Thursday, May 30, 2013

Will Miss #23 - relationship with my students (reflection)

My teaching profile sheet from my last job at an eikaiwa (conversation school). 

Hands down, this is the one thing that I can say without reservation has gotten harder to bear over time. My relationship with my students was not one of friendship or scholarship, but more of a therapeutic one in which I largely functioned as a counselor and they as clients. The biggest part of good therapy is that you listen respectfully, attentively, and with empathy and get people to talk about themselves as much as possible. The biggest part of good conversation teaching is that you listen respectfully, attentively, and with empathy. There is a bond of trust that you build over time that cannot be easily replicated in any other relationship. From my point of view, the teacher and student relationship was better than that of a client and counselor because there was no expectation that I'd solve their problems, but only that I'd improve their English. The latter is a far easier task than the former, and with far less dire consequences if one fails.

The relationship I had with my students was close, deep, and authentic. I miss talking to them and knowing that I was helping them in multiple ways, and I doubt that will ever change no matter how many years pass since my departure from Japan.


  1. I'm curious, why do you feel your students opened up to you this way? Your age/gender? Something unique to Japan? Or is it just human nature in these types of 1 on 1 relationships?

    1. I think that a big part of it is the way I managed them in the lessons. I asked them a lot of open-ended questions and, depending on how they responded, I asked follow-ups and did active listening. I think that they knew that I was genuinely interested in them and what they had to say and fully engaged in the process. I cared about them and what they had to say and rarely spoke about myself or offered my own opinions unless directly asked for advice or perspective.

      I think that my age and gender definitely factored into it, but I think that validating them was a bigger part of it. I learned that you don't have to agree to validate people's perspectives and that validating them in a way which is congruent with your values rather than invalidating them in order to validate yourself often opens doors that would otherwise slam shut.

      One example of this can be made from lessons I had with a postal worker who felt that Korea should be grateful for how Japan occupied Korea during WW II because it accelerated their growth in infrastructure. While I did not believe that Koreans should be grateful for Japan's occupation during WW II, I could say that I understood his perspective and where he was coming from. Rather than argue with him that Japan was an aggressor and that it is likely that the Koreans would find it difficult to agree with him, I simply said that I could understand (NOT agree with) how he reached his conclusions. One bit of irony is that, after returning to the U.S., I had lunch with a woman of Korean descent and she actually agreed with him! She said that she felt that South Korea would not have developed to the point it has today without the Japanese occupation. Of course, while her parents were from Korea, she was born and raised in the U.S. so she had not direct experience with the negative consequences of being occupied or the attitudes of those who endured the occupation, but I was surprised that she validated his view more fully than I did.

      Generally speaking, I tried never to disagree with or censure people for their views and found a way to see their perspective. I did not have the attitude that I was some crusader who had to fill people in on "the truth" or talk about what was "right". Many people feel that they are obliged to "correct" the wrong opinions of others, but I learned to let that attitude go because it never actually changes people. In fact, it always turns them off and makes them less open to change.

      I never said I agreed when I didn't, but I also did not say that I disagreed unless asked for my opinion directly, and I was rarely asked for it. This is actually part of a certain therapeutic process when counseling people, but I didn't realize it until recently (after coming back to the U.S.). I fell into that style naturally, but it works both for teaching and for helping people explore and manage problems in their lives.


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