Elementary Dynamics

English teaching in elementary school here is focused mainly on the last two years: fifth and sixth grade. Intensive English learning and testing doesn’t really kick off until students move up to junior high school, where they have two English classes, one taught by their Japanese English teacher and one with an ALT. This is set to change by 2020, with English becoming a much more intensive subject in efforts to pull Japan up from the bottom of the Asian rankings for TOEFL scores in English speaking ability. The main roadblock for this is the lack of Japanese teachers qualified to teach English. It will be interesting to see how this effects the role of ALTs in Japan.

In elementary school, as the teachers generally speak minimal English, there is generally no designated Japanese English teacher, so its pretty much down to the ALT. ALTs in elementary school have textbooks that we work through for the fifth and sixth grades, laying down the foundations of structure for English learning.

The majority of my classes were with the fifth and sixth graders, who were mostly great, but the dynamics are very different from the lower years. The higher grades in elementary are at that point where they are the oldest in the school, and are a bit too cool for ‘fun English lessons’. On the edge of adolescence, they are all of a sudden much more afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers. One of the big reasons adults are so much slower to pick up a language than children.

I still had great classes with the higher years, and they were sometimes absolutely hilarious, but most often the energy was coming from and being directed by me.
During the summer months this was, to be blunt, absolutely fucking exhausting.

With the younger years, though, I was able to get caught up in their energy and just had to channel it rather than provide it. These years are so excitable and much more fearless about trying the language, and it is much easier to create a fun lesson for them.

It is always dependent on the types of personalities in each fifth/sixth grade class, but you work out the best way to engage them as you go along. Throughout the year, one of the most failsafe ways to get them into a lesson that I found was to get them competing, be it in pairs or groups, or against me.

At the end of the day, the faster you get them interacting with each other, moving around and using the language, the better. If they are sitting still for too long, they are going to get bored and uncooperative. Can’t really blame them!

Advertisements

When is an ALT actually an ALT? Basic Differences between ES and JHS/HS Teaching

Here’s the sticking point. The role of an English teacher in Japanese schools is affected by so many factors that there isn’t really a catch-all term for the job (hence my disclaimer on my homepage). But in many cases ‘assistant language teacher’ is a complete mislabel.

At elementary school level, students have only one point of English contact – the ALT (me). I generally have complete control over my lessons: planning, preparing materials and conducting them. In class, the homeroom teacher occasionally helps me out by clarifying more difficult instructions in Japanese, but more often they act primarily as the disciplinarian.

The bulk of my classes are fifth and sixth grade, but when I do have lower years, sometimes the teachers will prepare the lesson and materials for me, but will still leave me to it in class.

Granted, the lessons cover basic English (e.g. the highest level lesson the 6th graders get to is ‘What do you want to be?‘/’I want to be…..‘) but rather than the language being hard, the challenge is more to teach the language while getting the students to have fun. The aim of an elementary school ALT is to get the students to enjoy English; to set the precedent that learning English isn’t awful (a lie), and that the students are capable of doing it (true). The kids really need this belief as they move up in school, because it will impact their motivation to learn, and get the grades they need to get into both high school and university.

[This is something that native English speaking countries take massively for granted, as our futures in education generally do not depend on learning a second language. We are extremely lazy in our second language learning.]

The ALT dynamic completely changes at the junior high level. At this point students begin to have English lessons taught by a Japanese teacher of English (JTE), and the lessons with the ALT act more to reinforce these lessons through conversation practice and the example of a native speaker. Ditto for high school. Increasing numbers of students at this point will be also be taking extra English classes outside school, at English language schools (eikaiwa).

One very important difference, and one that is set to change soon, is that elementary students are not graded on their English. It is seen more, as Nelson puts it, as: ‘Super English activity fun now time! (screaming Japanese accent)’.

In the Japanese education system, school is only compulsory up until age 16. At which point students can leave school and begin working. To get into high school, students must take exams – the better the high school, the harder the exams (go figure). The same goes for high school students hoping to go to university. So ALTs for these levels have that much more pressure to help the students through that, and there are a number of other things they might be responsible for, like marking written work, assessing spoken English tests, and judging speaking competitions.

So, here’s the problem that lies at the root of many bad reviews from ALTs. In some junior high schools and high schools, JTEs are reluctant to give ALTs the opportunity to prove their abilities. Some JTEs simply use their ALTs as ‘human tape-recorders’ while they teach the lesson. If you want this to change, it means working hard to get the JTE to trust your ability to come up with good lesson ideas and teach a high quality lesson. This might mean a building up from a small suggestion every now and then; the more of which are successful, the more input the teacher will afford you. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and yes, it is incredibly frustrating. Being put on a placement like this is a risk all ALTs take because it is completely luck of the draw, and depends on the impression the previous ALT made (which may have been someone from another company as the contract with the Board of Education in each area is renewed or changed frequently).

