So you’ve finally made it through all the self-introductions and slightly awkward Q&A sessions with your new students. Congratulations! Now it’s time for the real fun to begin: you’re going to have to actually teach for real now. What a joy.
For those of you feeling more or less paralyzed by fear and anxiety over this prospect, fear not. The fact of the matter is only a small percentage of ALTs are actually teachers by trade and yet, we have been muddling through this role with success for nearly four decades or so. This means that statistically speaking, you’re probably going to do just fine. However, it’s very easy to say that now with all the experience I’ve accumulated since being here. To someone just starting out, this could all seem very contrite, therefore, I have a couple nuggets of wisdom as you make your first foray into education. As a senior high school ALT, I also appreciate that not everything will be applicable to your situation.
The first thing to realize about teaching is that it’s mostly about how well you can bluff your way through things while desperately googling behind the desk, and how confidently you can explain activities and give directions. I am firmly of the opinion that teenagers can smell fear. The fact of the matter is you will not ever know everything there is to know about English. None of us do, except maybe Steven Fry, but for us regular laymen, explaining the difference between using ‘by’ and ‘with’ will remain a gnarly conundrum to articulate to a group of expectant tweens. Therefore, this whole job really has very little to do with how well you actually know English but instead is about how you interact with your class and help them find enjoyment in one of the most notoriously fickle languages on the planet. Very few of our students will be anywhere near fluent when we teach them. Some will most certainly have you wanting to bash your head on the blackboard with their inability to answer the most basic questions and a lot of the time you will believe your students genuinely fear talking to you due to the way they avoid any and all eye contact. With all of this in mind, I give my second piece of advice:
Don’t take this job too seriously because ALTs are there to be fun.
ALTs are more or less large, interactive encyclopedias of modern English and other interesting facts. For most of your students, you will be one of the few foreigners they have met in real life and are thus their first impression of the world beyond the local train line. Let them ask their silly questions, let them stare at you, let them laugh at your bad pronunciation and giggle over your “strange” habits because you are what makes them want to learn more. The young students are still full of abundant curiosity so you are there to enrich it. For the older students, they are already growing tired, so you are there to revitalize their attention. As banal as it may be to say, we are entertainment. I know my students often don’t understand me, so I use a lot of gestures, onomatopoeia and sounds to convey meaning in my stories. They laugh and they smile and mimic but most of all I can see they understand. How I draw their attention and share new knowledge is based largely around how I express myself. Which brings me to the next point:
Your teaching style is your own creation.
Developing your own teaching style can seem like a bit of a daunting task, especially if you’ve never considered it before. In order to get you started I recommend two things. Firstly, think about how you’ve interacted with kids in the past in a positive way. How did you conduct yourself? Think about what made them enjoy being around you and see what elements you can replicate in your classroom. After all, ALTs are basically the cool aunts and uncles of the staffroom, so you don’t need to worry about being too strict or distant. Secondly, think back on your own school experiences. What made your good teachers good? What made your bad teachers bad? Then see if you can incorporate these traits into your own classes.
Additionally, think about what makes for a good or bad lesson. We all have memories of those few really awesome lessons during our time in school, but what made them so good? The fact of the matter is it’s going to take you a few months to get your bearings: more than a few times, an activity is going to go completely belly up like your 5th grade goldfish. Just last week, a lesson I gave about past tense fell into complete disarray and I’ve been teaching for well over a year now. This brings in my next advice nugget:
We all make mistakes, so be prepared to think on your feet.
There is nothing wrong with scrapping a lesson mid-class and making it up on the fly because your activity failed. There is no shame in having a small collection of English games on hand to pull out when you need a 10 minute distraction while you scramble to rearrange. Personally, my favorites are Simon Says, Scattergories (not actually), Hangman, and Who Am I just in case you’re interested. No lesson is bulletproof, so don’t feel defeated when something fails; it happens to the best of us.
Finally, and perhaps the most important piece of advice:
Your kids are good kids even if they don’t always act like it.
There will be few cases where you meet a student who is truly Evil™. There will definitely be days where you understand why children are so often the focus of Japanese horror films, but there will also be days where you want to cry over how happy they make you. I have felt my heart swell with pride over speech contestants, beamed with joy when the quiet student answered a question, and sat back in awe of the book review in front of me. These will be the majority of your experiences, positive ones. Yes, the Friday afternoon class will make you feel like a dentist for all the teeth you’re pulling to get answers, and yes, you will want to confiscate literally everything that group of three boys in the back has on them, but at the end of the day, you will love them if you let yourself and they will definitely love you.