Thursday, January 19, 2012

My first day on the job.

I teach at a university in the Yokohama area.  I started several years ago, but I will never forget the first day and the first class.

"We're interested in someone who has skills in motivating students", I was told in the interview.

"Oh, do you have motivation problems?" I said brightly.  "I think I can deal with that!"

The man interviewing me said nothing.  He just looked down.

My first teaching day was a Thursday, an afternoon.  I had been warned 'not to expect too much'.  But I had worked with students of varying levels of interest before.  How bad could it be?

I walked into the classroom.  It was really what you might call a lecture room, dominated by a huge blackboard at the front.  About 20 students sat in seats, behind desks, towards the back, separated from each other by two or three other chairs.  Nobody was speaking or moving.

"Good afternoon!", I said.

Nothing.  A massive and deafening silence.

I tried again.  "Good afternoon!" Nothing.  I couldn't even detect any movement.  Maybe they were petrified, maybe they were mannequins, I couldn't tell.

I looked at the information I had been given.  Checked the room number.  The class number.

"Um, is this class 254?"

Nothing.  They sat there, looking at me without expression. 

Did I really have the right classroom?  How could this be possible?

I looked at one of the students.  "You!  What subject is this?"

The student looked blankly at me.  Perhaps he wasn't there.  Perhaps I was hallucinating.

"What's your name?" I pointed directly at another of the students, a big no-no in Japan.  But my options were shrinking.


"What's your name?"  I spoke more loudly.

"Matsumoto Shunsuke desu." He spoke in rapid-fire heavily accented Japanese.

I looked at my class roll.  There was a Shunksuke Matsumoto.  My heart sank.  I was in the right place after all.  There would be no escape.

These were students who had all studied English for a minimum of 7 years, often considerably more.  Many had gone to cram schools to 'improve' their English even more, had studied for hundreds of hours to pass university English exams to get here.

I looked at my textbook, which as an introduction to today's lesson suggested I get the students, in groups, to imagine they were travellers in a spaceship going to a new planet and roleplay from there.

It was going to be a long day.

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