Let me tell you a story about a class of 6th graders at one of my current elementary schools.
When I first came to this school last August, I asked the former ALT how the students were, particularly the 6th graders. He said that class 6-1 was fine, but that class 6-2 was noisy and a pain to deal with. So I came here with pretty low expectations of both classes, but treated them as I would any other 6th grade class.
The former ALT’s words rang true for a week or two; 6-2 had a couple of rowdy kids, and 6-1 was quiet and not very cooperative…only the same few kids would raise their hands to answer something. And then, something changed. One week 6-2 came in, and their teacher got all of them to focus. When they got chatty and she told them to stop talking, they stopped. They’re still not my best class, but they pay attention and they try most of the time.
But the supposedly quiet 6-1 became a trouble class. Kids thought it was a good idea to start chatting while I was trying to teach. I still couldn’t get any of them to raise their hands, so I made a bundle of wooden chopsticks with attendance numbers written on them (in Japan the class roster is organized alphabetically and numbered, with the first student in the class given the number 1). Whenever I asked a question, I’d pull out a chopstick and call out the number, and that student would have to answer.
That still didn’t solve the talking problem though. The first time I sternly said, “urusai,” which means “noisy” but is used as a way to tell the class to be quiet. But week after week, I’d have to go through the same thing over and over.
Fast-forward to the past three weeks. The first week, when they talked I made a mark on the board and said that if I made 5 marks, I’d get the principal. They only got 3. The second week, I started at 3, and they managed to get through class with only 2. I admit, it was my lenience with them which is the reason why I didn’t have to go to the principal. I gave them so many chances because I didn’t want to simply stop teaching and have them fall behind the other class, and also because the cynical part of me really didn’t care whether they were learning or not, because it was their responsibility to pay attention, not mine. They aren’t a bunch of pre-schoolers anymore.
On Friday, I had planned to only give them one chance, and warn them of that at the start of class. But the problem with warning them early was that I didn’t want to start off on a bad note before they even did anything that day. So today I gave them 2 chances.
They squabbled the first chance. At one point I stared at a pair of girls for a good 20 seconds before they realized that I was looking at them to indicate that they needed to stop talking. A second time I singled out four students (two of them were the same two girls from before) and I told them to get out, but they didn’t move. I didn’t push it, and continued teaching after they stopped, but their homeroom teacher didn’t do anything either, which has been part of this long-standing problem.
Finally, about two thirds of the way through class, I tried to explain the next activity to them, but there was just too much chattering going on. They already had one strike against them. I turned to the board that had their strikes against them, erased the “1” and replaced it with a “2.” My heart was actually racing as I did it, and I kept thinking over and over, “I have to do this. I have to do this.” After writing the 2, some of the students didn’t even notice and kept talking. As they did, I just walked out of the classroom. Their homeroom teacher said nothing.
I walked down the hall to the staff room, thinking “I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t.” (Of course, what teacher actually WANTS to discipline instead of teaching?) I knew the vice-principal wasn’t here, so I asked the secretary if the principal was here today. She told me to knock the door of his office. When I went to check, he wasn’t there. There was no way I could go back without a figure of authority, so I told her that he wasn’t in his office, and she went to go look for him after asking me why I needed to talk to him.
I saw the principal go straight to the English room, so I quickly followed behind him. I expected him to say something right away, but as I went in, he stood and looked over the class, then turned to me and told me to go ahead before he said anything.
The class was, needless to say, completely silent. I walked around to the front of the classroom, and said in English, “I shouldn’t have to do this.” I paused, pointed to the board where their strikes were written, and then said in Japanese, “5 times, 2 times, I shouldn’t have to tell you to be quiet even once, because you’re already 6th graders.” I continued in Japanese, telling them, “When I came to this school, I asked your last English teacher how the 6th graders were. He said 6-2 was noisy, but 6-1 was okay. It turns out it was the opposite.” I switched to English, pointed to the principal and said, “I shouldn’t have to get kocho-sensei to tell you to be quiet.”
I gave the floor to the principal, and he told the students who were talking to stand up. Of course with three teachers in the room, there was no lying about who was and wasn’t talking. He gave them a long lecture, without yelling or anything, and instead asked each student why they were talking, which embarrassed them as they mumbled quietly that they simply wanted to talk.
He lectured for a good ten minutes as I just stood there listening in kind of a state of surrealism. When he finished and gave the floor back to me, I quickly considered whether I should’ve said another thing or two about the situation, but instead I just pointed to the clock, explained that we had no more time, and that I wanted them to complete their activity for homework.
I concluded the class as usual, but before saying goodbye, I told them that I knew it wasn’t everyone talking, and that when the chatty students continue to talk, the others can’t concentrate and learn. I made them make a promise not to make me do this again. I don’t believe they’ll keep that promise, but hopefully they’ll prove me wrong.