Teaching English in Odate, Japan

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For the last three years and nine months, I have been an Assistant Language Teacher in the city of Odate, Japan. In total, I have taught at four schools here, three junior high schools, and one elementary school. At the moment, I teach at two junior high schools, one that I began teaching at in Spring 2015 (my previous small school with 42 students had merged into a larger school in March, so I was given a different small school instead) and one school that I have been teaching at since I came to Japan in August, 2012. I have had many ups and downs with that original school, and it is that school that I will write about today: Odate Higashi Junior High School.

I knew no Japanese before I came to Japan. When my interviewers for the JET Program asked if I could speak any Japanese, I halfheartedly mumbled my way through “konnichiwa” and “sayonara”, wishing that I could turn back time and watch anime that I loved so much when I was a child with subtitles in order to master basic Japanese. When I found out that I was accepted into the program to teach English in Odate, Japan, I was shocked.

teach english in Japan with the JET program

I attempted to study the list of “useful Japanese phrases” that we were sent with our welcome handbook, but I couldn’t seem to memorize the seemingly impossible phrase “dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” -- a phrase that we were all told would be the most important phrase that we could use in Japan. Luckily, after arriving in Japan, I was given the opportunity to go to an intensive language Japanese course for a couple of days, and then had a couple of weeks after that to continue practicing Japanese before starting work at school. When I walked through the doors of Tochu (many schools in Japan have a nickname, this is the shortened version of the name Higashi JHS) I was as prepared as I could have been, though still not nearly ready.

My first year at Tochu, I was not a great ALT. I was hesitant to talk to students and didn’t go out of my way to see them at sports games or hang out with the school clubs; I wanted to go home right when my contract ended at 4:30. I also didn’t push the teachers to give me any time to myself in class to play games or do activities with the students, so for that first year I really was a human tape recorder.

In April when new teachers arrived, there was a teacher who decided to give me 5-10 minutes of “Carey time” at the start of every class. Because of her, I was forced to think of short, fun games that could either teach the students a new grammar point or refresh one that they had learned previously. That teacher is still at Tochu and still gives me Carey time at the start of each class. And because of her and the bond that we built, I built up the confidence to ask my other teachers for the opportunity to play games with the students, too.

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During my second year, I also started staying after school until 5 or 5:30 (when my own after school activities allowed for it), and that has helped me bond with the students. I now know the names of around half of the students at the school, and have a special connection with many of them. It also helps that my Japanese has improved over the last four years and I can now have conversations with students in a mix of their basic English and my basic Japanese.

The reason that I have stayed for so long in Japan is because of my students and those special connections. My favorite thing that I have done at Tochu is teach my students some ‘American slang’. There is nothing better than going to the grocery store and hearing “Yo!” or “What’s up?” and knowing that the students are talking to me. I try to teach them that English can be fun, and I try to get students to enjoy their time in English class, especially the students who don’t want to come to school at all. I continue to grow as a teacher every day, and my confidence and skill as a teacher has grown two times thanks to the online course that I took through International TEFL Academy. I learned many new activities and games that I try out on my students whenever I am given the opportunity, and generally my students have a great time in my English classes.

If I could stay and teach English in Odate, Japan for more than five years, I would, but because of the maximum of five years allowed by the JET Program, I will have to find another job next August. I know that I will be able to see my current third graders (the equivalent of ninth graders in America) graduate in March, but unless I can find a job in Tokyo, I won’t be able to see my other students’ graduations the following years. I hope that during my time as their ALT, I have been able to instil a love of English and a desire to travel to foreign countries in my students. Hopefully when I leave Japan, my students will keep in touch via email so they can keep practicing their English, and so I can hear about their lives as students of English.

Teaching English in Odate, Japan has been a very rewarding experience, and when I find my new TEFL job next year (after scouring many job resources on the ITA website of course), I hope that it will be as rewarding.

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