Learn By Doing: Teaching at the Elementary School

This started out as a response to a question my friend asked me, but it was getting way too long so I think I’ll make a post out of it!^^ Meeseok writes:

You’re with the JET program as an ALT, right? Then do you teach your own class or do you help? and if you do teach your own class, do you write your lesson plan? how do you write your lesson plan? does it have to be approved or are you given guidelines and expected standards, so forth? oh and do you teach one class or several classes on alternate days?

This is an unrelated picture of a zero laughing “Ahaha.” It was taken at an ICT conference for teachers, and we were asked to pick the number that would make the equation at the bottom “simpler.” Everyone interpreted this question a different way. I think I said “5” because if you add 27 + 5 + 38 you get 70, which is the next “simple” number, a multiple of 10. I didn’t realize how not-simple that sounded until I started hearing some of the other answers, hahaha. Everybody laughed at “zero” because it was a perfectly legitimate answer and was way simpler than all of ours…

I am an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), so I teach with a Japanese teacher (we work together to lead the class, which takes a slightly different form depending on which teacher you’re working with). It’s only been two weeks so far, with a taiikusai (sports day) thrown in. The elementary schoolers are preparing for theirs as well, so even my first non-self-intro classes with them have been–I think–different from usual, although I don’t know what “usual” is yet so I might be wrong.

I’m at the elementary school twice a week for one day each. I team-teach 5th graders one day and 6th the other day, two classes on one day and three on another; I also eat lunch with a different class every day, going from 6th graders to 1st graders. (Classes eat together in their classrooms before lunch break–that’s how this works out.) The rest of the week is mainly middle school.

Finally, I want to mention that I rely on Japanese a lot at the elementary school, which is different from the middle school, where it’s English-only with students in class and during school.

Week 1: Self-Introduction

My self-introduction is a powerpoint that I worked on during the summer when I was at the Board of Education office all day. It’s supposed to take something like 45 mins, and can be lengthened or shortened based on how many questions I ask the kids, how long it takes them to calm down after learning that all that colorful stuff on the wall behind my brothers is used chewing gum, etc. Hahaha. I played janken with the kids afterwords, me vs. the whole class; in the 5th and 6th grade classes, the teachers would have the students stand up and give a short self introduction (“My name is ___, I like cats.”). Teachers would also have an open time for asking me questions, but the effectiveness varies because some classes are full of energy and questions, and some classes are more reserved. I’m still getting used to the more reserved classes–when students are quiet during my presentation, I’ve noticed I tend to speed up a little, thinking they might be getting bored–but I know the students aren’t bored because you can tell by their attention and their “ehhhh?”s when a certain picture comes on the screen that they are interested. For me, it’s just something that I need to get used to.

In short, for week 1 at the elementary school, I “led” most of the class in the sense that I was presenting information and possibly a game; in this case, the teacher of each class helped me by filling the remainder of the time with self-introductions, calling on students to ask questions if no one was raising their hand, etc. My predecessor left me lots of helpful information, but I feel like what really made the information stick was learning from what the teachers did. Learn by doing.

I want to take this time to mention that I didn’t go into this with perfect confidence. My supervisor at the board of education office let me practice me self-introduction with him as the audience–first with me asking “was that okay?” after like every single slide, and then more confidently as we went along. I still didn’t know how this presentation would go with the different grades, or how much time to linger on each slide and still keep students’ interest. All you can do is have interesting material and a smile, do the presentation and learn as you go along. For example: When I was first practicing the self-intro, when I was revealing a picture piece by piece, if I heard the right answer, I would say “Yup, that’s right!” Right away, and hurriedly click away the rest of the pieces to show the whole pic. However, my supervisor advised me not to give away the answer even if you hear it right away. He said, you can look at them and say, “Really~~? Do you really think it’s a bridge? It’s not a tower?” etc. I realized after doing this a couple of times that, even if the students guess right after I show part of the picture I’ve hidden, they’ll start second-guessing themselves and throw out other ideas if I don’t indicate whether it’s right or not and keep going, haha. And not only that–even if they guess right and know they’re right, it still doesn’t diminish the fun of getting to see the whole American house revealed piece by piece^^

(By the way, when I say “supervisor,” I don’t mean someone who’s after you and trying to “keep you in check.” My supervisor said, “Why don’t you come in on Mondays after school each week?” And I was like, “Oh, like an evaluation?” And he said, “No, it’s so we can check up on how you’re doing,” how life in Waki is going, etc. Haha, so it doesn’t always help to expect things like that.)

