Teaching English in Japan: Classroom Expectations

Welcome to part 1! In this and the posts to follow in this series about teaching English in Japan, I’ll go into detail about the challenges I faced as a neophyte university teacher in Kyoto, fresh out of grad school.

I was already a veteran conversation school teacher at the time, and needed to quickly make various adjustments in order to succeed in this challenging new environment.

I’ll give concrete examples of strategies and activities that served me and my students well, and also look back on what I could have done differently.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along, whether you’re already in Japan, are considering taking the plunge, or are just interested in getting a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to teach large classes of Japanese university students.

Teaching English at a Japanese university, like anything else worthwhile, requires patience, humility, flexibility and hard work. Even as I struggled to adapt at times, I pushed myself to get through the rough patches.  And now I can see how that process served my own learning in lasting and significant ways.

I’ve lived in Kyoto since 1998 and it’s truly my home. My experiences teaching English at conversation schools as well as university have given me lots of wonderful memories, insights into the culture and people, and some good friendships, too.

Teaching is learning, and teaching in a foreign country where there is already so much to absorb can be incredibly stimulating, but also overwhelming at times. I hope that the following reflections will prove helpful on a practical level, and maybe even inspire you to meet your own challenges head on.

Here’s to not just surviving in the classroom, but thriving!

Societal Expectations of University Students

One common expectation of teachers everywhere is for students to study.  This is a laudable and understandable goal. But keeping in mind that one of the Japanese university’s main functions is to provide a place and time to mature will help in making a teacher’s expectations more realistic.

It can also help motivate students to strive to make their best effort. Students also have various other demands on their time, and it’s all to easy for a teacher to overlook this when assigning work. Reacting reflexively and angrily when students fail to live up to a certain standard tends to just make things worse.

A pillar of the business world, Toshihiko Yamashita, once said that university graduates are all but useless when they’re hired, being no better educated than when they left high school.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

Accordingly, the expectation of business when hiring university graduates has been that they have already proven their ability to withstand the rigor and discipline of high school life and thereby shown that they will be able to withstand the demands of the workplace, by passing what is known as ‘exam hell’ and gaining admittance to a prestigious university. The actual grades that are received at university have often had little or no bearing on hiring practices.

Students are aware of this, and after three years a heavy high school homework load plus added hours of instruction at cram schools for many, it’s easy to understand why some students come to feel like they’re entitled to a break before putting their noses to the company grindstone.

The Growing Necessity of Part Time Work for Japanese Students

In recent years, this scenario has been further complicated by the breakdown of traditional employment norms, with more and more workers working for fewer benefits and under temporary contracts that deprive them of the sense of security that past generations felt upon landing their first job.

And in fact, nowadays fewer and fewer students have the luxury of focusing fully on their university studies, with more of them working while they are in school at part-time jobs, often in the service sector at casual restaurants, etc. And It’s not just about the sheer number of students that work, it’s also about their motivation for doing so.

In the past, those who worked often did so primarily in order to refresh themselves and make new friends. Because working part time while in high school is rare, most young people have never experienced being part of the labor force before. Places like restaurants that traditionally rely on part time student labor have often highlighted this aspect of the work in their hiring posters.

These days, it seems that students themselves are bearing more and more of the financial burden that their education creates, and in such cases working is an imperative. Seen through this lens, such students being less willing and/or able to keep up with a given teacher’s demands on their time can be viewed more sympathetically.

What do Students Want Out of University Life?

But wanting a break doesn’t necessarily mean that students are content to come out of university with nothing tangible besides a diploma to show for their time. The rigidity and intense focus on memorization and tests that often characterizes high school here leaves many students hungry to develop themselves in other areas such as forging friendships, devoting time to hobbies, and experiencing romance.

They also often yearn for experiences outside their own culture and the rules that they associate with it, and foreign languages, specifically those from western countries like English that are so obviously outside the bounds of the system they grew up in, can offer a window onto this.  To the extent that a teacher can tap into some of these expectations and adjust their own accordingly, student motivation can be cultivated.

Identify and Examine Your Own Expectations as a Teacher

In identifying my own expectations, it was useful to reflect on the teaching I had done to that point.  Before my stint at university, I had been teaching in Japan for four years in various contexts, including a year at a large conversation school chain, and another year as an assistant teacher working with Japanese English teachers at public elementary and junior high schools in a small town.

Being that the bulk of my teaching experience had been with small classes of motivated adults at conversation schools(eikaiwa) who chose to be there, I immediately had to adjust to larger classes, which in my case meant about 20-25 students.

Until that time, I’d only taught 50 minute to hour long lessons, and so it was also important to develop activities to keep the flow going over 90 minutes lessons at university.  And because I had never given grades before, I had to form clear guidelines and convey them early on to the students so that they would be clear about what I expected of them in return for various grades.

Another difference was that my conversation school classes were ongoing, and students could join and quit at anytime.  In that university classes have a finite beginning and ending and are filled with students of more or less the same age, there is a greater potential and also perhaps a greater demand for fostering a sense of community that in many cases results in students striking up relationships that extend beyond the classroom.

Ask Your Students for Feedback Along the Way

Knowing where the students are coming from scholastically and culturally is a good start. Otherwise, teachers can be prone to take things personally and react in unproductive, reflexive ways that can exacerbate problems.

Getting structured feedback from students as the term goes on is another valuable way to assess what they expect and respond to, as well as what doesn’t work or could work better.  The issue of eliciting feedback will be discussed more in my post on student motivation strategies.

Originally posted 2019-04-17 06:57:48.