An English conversation school at which I used to work occasionally sent its teachers off to training seminars so that they could learn how to use a variety of teaching materials. These were to be employed in children’s classes and I was quite looking forward to the workshop because at that time I had little experience of teaching kids. It would help me at work as well as allowing me a trip out of town and the opportunity to meet teachers from other branches of the school. I was happy to attend.
I arrived in Tokyo and found my way to the school where the training was to be held. My motivation drained out of me almost as soon as I opened the door. Inside was one of the strangest assortment of people you are ever likely to meet outside of an adult-baby convention. For a moment I thought I’d walked into the local chapter of Peculiar People Anonymous. Everything was wrong with the people there, from poor dress sense and a lack of humour to bogbrush hair, big horsey lips and buck teeth. A couple of guys in a corner were playing janken pon, (Paper, Scissors, Stone to English speakers) for no other reason than they seemed to be enjoying it. Although sometimes played by children in Japan for fun, the game can also be used to decide things in the same way that we might toss a coin. But these fellows didn’t appear to be trying to decide anything. And what’s worse is that they didn’t even appear to know each other because between games they were asking questions such as, ‘How long have you been here?’, and ‘Where are you working?’ That could only mean that one of them, in the course of polite introductory small talk, had asked, ‘Hey, do you fancy a game of janken pon?’ and that, incredibly, the other guy had not turned round and said, ‘Oh fuck off, will you?’
The head trainer’s name was Warren and he was irritatingly smug. He began the workshop by telling us that the reason he had been so successful in teaching was because he knew how to use these materials in every way possible. Then he gave a tedious explanation of a game using one of the materials. Laborious and detailed it was, yet when we sat down to actually play the game it turned out that it was bingo. He then explained several more games in similar manner when all he really would have needed to say was, ‘Actually, this is just bingo again, but with animals, not colours.’
Later we split into small groups of six in order to practice the games in more detail. Unfortunately, my group was led by Warren himself and I had to sit next to a guy of various social handicaps, one of which was spitting on me every time he spoke. He had trouble grasping the concept of bingo and kept asking Warren to go over the simplest of things again and again. When Warren said that anybody who got four colours in a row should shout ‘Bingo!’ he asked what we should do if we got three in a row, thereby almost getting bingo. Warren complimented him on his eagerness and enthusiasm for teaching. His stupidity was deemed to be praiseworthy mainly, I suspect, because it allowed Warren more opportunities to listen to his own voice
Warren stressed the importance of pronunciation in our lessons and said that it was the most important aspect of our job. ‘Anything else,’ he said, ‘a Japanese teacher can do just as well.’ Theoretically a fair point, but I later met a junior high school Japanese teacher of English who told me, ‘I don’t can swim’, and another whose favorite way to start his English lessons was to have his students sing We Are The World. I rather think pronunciation was the least of those students’ worries.
In his initial comments about pronunciation Warren stressed that we could use our own accents in the classroom and that we didn’t have to change to an American accent. Why in the world he’d have thought that was something we’d need to be told I couldn’t tell you, but in any event he didn’t actually mean it. When we were practicing bingo he corrected my pronunciation of the word ‘green’. He seemed to have forgotten that we weren’t actually eight-year old Japanese children, because he made me repeat his ‘green’ and said with an exaggerated smile that if I got it correct next time I could place a chip on my bingo board!
An Australian girl was equally annoyed when Warren pulled her up on her short ‘i’ sounds, because she said ‘heat’ instead of ‘hit’. He’d said we could use our own accents but he’d forgotten to point out that the rule didn’t apply to people who didn’t sound like him.
The next day’s training was more of the same. Warren told us the rules and then shot down absolutely any suggestions for activities that he hadn’t already thought of. I did get a few good ideas for how to use some of the materials and became a veritable expert on how to play bingo, but I’m not sure that those benefits were worth the pain of Warren showing us how to read a story book in English effectively. Apparently what you need is a fixed, slightly maniacal grin and the ability to feel no shame when adopting character voices in the manner of a Jackanory presenter. When I played the role of a student in one game I made a mistake on one of the flashcards and Warren looked at me, his face full of disappointment, and told me he wouldn’t be able to give me a ‘Good Job!’ sticker. ‘But try again next time,’ he encouraged me, before turning to face the rest of the observing teachers and smiling creepily in self-acknowledgement of his firm-but-fair role as a teacher.
At the end of the second day of training, a chubby fellow of many shortcomings raised his hand and said, ‘Warren, I’d just like to thank you on behalf of everybody here for the fantastic training!’ That was annoying. I don’t know why he thought he could speak on my behalf but he had done so and I could do nothing about it. I would have been happy to remain silent and express neither pleasure nor displeasure but now I had been spoken for and an opinion had been thrust upon me. What could I do? I could hardly pull Warren aside and say, ‘That “thank you for the fantastic training” thing the chubby bloke said? I’m not actually part of that. I mean, you were okay, but, well, on behalf of all sane and normal people, maybe be a bit less creepy uncle?’