The First Week: a New ALT’s Journey

Whew! Who knew that the first week of school would go by so quickly and be so tiring?

One thing I was impressed by when I first saw my weekly schedule was there were a lot of blank spots in my schedule. In America, I had one planning period (50 minutes) a day which I could use for my teacher-related duties — whether that was lesson planning, grading, calling parents, etc. Usually, that time flew by with adjusting lesson plans and trying to make the most dire parent calls. In Japan, teachers have more planning periods (although, it probably all evens out because they also have more students, more classes, and, oftentimes, afterschool club duties). As an ALT, my schedule is a little more forgiving; I don’t have parent calls to make, and I have many more planning periods. Wow, I thought, I’ll have so much time on my hands!

And then the classes started and I realized I had been hopelessly naïve. Time? Time! Ha!

A sneak peek at my month's schedule. It gets filled up pretty fast.
A sneak peek at my month’s schedule. It gets filled up pretty fast.

Quickly, my time filled up between classes, grading, making copies, helping teachers edit their English worksheets, grading, making lesson plans, adjusting lesson plans based on teacher direction, grading, and “special schedules” (days when tests or special events were planned). Oh, and did I mention grading? I hadn’t anticipated the level of homework given to Japanese students, but homework is definitely a part of their daily routine.

I’ve noticed that teaching pedagogy in Japan is very different. While ALTs are meant to “team teach” with Japanese teachers — a concept that, while present in America, often leads to conflict with American teachers, who view themselves as “in charge” of their own classroom — the Japanese idea of teaching involves a lot of notes, lectures, worksheets, and homework. In America, learning should be fun; in Japan, if it’s fun, consider it a bonus. My role is a little different, since my role is to provide English instruction in a non-threatening manner that encourages learning. But, I’m also at a high level, academic school so I’m expected to provide worksheets and homework, like every teacher. And, of course, grade those worksheets and homework.

One other thing that takes getting used to: schedules are different depending on the day. In America, I had a set schedule and could expect it like clockwork. My planning period was the same every day, my classes the same every day. In Japan, the classes change from day-to-day, teachers easily decide if their schedules need to be changed, as well. I have a conflict that doesn’t allow me to teach for one class because I’m already teaching for another? No problem; I talk to the teacher and they decide another day, no need to ask higher-ups for the “OK.”

Grading, a teacher's arch nemesis. And, it seems, it will always find you...even if you move halfway across the world.
Grading, a teacher’s arch nemesis. And, it seems, it will always find you…even if you move halfway across the world.

The downside is trying to keep up with the schedule. I finally had to make a calendar spreadsheet, because even I couldn’t keep all the arrows and asterisks straight in my planner. Once I had it all laid out on a spreadsheet, it was so much easier; then I could make notes in my planner for quick reference (and in pencil, just in case 😉 ).

The students are nice, and well-behaved. On my first day of school, I put up my PowerPoint presentation, took a deep breath, and said, “My–”

“Oh, wait!” S-sensei, one of my JTE’s, said. “You need to do the morning greeting.”

“M-morning greeting?” I said, frowning. I scooted closer, then dropped my voice so only she could hear. “What’s that?”

She looked at me in surprise, then said, hesitantly, “I will do it today.” She turned back to the class and said, “Please stand, class.”

All the students stood, then S-sensei said, slowly, in English, “Good morning class.”

“Good morning…” the student’s chorused, then hesitated, looking at me.

“Good morning Ms. Himani,” S-sensei directed, “and Ms. S-sensei. Please repeat.”

“Good morning Ms. Himani and Ms. S-sensei,” the students repeated.

S-sensei nodded, smiling. “You may sit down, class.”

And the students sat.

I can only imagine what my expression was.

Then, at the end of the class, S-sensei turned to me and said, “Before they leave, it is time for the closing greeting.” She had the students stand again, then turned back to me and said, “How do you say goodbye to students in America?”

Er… I tried to think of how I said goodbye in class in America. Usually, it involved students leaping up the moment the bell rang and fast-walking to the door while I trailed behind saying, “Push in your chairs! Throw away your trash!” or “Don’t forget the homework is due tomorrow!

I doubted that’s what S-sensei was thinking, so I turned to the students and gave an “American goodbye.”

“Bye class!”

Yup, smooth.

But that was the first time. I’m getting used to it now, and having an opening and closing greeting does provide nice bookends to the class period — it also discourages students from leaping for the door the moment the bell rings.

So, the first week is done. By the end of Friday, I will have taught my Self-Introduction lesson 16 times, to 2 grade levels (10th grade and 11th grade, or, as they are called in Japan, 1st and 2nd year), and have about 300 worksheets waiting for my red pen mark-ups.

Next week, I will start teaching the 2nd year students how to use examples in a paragraph. But, this weekend, I’m going to do some sight-seeing in Tokyo, sleep Sunday, and finally see Guardians of the Galaxy on Monday!

Ultimately, despite the little differences, high school students are the same the world over.
Ultimately, despite the little differences, high school students are the same the world over.
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