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Tips for New English Teachers and ALTs in Japan

Here's what to expect and how to approach your fellow teachers and your students, to be part of the school community in no time.

By 4 min read

So, you’ve just finished training and it’s time for your first few days at school. The new school nerves are probably on your mind, as well as a few questions about what it will be like. Whether you’re out to teach elementary school or high school students, here’s what to expect as a new English teacher in Japan.

From your new school to getting along with your colleagues, let’s look at the main things you’ll be getting to grips with in your first week.

Your new school

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An exciting new adventure.

Of course, the most important thing is your new school itself. Japan’s school system is similar to America’s, with elementary school, junior high school and high school. Elementary school is for students ages 6 to 12, junior high is for ages 12 to 15 and high school is for ages 15 to 18.

If you’re working in elementary school, you likely won’t have specialized English teachers you work with but would rather be liaising with different homeroom teachers. You’ll work with English subject teachers at the junior high and high school level, often known as Japanese teachers of English. No matter what type of school you work at, you’ll generally have a teacher who is your primary point of contact. Most schools will try to ensure it’s also the best English speaker, so don’t worry too much if your Japanese is still in the works.

But don’t think that they’re the only teachers that matter! Teachers from all subjects will likely be interested in getting to know you, so expect and initiate conversations wherever you can.

Staffroom etiquette

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Don’t assume that something that is okay in a friend’s school is acceptable at yours.

You might recall the “correct” behavior and etiquette discussions in the staffroom, either from training or your research. Sitting in an unfamiliar staffroom for the first time might make you nervous, but there’s not too much reason for concern. Most of the time, you’ll have a “pass.” People will assume any minor breaches of etiquette are simply down to cultural differences and not bring them up. With that said, here are a few rules of thumb worth keeping in mind:

  • Don’t assume that something that is okay in a friend’s school is acceptable at yours. If you’re not sure, ask.
  • Teachers are extremely busy. It can feel a little lonely in the staffroom when teachers constantly rush around you. This isn’t intentional, but the workload for a teacher is immense. They’ll be more than happy to chat when they get some downtime.
  • Coffee and tea may not be free. The school may use a communal fund to pay for them, so ask before helping yourself.
  • Stick to safe topics like hobbies or Japanese culture. Try not to pry into personal information when talking to your teachers.

Your first lesson

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Stay animated, engaging and friendly will have everything will run smoothly.

After a stretch in the staffroom, it’s about time to have your first lesson. Generally, this will be a self-introduction lesson, where you will introduce yourself to the students. Here are a few handy tips to really make that first lesson shine:

  • Be animated – this probably won’t be too challenging, as the students will likely be very excited to meet you.
  • Think about what the students will find interesting about you, like sports or anime you’re into.
  • Make sure you pepper your introduction with questions, even if they’re just asking students about their hobbies and interests.
  • Bring props and photos! Nothing makes a story more exciting than something to engage with while you talk. Bring something important to you; the students will want to learn more.
  • Involve the supervising teacher. An English teacher in the room will likely assist you, so get them involved. Ask them questions, and get them to be a straight man for your jokes. Chances are the students already have a rapport with them, so you can build on those foundations.

The students

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The easiest way to build rapport in the classroom is through fun, engaging lessons.

So, your first lesson was a hit, and all the students are clamoring to talk to you in the corridors or at lunch? You probably are a little overwhelmed by the attention, but it’s good. Establishing rapport with your students is vital, and there are many ways to do so inside and outside the classroom.

The easiest way to build rapport in the classroom is through fun, engaging lessons. Remember being a student and how there was that one teacher who just spoke to you for an hour? Don’t be that teacher.

Outside the classroom, establishing rapport is a little vaguer but just as important. Talk to students as you pass them in the corridors and stop by at lunchtime. The more the students get to see you and interact with you, the more you’ll be a part of the school community.

So that’s how to start your first few days at a new school on the best foot. Does it sound difficult looking ahead? Or, if you’re already teaching, do you have a trick or tip to share that might be helpful? Let us know below!

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