Improve Your Classes with Better Communication

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Photo by Keiwa College

Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited by my city board of education to give a seminar, along with some of my fellow native English teachers, to Japanese elementary school teachers. The theme of the three day event was: Improving your working relationship to give better English lessons.

Indeed, this kind of initiative was most welcome. As an English teacher of almost 10 years of experience, I can say that, undoubtedly, one of the most common problem areas is the occasional misunderstandings and miscommunications that can occur between the native English teacher and the Japanese teacher with whom they will team teach. Language is a barrier, especially when you have two languages as radically different from each other as English and Japanese, not to mention the underlying cultural nuances that must be respected.

I’m pleased to say that our seminar was a big success, with all the participants growing more comfortable and more confident in their ability to work alongside their native English speaking counterparts in the classroom.

Today I thought I would share some of my knowledge with you, in the hope that you as English teachers can carry it forward into your classrooms too.

So, for your consideration, I present the top 5 pieces of advice for improving communication with your co-teachers:

Just because you said it, don’t assume it was understood.

In many cases, Japanese teachers are extremely busy. As such, they may wish to end a conversation as quickly as they can so they can get back to the task at hand. Often they will say “Wakarimashita” (meaning, yes, I understand) when in fact they may not.

This becomes doubly complicated if you are someone like me who has not yet fully grasped the Japanese language and has to conduct such discourse in a mix of broken Japanese and English. Always double-check that your colleagues fully understand what you have said and also be sure that you fully understand what they have asked of you too. Japanese culture is often such that people are reluctant to ask for clarification, for fear of seeming weak or incompetent.

Of course as foreigners we also can sometimes have these same hang-ups but together we both need to work to get over it. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes. He who asks nothing is a fool forever.”

“Uchiawase” is crucial.

Planning meetings, or “Uchiawase” to give them their Japanese name, are an integral part of the lesson planning process. Not only is it vital to ensure both sides of the teaching team are on the same page, it’s also important for the purpose of identifying any potential problems before they happen. Does your colleague fully understand the activities you will do in the lesson and can they explain it to the students in Japanese if necessary?

Do you know exactly how much or how little you will be required to do in the next lesson? Are you aware of any potential behavioral or other issues with the students in the class?
Without appropriate “Uchiawase” one cannot even begin to answer these questions. Of course you may meet resistance to having a planning meeting on two fronts.

On one hand there is the issue of time. For elementary school teachers in particular, who are expected to teach 6 classes every day, finding the time to meet with the English teacher is tough. Often, after school may be the only time, and with the typical ALT usually contracted to finish between 4 and 4.30 pm, the window between the kids going home and the ALT finishing for the day is very small. At junior high school, after school club activities and home room responsibilities further complicate the issue.

The second potential problem lies in the mutual shyness or reluctance of both parties to speak to one another. Many Japanese teachers, especially those with little or no English ability will be extremely reluctant to engage in prolonged discussion with the ALT. Likewise, an ALT who doesn’t speak Japanese, and in Japan most ALT jobs do not require any Japanese language ability, further complicates the issue. You are left with two people, who do not share a common language and yet are expected to do a 45 minute lesson together the next day. In this situation, both parties must persevere.

If you really have no confidence in your ability to use even simple basic Japanese, then make sure your English is as clear as possible. Speak slowly, clearly and keep your tone relaxed and friendly. In many cases, it is the fear of sounding foolish, rather than a lack of ability that impedes Japanese people from trying to communicate in English. Be as friendly, open and approachable as you can, and this will greatly reduce the problem for both parties.

A short meeting is better than nothing.

As I outlined in point 2, planning meetings make the whole teaching process run far more smoothly. However, as our Japanese colleagues are ridiculously overworked, finding the time for such meetings can be very tricky indeed. To this I would say that no matter how short the meeting, it is worth it. Even a short a time as 2 or 3 minutes can make a huge difference. Make the effort, have a chat with the teacher and get at least a skeleton of a lesson plan thrashed out.

Always keep games and activities as simple as possible, and easy to demonstrate.

In lessons, I always insist on a 100% English atmosphere. For those 45 minutes, no Japanese is spoken, unless it is for a disciplinary action.

“Ah, but then how can you explain the rules for games and activities?” comes the dissenting voice from the audience. My simple response is: “don’t explain, just do it!”

If you use games that are easy to follow, then all you need to do is go through one or two examples with your Japanese teacher colleague in front of the class and let the students follow. In 95% of cases, this can easily be achieved without using any Japanese, provided you think it out beforehand, and your colleague knows how the game works.

Always have a plan B

No matter how well we plan or how long we hold our planning meetings, there are times when it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes the kids may be lethargic, or acting up. Sometimes you, or your colleague may be tired or having a bad day. For this very reason, I always keep a file of games, flashcards and worksheets that can be put into the lesson at a moment’s notice in the event that the proverbial excrement hits the cooling device.

Above all, stay calm, keep it simple, and get your colleague involved as much as you can. Together, with the right planning, and lots of enthusiasm and patience, you can make it happen.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Brodie Taylor says:

    I’ve been an ALT at a high school for 2 years, working with 4 JTEs with very different teaching styles. The way JTEs relate to me is the biggest influence on how the students perceive me, and the success of my lessons can vary drastically depending on the JTE. The worst JTEs are the ones who are indifferent about teaching, refuse to give feedback, never translate and seldom help out in the classroom. When I first arrived in Japan I had a 23 year old JTE who was inexperienced, lazy and left me to fend for myself. He’d stand there and laugh at me along with the students because he didn’t know how to control the classroom. When I tried to involve him in the lessons he’d just smirk at me. One year on and those students stll misbehave because of the tone he set when I first arrived. By contrast other JTEs give me constructive feedback, play an active role in my lessons and take the time to have meetings with me. As a result the atmosphere in these classes is much better. Most JTEs don’t realize that their relationship with the ALT is just as important as the lesson itself, and that having a bad attitude can really damage the student’s motivation to learn.

    Another thing: In Japan the behaviour of your predecessor has a big impact on how your colleagues relate to you. My predecessor was resistant to suggestions, skipped planning meetings and refused to get involved with extracurricular activities. When I arrived the JTEs assumed I was the same and avoided giving feedback or inviting me to after-school activities. They thought it would piss me off. It took about 12 months for them to fully understand that I’m different from my predecessor and that I genuinely want to get involved with school life. It takes patience to build up a harmonious working relationship with your JTEs but the patience eventually pays off, most of the time. Unless you have a lazy JTE who doesn’t care less about English in which case there’s not much you can do aside from working around them the best you can.

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