One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching in Japan is that all you need is a winning attitude. The Japanese call it being genki or energetic in the classroom.
As an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), your Japanese team-teacher (JTE) will expect you to feel like unicorns and rainbows every day. Nothing is wrong with genkiness per se but just playing the foreign clown in the classroom is not going to help your students learn English. After spending one year as an ALT, I’ve developed 20 tips on how to be a good assistant teacher.
1. Learn some Japanese before you go.
Learn more than survival phrases so that you can actually have conversations with your JTEs and other colleagues. This will help you to build more lasting relationships in the work environment. Initiate small talk. Share your culture and experiences. Also if you learn Japanese, you will understand the differences between Japanese and English and understand why students and teachers make certain errors.
2. Take your job seriously.
You are here to teach English. You are not on an extended vacation. Even if you’ve never taught before, don’t make this an excuse for poor lesson planning and execution. Just because you’re a native speaker does not automatically make you a great English teacher. Linguistics professor Robert Phillipson calls this the “native speaker fallacy.” If you’re stuck, go online. Here are 3 ESL lesson plans to help you.
3. Recognize the difference.
There is a vast difference between teaching English to native speakers and teaching English to ESL students. Don’t assume that your Japanese students will automatically understand complex grammatical rules. Break it down in the simplest way possible.
4. Be realistic.
Not all Japanese students are well behaved. Many will sleep in class, talk loudly, and not utter a word in English. In fact, not all Japanese students want to learn English. Many of them don’t care about English because they don’t see how it relates to their daily lives. Tweak your lessons so that they’re relevant and interesting to your students.
5. Remember that you were hired as an assistant (language teacher).
Respect the other JTEs as your superiors. You are here to help them, not run your own show. Once you humble yourself and stick to your role, you won’t feel frustrated. In my case, being an ALT meant team teaching, making lesson plans and activities, marking assignments and exam scripts, making and assessing speaking tests, coaching students for speech contests, and managing the ESS (English Speaking Society).
6. Get familiar with each teacher’s teaching style and expectations.
Some may want you to take a backseat. Some may want you to be the head teacher. Adjust yourself accordingly.
7. Listen to what they have to say.
Remember that they are constrained in their roles by the curriculum, examinations, club activities, and other pressures. Use the textbook to guide your activities. Make sure that your team teaching classes supplement the classes the JTE teaches by himself or herself.
8. Share your ideas about teaching.
Many of my JTEs were receptive to my ideas because I presented them in a firm yet polite way. I also clearly justified my position so that they were more likely to be persuaded to adopt my suggestions.
9. Be ready to answer complex language questions.
If you don’t know, don’t lie and say something stupid. Do some research first and then get back to them.
10. Always be on top of your schedule.
In my high school, my timetable would change so frequently that it became something nice to look at. Listen to the announcements during the daily morning meeting to know whether the teaching day will follow a normal or special schedule. Ask the teachers what they want you to do and plan your lessons in advance.
11. Get to the classroom five minutes early.
Get in early, especially if you have to set up your resources like put up charts or use the computer and projector. Many mishaps can occur like computer updates, power outages, and speakers that don’t work. Always have a plan B or a low-tech version of your activities.
12. Be aware of the different classroom atmosphere.
Japanese students are a lot more reticent than learners in other countries. For your self-introduction, help them get out of their shells by rearranging the classroom into small groups. This drastically changes the work atmosphere to a more collaborative one so that students are more likely to speak out. Also, don’t give a speech. Instead, make the students guess key things about yourself like your favorite food etc.
13. If you ask a question to the whole class, don’t expect anyone to put up their hand.
Speak slowly and give students time to answer. Encourage students to discuss it with a partner. Japanese students have a tendency to consult with their peers before they answer in front of a class of 41 students.
14. Use simple English.
Don’t use too much slang and don’t ramble as you’ll just confuse the students. Speak clearly and slowly so they can catch every word.
15. Teach real English.
There are so many examples of authentic English out there in viral videos, posters, signs, brochures, social media posts, movies, music, emails etc. Show your students that it’s not always possible to literally translate Japanese to English. Instead, teach them to develop an English mindset by exposing themselves to real English outside of their textbooks.
16. Explain that there’s no such thing as Standard English.
Tell them that the textbook does not provide all the answers about the English language. Explain that there is a variety of World Englishes. Show them that the language is always constantly evolving. Demonstrate that there’s not always a right or wrong way of speaking or writing English. Explain that just because someone speaks English with a different accent does not mean that he or she is speaking incorrectly.
17. Give your students a space to speak and write freely in English.
Allow them to speak freely during warm-up activities or introduce them to free writing. This gives them an opportunity to practice their English free of judgment and correction. Explain that’s it’s okay to make mistakes when producing language, that even native speakers do so on a regular basis! Free teachers and students from the misconception that English is muzukashii or difficult to learn.
18. Constantly reflect on your teaching.
Are you relating well to your JTEs? Does your relationship with the JTE in the classroom help the students understand English better? Are your lesson plans mirroring or extending the English taught by your JTEs in their other English classes? What activities need more explaining? Do you need to provide more examples? Constantly assess whether you’ve pitched your lesson at the appropriate level so that it’s not too hard and too easy for your students. Record your observations in a teaching journal after every class.
19. Get involved in life outside of the classroom.
School life in Japan is so much more than lessons and examinations. There are many school activities and events to participate in: sports day, school festivals, cleaning time, club activities. Be genuinely interested and get in there!
20. Remember that being an ALT doesn’t have to be a career.
If you’re good at being an ALT and would like to make a career out of it, go for it. However, if teaching English in Japan isn’t really cutting it, just treat it like any other job: a valuable learning experience.
Wanna read more about my experiences? Here are 13 things I realized when teaching abroad and 5 tips for teaching English as a person of color.
Photos: © Hot Foot Trini
Are you an ALT? What tips would you like to share?
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