notes from an educational battleground: thoughts on teaching
I’m in my third year of assistant teaching at a high school in Japan, which is followed by two years of assistant teaching in the U.S. and working for an educational publishing company. I could probably write a very unqualified book full of my thoughts on education, but here are some random notes instead.
Some teachers really are bullies.
When I was a kid my least favorite teachers were those who seemed to delight in trash talking children. Some adults apparently thought they were clever for belittling students. However, as I got older I became suspicious of my own interpretation. Surely teachers were better than that?
It turns out I was correct. Today there are teachers who storm to my desk to breathlessly recount how they, like, totally pwned a "trouble" student. I’ve learned to be wary of teachers who brag about how they said something sassy in the classroom. I am yet to encounter a single circumstance where these students have not had mental health issues, problems at home, and/or disabilities.
Teachers laugh at students, and it’s bad.
Nothing hindered my French in college more than the professor who laughed every time I made a mistake. Now, I know teachers who laugh at students for their English mistakes. The thing is, our jobs are much more difficult when students are afraid to work at a subject, so the laughter is self-sabotaging. Why does it happen?
The truth is, these teachers haven’t relinquished negative misconceptions that they must have harbored as students: That making mistakes is embarrassing, that ego is more important than learning, and that being “wrong” means you are “stupid.” To me, the foundation of teaching is giving up all of these notions. It’s a big problem when it doesn’t happen, and I wish it was formally addressed in teaching seminars. We try to teach high school students not to be afraid, but they’re not the root of the problem.
My school started a program called English Empowerment, intended to foster confidence in students and encourage them to make English mistakes. I was asked to write a speech introducing the program. The speech was to be delivered by the principal, who does not speak English, so he asked me to coach him.
When our meeting time approached, I was ushered to a large supplies closet in the basement of the school. It was dimly lit and humid, with no air conditioning at the height of August. The principal met me alone, and the door was closed. He explained that he couldn’t bear for his staff to see him struggling with English, so he wanted to meet away from the rest of the school. In other words, he was going to give a speech about “English empowerment,” but he couldn’t handle making mistakes himself.
This is not a Japan problem. I’ve seen similar things from American teachers and French professors. This is the kind of false pride that exists in a neoliberal society, and teachers should eviscerate it, not uphold it.
Not being a controlling monster is difficult.
I catch myself on the brink of unnecessary disciplining almost on a weekly basis. Managing a classroom is 25% authority, 25% bonding with your kids, and 50% reminding yourself not to be a jerk.
To me, being a good teacher means constantly analyzing the power dynamics in the classroom. Before I tell a student to stop/start doing something, I ask myself what my motivation is. Am I doing this for me, or for them? More often than not, dictating what 20-40 individuals are doing in the class is not necessary to teach the lesson.
There’s something about the job that makes you feel like a young person laughing in your class is “misbehavior,” but you must rise above that urge. Classroom jokes are no laughing matter—many of the young people I teach are depressed. Having a zero-horsing-around policy means you are taking away a significant coping mechanism for mental health issues.
I’m happy to say that the number of times my class has broken out into impromptu dance sessions outweighs the number of times I’ve yelled by 6:1.
Teachers can be nicer to teachers than students.
Teachers make mistakes constantly. They show up late to class, they bring the wrong lesson notes, they forget their materials. That’s life; that’s being human. Other teachers create a support network, picking up the slack on your bad day because they know you’ll help them on theirs.
But when it comes to students, teachers can be unforgiving. Speaking of which...
It literally does not matter at all if the same student always forgets their pencil.
When I was a kid I suspected that every teacher who screamed at me because I forgot a pencil and went all, “tHiS iS hOw I pRePaRe YoU fOr ThE rEaL wOrLd!!!!!” was a jerk.
It turns out I was once again correct.
Teachers manage the time in a classroom. Full stop. A student forgetting their pencil only slows down the class if a teacher takes five minutes to yell about it. Most issues are actually non-issues if you deflate your ego a smidgen. If teachers think there is a grand lesson to be learned about responsibility, there really isn't.
When I was a student, I was dealing with my parents’ divorce, abuse, poverty, a chronic disease, no health insurance, my mom having a stroke, growing up in the midst of a local heroin epidemic, being queer, chronic depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety. It’s actually hilarious that some teachers pinned my inability to organize my locker on me being “bad,” or frankly that they even cared at all. As an adult, my life has improved, and I’ve never had organizational issues in any job. Those years of inane lectures were just as pointless as I thought.
Test scores aren’t everything. In fact, they're probably nothing at all.
I teach in Japan, a nation that gets some of the highest test scores in the world. This is really a whole can of worms, but I’m just going to say: High test scores reflect a society where students are pushed to their limits at the cost of having no time to sleep (a serious hindrance for adolescent development and a literal carcinogen), exacerbating mental health issues, and giving students no time to spend with family or on their hobbies.
The Western media gets nearly everything wrong about Japan, but one thing that is correct is its reporting of hikikomori, the people who withdraw from society. There are student-hikikomori in my prefecture and enrolled in my school.
Wrongly, though, the media paints hikikomori as mysterious and surprising. To me, it seems very obvious: If we tell young people that the only way to succeed in life is to push yourself through a school system that hammers you down in anticipation of a job where you wear on a potato-sack black suit every day and work yourself until you die, all while offering these young people minimal mental health support, then some of them are going to opt out of the system. And since we gave them no good options for doing that, the solution they’re going to come up with is to Just Stop.
Beyond the students who don’t come to school at all, I have students who come to school and speak to no one and do no work. They sit silently at their desks and hand in blank tests with their names written on the top.
These kids will converse when adults really try to talk to them. They won’t engage with academics, but they will brighten up when you offer a hand to them. These kids are not the unimaginable freaks the media paints them to be; they’re just people coping the best they can in a terrible system.
This isn’t a Japan-specific problem; it’s a problem of focusing on tests and cram schools at the expense of literally everything else in life. Subsequently, it makes me very sad when I see Americans casually deride the U.S. educational system in comparison with high-pressure countries like Japan, Korea, and Singapore. This isn’t a system to emulate.
Laziness is not real. Mental health issues are.
If I’d had to describe myself as a kid, I’d probably have chosen the word “lazy.” I identified with that adjective because teachers and family threw it at me so often. It’s funny how calling me lazy never got me to do my work. It’s even funnier how not doing my work was detrimental to my future in literally no way at all.
When teachers dismiss inactive students as “lazy,” I plead with them to consider the bigger picture: The student usually has autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety, or severe social anxiety. Sometimes they’re juggling other issues—very serious ones (physical and mental abuse; immigration issues; poverty). I have literally never encountered a “lazy student” who, when some probing was done, did not turn out to need extra support to cope with disabilities, illness, mental health issues, or problems at home. At this point, I just don’t know what it means to “be lazy.” I don’t believe that’s a real quality that people have.
Wrapping it all up
Well, this was more of a bummer than intended. But what it really means is this: Teaching is about empathy, compassion, patience, and understanding. It’s about supporting your students no matter where they’re at in life. I don’t know any other job where you get to have that kind of relationship with the people you “work” with. Maybe a veterinarian and her puppies? I am so happy I get to teach people who like to spontaneously break out in tango competitions between the desk aisles. Their aspirations are varied and inspiring. It’s a joy, and I’m incredibly grateful for my students.