In Japan, eikaiwa, or English conversation schools, are different from regular schools. Teaching here is not the same as being an ALT (assistant language teacher) at a public school or a university. The students are often taught individually, and they can review your lessons or even request to have (or not have) you as their teacher.
I’ve been teaching at eikaiwa for a few years now. From practical experience and valuable advice from veterans, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Eikaiwa is a business. Student satisfaction can be more important than education, and you’ll encounter many different kinds of students you’ll remember for both good and bad reasons.
The difference in student personalities is what makes working at an eikaiwa so interesting.
A student once gave me half their mask collection after I mentioned I couldn’t find any. Another student spent our lesson discussing Naruto. One student complained that it was “unprofessional” to talk about my personal life after I mentioned my boyfriend never turns off the lights in a lesson about conserving energy.
From students who can test your patience to the ones who make your job worthwhile, here are six types I’ve come across teaching English conversation classes in Japan and how to handle them.
1. The chill one
This student is my favorite. Laidback and relaxed, it feels like they’ve just come to chat. Somehow, you start the lesson with the textbook, but by the end,, you’re talking about how great the sushi in Hokkaido is or the annoying things their boss does. They aren’t very interested in grammar and would instead ask you silly questions about your life or how you feel about Japan.
How to handle them
If the student really wants to talk — let them. Cultivate the conversation. However, it takes some experience and judgment to know if the student just wants to talk. Students like this often want a laid-back lesson with the teacher, but they don’t want an entire session of free talk.
Find a balance between answering their questions and continuing the conversation with a question or two of your own. Then, close that part of the discussion with: “Interesting! OK, now let’s go to…”
It might help if you’re not too strict with the book also. While it’s best if you stick with teaching the grammar and vocab for that lesson, you don’t need to do every listening or reading activity.
Another approach is to incorporate what they’re talking about into the lesson.
Make up for it with discussion questions, e.g., “Why do you think Tokyo’s rush hour is so bad? What’s your commute like?” if the lesson is about commuting. If you do this, make sure to mention at the end that you’ve finished the chapter and will move on next class. If they’re not interested in the lesson, though, don’t force them to do it.
Another approach is to incorporate what they’re talking about into the lesson itself. For example, if the student likes to talk about their cat, and the lesson topic is scheduling appointments, then practice scheduling a vet appointment. Sometimes, I’ll ask the student what they want, e.g., “do you want to continue with this material or continue discussing Pokémon Go?” because why stress when you can just ask?
2. The master of English
This student tends to think they’ve reached black belt level in English, but they’re still practicing putting on their karate uniform in reality. Their pronunciation might even sound katakana-like, and their overall level might not be too high.
They’re likely to ignore your corrections and get frustrated if you persist. They might even tell you that you’re wrong because some English textbook in Japan says otherwise — regardless of all your first-hand experience in teaching exactly that point!
How to handle them
This type of student takes patience and your best customer service face. Suppose they disagree because of something another teacher or textbook advised. Never respond that the teacher or text is wrong.
English can differ based on country and dialect, and your way of saying something might not be the same as in another English-speaking country. Saying something like: “That’s also true, but in my home country, we tend to say this…” tells them indirectly that sometimes there is more than one “right” way.
As far as corrections go, pick your battles. Correct them on the lesson grammar and vocabulary, but you might want to avoid correcting them on every little thing. Be careful with how you correct them, too. E.g., “It’s more natural to say…” rather than “No, say it like this.”
3. The bundle of nerves
This student speaks quietly, doesn’t expand the conversation, or won’t talk because they’re petrified of making mistakes. In return, it can make you nervous about making them more anxious, making the lesson an endless cycle of nerves.
How to handle them
This type of student can be tricky because they likely lack confidence, and that’s why they’re speaking so quietly.
To make things worse, I’ve found that some students often equate your encouragement with criticism. E.g., “one more time” with “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” It’s crucial not to destroy their confidence further.
Make sure to praise them…even if their answer isn’t 100 percent correct.
Try cupping your ear and gesturing that you can’t hear well while asking. E.g., “Could you say that one more time?” I’ve found this works better than just saying, “One more time, please.”
Make sure to praise them a lot with an energetic smile, even if their answer isn’t 100 percent correct.
4. Mr. or Ms. High Expectations
You’ll feel like you had a great lesson with this student until they complain to the staff about a miscommunication that you didn’t even realize was a miscommunication. Maybe they’re dissatisfied with their experience at the school or with the textbook, and they’re blaming you.
To the students, the teacher controls everything, when, in reality, we possess little.
How to handle them
I’ve found that with this student, sticking to the book is your best bet. Don’t ask too many off-topic questions and follow your company’s teaching method strictly. Always go in prepared with a backup plan if the material is too difficult or too easy.
Be ready to answer tricky questions about grammar, i.e., be a teacher. Often, they’ll ask things that you, as a native speaker, don’t even think about, such as the difference between “could you” and “would you.” If they say they don’t have questions, but their face still looks confused, ask if they want to practice more.
5. The returning business person
This student might’ve just come back from kaigai, or overseas, after living there a while, or works for an international company. They come in with a high-level business textbook that is still too low for their ability and say they’re here to learn more business phrases.
You can’t fake your way through a lesson with this student. If you don’t know a word or don’t have an answer to their question, they’ll know. You might not be very familiar with business terms either. Otherwise, you’d be working in finance or accounting instead of working at an eikaiwa.
How to handle them
Try to build a strong rapport with the student. Ask them questions with new vocabulary and grammar, push them to expand on their answers and expect the lesson to go more like a discussion. Don’t spoon-feed them like the beginning student who hasn’t used English since high school.
If you don’t know an answer to their question, be honest about not knowing but promise to look it up and get back to them with it next lesson — but make sure you follow through!
Tailored, personalized lessons will always be more valuable for the student.
Also: idioms! The meanings aren’t the easiest to pick up, but you’ll feel like you’re teaching them something new, and the students will feel like they’re learning from you.
You might also want to dive into formality levels with the lesson topic using role play. Tailored, personalized lessons will always be more valuable for the student.
6. The one whose parents are forcing them to come
This (usually teenage) student finds English mendokusai (annoying). They often come in late, make it evident that they’re bored and might even yawn or check the time right in front of you.
How to handle them
It might be worth it to have the staff get the student’s parents involved, but in my experience, this doesn’t always help. Try to make the lesson enjoyable by relating it to their interests and not being so strict with the book.
Incorporate fun activities as much as possible, so they don’t feel like they are actually studying. Instead, they are just having fun with some relevant English sprinkled in. Some good activities might involve physical activity, such as getting them to come up to the board for some English tic-tac-toe or a version of hot potato with a crumpled up piece of paper.
Consider each encounter a learning experience.
The difference in student personalities is what makes working at an eikaiwa so interesting. I was never much of a “people person” before my teaching job, but the experience has taught me how to be one.
Keep your cool with challenging students, and consider each encounter a learning experience. After all, you can always go scream in the break room once they’re out of earshot.
Do you teach eikaiwa classes? What types of students bring you the most teachable moments or make your job feel worthwhile? Let us know in the comments!