As a classic symbol of Japan, and a dying breed, the geisha is a skilled practitioner of her art. She is elegant, highly trained. Unfortunately, this is not the parallel I am going to draw between ‘Geisha’ and ‘Teacher’. Let’s skip ahead to the modern era.

There are now said to be about 2000 professional geisha and maiko left. If you bump into one on the streets of Kyoto, she is probably a tourist costumed for the photo op. However, the spirit of the geisha remains, the need which created her continues… indeed, grows more fervent. *

All over the country, ‘hostess’ clubs thrive… places in which a tired salaryman can sit and relax while pretty young women pour his drinks, laugh at his jokes and engage in him in light conversation. And in progressive new Japan, there will be a place around the corner in which pretty young men provide the same service for hardworking women.**

Is this, perhaps, how some students see their teachers? Is this how schools are set up? Let me ask you these questions.

Have you ever been required to attend after school social functions with students?

Have you ever been brought in to meet a prospective student and clinch the deal?

Have you ever taught a lesson without a textbook, not a a dogme-ist, but because the student ‘just wanted to talk’?

I don’t doubt that most native speakers who have taught in a foreign country have experienced such situations. Many NNESTs too. And the younger, more attractive and more affable you are….

The question should be, I suppose, ‘Do I care?’ Does it matter that the student is not here to learn, but to have fun, and that I am getting easy money for entertaining him? Do I mind, effectively, working as a host or a hostess? That’s a question I can’t answer for you individually, but as a profession we ought to be a somewhat concerned. I’ve had this particular post on the back burner for a while, but having just read the Marxists I thought it was time to get it out there….

*No, not sex. Whilst some geisha or maiko may have had physical relations with their clients, there is not a direct correlation between prostitution and the geisha system. Likewise, some hosts or hostesses may take on ‘patrons’, but it is far beyond the remit of this blog to get into the murky world of Japanese sexual politics. I’ll make one thing clear though. I am not using prostitution as a metaphor for teaching.

**Ironically (?) many of the host’s clients are hostesses. They have the money, and the free time… but they have no one to listen to them talk.

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11 Thoughts on “metaphors for teaching – the teacher as geisha

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  2. Hey, hey…

    oh it’S Story-Time Darren because yes I have and yes, I absolutely loved it: in fact, think it’s the dogmeist of experiences a trainer can go through and should be studied as an alternative methodology because it freaking works.

    Now… on to my story.

    Four years ago I got a call. “We have a CEO who wants classes twice a week, over lunch in Stuttgart’s finest restaurants, all you have to do is talk and we’ll pay “extra” plus all travel expenses.”

    Now this ain’t Asia so I was a wee bit surprised but sounded like an interesting deal, I popped in to the institute.

    He’s a difficult but important client, they said. You’re the fourth teacher we’re sending and he’d prefer not to have a woman but you’re the only one we think can do it (other, obviously, than the 3 who failed prior :). I heard he was a swine, an arrogant narcissistic bastard but was heading to China and needed to improve his social skills asap for all the non-boardroom discussions: the social events were the primary concern.

    He needed to small-talk not just big-talk.

    A wee nervous I went to meet him dressed in suit and heels. Strode over to the only bald, overweight, dominant male sitting on a bar stool. Stuck out my hand: I’m Karenne, your new teacher. You are xx? (using his first name which is not the done thing here in Germany). He looked at me over, top to bottom, I refused to blush and instead indicated to the waitress that we needed a table.

    Strode over to our place, chose my lunch in a flash and then outlined how I thought our lessons could go and what we would be doing to make sure that he would reach his language skills objectives within the required time. Asked if he agreed.. he nodded. I proceeded with discussing the current news and touched lightly on things I’d read up on his company and asked him to outline how the news might affect what he was doing.

    By the end of the first lunch, I had him eating out of the palm of my hand causing him, at the end of the meal to stammer and blush with an inappropriate “that was good for me, was it good for you?”

    Too funny. I smiled wryly and said I thought it would be okay. I would continue to teach him, I had time in my schedule.

    Anyway, the point of the story is that through the months of fine dining (oh, sigh, how I miss my tiger-prawn caesar salads) and absolutely absolutely fascinating conversation I got him where we had to go and my God, it was one of my absolutely most fun teaching experiences ever.

