Shook

Moving from the U.K. to Japan, one of the first things you might worry about is the likelihood of earthquakes. Having a country sitting on top of four tectonic plates tends to have that effect.

In all my time in Nagoya though, I only experienced one earthquake, and even that was barely noticeable, at least for the people around me. I mean, for me it was still really weird. It took a moment for my brain to wrap around what was happening, and it was sort of like when you stand up too fast and the world tilts a little, except it was actually tilting a little. With no basis for the experience, I sort of realised what was happening on one level, but it took a second for the rest of my brain to catch up. Then obviously I made a foreigner fuss about it being my first earthquake.
There were literally teachers coming into the room a few minutes later who hadn’t felt a thing.

For a while after I first moved to my flat, I actually thought I was experiencing pretty regular earthquakes, but only noticed them when I was in bed because I wasn’t moving around. It took a good month or so before I realised it was just when strong wind shook the apartment building a bit.

The only other earthquake-related experience I had was when there was an earthquake simulation at school. It wasn’t a drill, so everyone just kind of carried on what they were doing while it played over the speakers. It actually took me a while to register that there was something unusual about the sound of the alarm. I can be ridiculously unobservant sometimes.
The oddest part was that, after the alarm ended, they then played what seemed to be an ‘earthquake soundtrack’ over the loudspeakers, which basically was just a recording of shit falling and breaking all over the place.
Suffice to say I now feel as though I have the full experience of a medium-scale earthquake.

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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!

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.