10 Things I learned teaching English in Japan

Original post date: 26 May 2015

“I’m only going to teach for a year, while I look for something else to support my visa…”

I’ve heard these words from a bunch of English teachers here in Japan, I even said them myself as I settled to my first few months on the job. I had no teaching experience, any my degree in design wasn’t going to do me much good (so I thought), but I met the requirements, I had a degree, and I was willing to give it my best shot. I’m now in my fifth year of working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), and it’s been an interesting time so far.

I’ve gotten a bit of criticism from “Non-ALT” expats living in Japan, as this job is seen as a haven for anything goes slacker-types who just want to prop up their working visas. And although in many instances I feel like that is true, I also think that there’s a lot to be gained from the experience. Like with anything, you have to put in the effort if you want to create value in something.

I’ve learned quite a bit over the past few years, so here’s a list of the top ten that come to mind.

1. How to mess up
Kids don’t care about being polite, if you make a mistake they’ll let you know right away. We all make mistakes, I’ve made many in the classroom, from spelling errors on the board to printing off the wrong worksheet. But mistakes are OK, I just smile, make a joke, move on and try not to make the same mistake again.

2. You can’t phone it in
Kids won’t hesitate to let you know if you’re not 100% ‘on’ during a lesson.

3. How to get over nervousness
Kids can sense nervousness and they will pounce on you like a lion on a sick gazelle. Public speaking makes a lot of people nervous, including me, but if you can swallow that feeling for the first few moments of a presentation (or class) then it passes and then you can enjoy the delivery.

4. Skills transfer
Learning to organize and create a curriculum is not a skill unique to teaching, organizing a design project for example is very similar; what’s the purpose of the project? What are the steps you need to take to get there? I have been able to transfer a lot of the skills I’ve developed during my time as a teacher to different projects in different fields.

5. Batch processing is awesome
If I take a day to plan out my lessons for the entire month, it frees up tons of time and mental resources for me to focus on other things, I don’t need to stop and think about what to do for my next class everyday.

6. Most meetings are a waste of time
I’ve been to countless teacher’s meetings, no one pays attention, some people sleep, then the topics covered in the meeting have to be repeated separately to everyone individually anyways.

7. Never stop improving
If my second lesson is worse than the first, the students will let me know right away. And doing the same stuff over and over is boring for everyone involved.

8. Don’t take it personally
Sometimes students, teachers, coworkers, or clients are having a bad day, week, month; they might not be so friendly, but I’ve learned that it usually has nothing to do with me. Stop being so self-centered, dude.

9. Smiles are contagious
I’ve received a few letters from students who thanked me for just smiling everyday. Even a simple smile or laugh can make someone’s day better.

10. Learning can, and should be, fun
It’s probably reads pretty funny, but I really fell in love with learning since I started teaching.

I see so many people just flat out stop learning after they finish school and get a job. I think that attitude comes from their early school days.

It makes me sad when teachers say stuff like “class is for learning, not for fun or playing around.” But to me learning is fun and playing around. We explore and try new things, and are curios. I feel like this instinct gets squashed far too often in schools. So if my students only learn one thing from me, I hope it’s to keep learning and to stay curious.

11. (Bonus!) You get what you put in
I’ve learned a lot from my four-and-a-bit years on this job. Even though English teaching doesn’t seem to be viewed in such a fantastic light in the expat community here, the old adage still plays: “you get out what you put in.” If you work hard, you can find ways to improve yourself and develop your skill-set no matter what job you’re in. That job doesn’t have to be a permanent career path, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a waste of your time either.

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