Starting out in a new endeavor will always come with its fair share of hardships, challenges, and frustrations. This was no exception for me as I began life in Japan, and started as a first-time English teacher. Osaka is a wonderful city, and I had the privilege to work in Umeda, a huge, booming district in the north of the city:
I was very excited to start a new kind of work, and to learn many new things. However, getting started was difficult; I received only one day of training, and then was expected to teach my first lesson after I was brought up to speed on the expected lesson structure. The student I taught was a pretty high-level one, though, and she also had a common interest in music. These are some different challenges I faced in teaching Japanese 社会人 (shakaijin – society person or “worker”) English, and some strategies I used to get past them.
Most of my students were learning English to aid them with something related to their job, so in general, they were learning because they had to, not because they wanted to. To make matters worse, most of them were coming after a long day of work Japanese-style, which means probably a > 9-hour day with little break. As a result, I had to do my best to try to keep their interest throughout the lesson.
The greatest strategy I used to combat this lethargy was to start the lesson with a lot of energy and talking to them about their interests. Perhaps talking about a recent national holiday or other event they were passionate about was the best way to get them to work hard enough to use English and activate their “English brain”. The last thing these shakaijin want to talk about during this time is work, so I would always ask them about something related to their hobbies (usually shopping), or what their favorite restaurants are in order to get recommendations.
Another strategy I used was to draw diagrams and pictures, because while some people are much more visual learners than others, I think everyone does better with a good picture or two. This was especially useful when demonstrating concepts using time; a timeline is a particularly useful diagram to use. I would also try bringing the usefulness of learning English to life by drawing pictures of America to peak their interest in my home country, and also of my home state and hometown.
As this was my first job outside of programming, I didn’t have any experience whatsoever in teaching. Therefore, my tendency was of course to speak pretty quickly and assume that the student would understand what I was saying. Many of my students would nod politely, acting as if they understood and then just complained to the staff after the lesson, but some of the students just asked me to repeat myself. Before too long, I was informed that many of my students were saying that my speaking during the lessons was too fast. At first I didn’t want to slow down too much because it was difficult getting through the whole lesson if my speech was too slow, but I eventually found it was better to hammer something down during the lesson than to cover a lot of material quickly that the student won’t really be able to retain.
I like to think that over time, my ability to gauge my students’ comprehension ability improved, but I did continue to get occasional complaints from students about speaking speed. However, the most important thing I think I learned was gaining an appreciation for helping others. Communicating to someone in your own native language can be hard enough, let alone having to speak in another one!
Working in this school was interesting because there were a lot of teachers in a pretty open area without too much separation between the tables. In addition, some teachers preferred a rather LOUD teaching voice. As a result, I was often battling the other teachers for both students’ attention and to be able to concentrate on my teaching task. This was by far the most unique and unexpected difficulty I ran into as a teacher at this school. There was a particular area, which I will term the “circle of death”, where four tables were put together all in one circular formation. The sound level in this area occasionally rose to uncomfortable levels.
Planning an effective lesson, and picking out the right activities to make for the most productive and helpful lesson, factoring in what the student places the highest priority on in learning makes for a pretty difficult task. I myself did some learning on various grammar points, as I had always known what makes a correct English sentence, but didn’t really know all of the rules and names for different grammar.
Generally, for the level of students that are not complete beginners (levels 1-2) have a lesson based on a unit of a textbook that focuses on a particular grammar point. For example, a lesson might focus on the grammar “adverbs of frequency”. In the textbook, there is a chart showing the English words corresponding to their relative level of frequency (“never” being at the bottom and “always” being at the top). During one part of the lesson, I might ask my student to use the correct adverb for how often an older man would go to a rave, or how often a professional basketball player would exercise. Then, in the next part of the lesson, I might ask them some questions about activities I know or think they might participate in, so that they can practice using the new grammar.
At first, I needed lots of preparation to come up with good ways to drill each grammar point, but as I taught many lessons, I found I was teaching the same thing over and over. The more times I drilled a grammar point, the easier it was to make learning exciting and fun for the student.