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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 29, 2011

On Demo Lessons, English Contests, Heroism, Coddling, and Mental Illness

A number of issues to discuss today.

1. English Teacher as Hero?

Let me start by suggesting that you watch this life-affirming, heartwarming video showing an 8-month old baby boy with a cochlear implant hearing his mother's voice for the first time . I'm linking this because one of the doctor/professors at my university (one who I know quite well having helped with his English publications and played golf with him) played a pivotal role in the development of this device. The man's a hero.

There's a part of me, of everybody I assume, that wants to be a hero too-- something that can make you look back on your life and allow you to say that you contributed to humanity so that you will be fondly remembered. Actually, I'd settle for being one of those veteran teachers who received a batch of flowers, a teary speech of thanks from the graduates, and a Sensei-with-the-students memorial slide show at the annual year-end Thank you party.

But this always happens to someone else. I'm jealous. And even though these affairs are inevitably maudlin and a bit contrived, sometimes I want to be that special teacher who the students hold dearly in their hearts-- who they refer to as an inspiration later when they are inventing, oh, even better cochlear implants.

But the reality is that teachers who try to too hard to be loved by their students can also often be seen as saps, pushovers-- 'pashiri' in Japanese. It's a bit like that overly needy guy at the singles bar-- the eligible ladies can smell need like an investment banker can smell an unearned bonus. And, yes, sometimes the most feted teachers have reputations as hardasses.

And while the teacher who gains plaudits has often done something way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty, a real self-sacrifice of time and effort for his or her charges it is also possible that even if you do go all out you may still earn little no more recognition than an o-tsukare-sama from one of your peers.

While I think I am generally quite liked by my students (knock on wood) I just can't imagine myself being a life-changing force for them. Correct me if you think I'm wrong, but there seems to be little that an English teacher can do (at least with university students) to become that hit movie-inspiring catalyst; the To Sir With Love type of mentor. Perhaps English teachers shouldn't strive to be heroes but merely aim at doing a good, solid 9-to-5 job and have no expectations beyond a basic appreciation from the students (and a half-decent salary).

But what I'm wondering is-- have any readers been, or seen, English teachers lauded as heroes by students? How and why? I'm curious.

2. Demonstration Lessons and American Idol

Ok, admit it. You have watched American Idol, even though it is to music appreciation what Greece is to fiscal responsibility. Since the candidates are given about 15 seconds to strut their stuff, the talented ones are pretty much required to indulge in a bout of vocal histrionics the whole time to show range and, I suppose, 'soul' (even if the tune would be more effective sung in a near monotone- I'm still waiting for some Celine Dion-esque diva to cover 'Autobahn'). It's basically a display of surface showmanship designed to impress celebrity judges, and is hardly indicative of what being a fully-fledged 'vocalist' entails.

This reminds me a bit of English class demonstration lessons (which fortunately, we are not required to do here at Miyadai since we don't have to actively recruit, being a national university and all). The problem with demonstration lessons is that you are expected to do an appealing, representative, and educationally sound lesson-- but in 20 minutes, and with a bunch of students who don't know you, the school, nor each other.

Now, generally speaking, one's best lessons tend to be those that have the following properties:
1. The lesson is connected to the one before and will connect to the one after. It fits naturally into the overall curriculum and stated purpose of the course.

2. There is a balance between teacher talk and student talk.

3. There has been sufficient introduction, presentation, or other groundwork laid before the meatiest part of the lesson-- the main task for the students-- is introduced.

4. As mentioned earlier, the students are at ease with the teacher and with each other. And the teacher knows what the students' abilities are, as well as what they have or haven't studied previously.

5. There is at least 60 minutes to pace and flesh the lesson out, especially to reinforce key teaching points at the end.

And yet none of these qualities are options when doing the standard 20 minute song-and-dance demonstration lesson.

So, my question to those readers who do demos is-- How exactly do you manage it?

3. English Contests in Japan-- And who should really be eligible?

As most readers know, in Japan there are numerous English speech or debate contests. Theoretically, any student enrolled at a Japanese school school can enter (am I right?).

So what about Pete? Pete is Canadian and has been in Japan only two years as his parents have been temporarily placed in the Nagoya office. He is, in every sense, a native English speaker. If Pete enters the contest would it demotivate other students? Does it somehow detract from the meaning or purpose of the competition? So, do you rule Pete out? If so, on what grounds?

