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Existential dilemma runs amok: Do I make any difference here?

Do they even need me to be here? Does it make any difference how well I teach, what I teach? Will I have any impact upon my students’ English skills at all?




Sometimes I wonder. How many of you have had certain students enter your classroom with a certain level of English competency and leave with less? How many of you have students who appear not to have absorbed a single item learned or practiced during your course?




Of course there are those who might emerge from your classes proficient and capable, but you are also aware that they already had these skills when they entered. A handful do improve – only for you to discover that it’s because they now have a foreign friend or they did a homestay abroad over the summer. A handful of keeners seem to have advanced too because, as they told you, they like reading Harry Potter in English. A few others have absorbed some daily English from watching new blockbusters on Netflix. And none are occuring due to your class, thank you very much.




‘(I’m) reduced to the role of decoration advisor’



We can talk about teaching skills and materials all we want. I certainly know my way around a classroom – I am a veteran of using recommended, sensible, pertinent, balanced teaching methods and materials. I’m more than capable and comfortable in a classroom and yet, I wonder how many of my students actually benefit from it. Would a far less accomplished teacher end up with the same results? I fear it could be true.




I feel like my job description says ‘housebuilder’, but while someone else builds the foundation, and the tenants themselves arrange most everything they need, I am reduced to the role of decoration advisor, perhaps hoisting a few paintings on the wall to ‘brighten up the place’.




There are certain teaching axioms that ground what I’m saying: ‘What students learn is not necessarily what they are taught.’ ‘Teaching is all about allowing learners to learn.’ ‘People generally learn foreign languages by themselves, when they want to, and in a way that suits them’.




It’s a dilemma. So what to do?



‘Their data always indicates that whatever they are doing now has ‘improved student performance’. But their hearts often tell them otherwise’




Some teachers try to fill the existential abyss with drama and pretension: They are ‘internationalizing’ their charges, creating a ‘vital new future for Japan’ or solving weighty issues for humankind. They are heroic warriors in an epic battle between the forces of good vs. evil, enlightenment vs. ignorance.




Some embrace the role of a patchwork specialist — the Mr. Fixits: ‘You need some help with that there relative clause, Buddy? Bring ‘er in. See, there’s yer problem, it’s a restricted relative. Gimme a sec.’ (grabs oversized red pen from tool belt).




Some end up committing academia. Sad but true. Their lonely days are filled by compiling tomes with titles like: ‘A Linear Regression-based Longitudinal Study of Learner Responses to Patriarchal Schemata in Flipped-Classroom Settings’. Their data always indicates that whatever they are doing now has ‘improved student performance’. But their hearts often tell them otherwise.




Some alter expectations by making ‘fun’ the ultimate objective of the class, as opposed to actual content or learning. As long as the learners enjoy themselves, they tacitly believe, almost any teaching style or content can be justified. This includes those who now position themselves as social ‘enablers’, like that Japanese dude who approached me in English at a bar in Kumamoto and then brought his entire group over to chat with me. The guy’s job was actually to create social situations in which his clients would have opportunities to chat with foreigners. Yes, they paid him for it.




There are exceptions of course. Some teachers may light a spark in small children that can remain smouldering for many years before turning into a full conflagration. Home country English teachers often construct a foundation upon which a learner’s future English aspirations may be more firmly  established, ready to bear fruit at some unknowable point in the future. There’s some fulfillment to be had there.



‘I’m shaping malleable learner brains so that they will more easily acquire the language they want or need’




I take a different tact. I decide that I am extending learner cognition. No, it’s not delusional. Yes, it allows me to think that I’ve made a real contribution, that I am justifying my paycheck.




How does it work? Ok, let’s face it. A LOT of education does not manifest itself in practical mastery or competency. I studied French in the public school system for 6 years. Tis all but gone, c’est dommage. What do you remember from your high school chemistry classes? I thought so. But hey, it’s ok, not all education is meant to be vocational training. Going though the discipline required to get a decent grade and eventually graduate was good brain food. The experiences helped to shape certain cognitive vistas that have since served me well. So too can English study for Japanese students.




I also studied philosophy and theology for 7 years. No, I did not get the position as village philosopher-cum-theologian. From these courses I did actually retain a lot, but more than anything else, these challenges helped me to become a better writer, a sharper thinker, someone who could assemble and analyze abstract ideas and apply them effectively to life practices, including language teaching. Yes, Kierkegaard can have real-life applicability.




Likewise, I try to sensitize my students to modes of English discourse (for my learners that means medical discourse)  — shapes, procedures, signs, atmospheres, relations, flows, connections — that they might eventually fill with specific English-language content. I’m shaping malleable learner brains so that they will more easily acquire the language they want or need. By themselves.




‘The most gratifying praise I can hope for’




Yes, I do occasionally put on my Mr. Fixit hat and straighten out a bent lexical nail or apply a patch over a syntactical air leak but that work remains on the periphery. And yes, I often do not actually see any improvement in my students’ English skills. However, I am confident that, come the day, those who want to will be better able to pour the English mould into the shapes I have helped them create. Indeed, several have come back years after graduating and have bestowed upon me the most gratifying praise I can hope for — as a recent graduate said: ‘Sensei, when I started working on the lab collaboration with that group of international researchers, I finally got what you were teaching us back in 2nd year. It really helped!’ 




And this, at the very least, keeps me from the abyss.




Shameless spam:


Mike Guest’s new (and recently revised) novel, The Aggrieved Parties is available here.



For a chapter sample of the novel, please read The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers.


Mike’s literary blog “Honeyed Badger Feet’ can seen here.


Mike Guest

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