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My First Job: Was I Good Teacher?

To go along with my new blog theme of praxis, I thought it would be fun to evaluate myself when I was a new teacher nearly 20 years ago in Japan. More specifically, I explore what made me a bad teacher, a mediocre teacher, and a good teacher. But first a little context: I started my English language teaching career shortly after graduating from college in 1998. I took a full-time teaching position for the most famous eikaiwa in Japan at the time, Nova. Back then, there was no social media: no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube, and not even blogs. When I wanted to learn about teaching English in Japan, I used my Netscape browser to do a search using Yahoo! because Google didn't exist yet. I wasn't even aware of Dave's ESL Cafe yet if it existed back then. I had no idea was I was getting into, but I was fortunate enough to have a generally good experience even though I wasn't the best teacher.


What Made Me a Bad Teacher?

That's an easy question to answer: lack of teaching experience. I came to Japan with a BA in English and a minor in Linguistics, so I had what researchers (Shulman, 1986, 1987) call the content knowledge. But I didn't have the pedagogical knowledge. All I knew about teaching was through observation as a student for 16 years and as a foreign language student for 5 years. Yes, I didn't know much about foreign or second language teaching. I helped one of my brothers, adopted at the age of ten from South Korea, learn English.

Lack of teaching experience wasn't the only thing, I didn't have much life experience. Nova was a conversation English school, and I didn't have much in common with most of the adult students. Our school and probably most Nova schools had a lot of homemakers, housewives, or stay-at-home moms. The most used term at Nova was housewives, so I'll use that one. I lived quite a sheltered life as an introverted child, and I didn't get out much until college. But still I didn't have the skills to initiate or maintain a conversation with a Japanese housewife in her 40s. And they probably had little interest in having a conversation with me.

Because I was too new to having a social life, I was often socially awkward. However, this seems to be common among at least half of the new English teachers in Japan at the time. Usually this awkwardness didn't interfere with my teaching, but the most embarrassing classes I ever taught were when I couldn't contain it. I could not contain my giggles. As a lover of puns and absurdist dry humor, I could not contain myself when a student unintentionally said something hilarious because of a grammar or vocabulary mistake. I can't recall any specific mistakes, but at least once a month a student would paint a comical picture in my head and I could not contain my laughter. A few lessons were ruined because I would giggle off and on for the remainder of the time (45-50 minutes). I specifically remember an older gentleman who was very good at making insane sentences with a straight face that I would sometimes have to excuse myself from the room, so I could exhaust my giggles out of earshot. When this happened, I would think to myself, "What am I doing here? I can't stay in this profession if I find these things hilarious all the time." Fortunately, this social awkwardness tapered off after this job.

What Made Me a Mediocre Teacher?

Nova had a 10-step method for all of its teachers. It seemed to me that all first year teachers had to follow it dogmatically. After ten years, I can't recall it so well, but it started and ended with 10 minutes of role-plays that acted like a pre-test and post-test of listening and speaking skills. In the middle there were 8 steps based on teaching techniques from the Direct Method and the Audiolingual Method. Most students excelled at the ALM grammar-based drills.

The 10-step Nova method was drilled into me very well, so that I mastered it by the end of my first year. Each step had a time limit, and mastered each one expertly. I also had most of the beginning and intermediate texts memorized by then, so I could plan a lesson very efficiently. I was a good teaching robot, and that's how I felt after completing my first year. I wasn't teaching the students, I was teaching the method. Most of my energy went into creating a different role-play as often as possible before I met the students. (To add some context here, our classes had a maximum of three students and we did not teach them on a regular basis. We often wouldn't teach the same student more than once or twice a month.) The bottom line was that I was not learner-centered.

This did not make me a bad teacher because many students came to Nova because of its predictable and reliable approach to language teaching. Some students admired my discipline and my dedication to the method, but it didn't make me a memorable teacher. It made me a typical Nova teacher with no flourishes, and it was the flourishes that got more students in the door. It was a business after all. Adding flourishes during my first year seemed risky to me, but I realized that some teachers were getting promotions because of their flourishes and not because they strictly followed the 10-step method.

What do I mean by flourishes? I mean adding one's personality to the lesson to make it more entertaining. Most male teachers did this by acting silly. For example, one took the advice of teaching like his hair was on fire by jumping on tables and chairs. Another talked in a condescending yet funny voice to his students. And another had a whole schtick set up like he was supposed to teach Spanish cooking. Most students ate this up, but, as my colleagues might say, I was a bit snobby and I didn't find it professional.

However, I dabbled in the silliness by using props, but these props only made me slightly entertaining compared to my colleagues. The only prop I continued to use was a handheld device in which I could press a button to make a buzzing sound for wrong answers and a ding-dong sound for correct answers. Other than that, I erred on the side of professionalism.

What Made Me a Good Teacher?

In my second year, I realized that mastering the Nova method was not enough to become a good teacher, so I took the learner-centered approach, although I didn't know it was called that at the time. I paid a lot more attention to students' interests and language problems. I started developing an approach to needs analysis. Instead of seeing all my students coming to Nova with the same general need, I saw each student with different needs. That's when I learned that some students came to Nova to improve their grammar, but most came to actually practice their English and they didn't care too much about the grammar rules. Most Japanese students got enough of the rules in their schooling.

I also challenged myself by teaching the content without the book. I often did this for students who had what Nova called SILS, stuck-in-level-syndrome. Most levels had about 40 1-page lessons for students to follow in the book. A typical SILS student repeated each lesson at least 3 times, so that's over 100 lessons and they were not advancing. So I would teach without the book to identify what was preventing them linguistically from advancing to the next level. For some, it was that they memorized the content of the book but they couldn't use English independently. Others couldn't get past a grammatical feature that the book didn't emphasize enough and some Nova teachers would often bypass the difficult language areas because it made their class like work and not fun, which was their selling point. I took on the identity of the teacher who prioritized improving their language skills over entertaining them. By the time I carved out this niche, I was ready for graduate school.

During my second year and third year at Nova, I also got feedback from my colleagues and supervisors that I was really improving my teaching. Some of my colleagues who were closer to me respected my professional approach to teaching, although we acknowledged that it did not increase my popularity. I was clearly a better teacher, but in terms of customer service at this for-profit school, I was just good enough. I could never win over the majority of the students who wanted to just chat and have fun.

Why I Left

Back in the day, Nova paid good money for entry-level English language teaching work. I enjoyed my life in Japan but I began to feel limited by the Nova method. Even though I was improving my teaching and my students' learning, most students were there for the entertainment or cultural exchanges. I would only have one or two lessons (out of seven) a day with students who were motivated to improve their English at a more rapid pace. In short, I wasn't advancing myself professionally. If I stayed there, I would have to reserve myself to the majority of casual learners and ease up on my professional development.

The biggest motivation for me to leave Nova and Japan was that I was getting married. My fiance (at the time) moved to Japan shortly after I did and we taught at Nova, although in different schools, together. She was also tired of Nova for similar and different reasons. Because she wasn't sure of making a career out of English language teaching, I was the only one who pursued a graduate degree in it immediately after we got married. Although I don't miss Nova so much, I do miss Japan, my students, and some of my colleagues.

References

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard educational review, 57(1), 1-23.


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