Working as an AET (specifically, an assistant English teacher) in a Japanese public junior high school was a challenging experience that stretched me, and gave me a broader set of teaching skills and experience. At first, I started out working in a couple junior high schools in Adachi-ku, the ward of Tokyo I first lived in upon moving here in September 2018. Starting in November, I began a longer-term assignment working in Kawagoe, Saitama. After a meeting with the Kawagoe City Board of Education, I began work through the rest of the school year. This is an overview of some various aspects of my experience as an assistant English teacher.
Uchiawase – which means “appointment” in Japanese – is a meeting to have with the JTE (Japanese teacher of English) to discuss the lesson plan and other necessary matters before the class. Generally, the teachers are very busy, so it can be difficult for them to have time to discuss much of anything, as many of the teachers themselves are rushing to put together activities or a plan for their classes.
My company put together a sheet with polite phrases to ask about scheduling this meeting, and how to politely recommend adding activities or suggestions to the JTEs. In my experience, after I got to know my teachers pretty well, they eventually became comfortable enough with me to come up to me and relay some last-minute information that I might need to know.
Kyushoku – which means “supplied lunch” – is a school lunch that is provided to everyone at the school, staff and students, in the middle of the day. Students eat their lunch in their home room classrooms together, and all of the staff eat lunch together in a room on the same floor as the teacher’s room.
One hiccup that I ran into upon first starting at the Kawagoe school was that they don’t supply chopsticks for you. The board of education had supplied the teachers and students with a hashi-bako or chopstick box for chopsticks at the beginning of the school year, but I didn’t have one right away. I ended up having to run to Seven-Eleven a couple of times at first to get wooden chopsticks, and a couple other days when I had forgotten to bring my hashi-bako with me.
The thing that surprised me the most about kyushoku was that after finishing, everyone would put everything away themselves (including unfolding the milk box, figuring out how to do which took me quite a while). Another thing I noticed that surprised me was that the students themselves set up the tables on which the food would be placed, which I observed every day that I assisted in the class directly preceding kyushoku.
As I am still not completely accustomed to eating fish, I usually did not eat the fish supplied in the kyushoku unless it was salmon. I observed that many of the teachers were putting back part of their serving of rice, and it seemed that the extra rice seemed to be getting thrown out. As a result, I often ate more than 2 helpings of rice (and sometimes almost every type of food being served!) in order to help the food not to go to waste.
Why didn’t you sei-so??
Seisou, or “cleaning”, is a nearly daily cleaning of the school. Unlike schools in America which hire external staff to clean public schools, the cleaning of the school is done by the staff and students themselves during a scheduled chunk of time during the day. I was pleasantly surprised by this custom; this seems to save money, and keep a sense of humility across the school. The principal and vice principal themselves were often raking up leaves and cleaning outside, even in the coldest times of the year. This made a great impression on me, and made me never want to complain when helping out with the cleaning at the school.
Another interesting procedure to note was a kind of inventory meeting held at the end of each seiso. After about 20-30 minutes of cleaning, a staff member would observe one of the students reading off a checklist of requirements that must be met during the cleaning. The students rushed through it to finish, and I never understood a single word of what was being said, but I was often asked to sign a sheet verifying the requirements!
The class – pronounced jooh-gyoh – is what the majority of my time at the school was spent doing. At the beginning of every lesson, after the traditional Japanese start (kiritsu/rei), we did the following dialog:
JTE: Good (time-of-day), everyone!
Class: Good (time-of-day), Mr./Mrs. JTE!
AET: Good (time-of-day), class!
Class: Good (time-of-day), Mr. Perry!
AET: How are you doing today?
Class: (Usually) I’m sleepy, and you?
AET: I’m (fun-word), thank you! How’s the weather today?
Class: It’s (weather-condition)!
AET: What day is it today?
Class: It’s (day-of-the-week)!
AET: Good! And what’s the date?
Class: It’s (date, struggling to pronounce ordinal numbers)…
The fun words I used were always either excellent or fantastic, but looking back I wish I had used some more creative words as well.
In the first-year (ichi-nensei) classes, we would start out with a game of Bingo, and then listening training (kiki-tore), and for the other classes, we would sing a song. From there, I would usually try to understand what the teacher was saying to the students, and try to listen for words that I could investigate the meaning of later. The most common activities I helped out in were pronouncing new words, correcting students’ writing, and checking a memorized conversation (giving a stamp if it was correct).
I would be remiss not to note a couple of other experiences from my time working in Kawagoe. My favorite part of every day was participating in games at recess with the kids, every day of which I played basketball. For a long time, I did not participate in recess, mostly because I was shy and didn’t have the confidence to go out. However, another ALT that was assigned to the same school (which I hear is a rather uncommon occurrence) suggested we go to play one day, and we played with some of the girls. It took me a couple of weeks, but once I played with some of the talented boys, I couldn’t get enough of it. Getting exercise in the middle of the day was another very nice perk of being able to work as an ALT.
Another was the graduation ceremony (sotsugyou-shiki), which I was invited to attend. The day before the ceremony, all of the students went to the gym to decorate and rehearse. The day of the ceremony, I spent the whole day observing various dances and skits (most of which I unfortunately couldn’t understand). One of the English teachers who also conducts the brass band, invited me to rehearse with his band a couple of times before the ceremony, and located an alto saxophone that wasn’t being used to let me practice with. I rehearsed an orchestral version of “U.S.A.”, and there is an alto saxophone solo towards the end of the piece. During the brass band performance, I performed the solo, but I didn’t go over to the side which the other soloists seemed to do, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was a fun experience to push me out of my comfort zone and perform in front of the students.
Finally, the most heartwarming experience I had was one the teachers having his students write me a message in English on a colored piece of paper, and then optionally a translation or additional message in Japanese on the back. Many of the students also drew pictures of things they associated with me, such as a guitar or microphone, as I always sang loudly during class, much to the surprise of many students. Most of the students expressed thanks for helping them learn, and told me that they became interested in learning English.