When Good English Classes Go Bad

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It’s something of an occupational hazard among teachers that we do tend to play favorites. Everyone has their favorite classes, and likewise, everyone probably has those one or two classrooms that they dread stepping into each week.

What those new to teaching or those who frequently change schools may not be aware of, is that this dynamic changes from time to time. Some classes that were good become bad. Others that may have previously resembled a war zone can, due to a change in circumstances, take on an almost Zen-like peace and tranquility.

But what are these circumstances that bring about change and how can we as teachers keep on top of them and use them to our advantage in the classroom? Today, I hope to share some advice and opinions from my own experiences of both public schools and private conversation schools in Japan to help you manage this state of flux more effectively.

The start of the new school year is probably the most common time when these changes occur and there are a number of reasons for this. First, there is a natural surliness and lethargy that comes from getting back to work after two or three weeks off. Even as adults we often experience that “Monday morning hangover” feeling. And unlike our students, as much as we may dislike work, at least we are paid to be there!

Summer — and the run up to it — is also a time when you may see a spike in unruly behavior.

Another important factor to consider is the possible changes in classroom dynamics. Though it is far less common in Japan than in junior or senior high schools elsewhere, new students can, from time to time, join a class in mid-term or at the start of their second or third year. How those one or two students interact with the rest of the group can have a huge impact on the overall classroom atmosphere.

I’ve seen both the good and bad in this. A few years ago, I had a new student come into what was, up to that point, a pretty good class. However, this boy immediately set about trying to establish himself as “the boss” of the class, threatening and attacking any student who didn’t follow him. He was rude, disruptive and sometimes even violent towards his teachers, too.

Thankfully, this particular reign of terror didn’t last long. The boys in the older grades had a “quiet word with him” about his behavior and things soon returned to some semblance of normality. I’m not one to advocate the use of violence but have noticed that in Japanese schools, in the absence of formal punishment and exclusion procedures, some teachers do allow a certain degree of self-policing among the students.

But I have also seen the positive impact a new student can bring to a class.

One of my year one classes at a junior high school last year were not a bad group by any means, but the students didn’t seem particularly engaged in English class or especially interested. Then, in the autumn term, a new student arrived who injected life and energy into the whole classroom. Her enthusiasm and aptitude for English were infectious and she encouraged the whole class to follow her lead. Things went a lot smoother from then on.

Compassion, consideration and an understanding of the circumstances is really what’s needed here.

Of course, a change in teacher can have a big impact too. It varies from school to school, but some classes reassign their homeroom teacher to another class at the beginning of each year — and this change at the top has a trickle-down effect on students, as well.

As in a change to the student body, I have seen both positive and negative impacts from this.

If a teacher who is a hard taskmaster comes into a lazy and failing class and shakes things up a bit, this almost always results in a change for the better. Conversely, a good class can be harmed by the entry of a teacher who slackens off and fails to keep the students on their toes.

It’s not just the beginning of the new school year when classes can turn bad though. Summer — and the run up to it — is also a time when you may see a spike in unruly behavior. The rainy season in Japan, which runs through the month of June, is almost intolerably humid, leaving students tired, grumpy and occasionally disruptive. I tend to try to use less physical activities around this time, as students really can’t be bothered and the fact that you cut them a little slack in this regard will not go unappreciated.

The period from January to March is also a time when you may experience some disruption, especially among third-year junior and senior high students. At this time, they will be going through the process of completing final exams and submitting high school and university applications. It’s a time of high stress, high workloads and — perhaps understandably — short tempers.

Teenagers can be moody at the best of times but if you understand the fact that their entire future is likely to be mapped out in the next few weeks, you can see why they might get a bit upset. Again, compassion, consideration and an understanding of the circumstances is really what’s needed here. In many schools, including my current workplace, it is standard practice not to have any classes with third-year students after January so they can have adequate time to focus on more important endeavors.

There are a number of small steps we can take as ALTs to ensure our classes run smoothly during these times of transition.

At all stages of tackling a classroom problem, communication is the most important thing.

If one or two students, in particular, are causing a problem, the first port of call should be the class’s Japanese teacher of English (JTE). They will, in all likelihood, know the student better than you and be better positioned to offer advice. If problems persist, however, it may be a good idea, along with your JTE, to seek the counsel of the homeroom teacher. They will know of any underlying concerns with particular students, such as problems at home, mental or emotional disorders or other issues.

At all stages of tackling a classroom problem, communication is the most important thing. Language and cultural barriers can make this tricky sometimes, but it is absolutely vital that you and your Japanese colleagues make sure you are on the same page before taking any action in the classroom.

My final piece of advice is to say that you need empathy and plenty of it. We have no idea the issues students may be going through or what may trigger sudden changes in their behavior. It’s important we play a supportive and understanding role while doing our best to keep classes engaging and light.

However, this doesn’t mean we should be pushovers. Never be afraid to tell a student when their behavior is unacceptable, and always report such incidents to your colleagues for follow up.

Being a teenager is a tough time, and in Japan being a teacher is about far more than just teaching English. We are mentors; we are big brothers and sisters to our students. They look up to us, and we must look after them.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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