Tales from the Classroom: My First Semester as an English Teacher in Japan

I finished my first semester as an English teacher in Japan! All in all, I’d say it went pretty well.

I work at a private, all-girls, sports-focused middle school, which let me tell you, is not an easy group to teach, and I felt a bit thrown into the deep end at first. With no formal classroom teacher training, beyond the useless few days at orientation, I found myself not an assistant teacher working alongside a Japanese teacher like I was expecting, but basically a full-blown teacher, with 16 classes a week, plus International Club after school. I co-teach all my classes with another ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), meaning that together we are entirely responsible for curriculum and lesson planning. When my co-teacher is out, I teach classes completely by myself. It was a lot of responsibility to handle at first, and I was taken aback by both the bad classroom behavior and shockingly low English ability level of my students. Let’s just say, the first couple months were a little rough.

But, slowly, somehow, I started to find my footing. I went from not being able to tell my students apart to getting to know their individual names, faces, and personalities, and coming to love some of them. I figured out how to plan a lesson. I went from relying heavily on the lead of my co-teacher to planning and leading entire classes by myself. And by the end of the semester, I had come to really enjoy my job. It is certainly not without problems, but I’m leaving feeling pretty damn good about it. Here are some of my reflections from the semester.

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An empty classroom at my school.

In Japanese schools, the teachers move around from classroom to classroom, while the student’s stay put. Everyday when I open the classroom door, it’s a complete surprise what I will find inside. Some days most of the girls are passed out cold on their desks, others it’s total chaos. One day I walked in and the girls were doing gymnastics formations, and another day they were sitting on the floor in the back of class, all wrapped in blankets, with one girl playing the flute. Most days, it’s about 80 ℉ (27 ℃) in the classroom, but all the girls are complaining that it’s freezing. They wear gloves, scarfs, and earmuffs in class, even when it’s so hot that I’m sweating. To begin and complete each class, the students must stand up and bow to the teacher. Some days this process happens quickly and quietly, while other days it takes 10 minutes just to get the girls to their assigned desks and to stand up. Everyday I ask the girls how they are doing, and the most common response is, “very, very sleepy.”

I teach first, second, and third year junior high, two classes in each grade. Each class has a very distinct personality. My first years are adorable – they are super sweet and still look like little kids, but the class is usually pandemonium. Second years are a mixed bag. They are either super sleepy or bouncing off the walls, with nothing in between. I think of my upper-level second years as my “angel class” – it’s a small class, they all put in effort, and they can actually string together a coherent sentence in English. Third years are the biggest challenge, because they’re at the age where they think they’re just too cool for school. Asking them to do anything is like asking them to complete some Herculean task. Within each class, there’s usually one or two girls who make or break the whole attitude – if they’re asleep, so is everyone else, but if they’re up and participating, everyone else will too. The trick is to engage these girls, without letting them take control of the class.

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The Teacher’s Room

No matter the fact that they’ve seen me every day for months, the girls have remained fascinated with my physical appearance, as both a non-Asian person and a woman. They love to touch my hair and comment on my “tall nose” – meaning that the bridge of my nose is high. The girls have grabbed, slapped, and squeezed my boobs and butt. One of the only times I heard a particularly difficult girl voluntarily speak English was for her to ask my cup size. I get it – they’re 13 year old girls and they’re curious, and I’m probably one of the only white people they know – but it can be a bit much to deal with. But, I know it’s all well intentioned, and mostly the girls are really sweet and call me kawaii (cute).

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Pepper the Robot in the school uniform.

It’s been really fun getting to know my students’ unique personalities. One girl’s self-assigned nickname is “Tomato.” One of my favorite students is absolutely obsessed with minions, and no matter what subject we’re on, she connects it to minions. My favorite first year student is about six inches shorter than everyone else in her class, wears glasses, and is constantly cracking up at her own jokes. In every class, there are the “good” ones who I know I can count on to participate and put in effort. And every class has its troublemakers. Some of the most difficult girls are actually the best at English, which makes sense if you think about it. Because class is easy for them, they get bored and start to cause a ruckus. One girl loves to mimic me, and while it’s rude, I have to admit it is probably the best English accent I’ve ever heard in class. Too bad she can’t put that effort into pronunciation expect to mimic me.

In my most difficult classes, I have to spend all my effort on classroom management, making it impossible to get anything done. The girls never stop chattering, and are more focused on drawing, brushing each other’s hair, or the fact that it’s raining/snowing/sunny outside. One time all the girls started kissing each other through their medical masks (which are very commonly worn in Japan), and I had to break it up. Some of the most frustrating things are when I wake a student up, she stares at me blearily, and then goes right back face-down on her desk, or when I ask a question and get radio silence in response.

To a certain degree, I am in ignorant bliss because I don’t speak Japanese. While of course I can gauge tone and body language, and I’ve learned the word mendokusai (meaning “bothersome, or “a hassle”, one of my students’ favorite words), I don’t fully understand the students’ whines and complaints, and I don’t know when they are saying mean things to each other. My co-teacher tells me some of the things they say, and some of it is pretty awful. One time a girl flipped another student off and said “F*** you,” in English. I don’t think she had any idea what she was saying, but we had to have a talk with her.

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Front steps to my school

But, all frustrations aside, I’ve really come to love my girls. They’re just little people, trying to figure out life just like everyone else. I remember being 14. It’s a difficult age for anyone, no matter where in the world you live. And honestly, some of the things my classmates in middle school did were far worse than anything I’ve seen here. Like, no one has started a fire in the classroom or got drunk at school (both really happened at my middle school). And while the sleeping in class is definitely not cool, I do have to remind myself that most of these girls get to school before me, leave after me, and come to school on Saturday. Because they are all athletes, their club practice hours are insane.

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Awwww!

My students are a spirited group of girls, and while they can be a handful, they can  also really be fun and incredibly rewarding to work with. I love when I get to work one-on-one with the girls, to help with writing or speaking practice. It’s the best feeling when I help a girl practice a tricky word ten times, and then she kills it in her speech, or when we a play a game that gets all the girls engaged and we laugh together. I love seeing the student’s creativity, and helping them learn to express their ideas in English. My students are genuinely curious about my life in America, and it’s fun to share my experiences with them.  And some of them are just so sweet and cute that it makes it all worth it.

For our final classes this semester, we had special Christmas-themed lessons. My co-teacher and I found a fake Christmas tree in the school lying around unused, so we set it up in an extra classroom. First, we had the girls listen to “All I want for Christmas is You.” Then, the students made and decorated Christmas tree ornaments, and wrote what they wanted for Christmas on the ornaments. We surprised the students by taking them to the extra classroom so they could decorate the tree. Some of the things the girls wrote were really touching, and they really enjoyed the activity. It was a fun and heartwarming way to end the semester.

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So, I survived the first semester! It’s only going to get easier from here, right? I hope so!

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