New Year, New Students: How to Handle the First Lesson

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March 7, 2017

As I sit at my desk in the staff room, I’m experiencing some mixed emotions. After a busy but enjoyable first year in my new school, my junior high school third graders will graduate later this week.

Unlike some of my previous schools where, honestly, I’ve been happy to see the back of the students, I’m really going to miss these kids. The girls who make up my two current third grade classes are some of the brightest, funniest and most driven students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. The school will genuinely be worse off without them.

But as one door closes another opens. As I say goodbye to my third years I also must prepare to welcome the next generation of first year students into our school. This is a trend that will be repeated all across Japan from April, as ALTs and Japanese teachers will also have to prepare for a new year with a host of new faces in the classroom.

So how can we make the best possible impression in our new classes?

Get involved

It may be something of a cliché, but first impressions in Japan are still a really big deal.

As soon as you get into school, you’ll probably have to help out with the preparations for the opening ceremony for the school year. Try to do as much as you can. Helping to move the chairs, equipment and so on into the assembly hall is a great opportunity to build rapport and camaraderie with your coworkers – and possibly the students too.

As soon as that’s out of the way, then you can focus on preparing your first lesson.

Prepare a rough lesson outline

As an all-important first step, try to sketch a rough outline of how you want the lesson to flow. This first meeting will be when you get to know each other. How will you introduce yourself? What ice-breaking activities do you want to use to give the students the chance to introduce themselves to you and their new classmates? How will your JTE (Japanese teacher of English) factor into the lesson plan. These are all important things that you need to consider. However, at this point, what you want to make is just an outline, not a detailed lesson plan.

Discuss your plan with your JTE

Next up, you’ll want to have a sit down and individual chat with each of the JTEs you are going to be working with in those first lessons. How many you will have of course depends on the size of your school. Working in a relatively small school these days, I only have two JTEs to think about, but in the past I have had as many as four or five, depending on the set-up.

If this is your first time in this new school, or if you are working with a newly assigned JTE for the first time, then remember that they are probably feeling even more nervous than we are. In Japan, a bad lesson from an ALT can, in many cases, be excused away as cultural misunderstanding or miscommunication. JTEs however don’t have that “get out of jail free card”. A bad lesson, no matter how little input they had into planning it, will reflect badly on them. Keep this in mind, and always be flexible and supportive.

Whatever age you’re teaching, the first lesson is key for establishing your relationship with your students.

Plan your activities carefully

Once you’ve had your initial meeting with the JTEs, and taken on board their comments and suggestions about your lesson outline, it’s now time to go back, refine the outline and fully flesh it out into a comprehensive lesson plan.

Plan your activities carefully. In the first lesson, you want to get the students and JTE on-side with your style of teaching. Having activities that are easy to understand, require minimal set-up or explanation and, most importantly, are fun goes a long way towards achieving this.

If you want to show your students some pictures or a presentation about your home country, then that’s a great idea too, but try to limit this to no more than 10-15 minutes of class, and try to make it as interactive as possible. You’d be amazed at how short a student’s attention span when listening to a foreign language can be!

Don’t make the lesson just about you

Even though you want to introduce yourself, your country and your hobbies to the students, this is still an English lesson. By all means make it fun, make it relaxed and go a bit easier on the students than you would in a regular lesson. However, you still need to have a coherent lesson plan, a feasible language target and a cogent means by which to take the students towards that target language goal.

Remember, if you’re starting out in a new school, your first lesson doesn’t just set the tone for how you will get on with your students this coming year, it also sends an important message to your Japanese coworkers and the school’s management about the kind of teacher you are, and the kind of lessons they can expect from you.

Be honest and be yourself

My final and I believe most important piece of advice is this: Be yourself.

Be honest with your students, be genuine and sincere. Kids can spot fakes very quickly, and if they can see you are being honest with them, then you can in most cases expect that respect and sincerity to be reciprocated.

So how about the rest of you? How do you handle that tricky first lesson? Let us know in the comments below!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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