Good teachers need to be good learners

Teaching in Japan was more adventurous, but online courses keep up the connection

Students Den Morita, middle, and Shoei Imaizumi meet in Tokyo for intensive English coursework with Hesston College professor André Swartley in June 2019. — André Swartley/Hesston College Students Den Morita, middle, and Shoei Imaizumi meet in Tokyo for intensive English coursework with Hesston College professor André Swartley in June 2019. — André Swartley/Hesston College

My daily commute through Tokyo to teach intensive English as a Second Language classes for Hesston College lasted about 90 minutes each way. About 10 million people ride Tokyo’s subways every day. Trains come and go less than a minute apart in the busiest stations. At rush hour, uniformed men shove passengers onto subway cars and hold them inside, straining, until the moment the doors slide shut. Then they leap backward with a respectful bow to the departing train.

All of this became routine quickly. When I had space on the train to lift my phone up to my face (usually I didn’t), I would read the morning news or study Japanese grammar. Most mornings, though, I simply grasped the overhead handhold and stared over the heads of my fellow commuters, watching the city flash past, blurry through the condensation of everyone’s breath on the windows.

In the late 1990s, Hesston was already drawing unusually large numbers of international students from a wide number of countries and regions. As a student, I remember hearing in the cafeteria Spanish, French, Japanese and a language whose name I didn’t know at the time, Amharic, one of the official languages of Ethiopia.

I could never have predicted that, 25 years later, I would have a poem handwritten in Amharic by one of my own students tacked to the bulletin board in my faculty office. Connecting with international students in college helped drive me into my current field.

In 2018, I developed a wild idea to pilot Hesston’s ESL program overseas. One of our recruiting partners in Japan saw potential in the idea and signed on to collaborate. We developed a program in which I would teach our credit-bearing English courses to students in Tokyo and Osaka in three-week sessions during the summer. We knew that if we wanted the program to work long-term, we would need to stay within the bounds of our school policies and accreditation, as well as the laws governing labor and visas in Japan.

Aside from the three hours I spent every day crammed into a Tokyo subway, the program launched well. All but one of the students who took the first classes in 2019 ended up attending and graduating from Hesston.

We planned to run the Tokyo and Osaka classes again in summer 2020, but COVID-19 bloomed into a pandemic, grinding into life-altering grief, anxiety and desperation. It also derailed foreign travel and in-person education.

But good teachers need to be good learners. In spring 2020 we revised the in-person courses from Tokyo and Osaka into online versions. And more students came. This time, it was students in their last year of high school, looking to jumpstart their college careers. The online version enabled us to make classes more affordable, and therefore accessible, to more students.

After teaching ESL classes online for two summers, we continue to hear from interested parents and students. I still harbor hopes that our pilot courses from Japan can be expanded to other countries. Hesston has heard from interested parties in Indonesia and Mexico, as well as a handful of institutions in other countries. The desire we all feel to learn, to be connected to each other and the world, still brings us together.

André Swartley is an English/ESL instructor and the transcultural experience coordinator at Hesston College.

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