6 types of students language teachers will meet in Japan

By Alex Rickert

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.

1. 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 cranine 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.

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© GaijinPot

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Not sure if this article is meant as comedy or as a serious discussion of teaching. Either way, it contains some of the worst teaching advice I've heard.

Inspire quiet kids by shouting in class until the kids catch on? No, that rarely works. What kids need is a context where they have a natural desire to use language. A foreigner shouting at them is not a productive context.

Deal with a returnee by just trying to prevent boredom? A teacher is responsible for student learning, not for providing antidotes to boredom.

Channel the natural inspiration that model students have into other students? Nice in theory, but those model students are typically one or two standard deviations higher in intelligence than other students. The rest of the class is more likely to be put off--"I'll never be as good at English as _____ is"--than motivated by that perfect student. Students need to find motivation to use English on their own terms, for their own reasons. That model student's motivations are often perfection and being at the top of the class, which other students won't achieve.

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And 95% of all of these students will be the 7th type - the one who doesn't use English much outside of class and then tells everyone they can't speak English.

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"1. The Whisperer"

The bane of my classrooms. Literally. "Oki koe kudasai" "psssspspspsssssss". "Kikoenai. Oki Koe. Mo ikai". "pssssssspppssssssp" ""Kikoenai! Oki Koe! Mo ikai kudasai.". No change. Nothing. Its one of the few times I use my terrible Japanese in the classroom. I want them to be 100% clear and I can not hear them and I want them to speak up. The simply repeat whatever they said at exactly the same volume. It makes me want to cave my head in sometimes. And we are talking about ADULTS! An ADULT that is legally able to vote now. An adult that can follow the simple request of someone begging you to speak louder because physics prevents them from physically hearing you, yet you hold 100% of the power to remedy the situation and are even given instruction on how to do so.

This isn't about motivation. Or good English or bad English. Or about any of my abilities as a teacher. It's just insanity. You are sitting so far away and its 40C and the aircon is on. I physically can't hear you. I am telling you in your native tongue that I physically can't hear you. I am telling you to say it again louder and you 100% completely ignore 2 or 3 or 4 times and don't change the volume of your voice at all. I have no words to explain this phenomenon other than shear bewilderment.

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Wow. As I was told, years ago, by an older and wiser staff-room colleague:

"Your problem is that you still give a fig."

Only he didn't say "fig".

Still, only five weeks of term left before the summer holidays. Time to relax and then maybe introduce vodka into your autumn teaching plans....

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