Teaching Japanese Kindergartners: 4 Reasons It’s Not as Scary as You Think

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On July 24, 2018
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One of the most common job advertisements I saw when I first started looking for work in Japan was teaching English to small children. Initially, I didn’t like the idea of it. I imagined myself rolling around on the floor, covered in snot, spit and various other fluids, surrounded by crying children. I didn’t apply for these jobs, instead thinking that the older the students were the better teaching experience I would have.

Having now taught ESL for three years, bouncing around from one classroom to the next, I have had the opportunity to teach every age group: from university students to preschoolers. While teaching post secondary school classes and older students may be more prestigious, I have found teaching kindergarten can be a lot less bureaucratic, more fun and sometimes more lucrative.

In my classes, for instance, I have a lot more freedom. There are often textbooks, but they are followed less strictly than those used with older students. I particularly enjoy making arts and crafts with my students — and let’s be honest: Explaining how to make a paper monkey in English is good vocabulary practice if not enjoyable.

Just from scanning the openings on GaijinPot Jobs, you can see that the salaries offered for this age range are usually higher. These jobs are a growing field, as well. Teaching English to kindergartners is becoming more popular because many parents want their children to be prepared for the changes to the curriculum in 2020, when English classes will start in elementary school.

1. Enjoyable classroom atmosphere

The first thing you notice when teaching private classes to children aged 3 to 6 years old is the students reactions to you. At first, they will probably be worried about meeting someone new. These kids have only met a handful of people in their short lives and none of them were giant foreigners speaking a language they’ve never heard before.

With a little encouragement, though, from their teacher, parent or friend, they will be willing to give you a chance. To help out, often parents come into the classes to make the children feel safe. It’s important to make a good first impression, get to know your students names, keep smiling and play a game with them (something involving a balloon always seems to bring the house down). Once they realize English can be fun and you’re more silly than scary, they will brighten up. It’s important to create an environment that feels secure in order for parents to trust you enough to keep bringing their kids to class.

Kids often come to enjoy English, even if they don’t understand everything that happens, they love playing games and having a break from their usual routine. If you play your cards right, you’ll have children calling out your name as you approach the class and screaming, “Hello!”. It’s like walking down the red carpet — except all the fans are a quarter of your size.

2. Simple English teaching

Classes are kept to very simple English. Not a lot of schools will want children under six to be speaking in full sentences — vocabulary is enough. This means no awkward situations where a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) asks you to give an example of the present perfect continuous conditional tense and you have to desperately remember what that means. With young kids, just knowing the colors of the rainbow is enough.

The hardest thing may be learning songs. Lots of schools want children to learn these because it shows off English memorization skills, even if they don’t understand the meaning. This means that my brain is now full of songs like the “Numbers Song:  Counting From 1-10,” “7 Days of the Week” and “Yes, I Can!” This might seem annoying, but it’s an incredibly easy way to fill 10 minutes of a lesson and your kids will be transfixed if there is a video to go along with the tune. These songs can actually be useful if you pick ones that are simple enough, like “I Can Sing a Rainbow.

A lot of classes will be filled with games because these are easy to understand and as long as the children are having fun, they will pay attention. This means a lot of Karuta, Simon Says and running about. This can get a bit tiring after a while but it’s good exercise and your students will love you for it. Unlike teaching in a high school, you will never have trouble getting your kids to speak up and use their English for these activities.

Really, the trouble you’re more likely to have is them talking too much. Some of them don’t see you as an English teacher, but as the person who just wants to play games all the time. Believe me: This is a very attractive prospect to a 4-year-old.

All of the dark sides of teaching to adults, the risks that go up with private classes, are not an issue with kids.

3. Controlled environment

One of the main things that puts teachers off these kinds of jobs is controlling the classroom. Children can be loud, unruly and a danger to themselves. It’s true that it can be challenging to get some kids in line, but it’s also true that Japanese kindergartens rarely leave you alone with the kids. Usually the authority of their Japanese teacher will keep them in line.

Private classes at a daycare or eikaiwa (English conversation school) are different —  you are expected to teach alone, so some discipline is required. Rather than yelling at the kids and making them cry, I usually just distract them. Kids have short attention spans. Use this to your advantage and distract them from whatever disruption they are causing by instigating a new game or activity.

In this job, you will never have to deal with intoxicated or violent students. All of the dark sides of teaching to adults, the risks that go up with private classes, are not an issue with kids. The worst you will have to deal with is a kid crying for their parents, who are often right outside the door.

You do have to be aware of the dangers to your students, though. Children are fragile, and — more importantly — (how do I put this delicately… ?) stupid. They have not yet figured out what will hurt them and what won’t. Try not to let them climb on anything. If a child struggles to get up on a chair, then you should probably get them to sit on the floor so they don’t fall and hurt themselves. If you’re using scissors be ever vigilant. Watch out for kids not only hurting themselves, but cutting up books, and giving each other impromptu haircuts. This is the eternal responsibly of a kindergarten teacher.

4. Less reporting, more rewarding

Your responsibilities outside of the classroom are fairly minimal and so are the (usually many) unwritten rules of conduct. You have to plan lessons like any other teacher, but you might have to interact with kids in more than just lessons. Teachers are sometimes required to eat lunch alongside their students. This is usually not mandatory, but you do get a free lunch and are sometimes allowed to practice your Japanese with the students.

Little kids enjoy going on trips to local places — after all, the world is still new and exciting to them. Often English teachers are asked to come along or join in with events that happen at the school. Kindergartens have lots of one-off activities, such as learning how to harvest vegetables, cook basic foods or watching local companies give presentations. All of these can be pretty enjoyable if you get into them — and they certainly stop you from being stuck in an office all day.

A lot of the paperwork of regular teaching is not required with this type of teaching. Children this young don’t take exams, they don’t have evaluations or homework to mark. If you have to give a report to a supervisor it will probably be about the class as a whole and not have to be too detailed. Teaching younger kids is more about the student interaction and less about the bureaucracy. It’s a more hands-on experience that makes you feel like a real part of their lives.

A wonderful side benefit is that you get to watch these kids grow — and they sprout fast! You see their personalities form and their English improve rapidly. Children before the age of 5 are like language sponges, given the right conditions they will absorb anything you tell them, especially if they feel it’s important, interesting and fun. This means you can see really fast improvement in your students English abilities and really feel like you have accomplished something.

So, the next time you’re thinking of what job to do next, consider teaching English at the kindergarten age —  it’s not as scary as you think! You can start your search for the perfect school or position right on the GaijinPot Jobs “Education and Teaching” section.

All together, teaching littler Japanese kids is a great experience. It may be tiring at times, but it’s very rewarding. The students are so appreciative when you try to make things fun and it’s a job that is always seeking new talent.

Do you teach English to younger kids in Japan? What attracted you to the job? Why do you like it better than teaching adults and what are some of your best tips for keeping lessons fun and engaging? Let us know in the comments!

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Alfie Blincowe is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Yamaguchi, Japan.

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