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6 Types of Students Language Teachers Will Meet in Japan

If “Teaching English in Japanese High Schools” were a movie, these six characters would get the lead roles.

By 8 min read

We all know those American high school movie stereotypes: the athletes, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the teacher’s pets. Who can forget the Mean Girls scene where Janice shows Cady the lunch table cliques. It’s also true we should be careful about describing these fragile teens “in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions” as the collective group from The Breakfast Club pens in their letter at the close of the film (cue: “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Language teachers — old and new alike — you are going to meet some wonderful, zany and challenging students as you navigate the classrooms of the Japanese education system. Here are the six characters I would pick if I had to make a terrible teen movie about teaching high school English in Japan.

The Whisperer1. The Whisperer

The most ubiquitous of the Japanese students, this child speaks more quietly than a falling sakura (cherry blossom) petal.

Apparently, most teachers just allow them to do this because you can always count on their look of sheer terror when you interrupt their whisper with an: “Ehhh? Say again?” As you crane your neck in their direction.

“Oh, God. This foreign person actually cares? Maybe if I speak more quietly, they will give up,” they seem to think.

Everyone in the class looks away, trying to save them the embarrassment of actually having to participate in class. A fly buzzes by, drowning out the student’s third attempt at an audible answer. After constant pestering, it is usually possible to get them to at least blurt out a few strong attempts at a sentence. However, too much pestering will terrify the other whisperers in the class (i.e. everyone) so proceed with caution.

  • Favorite place to sit: Not the front, that’s for sure.
  • How to spot them: Their mission seems primarily not to be spotted.
  • How to inspire them: Show, don’t teach. Shout during the entire class, if you have to. They’ll catch on.

The Wraith2. The Wraith

There’s always one wraith in every class. Usually a girl, every time you notice her, you see she is staring directly in front of her in total, abject silence. In fact, it’s almost creepy the way she isn’t really looking at anything, and yet her gaze is so intense. Is she having a vision? Is she psychic? You suppress horrifying flashbacks of traumatic childhood horror movies.

Finally, a few days later, you approach her during a classroom activity. She has been totally shut out of the discussion or rather she has not moved whatsoever and the rest of her classmates have given up. You ask how everything is going. She continues staring off into space, but you eventually get her to face you. She gives you a look like she has no idea where or who she is. You repeat the question — uncomfortably — and the rest of the group begins to watch. Suddenly The Wraith begins to try to formulate some kind of response… maybe.

You realize that this entire situation is a black hole,and you need to move on with your class. She cannot be saved. It is time to abandon ship. “So… you’re going to think about it more?” She stares at you. Finally, gives you a weak nod and faces the front of the classroom again. You flee, never to return.

  • Favorite place to sit: Near a window or a wall, which they like to stare at.
  • How to spot them: Wraiths generally tend to be girls with long hair and square bangs. I don’t know why.
  • How to inspire them: Remember that they might have some heavy stuff going on in their lives and just try to be there without being too… there. You know?

The Bromancer3. The Bromancer in the Back

You thought it was cute how Japanese girls were a little bit touchier than you were used to back home in your country. They’re always holding hands and cuddling in between classes. Aw…

Then you notice movement in the corner of your eye as you’re teaching. One of the boys in the back has stood on a chair and has begun humping another boy in the face. Everyone is laughing. A Japanese teacher walks by and also laughs. The boy having his face humped is laughing. You stare in complete horror.

Traumatized by this experience, you approach a group of boys working on a speaking activity. Instructing one of the boys to write something, he leans over as he concentrates deeply on how to spell the word “tomorrow,” exposing a tiny fraction of his butt. You don’t even notice until one of his group mates yells, “Eroi (erotic/sexy)!” and slaps him on the ass. He recoils in flattered embarrassment and the group dissolves into bro hugs and noogies. You back away slowly, refreshed that men can be so openly affectionate, but panicked that teenagers may or may not be sexually harassing each other.

  • Favorite place to sit: In the back, duh.
  • How to spot them: If you see a crowd of boys, there’s a high chance that a bromance will break out.
  • How to inspire them: Bromancers actually tend to be very motivated by foreign languages. Have fun joking and chatting, but stay “profesh” when the kids get fresh.

The Returnee4. The Returnee

At first, you are overjoyed to have a returnee in your class. These kids have spent a significant amount of time living in a foreign country. Thanks to this, they are not only bilingual but bicultural and more familiar to a Western teacher. What an asset!

You’re not the only one who thinks this kid is a blessing. One day, when you’ve cornered a Whisperer with a question about her summer vacation, she flees to the Returnee, begging them for help. Suddenly, the returnee has become the de facto interpreter for the entire class. Nobody is happy about this, least of all the Returnee. That said, Returnees are usually perfect gossip partners, so you keep them close for your own sanity. That might not make sense now to new ALTs, but trust me — you’ll get there.

  • Favorite place to sit: Always supportively in your field of vision, without being too conspicuous.
  • How to spot them: Despite having uniforms, they somehow manage to look different from their classmates.
  • How to inspire them: Just try to stop them from getting too bored.

The Background Kid5. The Background Kid

“Oh, hey! Yuichi is back after his year abroad,” one of your teacher friends excitedly informs you.

Wait, you think, Yuichi was abroad for a year?

You might think you’re a terrible teacher, but actually you are just a victim of the Background kids. They lurk in the Background, a mysterious plain of existence that ALTs cannot perceive with the naked eye.

Sometimes you might see kids in the hallway and think: Does that kid even go here? Those are Background kids, momentarily exposed. Trips abroad are especially good at stripping students of their ability to fade out of the limelight.

  • Favorite place to sit: They’re in the Background.
  • How to spot them: If you look really hard, they’re the kids that are trying really hard not be noticed.
  • How to inspire them: Give students plenty of ways to stand out. A quiet kid might be a remarkable artist or a passionate singer. You never know what talent lies in the Background.

The Model Student6. The Model Student

“How was everyone’s weekend?” You stupidly ask your class. Amateur. Everyone knows questions posed to a class are doomed to an awkward silence. Legend has it, you can wait 10 whole minutes standing in front of 30-plus students and still get no response. Their collective strategy? If they don’t move, the teacher can’t see them.

Every so often, though, a student mutters “Fine, thank you.” She even agrees to talk to you about her trip to Tokyo and you share a moment about your love of anime shops.

The best part about model students is that anyone can become one. Suddenly a Whisperer might raise her hand and boldly answer a question. A Wraith might emerge from the shadows and say “hello” to you in the hallway. “Holy crap!” you think. “Are they… learning?” Maybe that model student is infectious. Or… maybe you actually made a difference? Who knows!

  • Favorite place to sit: Smack dab in front of the teacher.
  • How to spot them: They’re the kids who raise their hand sometimes.
  • How to inspire them: They have plenty of inspiration. Channel their inspiration to the other kids.

And so, like every cheesy teen movie, there’s usually an obvious lesson at the end. It’s wrong to stereotype, but it’s important and even helpful to notice trends. Use your experience to bring out the best in each student — no matter the role they choose to play in your class.

Any other common stereotypes you see in your classrooms? Share your tips (and stories) below. For every comment made, a Whisperer gets their voice!

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