on my own country or my country’s current issues, I’m happy to give a brief, one-sentence reply and move on. I find it to be generally harmless, and I’m glad they care enough to ask what I think about X politician who currently did Y to Z.

What I don’t like is when they ask me about their country.

Let me give you an example.

One day, my student looked up at me from our textbooks, where we were studying about jobs. Out of nowhere, this student asks me, “Stefanie, why does Japan have a huge immigration problem?”

Immediately on guard, I asked him to elaborate.

“Well, we like some foreigners just fine, but we Japanese don’t like other Asian people to come to Japan and take jobs. It’s kind of unfair, right? Why does that happen?”

I put on my best guarded smile. “That’s a great question; why don’t you tell me what you think?”

“But it’s unfair, isn’t it?” he pressed.

I dodged the question a few more times, along with some other loaded questions (“Do you think the Americans were the good guys during WW2?”) and escaped the lesson feeling mentally drained.

There have been a range of other students; the five year old who wanted to teach me everything he knew about the world, the elderly gentleman who wanted to discuss the environment, etc etc. All of them have their own ideas on what they want to get out of your lesson, whether it’s a group lesson or one-on-one like the two examples I listed above.

I have also met a range of teachers. Some were amazingly close-lipped to the point where students would come to ask me how old said teacher was. Others would put on full-length lectures about their own personal beliefs for students who had no life experience with the topic at hand.

My question is, how do you handle these expectations? Do you go with the flow, or do you forge your own path? Or do you hang somewhere in the middle? If you teach in a foreign country, how do you feel about discussing controversial topics with your students (assuming they have the language for it)?

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