The Boy Who Always Left Class

The Boy Who Always Left Class

Curtis Kelly

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Many years ago, I was a speaker on the JALT Four Corners Tour through Kyushu. My presentation topic was one of my favorites: “Dealing with Difficult Students.” (The ultimate message is that it is we, as teachers, who have to deal with ourselves. We are the ones who need to change.)

In the discussion period after one of the talks, a Japanese English teacher, Ms. Maekawa, told us about how one of her students kept leaving class. Every single class, about halfway through, this student asked if he could go to the bathroom. Naturally, she said “yes.” How could she refuse a request like that? I know teachers who do, saying “You should have gone before class!” but Maekawa-san was not so demanding. She let him go and he would disappear for a while.

There we were, hearing this familiar story. “Yep,” we all thought, “I have had students like that. They use the bathroom ploy to get out of class, maybe taking their cell phone and having a smoke.” I and everyone else listening to the story frowned and shook our heads.

“Yep,” we all thought, “I have had students like that. They use the bathroom ploy to get out of class.”
Curtis Kelly
TT Author

There we were, hearing this familiar story. “Yep,” we all thought, “I have had students like that. They use the bathroom ploy to get out of class, maybe taking their cell phone and having a smoke.” I and everyone else listening to the story frowned and shook our heads.

However, this wonderful teacher did not come to the same negative conclusion we did. Instead, she wondered if the student had some health issue and, going to the Student Health Center to look at his profile, she found out that he did. It turned out the boy suffered from severe hemorrhoids. He was too embarrassed to bring a donut pillow, so sitting on a hard seat for 90 minutes was just plain painful. That is why he went to the restroom: so that he could stand up!

As soon as we heard that, all our expressions changed. We went from frowns to glowing smiles of compassion. “Oh, poor boy,” we thought, “he is not a bad student. What can we do to help students like this?” How our outlook changed with that little bit of information.

But then it hit me. We bend over backwards to help someone with an external physical disability, or even a neurological one, but when it comes to an internal, psychological disability–such as fear of looking stupid in English, a lack of motivation to keep doing something that continually results in failure, or just the inability to sit for hours in a boring class–we become self-righteous and indignant. Yet, how can we say that psychological pain is less debilitating than physical pain?

In fact, from the perspective of the brain, fMRI research shows the same areas of brain are activated for both types of pain. Research shows that social pain, such as rejection, and even a broken heart, activates the same part of the brain that makes us feel physical pain, even though the stimulus originates in different places [article source] [podcast source]. Lost love also activates the areas of addiction. In short, emotional pain and physical pain have evolved to share the same neural pathways to alert us to either kind of danger.

So then, why, as teachers, do we downplay the pain our students suffer from rejection, failure, and shame, attributing their avoidance to a lack of moral fortitude or “not trying hard enough,” while at the same time, we take a completely different stance for a student in physical pain? After all, learners do not really choose their psychological dispositions any more than their physical ones, nor do they have much control over them. A child who had been screamed at for years by a parent who did not think they were studying hard enough develops a mental model of study as being unpleasant, painful, and something to avoid. Indeed, a psychological problem can be just as disabling as a physical one.

Let us start the new year by thinking about this problem. Maybe we need to develop the same compassion that we had for the boy who left class because of hemorrhoids for students who leave for other reasons, such as to escape boredom or have a smoke. Maybe those psychological frailties need the same understanding that we would offer a student in physical pain. Let us “deal with ourselves,” making our oft-stated but rarely-used, principle of giving the same loving care to every learner, a reality.

Curtis Kelly (EDD), the first coordinator of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, is a Professor of English at Kansai University in Japan. He is the producer of the Think Tanks, has written over 30 books and 100 articles, and given over 400 presentations. His life mission, and what drew him to brain studies, is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

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