One misconception about teaching in Japan is that if you’re super genki or energetic, you’ll automatically be an excellent teacher. In fact, many JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) expect ALTs to be genki all the time. Nothing is wrong with genkiness per se but just being the foreign clown in the classroom will not help your students learn English. You are not here just to entertain but to teach. After one year as an ALT, here are some tips I’ve developed on how to be a good assistant teacher.
1. LEARN SOME JAPANESE BEFORE YOU GET HERE.
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 that 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.” There are many resources online. Use them.
3. RECOGNISE THE 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 speak or 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. Focus on the students who are really interested and motivated to learn English.
5. REMEMBER THAT YOU WERE HIRED AS AN ASSISTANT LANGUAGE TEACHER.
Accordingly, you should 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 JTE’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 YOUR JTES HAVE TO SAY.
Remember that they too 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 GRAMMAR QUESTIONS FROM YOUR JTES.
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
especially if you are using technology in your lesson. Many mishaps may 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 TEACHING AND LEARNING ENVIRONMENT.
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 favourite food etc.
13. IF YOU ASK A QUESTION TO THE WHOLE CLASS, DON’T EXPECT ANYONE TO ANSWER IMMEDIATELY.
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 IN THE CLASSROOM.
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
through viral videos, posters, signs, brochures, social media posts, movies, music, emails etc. Also show them that it’s not always possible to literally translate Japanese to English. Instead, teach them to develop an English mindset. Teach them that they need to think in English to speak and write understandable English.
16. EXPLAIN THAT THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS STANDARD ENGLISH.
Explain that the textbook does not provide all the answers about the English language. Explain that there is a variety of World Englishes. Explain that the language is always constantly evolving. Show 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. ALWAYS 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 practise their English free of judgement 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 THE CLASSROOM.
School life in Japan is more than lessons and examinations. There are so 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 IS A SHORT-TERM JOB, NOT A LONG-TERM CAREER.
Accordingly, adjust your expectations and treat it as a learning experience.