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Things Japanese Teachers Should Know - February 2001
In my 3 years on JET, and now with Genki English, I get to speak to a lot of elementary school ALTs. Just about every person that I have met agrees that teaching in shougakkou is the best part of being an ALT. Reasons given are that the kids are eager to soak up new English, they are interested in speaking with foreigners and best of all, there is no text book or exam system to hold our teaching back! I loved it!
But that's not to say teaching here is without its problems! The first thing that strikes many ALTs is the amount of holidays and school events that the kids have!! I've spoken to JETs who have prepared lessons, gone to the school and been told there are no lessons for them to teach! One of the most common things I hear is that the Japanese teachers simply said "Oh, sorry, today's class is cancelled because of Undoukai practice". However lessons also get cancelled for Music festival practice, old peoples day, culture festival, "picture drawing day", day off after undoukai etc. etc.
In the West we often hear of how kawasiso Japanese school children are and that they go to school on Saturday and have juku every night! But the thing is that with all the school events they have, it seems like they don't actually study at school!!! : ) But seriously, the point is that whilst most Japanese know the yearly schedule, most ALTs do not! We probably don't know that there is a day off for Adults day, or that the Monday is a holiday because the Sunday was a sankanbi! So please tell the ALT at the very least a week in advance of a day off or cancelled lessons!
Many of us have at one point turned up at school to find no-one there!!!! In the UK we don't have anywhere near as many school events as here (our undoukai is usually a half day in June ? without practice sessions!). It does make the Japanese school year a lot more interesting though!
Other worries and problems? Well, most of us aren't trained teachers! And only get a very, very small amount of training beforehand (a 40 minute seminar in Tokyo)! Just imagine if you were sent to a country you didn't know very well, were put in a class full of kids whose language you couldn't understand and told to teach them! It would be a bit scary, yeah?
As I said in my last article, we do want to try and we're here for the adventure, but we need help. So please make sure that you work together with the ALT. Some ALTs have Japanese teachers that just sit at the back of the room saying nothing, or worse still there are some Japanese teachers that don't even attend the class (as one ALT put it "Advice for the Japanese teacher in the classroom? Be there!").
The best thing to do is to plan the lesson together, and present the class together!
For an ALT there is nothing worse than going to a school, being told to teach and not having any support (nor a teacher in the classroom)!! The best lessons I have seen are ones where the Japanese teacher and ALT are at the front of the class, working together, explaining things as a team! The Japanese teacher should always help out the ALT, for in the beginning most of us we have no idea what, or how, to teach the kids! Some of the best Japanese teachers have an idea of what Kokusairikai or English they would like to teach, they sit down together with the ALT and both discuss ideas! One ALT I spoke to the other day said that she knew her Japanese teacher had some good ideas, but was too shy to tell them to the ALT! Don't be shy! The Japanese teacher is also necessary for disciplining the class, the systems in use here are very different from back home! I've known ALTs who have sent students out of the class for being too disruptive (this is what we usually do in the West), as the Japanese teacher didn't do anything!
Don't worry if you don't speak English, with a just little bit of English, a little bit of Japanese and a lot of gestures it is possible to communicate with us!! After all, the kids manage it with ease ? it's no different for the teachers!! When planning, have faith in the kids! This is not chugakkou English ? the kids can get very advanced if they learn through games and songs. I'm sure you'll be surprised at just how good!!
With time, we get more used to the kids and classes and can take more responsibility ourselves. But in the beginning at least, let's work together! This way the kids get to see the Japanese teacher trying and want to try even more themselves!
One of the biggest problems that chugakkou and koukou ALTs have is that they don't have enough lessons! I had friends who spent days at a time with nothing to do but read the newspaper and write letters (personally I'd love to have the free time, but they said it got very boring after a while!) The recommended amount of lessons is 3 a day, and I found that just about right! If we spend a whole week with no, or very few, lessons it can get very boring! Similarly a week with 6 lessons a day can get very tiring (one ALT I knew asked to do this so that he could see all the kids in one day, but he was very tired at the end of it), a nice balance is in order!! If there are no scheduled English classes, then what about inviting the ALT to sports, arts, music or even Japanese classes? They are a great way to interact with the kids!
Teachers that use katakana is also a problem! Katakana is Japanese, not English! Don't use it! I was talking to one ALT who said that while he was happily teaching kids correct English, the Japanese teacher was writing katakana on the board behind him! I'm sure the teacher meant well, but if it was katakana, it wasn't English he was writing!
These are some of the worries that crop up amongst ALTs. There are others (not being able to eat meat in school lunch, smoky staff rooms, and one friend had his Koucho sensei always trying to set him up with the single teachers!!), and some people don't have any of the problems above (my schools and a lot of my friends were pretty great!). The key is to communicate with the ALT! Don't be scared of us, talk to us, tell us what's going on, ask our opinions and give us your ideas! Don't be shy, and don't be scared of making mistakes with your English or Japanese! We don't care if you're not perfect - just try! When the kids, the ALTs and the Japanese teachers all get along, try hard and can freely communicate with each other, shougakkou can be an amazing place to teach!!
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