Being an ALT is a lot like life: the only certainty is uncertainty

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When you’re planning, and during your class sessions, you’ll have dozens of questions running through your head. Do all the students fully understand this activity? Will this activity really only last the scheduled 10 minutes? Does my school remember that I need lunch? Why did the Home Room Teacher just walk out of the room?

After about a month, those questions start to fade into the background, not because you’ve become immune to the panic, but because you’ve learned how to eliminate some of those questions before they arise.

Are the students picking up what you’re putting down?
Have a few extra students demonstrate in front of the class.

Need an activity to last no more than 10 minutes?
Use a timer and stick to it.

Want to make sure you get your lunch?
Touch base with the Vice Principal before school starts.

Home Room Teacher just walked out?
Well…that’s still going to be a mystery.

Now, the uncertainties at each school are different, so I can’t give you an all-encompassing action plan for each individual one. However, I can help you with them all by taking a look at the results rather than the causes.

So what’s the “result” that we’re trying to cope with? Well, it’s that uncertainty I mentioned earlier. No matter how hard you hammer down your lesson plan, no matter how much you and the JTE work to construct an optimal class, eventually, things will break down. Real life, and more importantly real students, will sometimes force you to change those plans.

Maybe a grammar point took a little more body English to be understood. Maybe a game turned out to be REALLY fun so you let it ride, which cut into the second part of your lesson. Or maybe your carefully-planned game of karuta took all of three minutes to play, rather than your anticipated ten minutes.

Your classes refuse to be caged by your lesson plans. This probably wasn’t a surprise to you coming in, and it’s definitely no surprise now that I’ve just told you not to be surprised by it. So what do you do about it?

Well, guess what? The only real problem with this situation is that your classes are outside of the cage of your lesson plan, but your mind is still inside that cage. The only way you can prepare for this is to stop dreading the uncertainty, accept it, and embrace it. Move away from hard time limits for your activities. Stop thinking of things that you MUST do. Let learning and fun be your guide instead.

Naturally you’ll want to think about the grammar points you want to get across during your lesson. And you’ll definitely be trying to do your best to cover all of the “necessary” material to accomplish that goal. But I strongly recommend you try taking a more pliable approach to your lesson plans. Continue to note your expected time frames for activities, but unless you have a specific reason to time them, allow yourself to react as the situation develops. Remember, just about every component of your lesson could be scrapped if absolutely necessary.

If you take this approach to your lesson plans, those uncertainties I mentioned earlier won’t matter as much, since your lesson plans will be designed to evolve based on what your classes need on a given day.

Warning: When you’re a new ALT, it will probably be a little more difficult to accomplish this goal. You need to have a pretty healthy backlog of pull-out-of-your-back-pocket games before you can fly by the seat of your pants, but the extra effort it takes is worth it. Fight that initial fear of the unknown, because after you get used to this style of classes, you’ll find you have actually MORE control. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with being able to adjust on the fly, you can change the makeup of any of your classes to make them as fun and effective as possible.

Listen. I know it’s theoretically nice and safe to walk into a classroom with a airtight lesson plan under your arm, but that doesn’t mean that that’s what’s best for your students. Your lesson plans should have a starting point, a few activities you’d like to do, and an ending. Everything in between should be determined by your students’ understanding of the lesson and the amount of FUN everyone is having.

As long as everyone is having fun, I promise you, the rest will work itself out.

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Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.

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