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‘I lost confidence in my English. THANKS TO YOU!’


“I hope you prove me wrong — by acing the next evaluation”


I think everyone would agree that one of the main purposes of teaching, beyond actually enabling people to learn a skill, is to enhance their motivation to keep learning. So what do we do when our teaching apparently has the opposite effect?


The solution is not as simple as you may initially think. Those of us who work in the public sector have the responsibility to maintain standards, so participant ribbons and ‘you tried your best’ plaudits are not a priority. If people are graduating from institutions with official certifications, public expectation is that the graduates must have attained a certain standard of skill or knowledge.


The Bearer of the Above Credential is Like, Really, Really, Smart. Like.


Such is my teaching situation (I work in the faculty of medicine at a national university) — where, through the grapevine, I recently heard that one of my students said that a poor score (and subsequent mediocre re-test) in one of my classes had shattered her confidence in using the language.


Ummm sorry. I think. Students react very differently to bad scores. Some use it to double their resolve to do better next time (cheers!), some lose hope (sniff), some try to blame teachers (hiss!), and some just don’t give much of a hoot (hoot!). 


I can relate to those who feel dejection. Being a music lover, I once (secretly) took a few guitar classes. Despite my efforts, my playing was akin to a tire fire in a dumpster that itself is on fire while being carried out to sea on a barge — that is also on fire. You get the picture. I was told that I was not nearly ready to play onstage. As you may have realized, I did not become Eric Clapton. I probably couldn’t even ride on his barge.



Rare footage of my only live guitar performance


So, what to do with similarly dejected students? I have tried several approaches with varying degrees of success:


First, I always give students a chance to reprieve themselves (at least once). After all, this is a course for the purpose of education, not a one-shot entrance or proficiency examination. We know that any number of factors could have influenced that poor outcome.


Sometimes I tell them a ‘Takuma Izumi’ story. Takuma is not a real, individual student but a composite of actual students who muffed a test or had mediocre English results in their 1st year but later managed to get their English stuff together, and, in their upperclassmen years were successfully undertaking lab/practice courses or training abroad — in one ‘Takuma’s’ case at the University of California at Irvine Hospital.


‘Takuma Izumi’. Some say he bears a faint resemblance to Nobel-prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata


Some students seem to think that if (or because) they get a bad English test result the teacher ‘hates’ them. But, as we all know, there are very English-proficient students who can be monumental pains in the ass to teach, and English-deficient students who have delightful personalities. After a student has screwed up on an exam I will make sure that I treat them the same as any others — letting them know that my bottom line is educating them. Often, during opportune moments while monitoring the class, I will offer such students specific guidance.


I also make it a point never to publicly mention a student’s bad performance. Results are always provided to students discretely and individually. Once, a students who fared very poorly on a previous exam was sleeping (a very rare occurrence in my class) ubiquitously during a key part of a lesson and I upbraided him by remarking that he ‘didn’t have a cushion for sleeping in class, given his previous results’. Although I was pissed at his behavior, I almost immediately regretted doing this. Calling out a student and making him/her lose face is an enormous no-no in East Asian classroom cultures in particular.


This child was WRONG!’


Occasionally, I also remind dejected students that exams are not always a reflection of one’s overall English skill and proficiency. This test might be focusing only upon one specific classroom task, it is not a holistic TOEFL-like rating of the student’s overall proficiency. It’s like being a goalie in soccer or hockey. You may let in a softie but then you must get over it. Get focused on the next ball coming your way or you might let in another gift. And, if you think I haven’t been fair in my judgment, go ahead — prove me wrong — by acing the next evaluation. 


That would actually make me very happy.




Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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