Your Level Best: What Year of English Study Should You Be Teaching in Japan?

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Until recently, most assistant language teacher (ALT) job offers did not specify the level you would be teaching until long after you had started at the company and completed your initial training. Indeed, in the past I have turned down jobs because of this lack of clarity.

However, as the number of dispatch ALTs increases and the JET Programme appears to be scaling back in a number of prefectures, teachers are now being offered a wider choice than before and a bigger say — in some cases — as to just where they will teach.

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of jobs advertised for specific levels, be they junior or senior high school, elementary school or in some cases kindergarten.

This leads to the burning question we’ll tackle today: What kind of teacher are you and which school level is best suited to your individual style? Let’s look at each one in more detail.

Kindergarten

Of all the different levels, kindergarten is probably the most challenging for new teachers. Little kids are full of energy and they have extremely short attention spans. You need to be very energetic and active in your class (this level will often involve singing, dancing and playing physical games with the kids). However, you will need to be equally focused and attentive when it comes to your lesson planning.

Not only will you need to have lots of activities — typically you’ll need to change things up every five to 10 minutes to keep the kids engaged — but also you’ll need to consider the health and safety aspects of the teaching environment itself. If the kids are running around, make sure there are no trip hazards or anything at head height that the kids may run into, such as desks or door handles.

Teaching English in Japan doesn’t require specific teaching credentials or previous experience as a prerequisite. However, kindergarten is the one level where — if you are seriously considering teaching only in this grade — I recommend you get a formal qualification, such as an early childhood teaching certification.

Elementary school

Teaching in an elementary school also requires high levels of energy and endurance.

Many of the games and activities you will do in class involve moving around and, again, there may be some singing and dancing involved (though probably not as much as you would find in a kindergarten class).

Probably the single most important element you need here is patience and lots of it. Of all the different levels I have taught in Japan, elementary is undoubtedly the most chaotic.

This is largely down to the lack of planning and lack of consideration that elementary English classes are given by school management and local government bureaucracy.

You will be told that it is team teaching, but the reality is that you will often have to do the class by yourself. Your colleagues, the Japanese teachers of English (JTE), will, in most cases, have little or no training in how to deliver English lessons and will often be reluctant to speak English in the classroom. As such, teaching elementary school classes can often have you feeling as if you were “thrown in the deep end.”

You’ll also often find that should a school festival or event occur, English class will be the first to get bumped from the schedule.

You’ll also often find that should a school festival or event occur, English class will be the first to get bumped from the schedule.

This may change when English becomes an official subject in fifth and sixth grade from next April, but there will, inevitably, be a number of growing pains.

I predict that English teaching at elementary schools in Japan may become even more chaotic over the next couple of years as bureaucratic directives clash with the day-to-day realities of teaching in an underfunded environment with a lack of resources. Keep this in mind when considering if you want to teach there or not.

What kind of teacher are you and which school level is best suited to your individual style?

Junior high school

Junior high school classes are of a noticeably lower intensity, as one would expect when teaching a bunch of surly teenagers.

First grade classes are generally good, as (at least for the first term) the students aren’t all that different from elementary sixth grade classes. They typically won’t cause much trouble as they are still adjusting from being top dogs at their previous school to being freshmen at a junior high.

Second grade is usually the most difficult to teach. Having neither the nervous urgency of the newbie first graders, nor the renewed vigor and focus that comes in third grade as students prepare for the dreaded high school entrance exam, lethargy can often set in.

As such, you will sometimes find these second grade students especially uncooperative, lazy and inattentive. A firm hand and solid lesson planning, as well as strong cooperation with your Japanese teaching colleagues are essential.

Third grade is a mixed bag. This is where you will probably experience the best and the worst of junior high. If you are fortunate, the majority of your students will be focused and work well in class as they prepare to go to high school. On the other hand, mandatory education in Japan ends at the end of JHS year three, so you may also encounter students who have given up altogether and are simply running down time until they can leave school.

Again, establishing good rapport with your JTEs will be a massive asset here as will a certain degree of patience and pragmatism.

Senior high school

Senior high school is, in many ways, the most interesting but also the most challenging of all the grade levels you will teach as an ALT.

Your students will, hopefully, by this point have acquired a sufficient level of basic vocabulary to enable you to go a bit beyond the usual simple grammar games and actually do expansive activities, such as debates, speeches and magazine projects.

As some great men have previously said (or otherwise quoted): “With great power comes great responsibility.” You will need to seriously up your game in terms of planning and materials production in order to deliver these lessons effectively.

However, from my experience, high school usually allows you a bit more time for the necessary preparations with noticeably lighter schedules than one would find at elementary or junior high schools. High school probably best suits someone who enjoys planning lessons and is a bit of a perfectionist.

You’ll also benefit if you are a “people person.” Since you’ll most likely be based at just one or two locations, you’ll really have the time to get to know your colleagues and students on a much closer level than other ALTs would.

Overall, each level brings its own unique challenges and hopefully, you’ll find one that best suits your talents. Whether you’re an energetic, kindergarten song-and-dance type or a more cerebral, high school lecturer type — being an ALT in Japan has something for everyone.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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