Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

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