Teaching English in Japan: A Year In Reflection



They say your first year is the hardest: getting used to the school; getting used to the kids; getting used to the lesson plans; and getting used to being a buffoon for the better half of your day. Not to mention, trying to get used to your life outside of teaching English. This post is more of a reflection rather than a guide to anything, but you just might find something useful, so please, read on my friend.
I was doing the dishes the other day when it dawned on me (odd fact: many of life's lessons have dawned on me while doing the dished, I honestly don't know why), my English lessons have gone through a pretty noticeable progression. When I thought about it more I was able to break it down into four specific stages:

1. Introduction
2. Conflict
3. Restructuring
4. The odd couple

Before I get into these stages let me outline my job so you know what I deal with on a daily basis. I teach at a private English school in Japan. I teach lesson to kids as young as 2 years 6 months old to 15 years old. The class sizes are anywhere from 1-8 kids per lesson. My particular job is unique in that I am a traveling teacher. I substitute our company's native Japanese teachers' classes 8 times a year. This provides the kids who are regularly taught English by a native Japanese the opportunity to practice English with a native English speaker like me, once in a while. My lessons are interesting because I get to see different students every day, but with different kids comes different challenges. This is my job, I love every bit of it, even the downers. Without further ado, here's my story:


Stage 1: The Introduction - First few months of teaching
This stage consisted of a few weeks, in some cases months, depending on the students, of a period where I had almost complete control of my classes. Sounds crazy because I had just started teaching and hardly knew what I was doing with regard to my lesson plans/structure. I understood fundamental teaching methods and discipline but I was uncomfortable with the environment and the texts. However, the discipline level of my kids was impeccable. Nobody made a move, spoke Japanese, or threw anything, for that matter, when I was teaching for the first few months. Well, it turns out my kids were either petrified as a result of my presence, or they simply didn't know how to deal with my seemly odd teaching style of acting like a complete buffoon at one moment, serious teacher at another, and kind/compassionate teacher at yet another moment. This allowed me to move the class in the direction I wanted for a few months...until they got used to me. It was the next stage that caught me off guard.

Stage 2: The Conflict - about 3-4 months into teaching
As the kids began to catch onto my gig (literally bi-polar teacher) they started to relax. This was my intention from the start. There's nothing like a teacher who boldly makes a fool of himself in front of his/her students to make an important learning point, as a long as it's not degrading in any way. I did this for a month or so and my kids started to figure out, A: "this guy isn't crazy, he 's just a complete goofball," B: "I finally get his stupid jokes," and C: "If all I have to do is watch this guy dance around like a crazy monkey, say a few words in English once in a while, and write a few words, I could do this the rest of my life!" This is what I desired from the start: the makings of a relationship that fostered an interest in English for kids. But I wasn't prepared for the discipline backlash that was to come.

Does the phrase "monkey see monkey do" ring a bell? While the foundation of my lesson retained structure, manners, and a limited amount of discipline, it wasn't enough to handle the students who felt, "Well if he can act like that, so can I!" Thus began the conflict. I battle for months in the class to control some of my kids' behavior but at the same time remain that crazy fun-loving teacher I had always been in the past. I soon found that I was turning into the mean teacher whose every other words were "no Japanese," "Be quite, please," or "Sit down!" I felt I was losing control and I began to dread my lessons. Every time I looked at my schedule for the day names began swirling in my head, "Damn, not this kid again." or "How can I get this kid to listen to me?" I realized something had to be done, I needed a huge restructuring of my lesson.

Stage 3: Restructuring
I didn't want to let go of my craziness during the lessons because I knew it was the key to unlocking my kids' interest in English. After a few weeks of watching videos, reading articles, and referencing some of my old papers from the education courses I took in college, I was able to come up with a few critical errors I had been making in my lessons:
1 - My kids were informed of the class rules at the beginning of the year but were never formally reminded after that.
2 - My discipline method was based on negative incentive, in other words, they were demerited for bad acts in class.
3 - I was not consistent in my discipline efforts.

I decided these three errors were the cause of all my bad lessons. So I made the following corrections:
Think about the games kids play with each other at recess. In order for a kid to enjoy a game he/she must understand the rules of that game. A classroom functions quite similar. The kids not only need to know the rules but they need to know often and early. Now, I make an effort before each lesson, especially my trouble lessons, to tell my kids the rules of the classroom. This is so important because if they don't know the rules of the classroom then how do they know how to behave; such a simple concept yet so many teachers expect their kids to behave without being reminded of the rules.

