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Teaching English in Japan: Going Off-Script in Elementary School



As the clock strikes 8 A.M., Big Ben’s chime rings out through my school’s speaker system to let the students know that classes are about to start. The chime is shortly followed by an announcement that “Şen Sensei” will be teaching in school today.


It always makes me smile when I hear this announcement, and I subsequently wonder what students think when they hear it. I will never know the answer to this question, but judging by the energy of the students when they see me, I like to think it’s positive!



Elementary School Life


In each of my elementary schools, there is a giant picture of my face outside of the staff room. I have to say, it was a bit of a shock the first time I saw it. The Londoner in me always expects to see graffiti drawn on my picture one day, but, thankfully, in Japan this kind of thing isn’t a problem.


Elementary school is where I teach the most, and it’s also where I have the most varied age range of students — from 6 to 12 years old. The students are in elementary school for six years, making it the longest time they will stay in any one school during their compulsory education.



In Japan, formal English teaching with a textbook starts from the third grade in elementary school. I have to admit that, before I came to Japan, I expected the textbooks to be a lot worse than they actually were. In reality, they are not so bad, and hopefully will be even better when they are updated in 2020.


When I arrive at elementary school, there is always a schedule waiting on my desk with a list of the classes I will have for the day. The schedule is not always in English, but thankfully my Japanese is now at a point where I can understand it easily enough.



Off to the Classroom


When it’s lesson time, two students from a class will come and take me to their classroom. The students knock on the staff room door and announce the formal greeting, “Shitsurei shimasu” (Excuse me), before declaring what grade they are from and the reason why they have come to the staff room.


The majority of the time, the students are wearing school uniform. On some occasions, though, they wear their own clothes, which are usually covered in poetic English messages. Sometimes I try to make a point of reading out what their clothes say, as it always piques their interest and, in a very subtle way, I believe it helps to show the students the benefits of learning English.




Going Off-Script


Each English class starts with a standard greeting. The students will say, “Sit up straight, let’s start English — bow.” And then all of the students bow. At this point, I am usually expected to ask the students a series of questions, such as: “How are you?” “How’s the weather?” “What day is it today?” and “What is the date today?”


Sometimes I can tell that this is too monotonous for the students, and that’s when I know I need to go off-script to perk them up. I will then ask the students random questions, such as, “Who do you like more, Mario or Pikachu?” This will be followed by more serious questions based on what they learned in the previous lesson.


Whenever I go off-script, the atmosphere of the classroom changes in an instant, which is what I aim for. Learning a language is different from other subjects, so I need to create a fun environment where the students feel free to express themselves – in English.


As a teacher, I feel that judging the mood in the classroom is perhaps one of the most important skills needed. There are times when something isn’t working and it’s up to the teacher to find a way to make it work. 



Sometimes, however, the situation just goes out of your hands. One example is when the students have swimming practice before my English lesson. After swimming, they are always going to be very tired in class. In situations like this, all you can do is simplify the lesson as much as possible, and try again next time. 


I also like to make a quick note after each class about how the lesson went, and how it could be made better. This helps me adapt to the specific needs of each class.



Exercise Time


One thing I love about elementary school is the focus on exercise. During breaks, the students will go outside and play. But sometimes all the teachers and students will gather in the playground and run laps for about 10 minutes, while the “Totoro” theme song is playing.


At one of my elementary schools, a kindergarten at which I also teach sits on a hill overlooking the elementary school’s playground. When I am at this school, I always have a few extra fans cheering me on, as the kindergarten students all cheer, “Gambatte Şen Sensei!” when they look down at the playground and see me running with the students.




Lunchtime Language Exchange


I like to eat with a different class at each lunchtime, and it is always one of the most fun parts of the day. I have found that communication with the students at lunchtime is just as important as the lessons I teach. I also make a point of practicing my Japanese with them, so that they can see me learning a new language too.


My pocket dictionary and notebook accompany me to every lunch,  where I practice writing basic sentences in Japanese. I then practice speaking these sentences with the students, and this often results in all of us laughing together.


Sometimes I ask the students to teach me how to say certain things in Japanese, based on what they have learned in their English lessons. It really is great having this opportunity to connect with the students outside the classroom, and it also helps me reinforce their learning at the same time.




Honor on the Football Pitch


After lunch, it’s time to play football (soccer) with the students, and there was one moment in particular that reminded me that I was in Japan. While playing football with the third grade students, the sixth graders came over and asked me to play with them instead. The third grade students then stopped the game, gathered around me and respectfully told me that I could go and play with the sixth grade students.


I was surprised at the time, but upon reflection I am sure this was due to how Japanese culture puts extra emphasis on respecting your elders. I decided to take the diplomatic approach and told the third grade students that I would continue to play with them for another 15 minutes and then would play with the sixth grade students for the last 15 minutes of the break. The third grade students cheered and the sixth grade students seemed content with the sensei’s ruling.   


If there is one thing that’s true about being an assistant language teacher in elementary school, it’s that you need to be ready for anything. If you can adapt when things are not going according to plan, then you will achieve greatness in the classroom and finish each lesson feeling like a hero. 


Elementary school keeps me on my toes, but it is incredibly rewarding and never fails to help me get a good night’s sleep at the end of the day.


The final article in this series will focus on my experiences teaching in junior high school in Japan. Junior high school is another significant change in environment for the students, as it prepares them for adult life. The tone at junior high school is a little more serious than elementary school, as you would expect, but that doesn’t mean that the students don’t have fun in the process.   



Author: Şenol Hasan 


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