As English teachers here in Japan, our exact job duties are never really made completely clear. Instead, we seem to be given rough guidelines, such as “help to provide effective English lessons,” “encourage students to enjoy English” and so on.
My personal approach has always been to encourage communication.
Getting students to be word perfect is an admirable goal, but ultimately a futile one in my opinion, especially if you are teaching 30 or 40 students at a time. I believe that if your students can make themselves understood in English and in turn understand your responses then you can consider the class a success.
In my classes — and I’m sure in yours, too — a key part of this is encouraging students to ask questions.
Asking questions is useful to your students in a multitude of ways. First off, it allows them to form their own questions using structures and vocabulary you have previously taught them is a great way to practice using their English in a practical way. It also encourages the idea of “thinking in English” as opposed to taking memorized stock phrases and regurgitating them.
However, giving your students such free reign in class can also be problematic sometimes.
In short, students enjoy embarrassing their teachers with awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes personal questions. Very rarely is this borne out of malice, rather it’s just the natural instinct that kids have in wanting to see how far they can push the boundaries.
It helps to have a useful retort up your sleeve when such questions come up.
So, with this in mind, here are some of the questions I have encountered down the years and some of my suggested responses. Remember that time, place and occasion should always be considered. A bit of playful mischief-making should be met with a similarly laid back, good-humored response. Nasty or inappropriate questions or anything which could be construed as harassment should not be tolerated and must be curbed quickly and decisively.
Each of us has our own standards and personal boundaries. You may think, in reading my responses to these common questions that I may be too sensitive to some or too laid back with others. In your own case, follow your instincts, you alone are the best judge of what is best for your class at that moment.
With that out of the way, let’s tackle some questions:
1. Are you married? Do you have a partner?
Being male and teaching at an all-female school, this is a question that consistently came up in classes during my first few months at this school. I chose to be honest in my answer.
I was dating someone at the time. So when they asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?” I answered, “Yes I do.”
After that, I didn’t invite any further comment.
A lot of teachers I know prefer to simply say, “That’s a secret.” This is also a perfectly reasonable answer.
I have some friends and colleagues in the LGBT community who, understandably, wish to keep relationship details private.
2. Are you rich?
This one is pretty easy to answer. I smile and reply to the student: “If I was rich, I wouldn’t be working here!” This usually gets a laugh from the students, but it’s all in the delivery. It needs to be light and not bitter.
3. How much do you weigh?
OK, maybe I’m a bit too sensitive here, but as a bigger guy and someone who was bullied about my weight as a teenager, this is one question that I straight up refuse to answer. And I always make a point of telling the students that both in Japan and abroad, it is very disrespectful and rude to ask someone this question. Usually, they get the message.
4. Do you think your JTE is cute?
I’ll admit it: this is one that has caught me out in the past and left me red with embarrassment, especially since I have been fortunate enough to teach alongside some very attractive women down the years!
I usually respond with something like: “Of course, Ms. _____ is very nice, friendly, kind and beautiful. But I don’t think I am her type.” I then jokingly feign disappointment.
The only acceptable answer to this question is: ‘Yes, I love teaching.’
Hopefully, your Japanese teacher of English has a sense of humor and will play along with some banter of their own. Again, it’s up to you to judge whether it’s appropriate to make a joke out of this, or just say, “Next question please.” I recommend giving some kind of answer though, as not addressing it will just fuel further gossip among your students
5. What do you like or dislike about Japan?
A few rules for this one. First, don’t talk Japanese politics. You may think Mr. Abe is a wonderful human being or you may think he’s the Trump of Japan. In any case, you don’t know the views of your students or coworkers so it’s best to leave that particular hot potato to someone else.
Second, don’t be too negative about Japan. You could say something like: “I don’t like the hot summers” or “I don’t like natto.” Highlighting the ingrained, systemic racism non-Japanese face when trying to rent an apartment or get a credit card isn’t likely to go down well.
Third, try to mix up your answers. You’re likely to get this question many times in your classes, so it’s a good idea to have a series of things you can talk about. Most of all, keep it light, keep it fun and try not to get too bogged down in the negatives.
6. Why did you come to Japan?
This is sometimes a tricky one because you need to consider both brevity and clarity.
Choosing to upend everything and move to the other side of the world isn’t an easy choice for anyone and the factors that made it happen for you are probably both numerous and complicated.
Try this little thought exercise: If I asked you to answer that question in a single sentence, how would you do it? Now, think about how you would make that single sentence understandable to a small child. Answer these two points and you’ve got a ready-made answer to this question.
7. Do you like being a teacher?
Now, I would, under most normal circumstances, tell you that you shouldn’t lie to your students. However, this is a possible exception.
We all come to Japan for different reasons, but in most cases, our love of teaching isn’t one of them. For me, and indeed most others I know in Japan, teaching is a means to an end enabling us to do what we want to do here. It isn’t our chosen profession. I’m a writer who teaches, rather than a teacher who writes.
However, such concerns shouldn’t affect your students. The only acceptable answer to this question is: “Yes, I love teaching.” Truth be told, as time goes on I have developed a certain fondness for it, despite its numerous pitfalls.
One final piece of advice I will give today. Young minds need inspiration, they thirst for knowledge. As teachers, it’s on us to be the suppliers of that knowledge. You should always do your best to answer any question a student asks positively and encourage them to ask more.
After all, as the ancient Chinese proverb goes: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”
What’s the most awkward question you’ve been asked by a student in class — and how did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below!