Then what about Tatianna. She's from Poland and has been in Japan for six years but has a pretty good facility with English due to her family's past and some education in Poland, not to mention that her father's international business is conducted in English. But she's not a native speaker so should she be eligible? If you were a judge and you saw her Western face would you judge her more harshly even though she's not really a native English speaker?

Would you judge her more harshly than you would Ryo? Ryo is as Japanese as miso soup but he spent six years in the U.S. so his English is pretty close to native. Other students might feel disadvantaged by Ryo's appearance in the contest given his lengthy sojourn abroad, but it would be hard to disqualify him. Or would it?

Then what about Izumi? Izumi's case will dovetail with many Uni-files readers', I imagine. Izumi is half-Japanese half-whatever, and of course a Japanese citizen, and has grown up almost exclusively in Japan. However Izumi speaks English to her Australian father at home so her English is native-like. And she looks more Western than Asian. Izumi has an advantage to be sure... but is it an unfair one?

Is it any more unfair than the student who excels in science contests in no small part due to the fact that her mother is a Professor of Biochemistry at a prestigious university?

If you were a judge, would you treat all of these contestants equally and objectively? And if not, shouldn't we tell the contestants who might not get equal treatment that they shouldn't waste their time because they have no chance of winning from the outset?

I understand how a judge might think it's unfair for Pete to compete against your regular Yusuke or Sayuri in an English speech contest but where and how would you draw the line for participation and equal assessment? I can understand that it might feel 'unfair' or against the spirit of the competition if Pete wins the English speech contest, Tatianna is 2nd, Izumi 3rd and all others, your regular Yusukes and Sayuris, just also-rans. And it might further foster the notion that 'English is for foreigners'.

But I'd like to know how you would handle this...because otherwise we might be wasting Pete, Tatianna, and Izumi's time and effort.

4. Mental illness? Anti-social? Or just weak-willed?

We've all come across students who appear to have mental disorders and, in some cases, clinically confirmed mental disorders. The big question is, how do you handle this in terms of grading and credits?

In some cases, you don't have to. The student with the disorder may be as intellectually capable and hard working as anyone else in the class and their effort and test grades end up reflecting this. And on the other extreme side of the equation, students who display full blown psychosis and simply can't function properly probably shouldn't be in class and need more intensive treatment. But I'm talking about that middle ground.

You know, someone suffering from diagnosed depression or PSTD that is affecting performance. Do we cut them some slack in terms of grading their performance or, while considerate of their situations, are we bound only to grade the actual class performance regardless of external factors because otherwise it is unfair to the other students, since their grades are connected only to performance and not to personal issues? And if we choose to fail the afflicted student,shouldn't we be worried about the adverse effect this will have on their already fragile state?

The choice to fail, or at least defer a passing grade, might seem callous but if we make allowances for students with depression, we can start making that allowance for a number of students in the class. We could make them for the anti-social students, the impossibly shy, the permanently sleepy, or the perpetually bored. After all, it is arguable that they too are suffering from some disorder even if it is hasn't been clinically diagnosed. Mental disorders exist on a continuum-- having had a doctor check it from a list doesn't make it any more real than the problems of a person who never thinks to visit the psych ward.

Claiming some sort of exemption due to depression could become a convenient excuse. Even if the disorder has been clinically diagnosed, well, that may not mean much. These days the mere suggestion that you feel depressed is often sufficient to draw a get-out-of-work letter and/or meds from psychiatrists (I read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test recently on these matters-- I also know from Japanese doctors that this practice is much more common in Japan than it used to be). The problem is that since Fred feels depressed (as we all do at times), gets an official diagnosis and medication, we feel like we should go easy on him-- while Betty, who might have the same degree of depression as Fred, simply toughs it out and goes on with her work, home life, and social life despite how much of a struggle it all is. But we don't treat Betty with the kid gloves-- nor is she asking for them.

This raises another issue for me-- should depression be an excuse for rude and anti-social acts? Should we look the other way when students with a diagnosed depression walk into class 30 minutes late, immediately put their heads down on their desks, are unresponsive to the teacher or peers, and leave whenever the feel like it because, hey, they're depressed dammit!

