Before becoming an ALT

alt-in-japan

I think it’s funny that the natural response to “teaching English is hard” is, ” How can it be hard, don’t you know English? Just teach them English.” As if just because you know something means your a natural born teacher. Teaching in general is a pretty tough job, but teaching to people who don’t understand even half the words that come out your mouth is a whole other level of difficulty.

These past few years, Japan has made more efforts in improving its English programs. Many schools require students to learn English as a part of their core classes. Some schools have even hired permanent native English teachers in efforts to improve EFL education.

Before coming to Japan, I’ve done volunteer tutoring with ESL students so I have some experience in how to communicate but, unlike teaching in America, teaching English in another country is completely different. The national language in Japan is Japanese, so outside of music and movies the kids don’t have much exposure to English. Unless they plan on going abroad in the future, many kids just aren’t interested in learning it. Why should they if they’re not going to use it everyday.

I teach at three different high schools with over forty classes and each class has varying levels of English ability. Some students are pretty conversational while some students can barely form a sentence.Outside of JET it’s pretty easy to become an ALT but it’s not a job that’s right for everyone. Here’s a couple things I wish someone would’ve told me about teaching in Japan before I started.

Keep them Interested

This of course is easier said then done. Even Japanese kids find school to be boring most of the time. That being said I like to bring in things to help make the class more interesting i.e. pictures, fun activities, music, etc. to give them a reason to want to learn English. After all learning another language is about cultural exchange as well. Tell them things that they wouldn’t already know about your country. I love showing the kids old prom pictures or digging out the photos from my blonde days. I think one of the best lessons I’ve taught was actually on soul food where the students learned about some of the crazy deep fried treats you can find down South. I try my best to really find the quirky fun parts of the United States to share with them because that’s what will get them talking in English.

No Homework

Stated in a previous entry, Japanese kids don’t really have homework. At least not in the way that Americans think about homework. It’s treated as optional work, and it’s very possible to be at the top of your classes without doing any homework. Some ALTs use homework regularly, but personally I found it was just more work on my part with very little pay off. The kids didn’t take it seriously so I ended up grading work that they didn’t even try to do correctly. Instead I give a lot of handouts just to make sure they have something to refer back to when I’m gone.

Emphasize Talking

I’m not a very talkative person so I don’t like to lecture the students for more than 15 minutes. Outside of school the students don’t really have much exposure to English so I try to get them to talk as much as possible in English. This is also hard because many students will give you the age old excuses of I’m shy or I don’t understand to avoid being called on. I find a good way to relive this problem is getting your Japanese teacher more involved with the lessons. Having them do demonstrations and holding model conversations really helps students feel at ease because, when they see their teachers make mistakes they won’t feel as nervous making them themselves.

 

Limited Technology

technology

 

Most people really don’t understand that Japan is a pretty minimalistic country. Japanese students don’t grow up using computers for homework or really any type of classwork. So it’s pretty unrealistic to rely on technology when making your lessons. It was a real adjustment to come from having a SMARTboard in every class to relying solely on a chalk boards. I can’t look things up on the internet if something seems off, so I have to make sure my lessons are planned down to the T from all the things I want to explain to everything I might have to say in Japanese. And if I do plan on using any type of technology I always have to have a back up plan in case the computer/ internet decides not to work that day.

Be Patient

Finally, the last thing is just to be patient. I think teaching in general is very humbling, things that seem easy and obvious to me aren’t to my students. English as a second language is hard in a country where only 1% of the population speaks it fluently. So always be prepared for constant mistakes and questions from both students and teachers alike. Be patient when it comes to teaching, understand that not all students are going to take your lessons seriously. But those that do will be grateful for them and will make the effort to really improve their skills.

Looking back six months ago I never thought that I would enjoy teaching as much as I do now. I focused so much on preparing to live in Japan I never really spoke to anyone about the actual teaching part, so I wish I could’ve spent more time getting comfortable being front and center all the time. I’m not sure if teaching will be a permanent career path for me but I’m glad to know that it is a pretty fulfilling option.

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