Stories About Experiences That Changed Us As Language Teachers

January 2020

The “Student from Hell,” the teacher that changed my life, the day I discovered that something I was doing was wrong; stories like these shape us as much as any other form of teacher training we might engage in.  Take a little training here with our 11 wonderful stories.

Watch before you read...

Adam Saenz’s TED Talk is moving. It’ll touch your heart, so don’t skip it. And for some of the neuroscience behind stories, listen to David Phillips’s TED Talk too.

This is our January issue and, though this is just the second, we have a tradition of doing something different with these anniversary issues. This month, we are giving you eleven stories by teachers about experiences that influenced their way of thinking and teaching. And here is some good news: we received sixteen stories, and we like all of them so much that we have decided to make a new feature in the Think Tanks, a monthly column of teacher stories!

Many of the stories here are about classroom experiences and what our contributors learned from them, but many others are on experiences our teachers had as learners themselves, and how their lives were changed as a result.

So, sit back, relax, and read these wonderful stories. With luck, we might get one from you as well.

Our Thoughts on Teacher Stories

How Teachers Learn Curtis Kelly

I was doing graduate work in my academic field when a certain fact stopped me cold in my tracks. I was reading about the principle sources of education in the twentieth century and the main one was not at all what I had expected.

Think Tank Articles

They Cheated Again Stephen M. Ryan

They’d cheated again. Can you believe it? Homework was just a simple written exercise to reinforce a conversation lesson, and yet, most of the class had cheated. Again.

The Power of Words Bruno Jactat

There was this boy in France, whose paternal upbringing was so crushing and humiliating that by his early teens he had lost every ounce of self-esteem and self-respect. 

Learning to Dance Skye Playsted

Of all the sweet, heartfelt messages my students had written me on our final day of class together, this one, written by Lila and her phone translation app, really took my breath away.

The Twenty-Minute Rule Meredith Stephens

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.              

The Wall of the Shamrock Brian Cullen

Many years ago, I was playing music in a small Irish pub called The Shamrock, in Shinjuku. It was a rather strange structure with a wall going right down the middle of the room, dividing it into a bar and a lounge area. 

Principal Stephens and the Gratitude Letter Marc Helgesen

It was near the end my first year of high school. I get a note: Marc Helgesen, report to Principal Stephens’ office. Actually, Mr. Stephens was the assistant principal. 

Changing From Challenge to Opportunity Roger Blievernicht

At the beginning of this year I had a particular class that was difficult to manage, the kind of junior high school class here in Japan that has issues with noise, participation, and even, at times, things thrown across the classroom.

Releasing Student Creativity Kazuyoshi Sato

Soon after I started studying for my MA in applied linguistics (language teaching) at the University of Queensland in Australia in 1995, I began to teach Japanese as a part-time teacher at two universities.

Mindsets Glenn Magee

When I attended one of the first annual brain days in Kita-Kyushu I met a really interesting man named Tim Murphey. This was the first time I had met Tim and my attention was caught by his juggling balls.

Scissors and English Teachers Masda Yuka

I never meant to be a teacher, yet here I am, and here’s how. According to the French writer and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, humans are born with no purposes to serve. 

The Boy Who Always Left Class Curtis Kelly

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.”

PLUS: Future Issues Think Tank Staff

Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these?

Going Deeper

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson shows how our brains become “aligned” while listening to stories. 

Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, the writer behind the Toy Story movies and others, explains the secrets of a good story.
(Note: Contains graphic language.)

Julian Friedman, a literary agent, tells us that 99% of the stories he receives fail, and why. While this is not as polished and moving as some of the other talks, he reveals the most important factor in writing a good story. It has to be about “you” rather than “me.”

Writers, critics and academics voted these as the most influential and enduring works of fiction (editor’s note: well, in the Western world). Here they explain why.

What does the revelation of life change look like?  Watch this short, wonderfully cute video of Piper having such an experience.  

That’s what it looks like!

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

Curtis H. Kelly                Skye Playsted



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