It seems to me that depression should never be an excuse for anti-social or just plain rude, inconsiderate behaviour-- the pathology of being a sociopath is hardly a standard by-product of depression. The depressive is rarely psychotic and so can still judge the merits of their own actions. You and I both know enough people who have suffered from quite severe mental illnesses who still maintain a certain amount of social grace and persevere with duties and requirements even though they feel like zombies. (And yes, I've been subject to extreme changes where my spirit seems to be running out of my hands like water, where the real world almost appears like an apparition, and death and life do not seem so distinct-- thankfully much less so now than when I was younger).

So, the question once again is, how do you deal with students with diagnosed mental disorders?

5. Is it coddling?

As some readers may know I advocate giving students as much information, help, detailed outlines, and guidance as possible before they do tests or graded assignments-- with the goal of (hopefully) helping them to produce the best possible result. This includes giving them succesful old tests or assignments to look at, a list of textbook pages for study, I provide graphic outlines of what I expect them to do, do practice runs, prep classes etc.

But, after a recent presentation in which I mentioned this approach, one attendee suggested that this might be coddling students too much. This seems to me to be a reasonable argument-- that by giving them too many preparatory pointers I may actually be making them more dependent on the teacher, inhibiting the development of their autonomy, and not letting them use their own academic study skills to work things out.

So, the question (yet again) is... where do you stand on this?

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On number 3. English Contests in Japan-- And who should really be eligible?
I have judged a junior high speech contest once, and have helped with two others since. As a judge is was extremely diffucult to be biased with students because of prior knowledge of their English education.
I do know though that for the junior high there are set rules for students who have studied English in eikaiwa for more than a set time can not participate, as well as students who have lived abroad for a set time can not participate.
Although the idea would be to judge everyone "equally," there comes a question. Just because one has lived in, is from, or has studied for a longer amount of time than general students, does that really give them an advantage in the command of a "speech." In a sense, just because someone is a native English speaker doesn't necessarily mean they speak, or articulate well.

As for depression and similar mental illnesses. Personally I was diagnosed, given medicine for depression, but came to the conclusion that just because I have "depression" doesn't give me anything more than others. I didn't find it appropriate to be treated differnent. In your wonderful writing about rudeness and depression, I see absolutaly no excuse to get in the way of other students or the teacher. Using depression especially as an excuse is dissapointing.

Thanks for the comment Niko. I think you are correct in saying that formal speech skills or debate skills in English can be distinguished from raw English ability-- that competent speakers of English may not be very good at speeches and/or debates. Also that those skills, and not raw ability, should be the criterion for judging.

However, I do think that having an overall native or native-like grasp of the language can come into play positively, especially when any unplanned element (the 'hanron' part of a debate or a slip-up that requires repair in a speech) comes into play.

Interestingly, using the 'Eikaiwa study' or 'time abroad' criteria for eligibility would not rule out my son. He has no need for Eikaiwa yet is native-like.

But, referring to the Eikaiwa experience criterion, I wouldn't want to discourage students from participating merely because they are trying to further their skills or interest outside the classroom. Would the school soccer team disallow a player because he/she had spent a few years on a community team in the past? It gets very tricky...

Hi Mike, long time no post for me, sorry for the lack of participation lately.

As always, thanks for the thought provoking post, I think you hit on some key areas for uni teachers. I'd like to comment quickly on point #4 where you discussed how to handle students with mental disorders or severe anti-social behavior. My uni does provide me with information regarding medical issues (physical and mental) that any of my students have. I have to say, though, that the number of students who have "official" medical conditions is quite small, maybe a handful out of the 200 or so students I teach each semester. There are probably a few more out there that haven't been officially diagnosed with a condition, but overall the number is pretty small.

For those who are clinically depressed or suffer from ADD and whatnot, yes, I do cut them a little slack in the classroom. The key words here are "in the classroom". Like perhaps most uni English classes I do a lot of pair work, group work, task-based activities etc. which require a fair amount of interaction with peers. If the students diagnosed with mental conditions don't throw themselves into these activities I tend to let it slide more so than I would with Mr. Captain of the Baseball Team who is too cool for school. That being said, I am quite strict with the depressed (for lack of a better word) students on homework assignments because it seems to me they should be able to handle written assignments just like everyone else. If we give too much leeway on homework then I think it is unfair to the rest of the class. If they are medically depressed to such a level that they can't complete simple homework assignments on their own then perhaps they shouldn't be enrolled in university. It sounds harsh, but that's my take.

Hi Mark. I thought it might be a while before you posted, what with 13 or so kids now.