    In fact, it actually lists as one of my best life experiences because I really enjoyed having such a high level exchange of thoughts (things I just simply wouldn’t talk about with friends… I enjoyed his respect for my own sometimes silly ideas (it was four years ago when I said mobile phone that’s the next wave of learning English – through text messages – that’s the future… and lookie here, in 2010, now it’s actually happening (if only I’d had the financial backing to follow through on that idea back then…) but most of all – learning from him, this incredibly interesting dynamic professional. I loved the back and forth banter: we often argued! which was such fun but of course I had dropped the “dominatrix” act relatively soon into the course – we talked philosophy, shared life experiences – it was simply, in one word: brilliant.

    After the end of our lessons he wrote to let me know that he’d managed his target and successfully completed the deal he’d had to China and let me know that he’d managed not one but three social engagements using topics we’d covered in our lessons (current events, movements in the industry) with ease.

    Sometimes Darren, our students actually really do need far more than knowing what the present perfect does in a sentence :-)!


  3. Ha, I’ve had that thought too. And you know, I think it’s okay, sometimes. The biggest danger I see, other than mistaken intentions (hasn’t happened to me!), is a lack of goalposts/sense of progress. Still, one student told me he’d never had successful conversations in English before…my slower, patient conversation, with no “penalty” for misunderstandings or mistakes, finally gave him the confidence he needed. It felt more like being some kind of hostess than a traditional teacher, but I’ve never wanted
    to be a tradtional teacher…whatever that is. 🙂

  4. It’s the classic Eikaiwa teachers’ Friday night in the pub conversation, though it tends to be host/ hostess bars rather than geisha (few teachers in Japan have years of training…) I really miss being paid to chat, and might still go back into it, if it still exists to go back into!

  5. darren on April 25, 2010 at 5:05 am said:

    Karenne – that story alone made this half-baked metaphor worth posting 😉

    Funny, isn’t it? We may decry the state of the industry, the low pay and status, the insecurity, the discrimination…. but when it comes to attitudes like this which perpetuate that situation, we are all happy to go in there and do our lapdance. I include myself in the criticism.

    The ability to make people comfortable and good about themselves is a key teaching skill, and yet it shouldn’t be mistaken for teaching itself. I’ve done my time as a ‘host’, but there is always someone with a shinier smile coming along behind you. That’s why you have to keep ‘skilling-up’ as a teacher.

    As we can see from the big Geos bankruptcy, when the whole experience is sold as ‘education’ to ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ alike, the facade is likely to come crashing down pretty painfully before too long. If I were writing anonymously, I might take the parallels even further….

  6. Hi Darren, this might not be exactly on topic for what you’ve posted above, but I think it’s kind of related.

    My big problem is Facebook. Some teachers where I work (naming no names) are quite comfortable being friends with their students (including current students). I’ve had several students I teach request that I add them as a friend, which I haven’t – doesn’t seem right. I couldn’t say exactly why other teachers are ok with it – maybe age (of the teachers and students), maybe sex – because I’ve had the ‘young male teacher’ problems this year and received a slightly dodgey message on Facebook. (Needless to say, tactful message back and blocked that person)

    So,teacher as a geisha – I bloody hope not!

    And, god Karenne, can imagine a 1-2-1 being more than a little difficult from that respect!


  7. Addendum, but obviously, K, you coped marvelously. Can’t imagine myself in a similar situation (thankfully??)

  8. Darren – I just knew I couldn’t leave your blog earlier without giving you a good story 😉 (don’t worry Mike I haven’t forgotten your request and I have loads, I’ll pop by soon -am catching up on my to-do list)…

    But you boys mistake me a little thinking it was a tough assignment… and funnily enough 2 of the 3 teachers who’d failed were men and 1 of them had been an engineer in a previous life… so perhaps it would have been hard for some men – but to be honest, I liked it (does that make me a bad person? hope not)… I mean, I learned so much about myself in that time, life skills stuff, not just who I was as a teacher…

    When I answered I think I wanted to throw a bit of a spanner into the concept of exactly what an English teacher is, you know like your Mahil post today, Mike … I’m pushing for something based your post Darren but even referencing, albeit a bit arbritarily, @Hoprea bare essentials – something to do with giving the students what they need.

    disguised as what they want…

    One could as easily write a post with the headline

    “The teacher as the stand-up comedian”

    “The teacher as the psychologist”

    “The teacher as the mother”

    “The teacher as the confidant”

    “The teacher as the Fairy Godmother who will magically bestow upon you with her magic wand, completely perfect English and you will never have to do a drop of homework, ever, ever”

    Naja, I’m waffling…

    In a classroom setting instead of a restaurant, unquestionably, we could have practiced the small talk RS needed but we would have been out-of-setting. He needed to practice social talk in a social setting because for him, the clinching of the deal would happen out of the boardroom (as it often does at this level of negotiation depending on the cultural context).

