So recently I have been stressed. I stopped cooking dinner for a while, always getting something on the way home, and the ice cavern that is now my apartment has made anything away from an electric blanket impossible. When my house is messy, my brain doesn’t work right.
I had a few last assignments due for my last graduate school class of the year, and my procrastination was in full swing. I was worried about my paper, I had full weekends planned, and I was behind on my Korean studies. All of that kind of caught up with me, and when I’m stressed, I don’t do anything well.
This week, I came home and made myself do one definite thing in order to feel more productive. I made lists, cooked for myself, did my Korean studies, and finally I finished my essay. I had had insomnia for two nights straight, and as soon as my paper was done, it was clear why. It was blocking my mind and making me think crazy thoughts. Stress is natural but deadly. It can really hinder your confidence in all areas of your life. I was already worried about my grad school class, and what for? I got an A on my final paper and that means I have an A in the class. I continue to maintain my 4.0 GPA in grad school.
All the days leading up to the deadline for my paper, I started having nasty thoughts about myself. How I can be so lazy. How much of a procrastinator I am. How I am never going to amount to anything in life if I keep putting off my blog, my studies, and my housework. Then, that magical moment when I finished helped boost my confidence. I felt so free, so powerful. If I could do this, I could do anything!
Which brings me to my students, and myself as a teacher. If my lens was so clouded by stress, making me ineffective at my job and lowering my self-confidence until the stress was relieved, what does that mean for me as a teacher? In my elementary school classes, I am the main teacher because the homeroom teachers were never required to know English, and teaching English as an elementary school subject is a fairly new thing in Japan. New enough that teachers are usually not as proficient at teaching English as they are in teaching the other subjects like math, and Japanese.
Which is why we have ALTs in most cases. I like to make class fun and bring games and powerpoints to spice up lessons. Boring English class equals bored students, and bored students don’t learn. Period. I can recite to you exactly what I learned in history class in high school many years ago, even though I am not a history lover, nor did I particularly care much about the subjects we were learning about. Why, then, do I still remember some things? It’s because my teachers made it interesting, relevant, and fun. I try to do that for my students. I know most of my students won’t become master English users, and most of them will never need to use English in their daily lives. However, I think by making it fun and interesting, making them laugh and building their confidence, will help them keep their curiosity and love for learning.
Today, though, my teacher did something that is detrimental, yet happens all the time. It is, in my opinion, the number one reason Japanese people say, “Ah we learn English for years in school but we are all terrible at it.” When I was explaining Christmas-themed vocabulary, such as lights, tree, snowman, etc., my students shouted out things in Japanese. I joked with them and said, “Can you say that in English?” and I was confident that they could. Their teacher, however, was not. She flat out looked at me and said, “No. They can’t.”
I was appalled. Of course, my students aren’t completely fluent in English, but really, who is? I forget English words, spelling, and grammar often and after about eight years of studying Japanese, I still forget how to write certain kanji without looking them up. Language is a process. You will never master a language. But you can trick your brain into believing you can by making learning fun, entertaining, and learning useful phrases that you might be presented with often. I am still a student of Japanese, just like I am still a student of English, and I am self-learning Korean. I have days where I want to give up, but I know that by repeating things over and over, learning things that are relevant to me, and learning through songs, games, and real conversations will help me remember things in the long run.
My teacher didn’t stop there, though. Later, we did a number game and my students handled it with ease. I was clapping for them when it was over, telling them, “Wow, nice! You did it!” The teacher, however, told me, “Uh, no. They are bad at this. They can’t do this.” She tried to tell me that they need more practice with numbers. Which is what we were doing. “Just have confidence in them!” I told her. “Don’t tell the students that they can’t do something, or they won’t be able to! It starts with you.”
She continued to refute me, saying, “It’s not a confidence issue.” I know what she meant. She thinks that my students sometimes have trouble with certain numbers. Of course they do. I know how to use some complicated Korean grammar, yet I only recently learned how to say a phone number all in Korean. I still think she was wrong for telling the students that they weren’t capable of doing something that they had already done.
My own confidence wavers when I am stressed. I need to remember that when I’m having a bad day (or week). I need to remember that stress is clouding my judgment, making it hard for me to see the positives over the seemingly important negatives. I am not sure how to stop teachers from telling me my students are incapable of learning English. It’s something I’ve heard almost every day after becoming an English teacher. In middle and high school, I was required to take Spanish, Latin, and French. All of them. We were never told, “You guys can’t do this,” or “This is too hard for you.” Our teachers told us to not give up in the face of a challenge. Yet my students are constantly given outs. The teacher translates my words. The picture cards sometimes have Japanese on them. The instructions in middle school are exclusively in Japanese.
I’d like to end on a positive note. This week, I went to a school where they had forgotten I was supposed to show up. I was invited to make Miso (a paste made of soybean, what is used to make Miso soup) with the third graders. It was so much fun and the kids were adorable. Afterwards, I went to one of my sixth grade classes with the head teacher. She is very good at English and encourages the students to have confidence. Every time I am at that school, I write something in English for an English board we have in the hallway. However, in our class that day, the students were being disruptive and some were giving up, putting their heads on the desk.
Instead of simply telling them off, my head teacher did something inspiring. She told the students, “If you don’t listen carefully, you will miss something, and that’s why you are discouraging yourselves. When learning English, although you might not understand everything Monica-sensei says, you have to listen for key words that will help you. You have to understand that English is not something you are good or bad at, but something that you have to try to use in order to build your skills.” Her speech was stern but the students respected it. I wish I could take her everywhere I go and let her tell my other teachers and students her ideas about learning English.
Let me know in the comments how stress and confidence affects your life. If you are an ESL teacher, does this resonate with you? I know everyone has different experiences and different co-teachers, but I’ve seen confidence as a recurring problem in most of my schools.