A lot can change in 12 years.
As of September, that’s how long it has been since I taught my first English classes in Tokyo and Chiba. To say it was all smooth sailing in those early years, though, would be a blatant lie.
It wasn’t long after my first day of teaching — at an eikaiwa chain in eastern Tokyo —before the feelings of excitement and curiosity gave way to anxiety, fear and dread. I sometimes cringe when I think about some of the lessons I taught in those first couple of years. I made so many mistakes.
It takes time to acquire the skills needed to teach well and no matter what any book or overpriced online course will try to tell you — the only way to truly refine and reinforce these skills is through experience and repetition.
So what should you do if you’re not that experienced yet? How can a new teacher avoid making many of the mistakes I did (and so frequently) in that first year or so of teaching?
Well, here are five helpful hints I’ve learned over the years that new instructors can use to teach with confidence — or at least to project the image of confidence!
1. Don’t fear mistakes — use them
Some mistakes are simply unavoidable, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. However, how you handle these mistakes will go a long way to determine what impact — if any — they will actually have on the overall quality of your lesson.
Having a good sense of humor is important. Drawing students’ attention away from your mistakes with a bit of self-deprecation can go a long way to accomplishing this.
… the most common mistake I have seen new teachers make time and time again is their over-dependence on lesson plans.
For example, I’m dyslexic, so I can relate to teachers and students who sometimes write illegibly and make spelling errors or otherwise. I overcame this by making it a game with my younger students. I would tell them: “OK, at some point in today’s class I’m going to make a spelling or grammar mistake. See if you can spot it.”
Not only did this give the students a laugh by allowing them to “get one over on the teacher,” it also helped focus them on the lesson.
Likewise with adult students: if you can think quickly and react to a mistake in a humorous and pleasant manner, you’ll most likely get away with it.
2. Don’t be shackled to lesson plans
Without a doubt, the most common mistake I have seen new teachers make time and time again is their over-dependence on lesson plans. New teachers also spend far too much time creating these plans.
I quickly outgrew this phase. That was more down to the fact that I was not prepared to spend more than my allotted one hour per day preparing them. That’s all that my company was willing to pay for class preparation.
Prep time is work time, as far as I’m concerned, and should be paid as such.
I quickly developed a template for preparing lessons and then focused on streamlining it. It’s at the point these days that I can throw a lesson together in about 10 minutes, if necessary.
I recently outlined my approach to fast, effective lesson planning in another post, but here’s a quick recap.
10-Minute Lesson Plan
- Warm up activity
- Introduction and setting context
- Practice and drilling
- Activity 1
- Review and student feedback
- Activity 2
3. Do keep a diary of your lessons
At eikaiwa (English conversation schools) in particular, in those first few months you will feel like you’re being bombarded with classes and it can be easy to get confused.
A common mistake that I hear many teachers make in those early days is taking the wrong materials into the wrong class. Or bringing materials for last week’s lesson into the next one, since you aren’t sure if you’ve already taught it or not.
You can buy a pocket-size year planner from any ¥100 shop. Buy one, and at the end of each lesson, make a quick note, simply saying which lesson you covered today and which lesson you need to prepare for next week.
Also, be sure to check periodically with your supervisor if there are going to be any changes in the schedule over the next few days and update your diary accordingly.
4. Don’t take your work home with you
Another symptom of the obsessive way in which some new teachers look at lesson plans — and preparation, in general — is the urge to do all your prep at home.
It makes sense from a certain viewpoint. You want to show your employers that you are dedicated and will go beyond the call of duty to make your lessons the best they can be. However, I strongly urge you not to do so. I wholeheartedly recommend making more effective use of your down time.
Before you know it, that little “extra couple of hours” a week you put in becomes more like a couple of hours every day. It can spiral out of control very easily. If you don’t have sufficient time to prepare all your lessons and materials during your designated working hours — tell your supervisor. Ask if they can give you more time or lighten your class load.
A good manager will listen, and if they don’t then perhaps speak to other teachers about it, too. They have been through what you are going through and will most likely have encountered this situation before or know someone who has. They can advise you on ways to trim the workload without hurting the quality of your classes.
5. Do find your voice as a teacher
Ultimately, for both ALTs and eikaiwa teachers in Japan, personality plays a large part of your job. Even if you’re making mistakes in your lessons, if your students like you and they feel they are getting something out of the the time, then you’ll be OK. It’s perhaps an unfair reality, but in many places where I have worked over the years, I’ve observed that it is the most charismatic teachers rather than the most effective that seem to draw the biggest plaudits from management.
I’m not saying you should dispense with formality and become Mr. or Ms. “Let’s English Happy Fun Time” who encompasses all the worst tropes of teaching in Japan. In fact, quite the opposite. Stick to what you feel are your strengths and work on developing them. For me, I pride myself on my ability to motivate students.
Stick to what you feel are your strengths and work on developing them.
I had some really difficult classes in those early years, especially when I was working in Okayama Prefecture in some of the worst performing schools in Japan at the time.
However, the small victories I found in those two long years made me realize I had a talent for getting the best out of students — some of whom my colleagues had already written off as lost causes.
So, that’s the type of teacher I am today. I do all that’s necessary to foster a positive, educational atmosphere in my class. I don’t tolerate disrespect, but at the same time, I’m not afraid to let my guard down and see the funny side from time to time.
So ask yourself: what are your strengths and where can you find your true and authentic voice as a teacher?
For some, it’s the ability to be relentlessly positive, even in the face of students and colleagues who may have given up. For others, it lies in their quick thinking and their ability to come up with fun activities out of almost nothing at the last minute. Whatever kind of teacher you become — or want to become — it won’t happen overnight.
I’ll leave you with something a colleague told our students during a team teaching lesson: “Enjoy making mistakes in English.”
His philosophy was that students should come to enjoy the inevitable errors they would make in class, and see them as part of the fun and their growth as English speakers.
I believe the same could be said of us English teachers, too.
What were your first teaching experiences like in Japan and how did you overcome any fears? Do you have some tips or advice for new teachers who may be going through some anxiety over their lessons? Let us know in the comments!