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What Is It Like to Teach English at a Japanese Elementary School?

I'm tired.

By 3 min read

Ah, elementary school first grade. It’s the class reserved for veteran teachers. Those harried cardigan-wearing sensei’s who have little to no hair left and a blank look in their eyes that screams “Help!”

It’s also the class that, as a shiny new ALT, you’ll probably be assigned to despite having no experience controlling a room of what feels like a hundred 6-year-olds.

Shinchan Family Chaos GIF - Family Chaos SinChan GIFs

These little monsters, who just a few months ago were still regularly pooping their pants and putting everything in their mouths, are now in your classroom clinging to your legs, drooling all over your arms, and asking you the most absurd questions you’ll likely ever encounter on your ALT journey. Yup, even more than the dreaded self-intro class—an hour that pretty much sums up what it’s like to teach English in Japan.

Elementary school kids are fresh off the educational boat and, for some, it’s their very first time in a real school environment. What does that mean? Well, almost every lesson will typically follow the exact same plotline.

It goes something like this:

Scene 1: Teacher enters

This is the most foreign experience (literally) that these kids will have ever had and they won’t be able to restrain themselves from shouting out whatever thought comes into their heads. Remarks range from “GAIJIN!” all the way to “HE’S TALLER THAN MY DAD!” and even “Why did you become a FOREIGNER?”.

Scene 2: Words come out of the teacher’s mouth and are met by a din of noise

You say your name and country and let the kids freak out over it simply because it isn’t Japanese. Sometimes they assume you’re Atsugiri Jason in a bad disguise. You bask in this moment of fame by association before it gets taken from you when the kids start suddenly shouting, “HELLO MY NAME IS HARU!” or “HELLO, MY NAME IS SHUNSUKE!”

More often than not, this is interrupted by a perfect self-introduction delivered by the hafu kid who speaks fluent English.

Yamasaki Really GIF - Yamasaki Really Smug GIFs

Scene 3: Student takes 10 minutes to pull out their chair. Cries.

Yes, just when you thought your lesson about dogs and cats was going well, you call on a student and he begins to pull out his chair—for 10 minutes.

If there’s one thing these kids learn, it’s manners. Now is their time to show Tanaka Sensei how much they’ve remembered.

Here they go pulling that chair out… Standing up… Pushing it back in… The problem is it takes so long they’ve forgotten what they wanted to say by the time they’re done. Or if they do say something, it might not even be Japanese, let alone English.

Just don’t press them, or you might make them cry. Actually, whatever you do they will probably cry.

Closing scene: Class ends. High fives all around!

Once you’ve made it to the end, the class is dismissed and just when you’re about to be free from their sticky little hands, they zerg rush you asking you to be their friend and play with them at recess.

It’s this bit that always gets me. My heart can’t take their adorableness and I completely forget about the past hour of chaos until I have to do it all over again.


Stay tuned for our next video on life as an ALT in Japan. You can check out Mason’s YouTube channel maydaysan in JAPAN.

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