Secondly, my discipline method was grounded in a negative incentive theory. Imagine if there were a sport that didn't reward points, rather, points were taken away only when fouls and infractions occurred in the game....how fun would that be....not fun at all because there is no incentive to win. Now, my discipline method is grounded in both a positive and negative incentive theory that allows the kids to be in control of their points for the lesson: if they are good, they are rewarded, if they are bad, they are punished. Simple and straight forward, just like a kids game.

Lastly, I didn't consistently enforce my rules. Usually, after the first  5 mins I would give up and start letting bad behavior slide, particularly because of the frequency with which the bad behavior came up. Again, do you think a kid would enjoy a game where the rules weren't enforced? Of course, the kids breaking the rules would enjoy the game, but the others would think its unfair. The same principle applies here. I was inconsistent with my disciplining which made me lose all credibility with the kids. Having lost all credibility, no matter how many times I warned my kids, they simply didn't take me serious. While this is still a problem for me, I try to enforce rules to the best of my ability when I see bad behavior, but some things get missed occasionally.

I restructured my lesson accordingly and notice HUGE improvements in behavior immediately. 80-90% of my kids reacted positively, and my lessons became much easier and funner to teach. It made complete sense when I put it all together. My class needed to be like the games these kids played at recess every day: it needed rules; those rules needed to be enforced; and there had to be rewards for following the rules and punishments for not.
The harmony bells rang loud and clear, but it wasn't quite perfect. I still had issues with some problem kids that didn't seem to want to play by the rules. No matter how structured the lesson was or how much planning I did, these few kids simply didn't respond positively. It took a brave leap of faith for me to understand what makes a good teacher.

4. Stage 4: The odd couple
As teachers it's natural for us to create structure in our lessons to help us be a better teacher. It also makes our job easier. However, these structures can also have a negative impact. Within the restructuring of my lesson, I had the underlying goal of creating an environment that was unique (different from home and school), fun and interesting, fair and safe; probably all goals many teachers have. However, the alterations I made to my lessons relied on every kid reacting in a similar manner, which is a gross overestimation. Every kid comes with their own background, ideals, and values as a result of their home life and their upbringing. It was very important for me to understand this concept as a teacher, more importantly, to accept it. A good teach must understand that a well structured lesson is only good when it works. Most kids respond positively to a well structured lesson, but some don't. As a result, a teacher must be dynamic with their lesson structure. When I observe bad behavior that is not easily corrected, then I get dynamic. I grab the kids' attention by trying something new, or throwing them in front of the class to get them off balance and back into the groove of the lesson. A teacher who can step comfortably out of the confines of a structured lesson is a teacher who is much more prepared for a potential disaster as a result of bad behavior on the behalf of students. While I still struggle with these problem students at times, this strategy works almost every time.

Dynamic teaching is also very beneficial even to those who behave well because it provides an environment that is continually changing and interesting as a result. My lessons are best described as controlled insanity. My kids love it because it's dynamic, always changing, but there still remains that foundation of manners, and class rules. My kids and I form what I would describe as the odd couple. No, not because we argue like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on the famous TV show, but because in my classroom the role of the teacher and student is consistently fluctuating between me and my kids; sometimes I'm the teacher and other times they are. It's a great relationship, one that has worked quite well for me over the last year. As a teacher I am never afraid to leave the boundaries of my structured lesson to venture into unknown territory, more importantly I am never afraid to let my kids do the same, for to teach is to learn twice.

Finally, In the words of one of my teacher trainers, 'there is never a perfect lesson.' And I still have my bad days where all this innovative thinking flies out the door with huge a bang. But my kids have fun and this is the most important thing to me as a teacher because when they have fun they are learning the most.
If I could leave you with two vital points it would be these:
-As a teacher don't be afraid to leave the confines of your structured lesson and let your kids take the reigns once and a while, you'd be surprised where they can lead you.
-Make enjoyment the center piece of your lesson. It should trump EVERYTHING when you are teaching. This goes for both kids and adult lesson, hands down.

Fight on to those of you who are currently teaching, never be completely satisfied with your lesson, and continue to grow. To those of you interested in teaching, I hope my post inspires you to come here and be an inspiration to some of the hardest working kids on this planet, we need more teachers like you.

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