How I Learned A Really Different Method Of Teaching

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Not all teaching jobs are created equal. Some are so much fun they seem more like a pleasure cruise than a job.

That’s the way it was for me when a U.S Army major came into my training and personnel office on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, and offered me a job.

“Garrett,” he said, “I hear you’re a pretty fair teacher. Do you have a teaching degree?”

“No,” I told him.

“Actually,” he said, “I’m supposed to hire only certified teachers, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. Would you mind if I sat in on one of your classes?”

“You can do better than that,” I told him, pointing. “My classroom is right there across the hall. For the next two weeks I’m teaching a class every morning. You can just drop in and watch from here. Because of the bright lighting in the classroom you’ll be able to see me, but I won’t be able to see you.”

Eight or nine days went by and I completely forgot about that major until he showed up in my office again.

“Watched you in action last Wednesday,” he told me. “If you want a job teaching in the evenings I’ve got one for you.”

“Sounds interesting. What would I be teaching?”

He mentioned the pay first, which because it was scaled to that of a certified civilian teacher, was a lot more than my sergeant’s pay, even though it was part time. And then he dropped a bomb. He told me he wanted me to teach English.

“I’m flattered,” I told him, “but I don’t have a degree in English either.”

“Don’t need one. Come over to my place and see why.”

I did, and that very afternoon I signed a contract to teach spoken English.

But there was a glitch. I was fluent in Japanese, which I learned while stationed at Tachikawa Air Base in Japan, but he told me, “You can’t speak a word of Japanese to your students.” That startled me because they were Okinawan employees.

If you’re startled too, and asking yourself how in the world you can teach a subject like English, even spoken English, or any other subject if you have no degree in it, let me tell you about a teaching method unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Amazingly, with no teaching certificate or degree in English, and forbidden to speak a word of Japanese to my students, I took on a class of 30 Okinawans who knew essentially nothing about our language, and put them through basic, intermediate and advanced courses in spoken English.

How’d I do it?

Well, very easily, as it turns out.

Worked like this ...

I was given a spiral-bound textbook that was just the right size, shape and weight to sit comfortably in the palm of my left hand when it was opened and had two pages showing.

I was also given some sets of cue cards. On one of them, one side said YES and the other side said NO. On another, one side had a question mark, and the other side had an exclamation point. There were others, but there’s no need to mention them here.

Amazingly, I also wrote no lesson plans. The book I held open as I taught was my lesson plan. It was a two column lesson plan. One column told me what to say and do. The other column told me what response to expect — and get! — from my students.

Other than that, I was given a short set of instructions by the major which included a few stock gestures. One was putting a hand behind an ear to signal I wanted to hear something. Another one was a pointed finger. There were others too, of course.

And then I was let loose.

On the first night of class, I watched the students sit down in six rows of desks. They chatted in Japanese while I bit my lip, forcing myself not to politely welcome them in their own tongue.

Then came the magic moment. The bell rang signaling the start of class. The Okinawans politely stopped talking.

I looked at my lesson plan-cum-textbook and read out loud.

“Good evening.”

Then I put my hand to my ear.

There was, as might be expected, no response.

I did it again. Still no response. And again. And again.

About the fourth or fifth time I said it, some genius in the third row said, in Japanese, to himself, “Oh, I understand.”

The next time I said, “Good evening,” and put my hand behind my ear he replied, saying, “Gu-ude even ning, instructah-san.”

And that was it. We went from there, with everyone first learning to say, “Good evening.”

From that small start, many months later, those same students walked out of the advanced class fairly fluent in spoken English.

“What about the cue cards?” you ask.

Let’s suppose the subject is — oh — an umbrella. I hold up the card with the question mark, pointing a spare finger holding the card at row three. They say, “Is it an umbrella?”

I point the YES card at row six. They say, “Yes, it is. It is an umbrella.”

Then I point the NO card at row five. They say, “No, it isn’t. It isn’t an umbrella.”

I show the exclamation point to row four. They say “It is! It is an umbrella!”

And on and on, with some beautifully thought out variations.

I don’t know who dreamt up the method, or if it has been applied to other subjects, but I certainly know that it works.

The best fun of all came during the party the students threw at the end of the last course, attended by my beloved wife Lolly and my two children, David, 3, and Francis, 18 months.

I stood up and spoke to them in Japanese, thanking them for being such great students. They were amazed that I spoke Japanese.

And I was equally amazed that they now spoke English.

I guess that made us even.

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