The Worst Students
The worst students to teach are always the third year junior high schoolers - grade nines, 14-going-on-15-year-olds. I imagine this is very true in Canada as well. I don’t have anything against them. That’s just the way it is. There are difficult students - horrible, awful kids - of every age and in every grade. But generally speaking the grade nines consistently win the laurels for troublesomeness. But still, junior high schoolers - grades seven-to-nine - are my favorite grades and the ones that I was trained to teach.
The problem is that they are at that age. It’s not just a matter of puberty. There are other ages that I might also describe as “that” age - 2-years and 5-years-old, for example - that are similarly difficult. I used to think that the difficulty with grade nines sprang primarily from a sociological base. I thought the kids were prone to act up because they were at the pinnacle of their world (third year junior high school) and only months away from being at the bottom of the adolescent universe once more (first year senior high school, or grade ten), and so they behaved the way they did to enjoy to the max their social position in school while it lasted.
But now I favor a more bio-chemical explanation. The main reason for their difficult demeanor is that these ages - two, five, and fifteen - are the ages when children’s physical development is most mismatched by their mental development. In the case of 14/15-year-olds, they have the bodies of adults, but the minds of children. In the case of 2- and 5-year-olds, each in their way is developed mentally beyond their physical capabilities. Two and five year olds are more mature mentally than they are physically. They can imagine doing things that they are not yet dextrous enough to accomplish - or, accomplish in the manner that they are capable of imagining. So in frustration, they may be prone to temper tantrums. But kids in their mid-teens are in the opposite position. They are capable of things that they cannot yet properly comprehend, but they can still feel their capacity. That makes them prone to acting up in many ways to relieve their frustrations - talking back, showing off, etc. - as well as to test what they see as the boundaries of their capacities. As a teacher my first challenge is never to take their behavior personally, but I admit it is difficult sometimes.
It is disconcerting that kids who are bothersome in class are often very amicable and amiable outside of class. Sometimes I might wish that they would be perfect bastards outside class so I could feel justified for disliking them inside class. But that’s not the way it is. That fact that they are not that way outside class, away from their friends and away from an environment where they might feel trapped listening to me speak to them in English, convinces me that their challenging behavior is an age-related act more than anything else.
Interestingly, I have found that as I get older it has become much easier to teach them. Maybe youth and the appearance of youth are a disadvantage for teachers of some students. My students react and behave differently to older, and older-looking teachers than they do to younger teachers - some of whom might be only half-a-dozen years older than they are themselves, in the case of older teenagers. I am middle aged now, and I look it (although I always report my age as “28” when students ask). I can control students better just by the aura of elder authority. This works better in Japanese culture than it probably does/would in Canada because in Japan deferring to authority is a big deal and woven into the culture. In Japan, “authority” usually means elder authority, because the society is ordered hierarchically first by sex, and then by age. This means that males, especially older males, wield more authority and power, and are deferred to more than any others. So I have much more fun teaching 14- and 15-year-olds now than I did during my early years in Tokyo. I might not say that I have a good “rapport” with them, but I would say that recently - and this year especially - I feel that I am enjoying perhaps the best ever relationship with my teenaged students. So, if students are difficult to teach it might be because they are truly awful bastards. But it is also about me and who I am.
I think that by the time students are 15-years-old I should respect that they know for themselves whether or not they like English, they are interested in it, they want to study it, and if they are likely to use it in their adult lives or not. So with this awareness developing slowly over the years I have been motivated to change my teaching style considerably to accommodate the ones who are bored stiff. Sometimes I just have to leave them alone and ignore them.
High energy, fast pace, frequent shifts in activity keep them on their toes (and regularly exhaust me in the process). And still, if I want to be an effective teacher I have to remember not to overwhelm students - teenagers or adults - with too much new information, or too many facts and factoids. Remember that the average attention span of a teenager is about ten minutes (and not much longer for adults) and that short-term memory is limited to about seven pieces of information (like the number of digits in a telephone number). This means lots of repetition/review - not just within the course of a single lesson, but over the course of an entire term.
Basically, being an Oral English (English Conversation) teacher feels less like being a gardener of young minds than it does like begin an entertainer.