Teaching as an ALT
This post is for any ALT who has teaching in their sights as a career path. Maybe your goal is to become a better teacher, maybe it’s to gain teaching experience for something post-JET, or maybe it’s just to find out if you like teaching. I try my best to revise and reevaluate the goals I have for teaching each day. I ask myself, “What do I want my students to gain from this?” and question if my actions are aligned with my objective. Often times my judgement wanes, and mistake after mistake has me reflecting on how I can do things better. Every now and then there are moments of teaching frustration, but there always seems to be small things that keep me motivated as a teacher. Here are my thoughts and observations, highs and lows of being an ALT to junior high school students.
Attempting to spark a student’s interest in English isn’t always easy. Especially when the students are catching up on sleep during class—and I don’t blame them. One student recently told me his schedule on an average day: wake up at 6 a.m., run around the track at 7 a.m. (if he has club activities), change clothes, read for 20 minutes, go to class from 8:40 a.m. – 3:20 p.m., go to club activities from 4-6 p.m., eat dinner, take a shower, start homework by 9 or 10p.m., and go to bed between 11 p.m. and midnight.
It used to irritate me when students slept during presentations I was giving, but now I’m a bit more understanding. Most students have a busier schedule than I do. I believe some students are really fighting to stay awake in class and want to be there. I see those students usually taking 5-10 minute naps, then resuming their attention on the lesson. Some students stay awake but look like they are being hypnotized by an invisible ghost in front of them. Damn those ghosts! This is one of my challenges: making sure I’m maintaining the attention of my students.
Although, one mistake I’ve made is overexerting myself trying to maintain everyone’s attention. For example, while I’m giving a presentation, there are always a few students doing homework for another class, sleeping, or staring into space. After seeing this, I would actively re-channel all their focus back to the class. This would take time, energy, and limit the opportunity more serious students have to learn. In other classes around the school like, science, math, and Japanese, I see teachers commanding the full attention of the class: side conversations, group conversations, and students doing homework for other classes all seem relatively nonexistent. It’s awe-inspiring.
Additionally, a number of students are difficult to motivate because of reasons outside of the classroom. Many of those reasons my JTEs are already aware of and probably discuss with the students’ parents. After missing the last bus home from school one day my JTE offered me a ride. Before she took me home, I accompanied her as we did 家庭訪問 (かていほうもん), or visits to students’ homes.
We knocked on six doors, talked to six parents, and I listened as she discussed matters regarding those students. The issues were related to grades, the students’ behavior, and their motivation in the classroom. I don’t know if this is common for all JTEs around Japan, but most of my JTEs keep communication between teacher, student, and parent very active. This year, out of my six schools in total I visit one per month. It seems that if I ever wanted JTE-like cooperation from my students, I would need to spend more than just once a month with them.
I find motivation in knowing that I could potentially inspire students to improve their lives. There’s a chance for all of us ALTs to do so. And the child we motivate or inspire could be someone we don’t expect to have an impact on. On my search of ways to deal with classroom troublemakers I asked a “unicorn” — a fifth year ALT — for some advice. My fifth year friend Mr. 0 shared a story about one student who really had an effect on him. This was a “bad kid,” who received awful grades, stole, got in fights with teachers and the whole lot. But Mr. 0 took a more patient approach with this student, trading jokes with him and giving him someone to talk to. He treated him like somebody with value, treated the student like a “human being” (as Mr. 0 puts it), when everyone else just yelled at him.
After a few years, the same student came back to the school and asked for Mr. 0 who was coaching speeches at the time. The two got to talking, and Mr. 0 learned that the boy had been working a part-time job while going to school. You never know who you might have an impact on — no matter your role.
Mr. 0 finally said of the students, “Treat them like humans and they might act like ones instead of monsters.” It is easy to see “unruly students” as those who only cause trouble, sleep in class, and fool around. It is also easy to see them as unchangeable in their negative habits.
However, 12–15 year-olds will always struggle with self-acceptance and creating a positive self-identity. Our students might act like the monsters we sometimes see on the surface, but if we can relate to a small portion of that student’s life, just like in Mr. 0’s story, I’m sure they will deeply appreciate it. From the testimonials I’ve gathered from long-term teachers, it’s always the students who come back after a few years — and give their deep appreciation for your teaching — who make your efforts as a teacher worth it. Moving forward, I hope we, as first year JETs, will have a select group of students who will eventually show us why what we do as ALTs will be important.
About the Mikan: The Mikan is a blog written by and for Ehime JETs. If you are interested in contributing, contact editor Anna Sheffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the contributor: Scott Tamaki is an ALT in Niihama from California. You can read more of his writing on his blog:tscottwaseda.wordpress.com.