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The Dos and Dont’s of Class Control for ALTs in Japan

Productive classes depend on being able to minimize lesson disruptions.

By 6 min read

“All kids in Japan are polite and well-behaved.”

A common trope, but this is absolutely not the case.

Japan isn’t so different from anywhere else. There are good kids who will play along with an almost angelic demeanor and there are difficult kids can who can make The Incredible Hulk seem calm and rational.

What is different here, however, is the way that we tackle such behaviors and how we maintain discipline in our classroom.

It’s important to remember that — from an official standpoint — ALTs aren’t supposed to be handling disciplinary issues. It is the responsibility of your Japanese teacher of English (JTE) to handle classroom disruptions. There are, however, a number of situations where we will have to get involved.

Sometimes, your colleague may be young, nervous or feel intimidated by their students. Other times, you may be left to run a class by yourself due to teacher illness, events at the school or other unforeseen circumstances. In short, you need to be prepared to take charge because chances are it will happen to you at some point.

So let’s run down three common scenarios you’ll face in the classroom and the do’s and don’ts for each one.

1. Students talk over you while you teach

Don’t shout at the students to be quiet. Like any troublemakers, showing the students that they can provoke a reaction from you through disruptive behavior is a pretty destructive precedent to set.

Instead, respond positively and enthusiastically to any positive behavior the students show. As much as possible, ignore the negative occurrences. If students are too unruly, stop what you’re doing and tell them to settle down in a firm, yet calm manner.

… many classes, even at the elementary level, have a strong, self-policing element to them.

You will quickly notice that many classes, even at the elementary level, have a strong, self-policing element to them. It won’t be long before the class leaders will start to assert themselves. You will hear calls of “Shizuka ni shi te, kudasai! (Be quiet, please!).”

It doesn’t work all the time, but I’ve found from my own experience that around three quarters of the time, with a little patience and a firm yet fair demeanor, the class will eventually control itself.

2. Students don’t respond to your instructions

Don’t get frustrated or irate at the students. It’s important to consider why you might be being ignored.

In this situation, there could be a number of factors at play and its important that you take them all into consideration when planning your class.

First, is your voice able to be heard by all the students?

Students have a low attention span at the best of times. When you factor in the fatigue that comes with lessons before lunch or late in the afternoon, early morning sluggishness and most important of all the fact that you are this unusual figure talking to them in a language they barely understand, then you can understand that attention spans drop to a mere matter of seconds.

Having a voice that is heard by all your students is about more than just volume.

Having a voice that is heard by all your students is about more than just volume. Your tone, the pacing of each word, the authority it commands and perhaps, most crucially, the ease of comprehension, are all vital components.

I’ve seen many a teacher reduced to a laughing stock because no matter how loud he or she shouts or how hard they try to be upbeat and engaging, the kids just can’t understand a word they say!

It took me about a year to find the right balance in my voice. Initially, there were times when I was too timid or too forceful and, of course, those days when I got frustrated and went into full on Glaswegian!

Don’t get too disheartened if it doesn’t go well at first — you’ll get there in time.

3. Certain students disrupt your class

Though it’s not always the case, I would say that, nine times out of 10, what you have here is a student with special needs. It could be ADHD. It could be frustration borne out of dyslexia or it could be a multitude of other issues.

If you’re lucky and you’re in a more progressive school or one that has a bigger budget, you may find that the student in question has a personal support teacher who will sit alongside them and will help to pacify them if they ever become over-excited. As much as you can, try to befriend these teachers and find out as much as you can about their specific issues.

As well as helping you to make more effective lesson plans, you’ll also find that these teachers are some of the warmest and most empathetic people you’ll ever have the privilege to work alongside. Their kindness and their patience knows no bounds.

… let the home room teacher handle it or ask him or her discreetly if the child has any learning issues or challenges.

These days, there are also a lot of kids along the autistic spectrum who are being encouraged to participate in regular classes with minimal support. This is a great step forward in my opinion, but it does sometimes complicate disciplinary situations in class.

If you see a child behaving unusually, shouting unexpectedly, moving around violently or unexpectedly standing up — try to avoid any direct disciplinary action. Instead, let the home room teacher handle it or ask him or her discreetly if the child has any learning issues or challenges. You may find, once you are aware of these, that there are certain activities you want to avoid in class in case they overstimulate the student and lead to a meltdown.

Remember the advice I’m giving you today is largely based on my own experience. As I’ve said before: you need to find your own voice and your own presence as a teacher. I like to run a tight ship when it comes to student discipline, but that doesn’t always work. Listen to those around you, especially your Japanese colleagues. They know the system and they are trained to deal with all manner of situations.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to weigh in with your own suggestions. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. After all — that’s why it’s called team teaching!

How is discipline handled in your schools? Do you have any stories you would like to share? Leave a comment and feel free to ask any questions you may have. This is an ever-evolving topic and one that I am sure we will visit again in the future.

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