Is it your dream to teach English in Japan?
As an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, I have worked in a junior high school, occasionally at an Eikaiwa (private conversation school), and came back recently for a short contract at five schools including one junior high school and four elementary schools. Most ALT jobs are at elementary schools and junior high schools. Here is why I prefer working as an ALT at a junior high school.
If I was going to write a memoir about my short experience as an elementary school ALT, I would title it, “うんちに時間が無い / Unchi ni ji kan ga nai,” (No Time for Poop) as a follow up to my collection of emails / ebook, “愛に時間が無い / Ai ni ji kan ga nai.” (No Time for Love.)
It’s kinda like that. No time to do much, but good for energetic / busy types. It must be my age, because I’m settled into a slower pace and thrive on time to space out / think of ideas.
Both elementary and junior high schools have six periods a day. The number of classes you will be team teaching in depends on several factors, but usually will be fewer at junior high schools. Elementary school teachers are in their homeroom classrooms all day with almost no free periods in a week. Teachers and staff at junior high schools actually have time in the teachers room to chat and plan lessons. It’s great when teachers want you to help plan a lesson and use your ideas. More work (but also more experience) for you, and sometimes less work for them. Some teachers will be stuck in their way of teaching lessons, so let them be. Don’t stop asking if they want help or ideas, because if you do, they might complain that they wished you contributed more ideas to the lessons.
At elementary school, there are just five minutes between classes, so when there are two classes in a row, you have no time to grab other materials, get something to drink, use the bathroom, etc. You might have time to discuss the lesson with the homeroom teacher or find your next classroom, while saying ‘Hello!’ to all the students along the way. There is usually a twenty minute recess between the second and third periods, and there is a much longer break after lunch (around an hour including about ten minutes of cleaning time). I use this time for preparing and making any materials I need, especially when I don’t have a free period. Playing outside with students is also a very acceptable thing to do at this time, if you have any energy left (me, probably no). Pretending you’re a zombie and chasing kids works if you’re too tired for anything else.
In junior high schools, there is a ten minute break between classes, meaning you have a few minutes to drink coffee or get a different textbook from the teachers’ room. Some schools have fifteen minute recess (five extra minutes) between second and third period. The after lunch break is shorter, but still a good time to hang out with students and maybe play basketball or something.
For example, making worksheets. As a design nerd and art major, I love designing worksheets (even in MS Word 2002 or whatever the school has), and adding cute pictures of a cat wearing a scarf or an elephant riding a bike. If you aren’t a drawer, most schools have illustration books full of cute pictures that can be copied and pasted onto worksheets. Ask for イラスト本 or irasuto-bon then enjoy the cuteness. You can find season or subject based illustrations. There is always the option of printing out something you found online (think popular characters like Pokemon). The students really appreciate it too.
Other things to do while not in English class include:
Students are shocked and slightly entertained when I go to their home ec. or art class and participate. Maybe you join in on kokugo (Japanese) and learn some kanji. If you go to the PE classes or sports clubs… prepare to be made fun of if you aren’t in shape. (Yes, good for laughs.) The teachers seem to appreciate this most of the time, but be sure you get a nod of approval before distracting their lessons.
Boy do I love stamping tests and worksheets with a cute Totoro, Rilakuma, or Mameshiba stamp. Oh yeah. And the red pen / aka pen. Making hana maru (a spiral with flower petals if you’re feeling fancy or the student did well) is really fulfilling.
What is the best though, is all the Engrish I can read while grading. Almost as good as watching kitten videos for curing a grumpy mood.
This doesn’t need much explanation. In elementary schools, each class has it’s own homeroom teacher. If you work in five elementary schools with three classes each of fifth grade and sixth grade students, that’s six teachers times five schools equals 30 teachers, possibly all in one week (extreme example, but not unheard of). Try remembering their names or even recognizing them all within a month. I dare you.
Now let’s do the math for students in the above example. Each class has up to 35 students, times six classes, times five schools. You don’t have to wonder why you feel like a celebrity when you have up to 1050 students (who all know your name, hometown, and favorite food, thanks to a good self introduction). Don’t feel bad, you’re not going to remember all their names.
In a junior high school, the same is true of homeroom teachers for each class, but English classes are taught by a Japanese Teacher of English, or JTE. They have a special qualification and skills in English, while elementary school teachers might be scared to say more than hello. Depending on the size of the school, there will only be around one JTE per five classes of students. This makes communication way better and remembering the JTEs’ (plus some students’) names possible.
I just like junior high school aged students better than elementary school. More mellow, awkward, quiet, etc. I’ve worked with that age group a lot in the past so I kind of get the way they are. Elementary school kids are super cute, but… I also feel like a large scale babysitter sometimes. I mentioned before that I really hate kids songs, so if I get lessons with the 1st – 4th grade students, I’ll use the Hello Song with rock paper scissors because they go nuts with joy, but that’s about it. No head shoulders knees and toes for me.
The good thing about elementary school students is, they are really enthusiastic about trying to use English compared with junior high students. They aren’t trying to be cool yet (at least most of them). They usually aren’t too shy to raise their hands and try to answer. At junior high schools, some students are like that, but sometimes (especially by the third year of junior high), you ask a question and the answer is -shin- (the Japanese sound for silence).
It really depends on you and what age group you like. Elementary school will give you more practical teaching (directing and gesturing? swimming through crowds of small children?) experience and you will still have flexibility to add your own activities to the textbooks. Junior high can be more limited depending on who you work with. If you show initiative, they will welcome your ideas instead of asking you to stand quietly in the corner when your pronunciation assistance isn’t needed. The reverse of this is when the Japanese teacher wants original lesson ideas from you each time. A good balance is when they plan the lessons or you decide how to teach together, but you contribute in your own way. It’s easy to get stuck doing the same game every class, but that game doesn’t have to be a boring one.