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TESOL in Japan

Jenny Chenik

My Experience Teaching English as a Second Language

I was 21 years old, and was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Japan and teach English at a private language school. I stumbled upon this job by accident as I was just about to graduate university after four years of studying a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Bachelor of Arts in Tourism degree. Teaching had never crossed my mind, let alone teaching English as a Second Language in a foreign country.

I had studied Japanese for 5 years at high school and counted it towards my tertiary entrance exam score as well so I had always had an interest in Japan, the language and the culture. I had also been to Japan in year 9 on a student exchange program for 27 days. I noticed an advertisement in the job section of the newspaper advertising that a company was looking for people to go to Japan and teach English. I applied for the job, not sure if I had what it would take to make it. I attended a full two day interview in Perth and was finally chosen to go.

When I arrived in Japan it was like a totally different world to the Western Australian city of Perth in which I had grown up. I was fortunate enough to have travelled to various countries since I was young, so I knew what to expect of a foreign country. Of course, I had never lived in a country that didn’t speak my language before either. It was a rather daunting experience for a fresh-faced 21 year old straight out of university who had never lived away from home.

We were basically thrown into the deep end when it came to teaching. I started classes the second day I was in Japan. There was a substitute teacher taking care of my classes in the interim and I sat in on some of his classes all the while trying to get used to the idea of being a teacher even though I had never studied anything to do with teaching before, as well as trying to adapt to this foreign culture, language and people. Three days later I was on my own and had about 65 students of various ages from 3 to 73 all expecting me to teach them English even though I didn’t have any teaching experience. These students were not all in the same class.

We had a wide range of teaching resources available to us including invaluable teacher’s manuals that had models of lessons that we could use, or at least get a few ideas for an original lesson. The first few weeks, I think all of my lessons came straight from the manuals, as they had been tried and tested by other teachers and I knew it was ‘safe’. It took a while for my confidence to grow and also for the students’ confidence in me to grow, but after a few weeks I had earned their trust and felt I had more self-confidence. Once I had this feeling of self-assurance, I was ready to veer off the teacher’s manuals and start incorporating some of my own ideas into the lessons.

What was great about the school that I was at is that it was a language school, meaning most of the students that attended the school actually wanted to be there and wanted to learn as opposed to a primary or high school where the students don’t have a choice. The ages we taught were from three years old still trying to master the Japanese language, to senior citizens. Everyone was at a different level and students had varied reasons for studying English that included business people that needed to improve their TOEIC score to get a pay increase or a promotion, housewives taking English as a hobby, students wanting to study abroad in an English speaking country, parents wanting their children to have a head start and many other reasons. The classes were mostly well organised in that every attempt to ensure students of the same age and level were put in the same class. Of course, it is almost impossible to cater for everyone as students all have different times and days on which they could come, and occasionally we would be faced with a mixed class, either mixed in ages, levels or interests. That was the biggest challenge for us as teachers because we had to prepare a lesson that would be challenging enough for the higher level students, but also allow the lower level student to feel that they were learning and participating as well. We had training sessions on catering to classes such as these, and most students understood that because there were different levels, sometimes a part of a lesson would be easier and other times a bit harder. This also boosted the self esteem of the higher level students as they could help the lower levels and everyone benefited.

Another challenge in the classroom was teaching children. How were we supposed to teach a class of three year old children if we couldn’t use English? I thought I was fortunate because I had knowledge of Japanese, but during class time, students were supposed to be completely immersed in English and the use of Japanese in classes was therefore frowned upon. Again training was provided on the different teaching methods for children’s classes and we were always having game idea swaps with teachers from other schools. When the students are that young, the best way for them to realise that they want to learn is for them to have fun. If they are enjoying themselves, picking up parts of the English language will be a natural progression. Therefore we played endless games, sang songs, danced, and generally made fools out of ourselves trying to get the students to have fun and learn English at the same time. Once the children learnt something, I would always invite the parents into the class and we would perform what we had just learnt for the parents. This way they can see what their children are learning, as well as what their hard earned cash is going towards. This was also a great way to earn the trust of the parents.

