Every fall, I teach a course at a Japanese women’s university. These young women come to the US from their University in Tokyo to study English and American culture. When I step on to the campus, it is like stepping into a different world.
Each one of the students seems to have the same haircut: long hair with long bangs, a few streaks of lighter blonde breaking up the black. They are all wearing colorful Crocs on their feet, sweat pants and hoodies. They are all 19 years old, and they seem to have similar names: Yuka, Yoko, Yuki, Yukari, Yukiko, Yukako, Yuriko, Keiko and Reiko, Mio and Miho.
They appear cheerful, shy and polite. It takes a long time for their personalities to emerge, and for me to know them without a name tag, or if they change seats in the classroom.
Each student is perfectly punctual, and everyone has done her homework. They giggle together quietly, or sing songs until I close the door. A hush descends on the class that is difficult to lift. For 90 minutes, I talk and they listen. I ask them questions, and I have to fish for answers. Unless I call on students by name, my questions will be met with silence. They want to be called on. They never volunteer to speak.
In this environment, my usual casual, communicative teaching style doesn’t work. If I ask the students to work in groups, they speak Japanese. If we try to have a conversation, it consists of me asking questions, and them answering the questions. I become a lecturing, drill and kill, round-robin instructor. I feel like I am doing a terrible job, and not connecting with my students at all.
But at the end of the semester, they are sad that the class is over. I finally know their names, and I know that Yuka has a pet turtle and Yoko likes snowboarding; Reiko loves reading, while Keiko is a fantastic singer. They know about my family, how I spent my weekends, and the last movie I saw in the theater. We have a party with cake, and everyone takes pictures. The students cry, and tell me how much they loved my class. I get high evaluations on my teaching, and I realize that I am going to miss them.
To teach is also to learn. Even though we are in America, I am in their territory. I am the Outsider. I need to change to meet their expectations, or I will not be successful here. Teaching these students has taught me to dig a little deeper and look for more subtle differences than those that I would find in my other classrooms.