This article was originally published on 9 April, 2008. It’s been reprinted below for the new school year.
By now you know that in Japan, the school year starts in April and a few teachers leave at the end of March, with new ones rotating in to replace them.
The holidays are dead if you are not vacationing. Likewise, the first week of school will be a testing time for the students. It might get boring for you. But you should NOT (just) veg out at your desk! Here are some things you can do:
Network with the new teachers.
At this point, if you have not introduced yourself to the new teachers at your school, you should do that. Especially if the teachers are either administration or teachers whom you will be directly working with.
The stock phrase here is “Hajimemashite” and of course your name. If you can say in Japanese “I’m the ALT for xx school” or “I come every week on Tuesdays,” this would be good. The teacher may or may not ask about your history. I don’t give a jiko shoukai to them, though, because I think it’s unwieldy. They can slowly find out about you over the next few months. The last thing you should both do is a “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” to express your desires for a good working relationship.
If I am working with a teacher (for example a JTE or a person who coordinates schedules at the school) I always give them contact information. You can make neat little business cards on the computer during your free time. It’s easy. I got fancy and printed English on one side and JP on the other. It sounds hard, but you don’t really need to know much grammar to make business cards in Japanese! On them I have contact info for my base school (base school JTEs might get keitai email or my home/keitai number for emergency use). I might handwrite my email address and stuff like “kantan nihongo demo ii desu” — you can email me in simple Japanese, as well.
If you don’t have a card, when you are first introducing yourself, that’s cool. Just put it on their desk later, or stop by when they look free.
*I* think it is VERY important to attend the farewell enkai (the last chance you may have to see teachers you’ve worked with all year!) as well as the welcome enkai for new staff. You can not only show that you are NOT an island off on your own, but that you are a nice person. You can also get a feel for what they are like–and how they drink!
Last year, I made a coffee cake to welcome the new teachers. It might be a little over the top, but I wanted to ensure that we got off to a good start and was too cheap to buy omiyage or welcome gifts. Occasionally when the office seems tense or unfriendly and there are no enkai in sight, I find it helpful to bring food to work to share. Last week, one of the leaving senseis thanked me for bringing food the summer before. I had totally forgotten, but evidently, it made an impression on her.
If you have more than one school, this is the time to coordinate your schedules. Some ALTs have more freedom in scheduling than others. I am allowed a bit of leniency: I cannot control my outreach schools’ schedules but I can choose my classes at my base school to work around them.
You should have received a big master calendar (ours was in a packet) at one of the meetings over the break. In this calendar, we have the school’s schedule for the year. The important stuff to note is when your school holidays are, when you have to work weekends, and if your school makes everyone take daikyuu (a compensory day off for weekend work), what day that is.
I found that a lot of times, my daikyuu for one school fell on a workday for another. So in essence, I wouldn’t have a “day off”. This year, I am informing my shougakkou of when my base school is not in session so we can pre-schedule make-up days.
If you plan your shougakkou curriculum, this needs to be done now. Some schools plan it, some schools don’t. But I find that at least having a year-plan (even if you don’t have specific vocab words and games worked out) fill give your lessons direction. Sarah Cardenas gave a workshop on elementary teaching and she has great resources for lesson planning. Also, even if you think you are too hip for Genki Richard’s style, his website has great sample curricula.
If you are working from a previous curriculum, consider what worked well and what didn’t. (Too hard, too boring, too useless, whatever.)
In my opinion there are two kinds of curricula: short term and long term.
* Also called “1-year”
* Good for ALTs who might not be around much longer.
+ Easier to plan.
+ Reinforces knowledge
- Boring for the kids. Especially if it covers material they had last year.
- Limited in Scope. You can only teach so many topics.
- Doesn’t account for varying interests of different ages.
- Might be hard for the ALT to adapt between grades.
Basically, you teach the same topics across the grades. 1nensei and 6nensei learn the same thing. The ALT needs to rework the lessons to make them easier or harder for kids at different ages…but the theme is the same for everyone. This is good because it requires a minimum of lesson material preparation. I think it’s popular with teachers, but I don’t think it’s very good. It’s incredibly repetitive, which might make your job less fun, and the kids will be turned off if they feel they already learned this. Another big minus is that it limits the topics you can teach in a given year and that the kids learn.
* Also called “vertically integrated” or “multi-year”
* Good for ALTs who will think they will be at the same schools for a good while.
+ Interesting for you and for the kids because it doesn’t repeat very much.
+ Wide in scope: you can teach many subjects.
+ Works well for schools with lots of siblings: older sibs can teach their younger brother/sister English, too!
+ Considers the students’ ages and levels.
+ Easier for the ALT to keep track of who was taught what. Lessons don’t have to be modified as much.
- May not offer enough review.
- More involved planning and preparation since (in a given year) you don’t repeat.
+ But pays off the following year(s).
- Can get disrupted. If you schools change or your school changes HOW they teach English.
This is how I teach. I give the 1-2nensei the same topics, 3-4nensei the same topics, 5-6nensei the same topics. That way, the learn certain things at certain points in their elementary school tenures. It also allows you to work on more complex or abstract topics or projects for the older students and use simpler concepts (“hello/goodbye!”) for younger students. MEXT emphasizes the differences in kids’ development, and I think it’s really important, too.* The biggest problem is that if another ALT takes over or your schools change or if the school decides to use their own curriculum or discontinue English education for certain grades, those kids are left out in the cold. But this is a risk you have to take. The benefits are worth it, I think. Your students have a sense of pride in learning stuff their siblings aren’t. You also have more freedom to integrate with the subjects the kids are studying in other classes.
*See Resource Materials and Teaching Handbook, p.96 in the 2006 ed.
I actually find this one the hardest to do: I’m not motivated until I have a deadline looming. But if you are inclined, consider actually working up lesson plans (for shougakkou) ahead of time. Print out flashcards, buy magnets, etc.
For chuugakkou, go through the textbook and try to remember the worksheets and props and activities you used last year. Scrape up these materials and get them organized where you can pull them up when you need them.
I can’t offer advice for high school ALTs, since I have no idea what their work is like. Please comment if you have experience with this!
Also consider extra projects: planning/making English boards, planning a skit, making a mailbox for your kids to write you with, designing fake money or “sticker passports,” writing small quizzes or talks for announcement time or whatever.
The other teachers do this in the days before they move the desks in the staffroom: get rid of crap that’s accumulated at your desk: old papers, books you don’t need, post-its, memos, old schedules.
Give everything a dusting.
If you want to reorganize your desk layout (by making a hutch for your laptop, adding a small bookshelf, etc) this is a good time to do it. If you are unhappy that your LAN cable is wonky, now’s the time to swipe a new one!
Don’t Forget About Japanese
If you are taking the CLAIR Japanese course and plan to be gone for Golden Week, you should get an earlier than usual start on the CLAIR test. Remember that you will come back once May is underway, so you will also have less time to complete the final book.
If you are interested in the JLPT, you only have about 6 months at this point to get ready for it. Now is a good time to grab a guide or two and start drilling kanji or whatever.
Now that you have the master calendar for the year, you can also figure out when you want to do travel over the next year. This allows you to not get into a rush to get all of your travel plans in at once, to request nenkyuu earlier, and to book flights while they are still cheap. At the very least, get an idea of when you want to take off and how much you will have saved up between vacations.