Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Pill Woman Is Back

In my former blog, I posted about a student I taught about 2 years ago who was christened "magic English pill woman." I posted about my difficulties dealing with her and with her eventual departure. I was glad when she was gone, but unfortunately, she may be back for a brief session of 4 lessons this month.

I got a call from the referral agency today and was asked if I'd take her back for a temporary stint. This put me in an unfortunate position because they said things like, "You just dropped her because of the schedule, right? It's not that you personally disliked her, right?" The truth is that I didn't personally dislike her, but I found teaching her like herding cats. She was impossible to keep on track or to get to teach in any reasonable way. It was either me trying to bully her into doing something resembling a lesson, or allowing her to speak a hodge-podge of Japanese and English that wasted both of our time.

With the agency pretty much putting me in a corner, I had to decide if I'd take one for my reputation as a teacher and keep in good graces with the agency or if I'd do what I really wanted to do and just refuse. The situation is not too dissimilar from attending one of those awful drinking parties after work because one must be seen as part of the group to be viewed favorably by the company. You don't want to do it, but you bite the bullet and just handle it.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with her. She's supposed to have some purpose in studying this time around, but she didn't have one last time. I told the agency to find our why she wants to take the lessons so I can structure something this time. I did mention to them that one of the issues I had with her before was that her attitude made it difficult to teach her. They said they believed they knew what I meant because they detected something about her when speaking with her on the phone in Japanese. They didn't say clearly what they meant, but they said, "she can't help it."

I'm going to approach her behavior as if she were a person with a serious learning disability who cannot focus or actually learn anything. I'm wary of succeeding too well with any type of lesson with her because I don't want to keep teaching her after her 4 lessons are up, but I also don't want to bang my head against the wall trying to push her to learn.

Perhaps I'll get really lucky and she'll change her mind about being my student again. After all, she complained about me last time so I'm not even sure why she's come back around my way this time. There is the very real possibility that other teachers had her before and categorically refused to teach her this time. I wouldn't find that the least bit difficult to believe.


Sherry said...

Wow, I admire you. I am no longer teaching at the moment, but I had frustrating students like that and as much as I dreaded their classes I did them for the money and didn't really care what they learned in the end. It was their money and if they wanted to waste it by acting like this women, then that was their decision, you know. I always left class feeling...I don't know...kind of down and thinking I was a sell out though. I had plenty of other students that I enjoyed teaching and that really learned so I didn't feel too bad for too long in the end.

Orchid64 said...

I'm not sure that my issues with this woman are admirable. It may be that my attitude reflects a certain rigidity in perspective or methodology. It could also be that I'm simply too old to "waste my time" for the money.

The main problem is that there is a contradiction in her desires and her ability. She wants to chat, but she isn't capable of it with her ability level. Also, she won't stay on topic, shrugs off questions instead of answering them, etc. The experience is a bit like constantly driving down a dead end which forces me to have to keep finding new roads to go down. It is just exhausting.

If she were a higher level or had an attention span that exceeded about 30 seconds, I'd have no problem just chatting with her. It's just such an exercise in futility. However, I do view this as a chance to push myself to be more expansive in my view and to meet a challenge. It helps a lot that there will be a low and finite number of lessons. I couldn't manage this if it was indefinite.

Thanks for your comment. :-)

Anonymous said...

How about approaching it with a TPR perspective, how we would teach children, veering from topic to topic but in a structured format?

For example, printing out some q&a, facing it toward her, and asking the question while looking at her (into her eyes) I would then skip to some vocabulary, asking her to use the word in a sentence (using a personal experience)?

I use Girl Chat which has Japanese and English... if I had the book her I would copy a few pages and send it to you...

When I was working for a .... circus like sherry mentioned, I then did it for the yen but I found that hard to go without care because of my moral values which always lead to me getting into an argument with the owner. UMM no I want play uno with the kids while mummy and daddy pay 15000yen a month so they can learn ENGLISH. ERR

Orchid64 said...

I appreciate the advice and the offer. Unfortunately, she won't look at anything I give her. She gives it a glance and then pushes it away. I can't even get her to use pictures to discuss food or cooking (often a winning topic with Japanese folks). She even asserted that she wanted to talk about cooking to the referral agency, but then resisted actually doing it.

My general tactic with students is always to relate conversations to their lives, but she completely goes off the beam all the time. If I ask her about her kids or her family, she gives a vague, brief answer and that's it.

I think what she's doing is answering to her limited ability then giving up and either babbling about whatever else she can talk about or just waiting for me to push on to a new topic. With her limited capability, it's a bit like verbal pinball with her traveling a short distance then wanting to go somewhere else. It's like she'll do anything to avoid having to expand her vocabulary or capability.

Part of the reason she wanted to study before was she has a sister living abroad and she wanted to practice real life small talk and whatnot for socializing with her sister's friends, but it was impossible to get her to do anything resembling that. If I were one of her sister's friends and she behaved the way she does in my lessons, I'd want to slip a sedative in her drink and I'd certainly never invite her back again.

Depending on what the agency tells me she wants to do, I'm going to throw the ball into her court. That is, I'm going to ask her what she wants to talk about and then ask what else she wants to talk about. If they don't say she wants a particular type of lesson, any free conversation is going to come from her and if the lesson is a disaster, she can complain and I won't teach her again.

Many thanks for your comment and the information. I may yet take you up on it, but I'm going to wait and see how it all plays out in the first lesson for now (if the lesson happens, it hasn't been confirmed yet... I still hope it doesn't happen).

Emsk said...

Hi Orchid. I haven't been replying to your posts lately, but have been reading and enjoying them.

Fortunately I've never had a student like Pill Lady, although I have been teaching people lately who've wanted to leap before they can take those first baby steps. It can be hard to explain that, although the student might be a top executive in his/her own country, right now they need to strengthen their accuracy. Students do often agree, and we throw in some business-related vocabulary and role-plays to tailor the courses to their needs. But I did have one student from Italy who I really had to start from scratch with and he went home without telling us. We caught up with him and he said it was because he was only learning present perfect v past simple usage etc, but it would've been pointless getting him to practise business negotiations when he could hardly string a sentence together! Luckily - and totally unlike what would've happened in Japan if a student had quit - my manager was quick to reassure me that it wasn't my fault; he'd been given ample opportunity to say if he wasn't happy with the course, but had decided to chicken out of the hard work.

It does sound as if the agency you work for could play a bit of a bigger part in helping their tutors though. Clearly they recognised that Pill Lady was perhaps a challenge personality-wise. She may well spin off on tangents when speaking Japanese, frustrating in any language when you're trying to do do business, etc, and they would've known this.