Tough questions from students

Good morning everyone,

Today is looking mostly cloudy and we may even see some rain tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like  we can expect things to cool down anytime soon...highs all week will be in the mid30s.

As English teachers here in Japan, our exact job duties are never really made completely clear. Instead, we seem to be given rough guidelines, such as “help to provide effective English lessons,” “encourage students to enjoy English” and so on.

My personal approach has always been to encourage communication.

Getting students to be word perfect is an admirable goal, but ultimately a futile one in my opinion. I believe that if your students can make themselves understood in English and in turn understand your responses then you can consider the class a success.

In my classes, a key part of this is encouraging students to ask questions.

Asking questions is useful to your students in a multitude of ways. First off, allowing them to form their own questions using structures and vocabulary you have previously taught them is a great way to practice using their English in a practical way. It also encourages the idea of “thinking in English” as opposed to taking memorized stock phrases and regurgitating them.

However, giving your students such free reign in class can also be problematic sometimes.

In short, students enjoy embarrassing their teachers with awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes personal questions. Very rarely is this borne out of malice, rather it’s just the natural instinct that people have in wanting to see how far they can push the boundaries.

It helps to have a useful retort up your sleeve when such questions come up.

So, with this in mind, here are some of the questions I have encountered down the years and some of my suggested responses. Remember that time, place and occasion should always be considered. A bit of playful mischief-making should be met with a similarly laid back, good-humored response. Nasty or inappropriate questions or anything which could be construed as harassment should not be tolerated and must be curbed quickly and decisively.

Each of us has our own standards and personal boundaries. You may think, in reading my responses to these common questions that I may be too sensitive to some or too laid back with others. In your own case, follow your instincts, you alone are the best judge of what is best for your class at that moment.

With that out of the way, let’s tackle some questions:

Are you married? Do you have a partner?

This is a question that consistently comes up.I chose to be honest in my answer.

I was dating someone at the time. So when they asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?” I answered, “Yes I do.”

After that, I didn’t invite any further comment.

A lot of teachers I know prefer to simply say, “That’s a secret.” This is also a perfectly reasonable answer.

I have some friends and colleagues in the LGBT community who, understandably, wish to keep relationship details private.

What do you like or dislike about Japan?

A few rules for this one. First, don’t talk Japanese politics. You may think Mr. Abe is a wonderful human being or you may think he’s the Trump of Japan. In any case, you don’t know the views of your students or coworkers so it’s best to leave that particular hot potato to someone else.

Second, don’t be too negative about Japan. You could say something like: “I don’t like the hot summers” or “I don’t like natto.” Highlighting the ingrained, systemic racism non-Japanese face when trying to rent an apartment or get a credit card isn’t likely to go down well.

Third, try to mix up your answers. You’re likely to get this question many times in your classes, so it’s a good idea to have a series of things you can talk about. Most of all, keep it light, keep it fun and try not to get too bogged down in the negatives.

Why did you come to Japan?

This is sometimes a tricky one because you need to consider both brevity and clarity.

Choosing to upend everything and move to the other side of the world isn’t an easy choice for anyone and the factors that made it happen for you are probably both numerous and complicated.

Try this little thought exercise: If I asked you to answer that question in a single sentence, how would you do it? Now, think about how you would make that single sentence understandable to a small child. Answer these two points and you’ve got a ready-made answer to this question.

One final piece of advice I will give today. Learning minds need inspiration, they thirst for knowledge. As teachers, it’s on us to be the suppliers of that knowledge. You should always do your best to answer any question a student asks positively and encourage them to ask more.

After all, as the ancient Chinese proverb goes: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Have a great day!

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