Japan Survival Guide Point 5 – The Classroom (Part One)

This week on my Japan Survival Guide I am going to approach a topic that is specifically for those aiming to come here and work as an English Teacher. August is fast approaching, and the new JETs all begin in August. You’d have already applied and probably know if you made by now if you wanted to be a JET. Other companies are hiring year-round but the biggest start time for everyone teaching in Japan is April, when the local school year starts. I am not sure why JET start after the summer holidays in August, a third of the way through the school year but that’s what they do. Perhaps to get those who have just finished university in the States and the UK? Who can say?

I have had two experiences teaching English abroad, firstly in Georgia (the Republic of) back in 2011 and since April 2012 to last month here in Japan. And the classroom was nerve-racking for me coming here even after teaching in Georgia.

The first thing to say is that with many companies, especially JET and Interac, you won’t get a big say in where you go or which levels you teach. When I applied for a position I basically left all options open to increase my employability, and I got placed in a high school along with a once a week visit to a special needs school, where I taught elementary, Junior High and High School. So here in Japan around 90% of my teaching has been in High School, whereas in Georgia I was teaching primarily elementary school kids, so it’s very hard to compare the two countries.

So I was nervous mainly because I was going into high school which I hadn’t done before, and because, as is increasingly the case in Japan, it was up to me to prepare and give the full fifty-minute lesson. In Georgia the planning was up to my co-teacher in many respects, although I did have a good deal of input. In Georgia it was all about speaking and listening, plus we taught the alphabet.

In Japanese High School, especially at mine, it was all about the reading. I’m not going was lyrical about that, and my opinions on the focus and text books, because all schools ARE different, and Japanese schools have very specific goals in mind – most importantly to be able to pass the test to get into university.

So you can face difficulties in the classroom on what you need to teach. And it’s very variable. I have heard people talk about having carte blanche to teach whatever they wanted, but my teaching was often very specific, and very reading based. This means a chunk of reading needed to be used in many of my classes sadly which I didn’t think was a lot of fun for the students, but then I was in the position to try and make it fun somehow, which I endeavoured to do as much as I could.

And at the end of two years, I can say I am already missing the students, and I think (maybe being too egotistical here) some may miss me. I acted the clown where I could, brought in the guitar on occasion and tried to vary things as much as I could. Look for useful games and so forth.

The teachers you work with can be great or not. If you can work well with them it helps, even though the class is yours. I worked with a number of teachers, some wouldn’t speak unless I asked for the Japanese meaning of the odd word, others stood at the front of the class and wanted to be involved. But, especially at the start, you do feel that they are judging you.

 

What classes did I teach?

My main high school had three year levels – Grades 1, 2 & 3, with around 600 students, so around 200 per year level. They were divided into 6 classes each, labelled A, B, C, D, E & F. A-D was the standard course, although tweaked. A class students were in theory the top students, D less so, but the students all had different strengths and weaknesses. In the first year it was more a jumble, each year students got mixed around according to their test scores and interests. For 2nd and 3rd year the A class was more focussed on Sciences and Maths, whereas the B class was probably the best at English. The E classes were mostly girls, and had an agricultural focus. F classes were mostly boys, in fact it was about 97% – Last year 3F was all boys, 2F had one girl and 1F had 3 girls, the most I’d seen in an F class. The F class was focussed on technical stuff, many students wanted to be mechanics for example. Often the most challenging classes, when you have 40 boys, but also sometimes a lot of fun.

Last year, my classes were 1 A-F, 2BCDF, 3CDEF.

The general situation in Japan is you take each class once a week, the Japanese teacher of English takes them maybe 3-4 times, so your classes are to add to the classes they take during the week when you’re not there. In Georgia I went to every English class in the school, so this was very different for me. I was teaching 14 classes a week at one school and 3-5 on my one day at the other. Average class size was about 32, so that’s over 400 students at my main school. Learning names is a real challenge!

Class sizes can vary, at the high school mine were between 26 and 42, with one class of 11 third years specialising in writing English. Some people luck out and get a lot of big classes, it can be very challenging.

 

Then you start a class, and meet the students. I was told when I was in Georgia when applying for a job here that the students would all be silent and very well behaved in Japan. Well, they were quieter than in Georgia on the whole, that much is true. Remember I was in a rural area and not English but studies in general were perhaps not quite so important.

My first classes were first year high school – that’s equivalent to Year 10 in Australia, and like me they were new to the school, the teachers and each other. It was hard to get started, hard to get responses from them, and hard to gauge the level. Your students’ English level is very important as to how you approach your lessons, and it took me a few weeks to understand that the students’ level was much lower than I had expected. Not just me, but even my head teacher at the school (new to the school also) was surprised at their level.

Whatever the level, you may find that there is a wide variety inside one class too – some really good students, some really bad and a few in the middle. It makes it difficult because if you cater to the good students, the bad ones are left behind. Cater to the bad students and the good ones are bored very easily. Try to pitch in the middle, try to find parts of the class that everyone can understand. And if you can, end on or include a bonus exercise to test out the really good students.

Worksheets

my final worksheet for school

my final worksheet for school

Worksheets are good for a number of reasons, and requested on day one at my school by the Japanese teachers, and so for every class I made a worksheet for the class. It’s great to use worksheets because –

The students can follow the course of the class and see what the ultimate goal is.

You have something to make a lesson plan easy – a selection of aim-driven exercises.

You can look through or correct the worksheets after class and see where the students are at, and how much they understood.

Looking through the worksheets lets you know if you’re aiming the class at the right level.

The Japanese teacher uses the text book a fair bit, by making a worksheet you aren’t taking away from their classes, rather building on them.

 

Planning and correcting

Planning took time. You get free periods during your week, but for me, when I had all my classes, I needed extra time. I corrected my worksheets most times and tests in test periods as well. Here in Japan instead of a tick (‘check’) they use a circle. But I took on more work than I absolutely had to do. I really enjoyed teaching and this was my way of going full throttle into it.

 

For those teaching at JHS and Elementary school level, you are often just helping out the Japanese teacher doing what they ask you. This can mean no or very little planning and probably no corrections. Some high schools may also want this of their foreign teachers, it depends. For my company, most high school teachers – pretty much all of them, were giving self-prepared lessons and taking full responsibility for the class.

 

A post I made earlier on my last class at the high school is HERE.

There’s a LOT more to this topic, and that’s a lot of words for today with not so many pictures. Please note that although I have a lot of photos of my students, I will not post them here for you to see because frankly, that’s not right in my book. Also the company forbids it but that’s by the by. Stay tuned for more on this topic next Saturday! Thanks for reading and may the journey never end!

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