Teaching ESL in Japan - What to Expect

If teaching ESL is foreign to you but you’re thinking of giving it a go, then here's a little heads up on what to expect in the classroom.

We often get e-mails saying, “I’ve never taught in Japan and don’t know what to expect, what are they (meaning the Japanese) like”? Volumes could be written and it probably wouldn’t even scratch the surface but still there are some generalizations you can make.

In general expect your students to be shy and somewhat reserved.

japanese kanji

Teaching ESL in Japan – Kindergarten                                          Expect fairly large classes of 20 to 30 in your average kindergarten. Most schools will have a Japanese staff teacher assigned to “help out” with the class. This makes teaching ESL easy as communication problems are less. From the curriculum standpoint things are pretty cut and dried. ABC’s and 123’s starts the ball rolling.

Colors, TPR, animals, number and days of the week are pretty much standard in most kindergartens. Kindergartners are actually a lot of fun to teach. (You might want to brush up on dancing the Hokey-Pokey. And don’t forget their favorite: Head, shoulders, knees and toes.) Unlike older children and teens who’ve been in the educational grinding machine for years, these little darlings, are just like kids the world over. Teaching ESL in kindergartens is both exhilarating and draining but always an adventure.

Teaching ESL in Japan - Teens
Young Japanese teens like most teens have issues . They’re probably the toughest to teach. From pulling stuff like sleeping in class to refusing to participate. Japanese or not, their still teens and putting the screws to them definitely won’t work. It many times fosters a rebellious attitude.

Not to be all doom and gloom, you do also get some gems that see learning English as a means of traveling the globe and realizing their dreams. These guys & gals are gold. She’ll do her homework, show enthusiasm and show up johnny-on-the-spot for your class with a smile plastered on her face. Being friendly, engaging and keeping the class moving are the best ways to handle them. When in doubt ask colleagues how they handle certain types, you’d be surprise at what you may have overlooked.

Teaching ESL in Japan - Young Adults
Young adults aren’t carrying the puberty baggage with them that teens do so they’re actually a lot of fun to teach. They’re open to all kinds of games, usually love to sing and are not afraid to compete in a wide-open way. Also because they’ve got a little distance from the personality grinder called grade school, their individual qualities and personalities shine. With adults, getting them to come out of their shells can be the task. It’s the exact opposite with older children.

So maintaining order and lesson coherency is the tough part. Keys to success are gently jumping on bad behavior quickly. Establishing order and a “we’re here to learn and have fun” kind of an atmosphere. (Believe me, if you get 8 kids in a small classroom that discover you’re a pushover, you’ll probably be washing your face to get the Nike prints off of it.) If you let things get out of hand and use a sledgehammer to correct the problem, you’ll lose respect and the cooperative spirit of the students and possibly the students themselves). So teaching ESL to this age group requires a gentle touch, and a pile of patience.

Teaching ESL in Japan – Adults                                                      One generalization is that Japanese adult students are a great deal more reserved than ESL students from other countries to include Japan’s neighbors Korea and China. The Japanese educational system instills social etiquette like no other. So what does this mean in the classroom? It means often if you set up a very competitive game, your students may reluctantly or halfheartedly play it. They won’t play for “keeps” so as not to offend their classmates. And they won’t refuse to play because that offends the teacher.

So what are you left with? As a student, a half-hearted attempt. As a teacher, a sinking feeling that you're doing something wrong. That sure-fire exercise that you thought would bring the house down, winds-up stinking up the place. Don’t blame yourself. Scale down the competitiveness. This is one of the toughest lessons ESL teachers learn when they begin teaching in Japan.

Some adults are so introverted that you wonder
why they’re in front of you every week.

So what can you do? Many teachers increase the writing and reading aspects of the class after all attempts at getting them to converse collapse. Pray you don’t get many of these types. If you’re new to teaching ESL, remember that trial and error goes a long way towards perfecting your teaching style so ask questions  to fellow teachers when you’re struggling.

Another way that teaching ESL in Japan is different from other countries is that some adults will also down-play their abilities so as not to show-off and make other students feel bad about their abilities. This can translate to the teacher, as “they’re not learning anything.” They might very well be but just don’t show it.

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