I was starting to warm to my subject as I scanned the sea of student faces before me, when I was suddenly arrested at the sight of Jun-ichi. Jun-ichi was my most enthusiastic student. He liked to tell me how he had come from a family of mikan orange growers on a small island in the Inland Sea, and had won a scholarship to the university. He was always present and punctual. Homework was always turned in. He always prepared thoroughly for his presentations. His attitude conveyed to me that he was not just taking my English class to fulfil his credit requirements; he showed genuine interest in the subject. Only now I noticed that Jun-ichi’s eyes were beginning to glaze over. Then, with his head tilted to one side, he fell asleep. In all of my years of teaching in the U.K. and Australia, I had never had a student fall asleep in front of my eyes. I felt very uncomfortable. Was it because my English-language delivery made no sense to him? Was he exhausted from his part-time work in the evenings?
 Jun-ichi is a pseudonym.
I tried to reflect on my own experience to identify my own struggles with paying attention to a speaker, but my response had always been restlessness rather than falling asleep. Our faculty meetings may continue for as long as four hours. This is because the democratic process encourages attendees to stay awake by voicing their agreement or disagreement with the speaker, and to ask questions. As much as I am grateful for the democratic process, I tend to feel uneasy sitting on a hard seat in the lecture theatre during the four-hour meetings. In my early years in the faculty, I couldn’t wait to go and pick up my daughter from after-school care. Would she be the last child to be picked up from the care centre? Would the carers be annoyed with me for being the last parent to pick up their child? Would my daughter be exhausted from the long school day and after-school care session? Most importantly, I felt that visceral tug parents feel when they want to be reunited with their young children at the end of the working day. I would watch the clock at the front of the room tick by, and wait for an opportunity to exit. It was hard to remain inconspicuous as I exited, being the only foreign-looking woman in a room of over a hundred faculty members, but I had to make my exit for my daughter’s sake and, I confess, mine.
As the years went by, my daughters grew up, and I no longer had to cut short my attendance at faculty meetings. Nevertheless, sitting still in my seat in the lecture theatre remained difficult. If I was sitting directly under the air conditioner in winter, the dryness irritated me. As for summer, the management was very conscientious about saving energy, so the thermostat was set to 28 degrees. I would squirm in my seat as the perspiration trickled down my spine. One day as I was reflecting on why passivity was, counterintuitively, more tiring than activity, I recalled something my flight attendant sister-in-law had told me. I had been commiserating with her over how exhausting her job must be, when she responded that it was much harder being a passenger. Then it hit me. Simply being passive in the class had exhausted Jun-ichi. He had been sitting in classes all day, and now he was just sitting in mine. His sleepiness was a natural physical reaction, not a problem of attitude or interest.
Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (2010) shares many wonderful insights into how to engage students. She suggests introducing physical movement into the class to provide “brain breaks, refocusing attention, and oxygenation” (p. 94). As a response to learner boredom, she advises, “movement should be considered as a solution to such fatigue” (p. 94). Furthermore, she explains the limitations on attention spans, contrasting how the lecture format is more efficient for the speaker than the hearer. She recommends implementing changes of “person (from teacher to student, for example), place (a change of seat, for example), or topic (a conceptual refocus, for example) at least every 20 minutes” (p. 118). Next, she advises following periods of intense concentration with time for reflection on the content.
In recent years I have been implementing Tokuhama-Espinosa’s recommendations, keeping an eye on the students’ expressions, to assess their engagement. When students have a change of person and place as they rotate their seating positions around the room for peer discussions, I notice that their expressions often change to intense engagement and they become more animated. I will try to keep Tokuhama-Espinosa’s insights in mind to make sure students stay alert in my lessons and, although I am sure he has forgotten by now, if I ever have the chance to meet Jun-ichi again, I would like to thank him. Jun-ichi provided the impetus to reflect on and change my teaching.
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). The new science of teaching and learning: Using the best of mind, brain, and education science in the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist at Tokushima University. Most of her writing concerns second language pedagogy, and has appeared in The ELT Journal, English Today, Reading in a Foreign Language, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, Raising Bilingual and Bicultural Children: Essays from the Inaka, edited by Darren Lingley and Paul Daniels and The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers .