Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lessons At 〇〇 High School

High school in Japan
My desk in the early days - lookin' tidy!

I can say without hesitation that I was one of the luckiest JETs in Osaka to have landed at the school I did. Time after time I heard horror stories of ALTs who taught one class a week and were prevented from reading, studying or doing anything non-work-related, or ALTs who were disliked and humiliated by their partner teachers, or who had to wear a suit to work every day, or were not able to use any of their contractual sick days. There is a well-known saying on the JET programme; "Every Situation is Different." Nobody but your predecessor can give you a real idea what you're walking into - and you only hear from them a month or two before you're boarding the plane.

Imagine my relief when I ended up in not only an OK school, but a great school. The kids and teachers at OO High School were a wonderful crowd - I was priveleged enough to teach an advanced stream of students who actually wanted to learn English and about foreign affairs. I taught Pair lessons for my first 7 months or so and then replaced a departing ALT, inheriting his Solo lessons, where I essentially had carte blanche with the class. It made me nervous, but the kids worked so hard and they were a joy to teach. There were about 15 students in each class, and I usually taught between 2 and 5 per day for the rest of my time at the school, as well as (changing all the time) an English reading class and a social studies class, with partner teachers.

Typical Japanese high school schoolyard
I bought a new camera in 2007 and snapped this photo of a gym class while experimenting

In Japan, the students usually stay in their own classrooms, and it is the teachers who move around. I was lucky enough, though, to have taught most of my lessons in one of the general-purpose rooms. Since the class was actually divided into groups, and I was only teaching one of the groups, it wasn't possible for them to stay in their usual classroom. When I took over the Solo teaching position, I got the classroom that came with it, and since there were no other lessons scheduled in that room in my first year, I took the opportunity to decorate it for Christmas and Halloween, and put up past projects on the walls. I was very fortunate to have had this space all to myself as it served as both a retreat for me when I wanted to be alone, and also as a very personalized room for my creativity-focused lessons.

I wasn't really ready to go solo at first, I think, but after we settled into things we managed to build a good rapport. My lessons were very relaxed, with high standards for presentations and an emphasis on creativity and conversation, but a more forgiving approach to grammar, as they were taking three other English classes in addition to mine. I wanted my students to learn confidence when speaking English and how to talk about things that interested them. I worried, many times, that my forgetfulness and tendency to be disorganized would land me in trouble - I had to make up lengthy rubrics for every project to make sure that I graded the first group I saw the same way I graded the final group, since with the changing schedules the presentations were often weeks or a month apart. Sometimes a lesson plan went so awry with Group A that I came up with an entirely new one the next day for Group B. It required a lot of flexibility, which I'm not always good at, but we had a lot of fun. I used to joke with my students that I was amasugiru - too soft on them, and maybe I was, but when my first group of graduates handed in their final project of the year (an essay on 'My School Life'), I was so proud of how far they'd come. Things were tough sometimes, (especially when it came to teaching social studies!) but I would not have traded my school and the staff and students there for any other school in Japan.