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The Girl in High Heels Walking Towards the Door – Curtis Kelly (EdD)

I teach English in Japan. I have been a full-time university teacher for over forty years, and for most of that time, in schools full of what are politely called “difficult learners.” To help me understand them, I have spent about a decade each studying TESOL, intercultural communication, psychology, and now, neuroscience. That has helped. But I think the deepest learning has come from the students themselves, in experiences like this one:

When I was teaching at Heian Woman’s University in Shiga, Japan, I had a troubling student. Her name was Maiko. This girl missed half the classes and barely engaged when she was there. She was getting near the point of automatic failure, but she didn’t really care. Something bigger was bothering her, which as we know, is common in 19-year-olds. It was probably that she did not quite fit in. She did not have a close friend at that school.

Research on the mental health of Japanese students indicates that the one-year period between studying for university entrance exams and the end of the first semester at the university they enter is fraught with troubles for them. Tomoda et al. (2000) found that over 20% of college students had suffered a Major Depressive Episode in this one-year period, as defined by criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (MSD-IV). The pressures of Entrance Exam Hell followed by the challenge of adapting to a new college setting carry severe social integration and self-esteem risks. And it is worst for female students who, for various reasons, are more vulnerable to these risks. The rate is 28.4% for female students, almost three times the 10.2% of their male peers. And according to a study by Mizuta et al. (2017), the biggest cause is something simple: not having a friend.

So, Maiko’s journey through moral development – a necessary step in becoming a non-dependent adult – was probably hard on her, and she had no one to talk to about it. That probably explained her lack of interest in my class.

Then, one day, something happened. She walked into my 90-minute speaking class exactly 45 minutes late. Right in the middle. I said “Maiko, I don’t know whether to mark you as present or absent today. So, let’s do Jan Ken Pon (rock scissors, paper). If you win, I’ll mark you as present. If I win, I’ll mark you as absent.”

That was not very smart. It never occurred to me that I might win, but I did. So, I told her I had to mark her as absent. As soon as I said that, she stood up and started walking towards the door. She said, “In that case, I’m leaving.” As she high heeled along, the other 14 women in the class watched me intensely. Would Kelly keep his word and mark her absent or break it? Of course, one of the rock-solid rules every teacher is taught is to be firm about rules, but could I? They wondered and I wondered too.

Just as she was reaching for the door handle, I broke. I said, “Okay, Maiko, please stay. Sit down. I’ll mark you as present.” She did, and everyone else looked down and smirked. “She broke Kelly.”

Then, a week later, on my birthday, something odd happened. I got just one congratulatory email, and guess who it was from? Maiko! Even more surprising, she started coming to my office to talk to me about her problems with our school. She said she didn’t think the Heian teachers were tough enough on her. In high school, her teachers made her study hard. Naturally, I asked, “Then, why did you choose me, your least tough teacher, to talk to?” and she became quiet. I explained, “College is not like high school; we expect students to walk on their own two feet.” And from that day, she changed. She started doing things by herself, including studying, selling sweets at our speech contest (without prior permission), and one day, even bringing her own lesson to teach in my class. We did not stop her, because we knew that this was her way to seek independence – gaining internal locus of control – and even if she was overdoing it, we knew she needed to find her powers.

Our talks helped her discover herself in other ways too, and in the end, I helped her transfer to another department on another campus, where I later heard she did well. Three years

later, when she graduated, she came to visit me. She gave me a nameplate with a poem she had written on the back. The poem said meeting people in the journey of life is how one grows up. And even now, fifteen years later, that poem is still hanging outside my office.

So, that day, I broke a basic rule of teaching. In the process, I opened a door.

bio (Edit any way you want. It’s okay to take out the textbooks.)

Popular speaker and writer, Curtis Kelly (EdD), is a professor of English at Kansai University in Japan and is the founder of the Mind, Brain and Education SIG. His life mission is to “relieve the suffering of the classroom.” He has given over 500 presentations and written 35 books, including Significant Scribbles (Longman), Active Skills for Communication (Cengage), and Writing from Within (Cambridge). ctskelly@gmail.com

1.Japanese women are referred to as “girls” until the Coming of Age Day in the year of their 20th birthday.

Curtis Kelly invites you to subscribe to a free magazine, the MindBrainEd Think Tanks, that connect brain science to language teaching. Subscribe here.

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