Due to cultural differences, some lessons that I planned didn’t always work, or were not understood. Australians in particular are rather sarcastic in their sense of humour and this was not always well received in classes. I quickly learned what was and wasn’t acceptable with regards to cultural differences, but there were some awkward moments. One that stands out is the difference in the way Australians and the Japanese deal with teachers and other people in higher positions. As a teacher, students were reluctant to disagree with me, or tell me they weren’t happy with something or want something changed. In my culture, debating a topic is considered healthy and necessary, and feedback or constructive criticism is usually welcome. It took me a long time to understand that students were only agreeing with me or telling me that my lessons were fine because of their cultural background. I tried introducing debating into some higher level classes and the first few times it failed dismally, with teams just agreeing with each other. So other approaches were tried and I even wrote down points each team could argue so all they had to do was read the point and expand. Needless to say, debating never really took off in most classes. I realised then that the point of teaching my students was not to have them act as someone from a foreign country would, but rather to expand their ideas and thinking and prepare them for different situations in which they may find themselves. Although my students never learnt the art of debating, they will at least be able to acknowledge that disagreeing with someone elder or more senior than themselves is acceptable in western cultures.

Of course, most of the time classes were thoroughly enjoyed by both students and teachers alike. I got to know my students, their personalities, their hobbies, about their families and occupations, and we would often go out socially after class or on the weekend. This was where great friendships were made and there was no teacher/student form. It gave me an opportunity to really get to know my students and they in turn could really get to know me. I probably also learnt the most about Japanese eating and drinking practises when I was out with my students or friends. I made a discovery that one of my high level classes loved to watch the American sitcom ‘Friends’ and so every week I would hire out that video and prepare a lesson around an episode of ‘Friends’. As a result, students were not only studying English, they also had an opportunity to be exposed to western culture and other aspects such as slang and western humour. It can often be quite different. As I got to know my students better and they got to know me, so the teaching became relaxed and more enjoyable for everyone.

As someone who has had no teaching background, I believe one of the main obstacles in teaching English as a Second Language is the cultural difference. However, with a bit of patience and understanding from both parties, this difficulty can be overcome and the experience and knowledge that one can gain from going to a foreign country to teach English is invaluable. I have mainly written about my experiences as an English as a Second Language teacher, but of course during my three years that I spent as an English teacher in Japan, I had so many wonderful experiences in other areas as well. I had the opportunity to become friends with Japanese people and was often invited into their homes where they treat you as a special guest and where they go out of their way to ensure you are satisfied. When it comes to guests, nothing is too difficult or trying for the Japanese. I was also fortunate enough to go on many trips around Japan with my friends and as a result tried skiing for the first time, an experience I would never have had living in Western Australia. I grasped a more thorough understanding of the Japanese language and even had lessons and sat for a Japanese exam, and I had the opportunity to make many friends from countries all over the world. My colleagues at my school and at other branches included people from Australia, Canada, USA, Britain, just to name a few. They have come to Perth to visit me, and I am planning to go to visit them. There is such potential for lifelong friendships to be made, as well as for memories that will stay with you throughout your life.

It was very difficult for me to keep this account of my time teaching English in Japan short. There is so much more I could write about. As a young 21 year old, straight out of university and still living at home, this was one of the biggest and most exciting (as well as daunting) experiences of my life. Once I settled in and became used to my surroundings, I jumped into the culture with open arms and as a result I had so many wonderful and amazing adventures and met some fantastic people as well. My advice if you are thinking about going to a foreign country to teach English, is to do it. As long as you are prepared to realise that it is most probably going to be very different from what you are used to, it is one year out of your life (or in my case three) and the experiences and opportunities to learn and experience new things are just invaluable.

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