Reflections on L. Dennis Woolbright’s Classes

Stephanie Le Marechal, California Language Institute Kindergarten

For this issue’s Teaching Assistance, the author reflects on what she learned from her Japan-based practicum advisor while enrolled in an education program at Winchester University in the UK. Her essay is based on notes she took for her TEFL Methods coursework. By sharing perceptions of what she observed going on in language classrooms taught by a teacher whom she respected, Le Marechal hopes to help readers and herself come to grips with how pedagogical theories and approaches such as Counselling-Learning (Curran, 1977) and Community Language Learning (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011) can be acted out in the real world. Now in her first-year of teaching kindergarten, her vivid account adds to the memoirs Dennis Woolbright is writing about his 34 years of teaching English. Starting his career in 1982 as a teacher at Waseda Honjo High School, today he remembers (personal interview, 2015) how “Several of my students won first place in national speech contests” adding, “to see your student win a contest is even better than winning it yourself.” After moving to Seinan Jo Gakuin in Kitakyushu in 1990, he set up an exchange program with Winchester University, reminiscing, “Counseling the Winchester University students has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” He believes building a relationship with and among his students was very important, noting “Being responsible for these young women for four months was often challenging but I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me.” In addition to being invited to live in his or other teachers’ homes, students were encouraged to express openly how they felt. They were given security and the opportunity to become a valued member of a community. According to Woolbright “Initially the learners were very dependent, but I found it was so much better to let the Winchester students discover Japanese culture by themselves rather than to teach them about it.”

As a student there were a few teachers that I considered to have been good, but only one that I consider as having been great. He made such an impact on my life that I was able to realise what I wanted to do with it. I’m now an English teacher in Japan. While studying at the University of Winchester, I signed up for a Japanese exchange programme at Seinan Jo Gakuin University in Kitakyushu. The programme was organised by Lawrence Dennis Woolbright, who I had the privilege of encountering in April, 2013. For four months, I interacted, observed, and learnt a great deal from him.

As an observer of lessons for his Japanese students, what struck me most was how comfortable his students were to speak openly about themselves. From previous encounters with some Japanese students in the UK, I had the assumption that most were hesitant to talk in English for fear of being grammatically incorrect or because they lacked the confidence to try. Having this image in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when many of the students in his public speaking classes not only generated lengthy pieces of scripted speech, but had the confidence to share with classmates. His students knew that he was their teacher, but they also knew he was their friend. In his classes, students were asked to reflect in a group on their active experiences. Proficient in Japanese, Woolbright was sensitive to nuance in both L1 and L2. In groups, students began to feel a sense of community and could learn from each other as well as the teacher. Cooperation, not competition, prevailed in his classes that encouraged learner independence and developed them in a whole-person way (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011).

During coursework for a TEFL Methods class, I noted that by adding humour to his lecture, Woolbright made the students feel relaxed and his use of meta-language over formal language input allowed students to learn through self-reflection and use their own abilities, instead of relying on the teacher. His patience, reassurance, encouragement and energy were infectious, and I believe that the students thrived on this and gained the belief that they could achieve what they wanted. I also noted that when mistakes were made, students were guided through the process of correcting them. When the students physically corrected their own mistakes they demonstrated their knowing. It was not the case where he switched between the roles of an authoritative lecturer to becoming an encouraging friend; it was simply that these two characters were rolled into one. He was not only respected for his occupation, but for his dedication to make anyone be the best that they could be.

His commitment to teaching extended further than his classrooms. Inside the classroom he had the ability to initiate a debate so effortlessly, that we often forgot how long a class was and even continued the debates further, outside of the classroom. He took some Winchester students to Kagoshima to enter debating contests. The workshops that he created in exchange centres in Kitakyushu, not just for students, for anyone who wanted to practice speaking English, continue to thrive, welcoming new people to engage with others using English. As a student in his Comparative Culture class, I experienced ample doses of comfort and confidence in lessons that were informative, insightful, and above all, fun! Instead of simply lecturing his students in a classroom about aspects of Japanese culture, he took us to experience ikebana, kabuki, tanabata festivals and tea ceremonies first hand. We were able to be a part of such activities ourselves, which enabled us to compare our own culture to Japan’s.

Woolbright, above all else, had the ability to find the potential in every individual student, discover their strengths, and give them the support and confidence they needed to believe in themselves. During the semester I studied at Seinan Jo Gakuin, I achieved my highest grades even after they were converted to British marking standards.

His reputation over the years has developed and grown so much that now that I am a teacher in Japan, I often meet new people who, when I say the name Woolbright, instantly shout back “Woolbright-sensei!” I think that, without realising it, he has had a huge impact on all of his students; none are likely to forget about him, nor will they likely forget what he has done for them. If I am able to be, even a little bit, the kind of teacher that he was, then I will be happy in the knowledge that my students will be able to reach their full potential and enjoy doing so. Even after retirement, my teacher’s hard work over the decades will likely never be forgotten and will hopefully be forever appreciated by his colleagues and, of course, his students.


Curran, C. (1977). Counselling-Learning: A Whole-person Approach for Education. Cliffside Park, NJ: Counselling-Learning Institute.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Anderson, M. (2011). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.