When I was 25, I made the move to Japan to teach English at the junior high school, elementary and kindergarten levels. Prior to crossing over the Pacific pond, I had very little experience as a teacher. Needless to say, I learned on the fly. Each and every day revealed a new teaching tactic but also taught me a lot about myself. Here are five things I know now about teaching English in Japan.
1. Being Open-Minded and Patient Is Paramount While Teaching English in Japan
It’s your first day of work as an Assistant Language Teacher, ALT, at your base school in Japan. You arrive, introduce yourself to everyone (in whatever broken Japanese you can manage), hand out the gifts you were told you should bring to your co-workers, sit at your desk, and…now what? What does one do when they have no idea of what is actually expected of them? I knew I was there to teach English, but how?
In this situation, I suggest going with the flow. Observe the Japanese English teachers in the classroom, learn from them, and ask them what they want from you. If you’re asked to prepare an entire lesson about your home country, do it. If they want you to stand in front of the class and act like a human tape recorder, do it (with flair, of course!).
Be open to their suggestions and patient in regards to the initial simplicity of the tasks that you are asked to perform. With time, you will gain understanding, experience, and the trust of your co-workers. Once you have these (especially the latter), you will pretty much be allowed to add whatever you see fit to any English lesson.
2. Take the Initiative
At the junior high school where I worked, the two Japanese English teachers offered me insight into two very different teaching styles: the traditional and the flexible. The traditional model labeled me a human tape recorder; the native speaker whose sole purpose was to show the students how a word was perfectly pronounced. It was mind-numbing work.
Luckily, I also had a more flexible/modern model of teaching. This was a co-worker who wanted to do things differently. They encouraged me to think of ways to motivate the kids to learn English. All I was given was the grammar point to be taught and the rest was up to me.
So off I went. I created games, speaking and listening activities, worksheets, and skits (to name a few) which made English fun for the students. My advice is that once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, don’t just sit there and wait for instructions. Stretch your creative muscles and think of innovative ways to teach English to your students. This will a) impress your co-workers and leave them with a positive image of the hard-working foreigner, b) keep your brain cells active, and c) hopefully make the kids actually like English rather than just see it as another academic obligation to fulfill.
3. Be Yourself: Put Your Own Personal Spin on Everything You Do
When I first arrived to teach English in Japan, I wanted to be uber respectful and I tried really hard not to offend or commit any cultural faux pas. I tried so hard that I found that I was censoring myself. As I got more comfortable in my surroundings, I started to let my true colours show. At work, besides putting my personality into all of the lessons I created, my empathetic self came out as I decreased the distance I had put between myself and the students (in Japan, at the time I was there, teachers did not invest in the emotional well-being of their students).
I started to show the kids that I actually cared about how they were doing. Believe it or not, this can be done even with the existence of a huge language barrier. The end result was that they, even the troublemakers, respected me. Not going to lie, this impressed the principal who asked me how I got the “bad” kids to do what I asked. My answer was simple: “I listen to them”.
I did go a little wild (by Japanese standards) with being myself. In my second year there, I incorporated some fire-engine red highlights into my naturally dark brown locks. This did not go over too well in my super-conservative workplace. I was constantly asked why I had done that to my hair. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really care what they thought. It made me feel happier and more authentic. Eventually, they got over it and probably realized that my hair colour had no direct correlation to my work ethic. As I mentioned before, it’s important to be respectful of cultural differences, but don’t lose yourself in order to please everyone else, especially while teaching English in Japan.
4. Many Heads Are Better than One: Ask Fellow ALTs for Tips
One amazing thing about the JET programme is the tight-knit community that exists between the ALTs. You’re never alone. The Gunma JET Association offered annual conferences where seminars were held on effective team teaching, staying happy and healthy in Japan and a variety of other useful topics. These information-filled events also provided networking opportunities: a chance to make friends and professional connections. We shared ideas, resources, experiences, and laughter.
I was also fortunate enough to be placed in a town with some of the best human beings that I have ever met in my life. (If you all are reading this, I miss and still think of all of you often!) Each individual was kind, fun, talented, and hard-working. My three-year English stay in Japan was one of the best years of my life so far. If I needed help, whether it was lesson planning, where to buy ingredients for a recipe, or where I could find an English-speaking doctor, my fellow ALTs were there for me. They were even available for random rant sessions (all foreigners know that sometimes venting while abroad is, at times, very necessary). We created an atmosphere of support. I know now that without this human connection, I would not have survived three years, let alone six months, neither professionally nor personally, in Japan.
5. Accept: Don’t Let Differences Frustrate You
It’s really easy to only focus on what’s better in your home country when you are living abroad. I say, don’t do it! It only breeds negativity and makes your overseas experience less enjoyable. If you look at the experience from a difference, something positive can emerge. Almost always, an opportunity to enjoy or learn something new crops up.
What do you mean I can’t find a lot of the ingredients to make my favourite foreign dishes? No worries, I’ll try new foods, maybe even learn a few traditional Japanese recipes. So, you’re saying there is no gym that offers Zumba, GAP, or pilates classes in this small town? However will I stay in shape? Perhaps signing up at the local dojo for some martial arts classes is a viable plan B. There was always a bright side if I chose to look for it.
Sure, Canada is way more multicultural than Japan, but does that automatically make it better? Something I learned from living in a mostly unicultural society for three years was what it was like to stick out like a sore thumb. In Canada I’d always blended in. I was always able to remain anonymous in any crowd. In Japan, not so much.
I was the only foreigner in the neighbourhood of Kiryu, where I lived. Many Monday mornings at work someone would make a comment about how they had seen me shopping at that store buying [insert embarrassing item here] eating at that restaurant, or drinking (sometimes a bit too much…oopps!) at that bar. The lack of privacy was annoying, but it did teach me to be more respectful of others’ space and private lives. Rather than announce to the world that I saw this person buying condoms at their local convenience store, I just kept those little tidbits to myself.
Even though I have taught English for the last 14 years, I did not study to be a teacher. So, when I made the move to Japan, my goal wasn’t to hone my teaching skills. It was, in fact, to live in a foreign land, try new things, and travel. That is exactly what I did.
What I know now is that that desire for adventure, that surrender into the new and different is what kept me happy, healthy, growing, and learning during my three-year stint in the land of the rising sun. The best advice I could give is to embrace and enjoy all of the trials and tribulations that living abroad throws at you. You’ll develop as a person and have some pretty awesome stories to tell.
Interested in learning more about teaching abroad? Check out this article about one writer’s experience teaching English in Korea and Taiwan.