Working in Japan

Five tips for teaching children English in Japan

A common job for expats in Japan is teaching English to children. Today we are going to look at five tips that will help you stay afloat whilst you build experience, and keep students motivated and engaged.

One of the most common jobs for expats in Japan is teaching English to children or middle school age students. Therefore it is no surprise that it is also the first job for many who come to work in Japan from overseas. Due to the great demand for native speakers and the few actually available, it’s a job seekers market. Many teachers therefore find themselves dropped into the classroom, with little to no formal experience or education, and the shock can be scary. Not to worry! The good news is that there is a wealth of information available, from your support staff, fellow teachers and a hoard of people who have been in the exact same position as you.

Today we are going to look at a six tips that will help you stay afloat whilst you build experience, and keep students motivated and engaged. Becoming a good teacher requires active study and experience, and is the most important first step for any teacher of English in Japan. Keep these six tips in mind as you build such experience, and you will not only become a better teacher, but find the job far more enjoyable.

1. Motivation

Keeping students motivated is one of the trickiest parts of being an English teacher to children in Japan. Unlike adults, they are not necessarily in your classroom by choice, many of your students simply do not care about English. Try to employ some empathy, how much did you enjoy your French classes back in school?

The best way to keep students motivated is to expect, maintain and check realistic progress. If students feel that the lesson is moving too fast, many will simply give up. Japanese students especially are adverse to bringing attention to themselves, so do not expect anyone to tell you they are completely lost. It is up to you as the teacher to confirm and read whether the students are following. Control the pace of your lessons, they should be flexible to the needs of the particular group of students. It is also a good idea to repeat past material often, not only as a reinforcement exercise, but as a motivator. Students feel proud when they get to use English they understand, so let them.

Additionally, don’t neglect your own motivation! Students will pick up on a teachers lack of motivation. Personally, the best way I found to keep motivated as a teacher was to actively try to improve my teaching skills. If you allow yourself to coast, the job can become rather repetitive quickly. Attainting some personal level of a relationship with students also helps, as you will enjoy seeing them improve.

2. Speaking time

Studies have shown that children learn a great deal easier from their peers than from an authority figure. The job of the English teacher therefore should be to introduce curated knowledge, and allow peer to peer use. What does this mean? Essentially, you should spend as little time talking to the students as you can, and allocate more time to allowing them to talk to each other. The trick is to set up the environment such that they:

  1. Don’t use Japanese instead.
  2. Have and are confident enough with the English you want them to use.
  3. Are motivated to participate.

If (b) and (c) are done well enough, most students will adhere to (a). Your job as a teacher therefore primarily involves in making sure they know what they should be doing, though well thought out examples and drills prior to the activity. Once the activity starts, listen and help any students that need it.

If you can successfully achieve lessons that do this well, you will succeed in creating a classroom better than the majority of Japanese instructor lead English classrooms, and different from there other subjects.

3. Use your team teacher

A good demonstration is integral to any lesson. This job is made much easier when you have a good partner. Fortunately, most of the time at least, you will have one in your team teacher. In a junior high school setting, your team teachers English will be good enough to do this easily. As for elementary school however, they may or may not have decent English skills. Not to worry, either way you can and should use them. If their English skills are lacking, it is worth spending time with them a little before the class so that they can participate. This is important for numerous reasons, the most important being that the students need to hear a good example. Another important reason is because the students will be happy to hear their Japanese teacher speak English. Elementary school students highly respect their teacher, and seeing them speak English is inspiring to them.



4. Clarify your goals

Building towards a defined goal is a good practice in any endeavor. In teaching English to children in Japan, you need to know what you intend to teach in advance. This is because certain skills have prerequisite skills, or are just much easier to teach that way. Being able to structure lessons is far easier on both you and your students if it’s not random each week. Additionally you will know how flexible you can be with your time.

For junior high school, this is rather simple. The students have tests and a textbook, so at a minimum you need to cover that material. For younger children or extracurricular, don’t skip the time to clarify this, either to yourself or with the parents or teachers.

5. Make use of aids familiar to your students

The English classroom is already foreign enough for your students. You can easily bring some familiarity, fun and comfort into the classroom by using characters they know and love in your lessons. Using popular timeless characters like Anpanman, Doraemon and Sazae-san on your worksheets is a cheap way to get students interested in the activity. Even better, learn to sketch these or similar characters on the blackboard. Students will likely enjoy your bad interpretations more than a perfect drawing. Using fad characters, such as Nezuko from the manga/anime “Kimetsu no Yaiba” will also help spice up your activities, but you might need to update the material every few years.

Under Japanese law, you can use these characters in the classroom, but you obviously cannot share or sell your teaching materials if they feature such copyrighted characters.

I hope these five tips will help you get started with teaching English to children in Japan. So long as you always strive to improve yourself, build on your experience and keep things flexible, teaching in Japan is a rewarding experience. Don’t blame the children for any lack of motivation, it is your job to motivate them! Get them speaking, and your classroom will be unique from their other classes. Use your team teacher to make your life easier, work towards your defined goals, and use the wealth of cute characters available in Japanese media to build enthusiasm.

Good luck in the classroom!

Currently living the good life on my little farm in the mountains of Japan. I grow my own rice and vegetables, and try to avoid doing things I don't enjoy! I figure this is the best way to live life. I enjoy writing every day, sometimes songs, sometimes bedtime stories for my daughter, and sometimes articles about Japan.

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