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 weren't 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 privileged enough to teach an advanced stream of students who actually wanted to learn English and about foreign affairs. I partnered with one wonderful teacher for my first 7 months or so, then replaced a departing NET (Native English Teacher), inheriting his schedule instead, where I essentially had carte blanche with the class. It made me nervous, but my 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 a (changing all the time) English reading class and a social studies class, with partner teachers.

Typical Japanese high school schoolyard
Gym class in progress

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 been assigned one of the general-purpose rooms for my lessons, rather than going to their classroom. Since the class was actually divided into groups, and I was only teaching one of the groups, we had to split up into three rooms. When I took over the previous NET's 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 had 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, and also as a very personalized room for my conversation and creativity-focused lessons.

I wasn't really ready to launch into the place our NET left off, 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. My ultimate goal was for students to learn confidence when speaking English and how to talk about things that interested them, to keep them from feeling they couldn't have real conversations. I worried, many times, that my forgetfulness and tendency to be disorganized (turned out to be ADHD, who knew?) 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.