Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On teaching English

I suppose it wouldn't be much a blog record of my time teaching in Japan if I didn't talk about the teaching a bit yet. In a nutshell, it's a fairly straightforward an easy job. I'm teaching Junior High, that's grades 7-8 (making the average age around 14-15ish, I guess). I teach five days a week, three 45 minute sessions a day (yeah, that's all) although I need to be at work from 9am (and start teaching at 9.30am) to roundabouts 3pm (although I typically get there around 8am-ish – don't ask why), and must eat lunch with the lovely bambinos. So all in all it breaks down to about 2h15 teaching, 2h30 break (including 1h30 where I don't need to supervise anyone or anything), and if you throw in the 15 minutes homeroom at the beginning and end of the day, and all the 5 minute breaks between classes, and the 30 minutes of prep and briefing at the beginning of the day, it all rounds up to a healthy 6 hours of "work". Effectively, preparing a day's worth of activities take 30 minutes, and out of the 135 minutes of teaching, I'm only talking for about 20-30 minutes and the rest is supervising assistants and group activities, so it's about an hour of what I'd actually call "work" per day. With a salary of ¥75,500 a week, that technically works out to the rate of a salary of ¥15,100 (about $150 or £75) per hour of honest work. If I wasn't such a nut for crazy academic topics, so bad at Japanese, and inapt (and rather unwilling) at fitting into a rigorous and formal society like that of Japan, I could totally see myself doing this sort of thing full time (that's a damn big 'if' though, so fat chance...).

The teaching itself is fun. The programme is more based on principles of encouraging English conversation and immersion into the language, rather than juku-like cramming for tests, so essentially I simply need to put the kids into a context where they can make conversation with one another (as well as with the assistants and me), and teach them some new vocabulary and sentence structures. Typically, this will involve demonstrating a model conversation or two between the assistants, then have the students ask each other questions based on the topic, and/or form original conversations of their own based on the vocabulary and sentence structure presented in the model conversation. Other activities include more action based activities (i.e. there's a cool sheet of weird challenges such as "Can you say 'thank you' in four languages?" or "Can you roll your tongue?", and the kids – having been introduced to the vocabulary, and well as expressions for asking someone to do something – must go around the school and harass the staff to have them perform the action for them and whatnot), a few short stories with question-and-answer sessions, and typically the day is wrapped up with a language-training board-game of sorts that either introduces some new vocabulary, or helps them revise the topical vocabulary covered during earlier sessions. To make all this even easier, I have an extremely small class (compared to previous years), with just eight kids for two assistants (and myself).

The true "challenge" is keeping everyone entertained and happy (I'm working for a commercial programme, after all – they want happy students, aka "potential future returnees"). It's always difficult to gauge how good some of the students are, since they're all fairly shy at first blush (pun intended) – a mix of being Japanese and, more importantly, being teenagers. Some of them have only been studying English at school for a few months, while others have either lived abroad, or been doing Eiken (this programme) for a few years, or had private English tuition or classes for few years. Fortunately, after a day or two (or, with this week's group, after about an hour), the ice is broken and (much) conversation ensues, making it easier to evaluate individual levels of comfort with the ol' English.

The kids also have 45 minutes of music class (in English), as well as sports (ditto). We have lunch with them, which is a great time for them to plague you with indiscreet questions about just about anything. Apparently, being French and American is sufficient for me to be qualified as a "hafu" (literally short for "half-breed"... ain't Japan great?). I thought the term was reserved for people that are genuinely of mixed ethnicity (I mean, you can't exactly call American a well-defined monolithic cultural heritage, being quite a melting-pot of ethnic groups). So far, I've managed to dodge the questions about my age, which may be the cause for some surprise for them. Some of the assistants thought I was in my mid-to-late 20s, which is a bit depressing (well, not that much, but ouch nonetheless).

Anyway, today (Tuesday) will be the 2nd day of my 2nd week of teaching. Still a bit under two weeks of teaching at ISSH to go, and then it's off to god-knows-where for a four-day summer-camp-type-thing, followed by a week of laid-back tourism around Tokyo. Maybe I'll finally get a chance to climb Mt. Fuji. Screw it... maybe I'll simply get a chance to finally see Mt. Fuji. Who knows?

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