7: That Awful Little Book

7: That Awful Little Book

Discipline problems and dealing with cultural differences.

Four weeks ago, eight instructors from the Takahashi Language Centre (TLC) in Tokyo were assigned to an intensive English programme taking place at a training centre for a large Japanese company producing radar equipment for ships. The programme was scheduled to continue for several months, and was attended by younger engineers and MBAs, all university graduates, and all being groomed for managerial positions. There were four classes in the programme, each with about a dozen learners, and men outnumbering women by about two-to-one. TLC had competed with several other consultancies and language schools for this lucrative contract, and it couldn't have come at a better moment. Recently, TLC had lost several big contracts, a result of the economic downturn, and had been desperate to find new clients.

Several days after they programme had begun, one of the instructors, Janet, noticed a book focusing on American vulgarity on the desk of one of the male learners. She picked it up and skimmed through the pages. What it contained was even worse than she had imagined. She asked the class who the book belonged to, but nobody answered. She put it aside, assuming that whoever it did belong to was too embarrassed to respond. She figured it would disappear after class, and went on with her lesson.

Fifteen minutes later, during a communicative activity, several male learners began trying out nasty words and expressions on their female classmates, who seemed to be unaware of the meaning behind the words. Somehow these learners must have got hold of the book. Janet realised that she would have to deal with this problem quickly before she lost control of the classroom. She took the book from a group of learners and told them that the language it contained was socially unacceptable at all levels of society, including that of her classroom. She warned them not to use the language in the classroom again, or anywhere in her presence for that matter.

Later on in the lesson, she thought she heard obscene language coming from the rear of the classroom. There were two women in the group of four, and she heard some Japanese being used as well. She was not entirely sure that the words she heard were obscene. The learners' voices could barely be heard, and besides, the women in the group did not appear to be upset in the least. No, she must have been imagining things. At the end of the class, she put the offending book on her desk and told the class that she did not wish to learn the identity of its owner as long as the book never made an appearance again.

In the evening, Janet was riding home on the train with a colleague named Sheena. She intended to mention the distressing incident, but Sheena brought up the subject first. The book had made an appearance in Sheena's classroom as well. Sheena taught the same group as Janet later on in the day, so it was apparent that Janet's warning had been ignored. Janet considered what steps to take to deal with the situation. She was unsure of how to reproach adult learners over something as juvenile as obscenity, and hoped that, since the learners had the following day off and since they were adults, the entire issue would disappear.

Unfortunately it didn't. Some learners became bolder in the next lesson and began comparing some of the male and female instructors to certain American celebrities known for their sexuality. Some used the graphic language from the book that Janet had banned from her classroom. Janet noticed that the culprits were confined to two or three men, but chose to address the entire class. She told them she was serious about what she had said in the previous lesson. She warned that she would bring this matter up with the supervisors of the programme if the learners persisted in using obscenities, and asked them if they understood. A few responded yes, but Janet also heard several Japanese utterances and what she though may have been some snickering. The remainder of the class continued without incident, and Janet considered the matter resolved.

Two weeks later, however, Janet had to leave the room in tears. Sheena happened to be passing in the hallway and immediately noticed how upset Janet appeared to be. She brought Janet into the teacher's room. Once Janet was able to settle down a bit, Sheena asked what had happened. Janet responded, "Do you remember that awful little book that we spotted in the class? Well, this morning I heard one of the men using some of that foul language again, you know, Hiroshi. I was quite surprised because he wasn't one of the learners I had singled out. Actually, he hardly ever speaks at all. Anyway, I tried to make it as clear as possible how bad the language is and how much trouble he could get himself into by using those words. I realised though that he probably didn't know what he was saying. Of course, I warned him that I don't ever want to hear him using that language again.

"So anyway a bit later, I'm going around the room checking on some groupwork, and I get to his group and do you know what this guy does? He starts propositioning me, asking if I could meet him and using the same vulgar disgusting talk and the whole class starts laughing, even the women. I just couldn't believe that someone could do such a thing. I don't know what to do. I don't want to teach them anymore. I'm going to ask TLC if they can replace me with another teacher, preferably a man."

Sheena was outraged. "They're going to have to find a replacement for you and they're going to have to make this an issue. We can't put up with this kind of behaviour. You know, I know this society does not have a high regard for women to begin with, and that, no thanks to Hollywood, some men think Western women are loose, but I can't believe that someone could come out with that kind of language, those kinds of ideas, in from of everybody and think it was funny. The women were probably shy and uncomfortable, so they just laughed. But all the men went along with it. We really have to pursue this."

Janet started to be a little more hesitant. "But TLC can't afford to lose a client this big. And if we push this, we're going to be blamed by everybody."

"Yeah, but if we don't, nothing will change. These men have to know that this kind of behaviour is, well, unacceptable."

"Yeah, but what about if we lose money, even our jobs, or TLC goes bankrupt, and everybody hates us, then what do we gain? This is the first time in three years I've really dealt with anything this serious. Maybe one of the male teachers can talk with these learners. Or maybe we should just get the director to talk with the training part of the company and let them decide what to do."

Sheena was adamant, however, that Janet should not back down. "Please, think about this, and think about how much you had to suffer because of what this guy did. Was he right? Because if you don't do anything about it, this sends out the signal that he was. Maybe in his mind he didn't do anything wrong, as odd as that may seem. Well, in that case he's got to learn that what he did is, in fact, wrong, very wrong."
"Yeah, but Sheena, what's going to happen to this guy? As far as I know, they don't have any laws or regulations about that stuff here. And this guy's some kind of high-tech physicist. He'll never lose his job. It's not worth taking it any further. As long as I never have to teach them again, I don't care."


1. Janet warned the learners not to use the language from the book on American vulgarity in the classroom. How do you think Janet phrased her warning? How can warnings be phrased to have the greatest effect? Do you think she included a threat? Is she in a position to be able to follow through on any threats she makes? Aside from warnings and threats, what other options might be available to Janet?

2. Not all teachers view discipline problems in the same light. This may be especially true for teachers from different cultural backgrounds. For instance, quiet learners may be indicative of non-cooperation to one teacher, whereas to another teacher it may be a sign of deference to the teacher's status and thus reflect model behaviour. Can you think of other patterns of classroom behaviour that may be viewed differently by different teachers? What about the problem Janet is facing?

3. Sheena, at one point in her conversation with Janet, suggests that the male learner "in his mind ... didn't do anything wrong". She then goes on to say, "he's got to learn that what he did is, in fact, wrong, very wrong." If the male learner's actions within the context of his own culture are not considered to be a breech of conduct, is Sheena justified in insisting that he has to learn how to behave according to the norms that govern her own behaviour? Is this an example of imposing a culture while teaching language? Does teaching English imply that we should also teach Western cultural expectations?

4. Male-female relationships sometimes vary between cultures. Should TLC warn prospective teachers about this issue before hiring them? What other issues of cultural variance could prospective teachers be warned of? If organisations like TLC issue such warnings, do they run the risk of sounding prejudiced by caricaturing cultures? Does the onus of discovering such differences rest with the teachers themselves? How could a prospective teacher research such issues prior to travelling to the country of employment?

5. TLC is struggling to compete with other similar organisations and so doesn't want to lose its contract. However, it also needs to maintain standards and keep its teachers happy. What are some ways TLC could react to Janet's situation? Which do you think would be best under the circumstances?