This is a quick post as this event just happened and I wanted to get it down while it’s still on my mind.

There are times in the classroom when things do not go smoothly; where they don’t go as the teacher expected. Often these things are unpredictable but other times a drop of consideration at the planning stage can make a world of difference. I also think that sharing experiences with friends and fellow teachers can help make others aware of potential pit-falls.

Today, at one of my High Schools here in Japan, I was asked to teach a lesson on Christmas. Now, by this stage in their education they’ve most likely had at least half a dozen English Christmas lessons; so its unlikely they’ll be that into a lesson on “What’s Christmas like in the UK?” I try to avoid this typical format and go for a mix of festive games and seasonal content.

The winter lesson I’ve done the past couple of years contains two main activities. The first revolves around this article about the Japanese man who won the world Santa Claus Championship. In the second half of the lesson students make a personalised Christmas wish that they write onto a coloured Post-It along with pictures and other colourful doodles. All of the Post-Its are then stuck onto a cut-out Christmas tree and pinned up somewhere in the classroom. It’s a pretty simple lesson but with a couple of extra, active games thrown in it makes for a decent round of festivities.

Christmas Goes Sour

Most students write things on their Post-Its such as:

I wish for a lot of money.

I wish for a new DS game.

I wish for a boyfriend.

There’s also the occasional nod towards notions such as peace and happiness. Today this lesson plan went swimmingly in my first two classes, but something unexpected cropped up in the third and final lesson. There’s one boy in that class who I get on with quite well. I actually taught him in Junior High School too but he claims to have no memory of me. We often joke around before and after our lessons; being a smart kid and a speedy worker he often finishes the work before his classmates, so we sometimes chat or goof around then as well

On this day he was a little quiet but still took part in the games and activities. When we got to the section of the lesson where students had to write down their wish, he just sat there, staring ahead while the rest of the class scribbled away. I went over and presented him with some ideas. To each one he shook his head. I left him to it, safe in the knowledge that he understood the activity and would complete it in his own time. After a while I wandered back his way and noticed that his Post-It was turned face down.

Oh, you’ve finished!

I exclaimed delightedly as I dropped into a squat next to his desk. I turned over the note, read it, and let out a quiet “Oh.” I hesitated, not knowing how to react or what to do next. Should I just put the note down and walk away? Should I say it’s not good enough and tell him to try again? Should I just make a silly joke out of it? I’d never been in that situation before and had no idea what to do.

The message on that small square of paper read:

I wish for a father.

A moment of silence passed between us; we were in a bubble, separate from the ruckus around us. Finally I acted. I put the note down, carefully, almost reverently. I patted his shoulder firmly and said

That’s the best wish. The best.

I walked away and busied myself helping other students. Later in the lesson me and him returned to our joking, playful ways and the atmosphere felt normal when I finally left the class.

Now, I’m sitting here at my desk and I’m thinking about what else I could have done. What else could I do in the future? This isn’t exactly the kind of thing an online TEFL course prepares you for. Real students; real people with real lives and real feelings. As a teacher, even just a part-time teacher, I surely have some responsibility to help students through difficult times.

But honestly? I don’t know what I’m doing; and I think there are many teachers out there in the same position. Hopefully, just knowing that we’re not alone will help us press on and become stronger; as teachers and as people.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? How would you have handled this situation if you had been me? Please share below.

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