Summer is ending in Japan which means Kids are returning to school and preparing for the culture festival and sports day. It also means I am sitting at my desk in the morning and working on the ESS club’s culture day festival presentation.
The school year here in Japan starts in April so right now we are just starting the second term. Even though it is not the beginning of the school year, for many ALTs it is the beginning of their contract year. New ALTs that arrived in Japan last month will be going to school and teaching for the first time starting next week.
It’s hard to believe I am starting my fourth and last contract year in Japan. For me, This is the busiest time of the year. I add 5 more classes a week, start interviewing and preparing students for our exchange program to America, and my afterschool lessons become more intense with a couple shamisen concerts in October and the JLPT test in December. Because it is so busy, I am sure that time will fly by quickly and I’ll soon be thinking about how to best pack up my apartment and leave. Yikes.
For this post, I’d like to give three small pieces of advice to my fellow ALTs that are going to their school for the first time. This post should be relatively short and sweet.
Firstly, when you are school and scared out of your mind about making a good first impression don’t forget to smile.
Yes, Japanese work environments are serious and can be very intimidating, especially at traditional junior high schools.
It might seem like the best thing to do is to put on your majime (serious) face and work hard with your head down, however, you are a foreigner. You get a bit of a pass on some things. Also, people are going to be curious about you, but they will be nervous to approach and talk to you. It’s important to look approachable so that your coworkers who don’t speak English well are not afraid to interact with you. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, smile and nod at every teacher you pass in the hallway, walk into the staff room in the morning and proclaim “Ohayou Gozaimasu,” (good morning) in a loud voice. Be friendly and smiley!
This point is all about trying to communicate and having an attitude of openness. I have already written a long post about how language isn’t important when it comes to communication and making friends. Don’t be shy to interact with people.
Some of the most helpful communicative teachers at my school do not speak a lot of English. So be friendly with everyone because you never know which teacher you’re going to hit it off with despite language barriers.
Making connections with the staff at your school will probably be difficult, but it will be impossible if you aren’t approachable and friendly.
Secondly, Ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers.
It is very likely that you will arrive at school on the first day, be shown your desk, and left to sit there. You’ll be wondering, “what is my role in this school?”, “what should I be doing?”, and “When will my classes start?”. Before you are left alone at your desk, make sure to ask all your questions.
Many times your coworkers will forget that you don’t know things because your predecessor was accustomed to working at your school and had established their role already.
You have to remind the staff that you are new, probably have never been inside a Japanese school before, and may never have been a teacher before. Trust me they will not think to explain things to you that they view as normal or common sense, so if you have a question, ask it. Of course try not to be a pest, but questions here and there are more than ok!
It took a month for a teacher to finally sit down and explain to me how to properly make copies of worksheets for my classes. I was using the expensive machines and constantly jamming the copier because I couldn’t read the buttons on the machines. While I didn’t put anyone out by asking them to teach me the proper way to use everything, I did end up causing way more trouble because for a month everyone was constantly coming in behind me to fix what I was breaking over and over again.
Also, when you ask your questions during your first few weeks, don’t forget to REALLY listen to the answers. You may come to Japan with a lot of ideas about what your job will be, but be flexible to what your school expects and wants from you.
It might help to think of yourself as a communicator and not a teacher. Remember communication is the goal here. You are communicating your language and culture to the people at your school. You are asking your questions. You are also ACTIVELY listening to the answers and replies you get!
Thirdly, get involved.
Let’s imagine you smiled at everyone, said good morning, asked your questions and now you are left alone sitting at your desk with the instructions, “study Japanese.” At my school, this means the same as, “I have nothing for you to do, but please look busy at your desk.”
Sure, you could study for a few hours, but then what? Your concentration only lasts so long. You need to be proactive about finding work for yourself.
Here are some things you can do:
- Go to each of the English teachers and ask them if they have anything you could do to help them. They may give you essays to mark or ask you to check over the worksheet they made.
- Get started on an English board or display. (try my tired words wall idea!)
- Read through your students textbooks and get familiar with the material you will be teaching.
- Research teaching English as a foreign language tips or games.
- Walk around the school and get familiar with where things are, meet students, and smile at more teachers as you pass them.
Your job at your school is up to you. It is very likely the staff at your school will ask very little of you, especially at the beginning when they still don’t know you well. If you want to have a bigger impact or do more for the school, it will be up to you to create opportunities and responsibilities for yourself. This job will be what you make of it.
I really believe a key point in being happy while living abroad in Japan is being able to enjoy your job. You spend 35-40 hours a week there at least!
Don’t wait for others to make you useful, to communicate with you, or to tell you things. Ask for opportunities to be involved and if there are none, create them for yourself. (do it respectfully, of course. I am not encouraging you to interrupt a lesson or be a nuisance.)
By showing your staff that you are friendly, want to work hard, be involved, and help as much as possible you are making a great first impression.
If you do these three things earnestly, I am sure you will be successful in starting off your relationship with your school and staff well. They will see you as friendly, a good communicator, and a hard worker.
Before you leave this post freaking out that you already had your first day and feeling like you screwed it up. Take a deep breath and remember that while making a good first impression is important, don’t stress too hard about it. Just do your best. If you want to do a good job and enjoy your time at school, I’m sure you will make it happen.
Good luck to all the new ALTs out there and enjoy your time in Japan.