The number of lessons a day is also quite different between the junior high/high school and elementary levels. Teaching at elementary you can expect between four and six lessons a day, whereas for the others this is much lower, leaving a lot of free time in which you need to occupy yourself usefully. This often has the result of dramatic downward spirals of keitai data.

T-Shirt Tuesday

The strange messages that manage to find their way onto the kids’ T-shirts bring me no end of entertainment. Most lessons involve trying not to laugh at, or trying to work out what the person who chose the weird combination of words was aiming for. Most of them look like a dictionary has been sick on them.

So to share this confusing brilliance with you all, I am introducing T-shirt Tuesday!

To kick this off, here are some of my favourites so far:

Listen To The Music At A Comfortable Volume 

Sensible advice really.

Flush Glitter / Hear The Hope Rendezvous Songs / And I Love You / Skipping Everywhere / Poetry Mind 

You’d be shocked at how much incomprehensible writing they manage to fit onto one T-shirt.

To Affect You Message

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a butchered version of ‘-insert touching message here-‘. Lazy.

I will keep my eye out for some more good ones for you all!

An Ode To How Much I Dislike Being Cooked Alive In My Own Clothes

For my first few weeks of teaching the very last of the spring weather held fair, but as the summer holidays (natsuyasumi) drew near, the summer heat hit with a fury. Even during my 7am commute the temperature was borderline unbearable, just getting to the station made me feel like I’d wandered into a sauna fully clothed.

The cicadas woke, and everywhere I was followed by their insistent “min min” from trees and telephone poles. I was lucky enough not to have any singing too close to my apartment, so I could actually enjoy the unfamiliar sound without being driven mad by it.

Luckily SA is the only school I have to walk to and from, and the walk isn’t long. However, although I get the bus on the way to SB, I have to walk back. SB is also my hardest school in terms of workload – I barely pause for breath the whole day. To finish that with a 25 min walk in the afternoon heat was not my idea of a good time.

The heat and humidity had the added effect of sucking out all of my students souls and replacing them with syrup. The kids were totally wiped out, especially after running around during their breaks or swimming for Phys.Ed. It took every scrap of energy in my reserve (also drained by the temperature) to get them into the lessons.
Late June to August is also the rainy season here, and the heat cranked up yet another notch in August before winding down into blissful autumn.

Every moment I spent being cooked alive in my work clothes, I dreamed of the reasonable temperature to come in the autumn. It is nice to post this now that I have passed through the summer heat and the autumn, and now I can start complaining about the cold.

This post perfectly sums up my feelings about this:

Screen Shot 2016-11-27 at 16.44.39.png

Make the Next One Happy

I’ve been told by my friend and fellow ALT, Nelson, that my titles are too depressing and I should ‘make the next one happy’. Well, there you go.

So, my placement. The whole painful process went something like this:

A couple of weeks before the flight – Placement: Tokai, Nagoya;
A week before the flight – Tokai contract fell through, possibly Osaka (over-excitement because Osaka);
A few days before the flight – Not Osaka. Told “Don’t worry” (?????);
First two days of training – Placement: Ogaki, junior high school and elementary school;
Third day of training…

When we came in for the third day we were taken individually to speak with the manager. At this point we were told that the area Tom was assigned to had decided that they wanted a female teacher.

Change number gazillion: Placed in Seto Ward, teaching elementary school.

So yeah, all pretty stressful, but being a very cool, calm and collected Brit I definitely didn’t get completely fed-up and try to quit so I could go and work at an eikaiwa (language school) instead… Definitely not… The big changes I posted about a while ago were in relation to this. (I was very pissed off, but it was all sorted out in the end!)

I’m working in five elementary schools, and start at a sixth (special needs) school come September. I can’t name the schools for confidentiality reasons, but will nickname them (with a mixture of numbers and letters because I want to watch the world burn):

School A
School B
These two are the biggest schools I work at and the ones I am at most frequently.

Mountain School 1
Mountain School 2
I have these two on the same day and have to get a taxi from the station, between them, and back to the station. (this was originally a driving position, but as I don’t have a license… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Mountain School 3
I have to get a taxi to this one too, but I only have it once a fortnight.

So now you all know what I’m teaching/where I’m teaching! And it took me less than two months! Not bad.