I agree with your assessment on all counts. The only problem is distinguishing between someone who's suffering from deep depression but is keeping up their studies and activities and someone who just can't get going in the classroom despite having exactly the same condition (and both of these from those who are just pathologically shy or unsocial). When it comes to something like depression it can be difficult for a teacher to distinguish between those who have been clinically diagnosed and those who haven't because the latter simply haven't bothered to see a doctor.

And, hey, have a great Christmas and New Year!

Yeah I should have stopped at 12 kids, this 13th one is really cramping my style. Such is life.

You raise a good question though Mike. I suppose it is quite possible that two kids have exactly the same condition but one of them manages to rise above it while the other doesn't. It would be tempting to say to the underperforming student "Hey this guy over here has the same issues as you but he's fighting through it, why can't you?" I guess we need to handle each situation differently, use our best judgement,and hope we make good decisions. Unfortunately there is no manual available to tell us how to deal with these situations.

And everyone thinks teaching is easy?

Happy holidays to you as well Mike, I look forward to reading your stuff in 2012, assuming the Mayans are wrong.

You brought up a few interesting points here. I want to chime in on the English Speech Contest point.

First, I have heard many teachers speaking of Speech Contests and Debate Contests as if they were the same. That is wrong. Speech Contests with Debate Contests are completely different.

The Debate Contests that have come to Japan are good and are getting better every year. In the Debate Contests, each four person team of high school students is limited to one returnee per team (and most teams have one). The rest are non-returnees.
In the Debates, each team will argue at least once for and once against the topic. (Last year it was "Japan should relax its immigration policies.") In each debate, each member has to give a short speech, then ask and answer questions from the other side.
English speaking is a small part of the skill group at work in the Debates, but not that important. The students must also know both sides of the issue very well. They have to be able to argue well, they have to think quickly, and they have to be logical. In the end, it is the non-English skills that determine the winner.
The Debate Contest is a worthwhile project for the students to take part in, and I really wish more would participate. They learn a great deal by doing so.

As for the Speech Contests, people helping students or judging students often say the same thing that you wrote about. Most people think it is unfair to judge students with no overseas experience against those with some, and I would agree. The rules take this into account, to some degree. However, in my experience, while good English helps a lot, having a unique, good speech, written well, which is interesting (at least not horribly boring to the judges), is the key to having a chance to win.

Thanks for that summary Hans. I certainly hope that all judges will adhere to that criteria. But I'm afraid that there is one area in particular where the near-native speaker has a definite tactical advantage in debates.

The ritsuron (thesis) section might be on equal footing but in the hanron (antithesis- cross examination) section the more fluent members can pepper the other team with quick, complex English and their opponents will spend most of their time just trying to comprehend and clarify, let alone mount a cohesive and orderly defense in English. At this point, the debating skills are not engaged-- it is a language problem, and a resultant inability to proceed in the debate due to this language problem would cause them to be scored lower.

The same thing happens in my house. If I fight with the wife in Japanese (or worse- Sagaa-ben) I lose. Automatic.

Perhaps we are comparing apples to oranges here. I agree that in an individual contest, such as an argument or a speech contest, a near native speaker has an advantage. I do not think that any of us would argue against that.

I am also assuming that by "Debate Contest" you are referring to the Japan High School English Debate (with the rather unfortunate acronym of henda) at . Perhaps you mean something else. The debate rules for this debate contest do not allow more than one returnee per team per round. Since almost all teams have returnees, this keeps things fair since there is one person who is extremely fluent. This is a much better contest than the Speech Contest in that regard since there is no large discrepancy for returnees.

I watched the tournament last year. Like you, I had expected that language problems would go a long way in deciding the winners, but to my surprise they did not. The reasons why the language was not a large problem, in my opinion, was that most of the students had researched the topic well enough that the vocabulary was usually not an issue, and second, after team A's speech, team B had time to ask questions about the content of the speech in order to confirm their understanding and, if necessary, to get simple paraphrases of any complex grammar or syntax they did not catch. Also, for many teams, the members helped each other with taking notes and understanding. Language was not a major issue, and it did not effect the outcome.

The organization that set these debates up has done a good job in my opinion. They took Japanese students' skills and fairness into account well. First, allowing only one returnee per team keeps the teams balanced. This, along with time given for questions and to check understanding, eliminates most language advantages. Third, the rules allow each team to only give two reasons, which limits the scope of the argument and keeps it manageable for students not accustomed to debate (almost all students).

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