    So what I provided was setting and content.

    Alex mentions the glory of “being paid” to chat and Clarissa (talk to the clouds) mentions the lack of goalposts but I (or any other teacher who’s been a similar situation and I know there are others because I’ve met them 🙂 wasn’t just paid to “chat” – I was paid to chat on an intellectual level about current issues and how these affected the industry he was in. Trust me when I say there was prep involved (oh, don’t tell the dogmeists… but ya know, I don’t generally read rags&blogs in that specific field of industry) and to be “in the know” you have to go do research…

    So nah, Mike, really – I loved it and I’d do it again in a flash (the money was good, the lessons were fun and exciting, the progress in his fluency was phenomenal…)

    Oh, that was my point:

    What are we there in the classroom, if it is not to get our students to where they wanna be in their English? Does the road we travel on really matter or is it what we see along the way & whether or not we arrive at final destination?

    Paz :-)!

  9. The geisha image is really quite apt, especially for business one-to-one. We’re a little like those perfect “wives”, completely attentive and supportive, challenging “our man” productively in privacy to make “him” strong to save face in public. This is obviously not limited to any given sex, nor is it sexual, but there is often that subtext to even the most professional of relationships.

  10. I’m sure we all know it is necessary to be able to direct any learning situation skillfully and respectfully. But that’s not usually something that you come by quickly and easily (tends to come with a fair bit of experience, training and reflection (the geisha metaphor, for lack of a better one). If you want to draw general parallels – it’s somewhat akin to the difference in skill level between a geisha and a hostess (which is huge) in that respect (that’s not to say there aren’t hard-working skillful hostesses, for that matter, but it differs vastly). For me, it lies in the decisions you make as a teacher;that is, you have to decide if you are going to passively accommodate your students and not apply certain efforts, or actively provide guidance and work at teaching.

    To answer the question: Does the road we travel on really matter, or is it what we see along the way & whether or not we arrive at final destination? In short, I’d say it all matters because every teaching/learning situation and every student is different, and even the smallest thing could be relevant.

    Bottom line: I’ve found that if you are serious about your craft (and teaching is one), any student worth his/her salt will know you mean business and take it and work with you – or leave it. You can’t please every student and it’s foolish even to try, but I understand when you are trying to keep a job you have to suck it up to some extent! This is the part where I think teachers start to feel aggravated and frustrated and feel like they’re stuck in a host/hostess/okyakusan (customer) dynamic – especially in the context of Eikaiwa (English Conversation schools) – because the general consensus is giving students what they “need” and what’s “good for them” is viewed as something to avoid at all costs. Personally, I’ve done it and found that playing that game is not only demoralizing to yourself as a teacher and as a human being, but also to your students because you tend to not see them for who they are and what they’re trying to achieve. It’s much easier to maintain dignity and just teach your way. I realize that in Japan, it might be very hard untangle yourself from that social dynamic because it’s pretty well entrenched – but it’s not impossible…

    Also, this probably goes without saying but with any relationship (not to forget, the teacherstudent dynamic is a relationship) boundaries are necessary in order to respect yourself and your students. I find it does help to spell out your expectations and make boundaries very clear to students (particularly right from the beginning, but you could shift them later, imho).

  11. darren on April 27, 2010 at 2:26 pm said:

    Thanks all… some interesting perspectives. I suppose it has helped me clarify what I meant by this post, and why it makes me uncomfortable, and why I am fine with it. I think it is about being in control of the way one presents oneself. The metaphor of ‘hostess’ or ‘host’ is not in itself a problematic one. It is just another way of perceiving what we do, and the skills we have to put into play. It seems particularly relevant in a one to one business context, and much like the rest of you I am happy to play the role, to entertain, to teach by stealth, because I am in a position to turn away work if I don’t want to do it, and because I am old enough to approach a student from a position of (some kind of) equality.

    What IS problematic, then, is the metaphor of school as hostess club. In that situation, the teachers are paraded as exotic and glamourous conversation partners for the delictation of the client. The teachers are often young, untrained and unskilled educators, but this draws no complaint as long as they are entertaining and friendly. They have neither the power nor the experience to turn away customers or to direct the classroom interaction. And as long as these schools operate, the profession as a whole is diminished.

    So I suppose I am concerned with the meatphors for teaching contexts more than those used by teachers themselves. Put it another way… I sometimes feel like a babysitter, but I would never consider my classroom as a creche. Does that make any sense?

    BTW, Oka… nice to see a new commenter here, welcome to the blog ; D

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