Bio: Martin Moran is an ALT from London, UK. He taught English to foreign exchange students in London before coming to Japan in 2011. He has since been teaching in elementary schools in Niigata City and from this year has begun teaching in both elementary and junior high schools.
Seven years ago I stepped off the bus and turned up to school for my first day as an ALT at an elementary school in Japan. ‘Don’t be late’ was the only advice I had received. I was so nervous about being late that I ended up getting there a whole hour early. I spent the time sat on a bench in a little park close by wondering what the day ahead might have in store for me. I was terrified! I had been in Japan only a week, could hardly speak any Japanese, was mostly ignorant towards Japanese culture and hadn’t been in an elementary school since I was twelve. Now I’m ever so slightly older and wiser and I’d like to tell someone else sat on that bench a few things I’ve come to think and feel over the years resulting in lessons learned and realisations made.
You are not the only one. You may be the only foreigner in the school but you won’t be the only person foreign to the school. At the start of the school year, due to Japan’s policy of periodic personnel shuffling, about a quarter of the teachers will be new to the school. A few of them may be fresh out of university and taking on their own class for the first time. Your vice principal may be running a school for the first time. Spare some thought! And every child will have a new HRT (home room teacher) which if you can remember yourself from your childhood takes a bit of getting used to. Basically, everyone is dealing with their own settling in issues. No one has any time or interest in scrutinising every little thing you do. You are not joining a play halfway through, you will be there writing the script from the start so you don’t have to burst in the door jazz hands blazing. Just shuffle in with the others and find your feet at your own pace.
Teach in a classroom. Sounds obvious? Well, in many of the schools I have worked in they have this idea of ‘English should be fun, so let’s have English lessons in a playroom!’ Now, if I have a chance of voicing my opinion, I always say I think that having the lessons in a classroom is better. It’s both more comfortable and productive. In a playroom children unsurprisingly tend to want to run around and play. The clue is in the name. And have you ever tried writing on something on the floor? It’s not comfortable or flattering! In their own classroom children are comfortable, relaxed and have any necessary tools at hand. Tell your schools that desks and chairs can be fun too! The playroom will still be there and can be used for selective lessons which suit such an environment. I’ll be using it this week for my 6th grade classes to practice their skits as there will be plenty of room for each group to move around and will allow for their acting skills to flourish.
Make your own way to the classroom. Another often held idea is that you should be picked up from the teachers’ room and escorted to the classroom by two students, one on each side so you don’t escape. This is a huge waste of time. In my experience this has reduced the length of the lesson from anything from five minutes to forty minutes. Lessons are only forty-five minutes long! Now, I always tell my schools that I think it’s better if I make my own way to the classroom. If the teacher teaching the class before you has a thing for overrunning, there’s nothing like you making faces at the kids through the window to make them wrap things up pronto! I never want to sit in the teachers’ room again watching the clock tick over and putting lines through activities in my lesson plan. You’re a big boy/girl now, you can make it there on your own.
Call people by their name. Students and teachers alike, addressing people by their actual name is a great way to show warmth and build relationships. Of course you will come up against the great barrier of undecipherable kanji code. You can ask your supervisor for a copy of the ‘map’ of the teachers’ room and ask them to write the names in romaji so you can read them. Keep it on your desk for a quick reference when you want to ask someone something or just have a chat. As for the students, they can make English name tags to wear around their neck or fastened on their usual name tag. You can make a lesson out of making them and ask their HRT if they can wear them every time they have your class. You’ll even start remembering some of them when you see them in the corridor. You can see their little faces light up as they hear their name. Think about how much nicer it’s going to be for you to be called by your name and not ‘the ALT’, or even worse, ‘the foreigner’...
Let go of the reins. Don’t try and control everything. Being someone who likes being in control and leaving nothing to chance, this took me a long time to accept. I would always try to force my lessons in a way I had imagined they would go or in a way it had gone with another class. Remember you are dealing with a room full of independent, self-aware beings whose moods can change minute to minute. A lot like yourself perhaps. When you walk into their classroom you don’t know what has been rocking their world that day. Maybe someone has been shouting at them for the last hour! Don’t just force them through the meat grinder of your one-fits-all lesson plan. Guide them through the lesson instead of pushing them through it. Look at them. Listen to them. Oh the inquisitive little things! You may end up going off on some weird and wonderful tangents. Nothing wrong with that in my book. My new book.
Reject the red mist. Do you remember any stupid things you thought, said and did when you were their age? Keep that in mind when one of them says or does something that grinds your goat. Act the age you are now and give them a break. Try to find non-aggressive solutions to conflicts.
Raising your voice will only raise your blood pressure. Don’t get into a war of vocal attrition with a room full of kids. You will lose! Find another way of getting their attention.
Fight your pride, not the HRT. Sometimes it’s difficult having two teachers conduct the lesson because you both will have your own style of teaching. An easy way of dealing with this is for one teacher to seize control and conduct the lesson entirely. That’s why in the majority of team teaching lessons the ALT is either the sole teacher or the ALT is simply the human tape recorder drilling vocabulary on cue. But neither of these are examples of team teaching in the ideal sense. Don’t try to exclude a HRT who is trying to get involved in the lesson. This is what I used to do. Back to my control issues. I used to actively cut the HRT out from the lesson by not involving them in the planning stage and/or speaking over them if they tried to get involved during the lesson. What an ass I was! I was happiest when they would just concentrate on crowd control and leave the teaching to me. The students and myself were missing out on another professional’s input because I thought I knew best. Equally, if you are faced with a HRT who doesn’t appear to want to get involved in the lesson, encourage them to do so. Ask them questions in the lesson, get the students to ask them questions, ask them to do demonstrations with you. Don’t let them get away with just sitting at the back of the classroom marking science tests. We should be team teaching. Whether you or they like it or not! You may think you know best but they probably think they do too. Thrash it out. This will mean that your lessons will differ greatly depending on your relationship with the HRT. That’s fine, we’re learning to let go.
It’s not how you fall it’s how you bounce back up. You will have bad lessons. And it will hurt. Try not to dwell on them or take them home with you. Remember, it’s not all about you! A lesson is a shared experience and everyone in that room sees and feels it in a different way. Analyse it, make a mental note of any mistakes you think you may have made and move on. We go again.
Be yourself. I spent a lot of time when I started out trying to be what I thought they expected an ALT to be like. I played games I didn’t want to play and sang songs I didn’t want to sing. Have you noticed that if you force yourself to smile too much, your face begins to hurt? In the same way that you shouldn’t make students do things they don’t want to do, don’t make yourself do things you don’t want to do. I personally have an aversion to dressing up in fancy dress for some reason. But I wore a Santa outfit for a Christmas lesson at the request of the HRT. When asked another time to do that I said no because I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. But I suggested instead that I bring my guitar and I’ll play Christmas songs for the kids to sing, now there’s something we can all enjoy! If you try to be someone you’re not, your awkwardness will fill the void. Instead, let your true personality shine through. The world will follow.
Having made that last point, as you are not me your thoughts and feeling are going to be completely different. Feel free to take on board or reject any or all of my advice at will. Try things, make mistakes, find your truth and then write your own guest blog for ALT training Online! Thank you for reading mine until the end, I’ll look forward to reading yours. You are about to be drawn into a wonderful whirlwind of noise and tension, laughter and tears. You will learn things about people and yourself that will shape your life. Load up on slow release carbs, put on something you don’t mind getting covered in chalk and strap yourself in. You’re in for one hell of a ride. And whatever you do, don’t be late.
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