Week 2: “Regular Classes”?

Do you teach your own class or do you help? and if you do teach your own class, do you write your lesson plan? how do you write your lesson plan? does it have to be approved or are you given guidelines and expected standards, so forth?

To directly answer your question: at the elementary school, my job was to plan games that would last the whole class period–to work together with the teacher of each class to review vocabulary and use it in games, for the entire class period. Due to it being my first non self-intro week, I relied on the other teachers for help a lot. I can get game ideas from anywhere–my predecessor prepared a folder of games for me, and left me written advice as well. I think the classes follow the textbook, and I bring in games and activities that supplement the themes/vocabulary they’re learning. The middle school is more strict about standards, I think–I’m still in self-intro mode at the middle school, so I’ll be able to say more about that later, I think. I might have the option to write my own lessons plans later, I think, but I’m not sure yet.

So, then: on learning to think like a teacher; learning to plan ahead; learning from my mistakes, but not just in order to be perfect–mistakes are important.

The elementary undoukai is coming up, and so the schedule was changed up a bit and my classes changed times. For my first class, I really wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do–a review? (At that time, I didn’t realize that my predecessor had marked the textbooks she left, saying, “they left off here, maybe a review activity would be helpful.”) But even if I had known that, I still don’t know what I would have done, because I’m still learning to think like a teacher, and creatively modify lessons from class to class, haha. The first class, I didn’t know what I should do at all, what would be too hard or too easy for the 6th graders, or what the teacher would be expecting (which, by the way, can be alleviated by asking–but I would’ve had to think about this a week in advance because the last time I was at the elementary school was the previous Wednesday and at that time it was far from my mind. But I learned from this! So this week when I wasn’t sure what to do for my “first teaching day” at the middle school, I went there after my day at the elementary school, found one of the English teachers, and asked for advice and help! I don’t know if it’s related or not, but this morning when I arrived at the middle school, there was a written note from the other English with exactly what he wanted!).

Anyway, back to my first class at the elementary school–another teacher dropped off some laminated flash cards, and then I followed the first teacher’s lead on using those flash cards in games and stuff. In my next class, I used the games I learned in the first class, and then the second teacher modified and added on to what I’d learned from the first teacher. The third lesson I pretty much did by myself. The next day, I was teaching 5th graders. One of my 6th grade games wouldn’t work for the 5th graders, because they hadn’t learned “directions” vocab (go straight, turn left, etc). I found a game idea my predecessor left me and kept it in mind, but never ended up using it because the teachers had other creative ways of using and re-using the things I had already planned, so I mimicked their ideas. For the last three days, after and between classes when I’m in the teachers’ office, I use my laptop to type up a detailed report of what I did in those classes, what worked and what didn’t, how the teachers modified things and how successful things went, and take note of what I can do to improve. There were times at the beginning (uh, and I guess I’m still at the beginning, haha) where I felt like I was doing a really bad job and ‘what was I thinking, trying to be a teacher’–I work with some of the nicest teachers in the world, and I still had those thoughts; but then I’d try again, and have some successes, and really enjoy the classes. It’s hard to prepare at first, because you don’t know what you’re doing, but they told us at the JET orientation to “always prepare more than you think you need,” because then you’ll never be in class and just stop and not know what to do. I got to experience this in action^^; But thanks to my teachers being pros, I’m getting better at it, I think!

There’s something else I’ve been thinking lately–there’d be times where I’d be talking to someone and I couldn’t tell what they thought of me and would wonder if I was making a good impression at at all, but then later someone else would join the conversation and person A would tell person B, “Stephanie’s really interested in okonomiyaki!” or some other thing that I’d said that made a positive impression. So, I’ve been learning that I just need to do my best, trust God that things will work out, and that any sort of worry like that is really unnecessary.

Another thing I’ve learned is that teaching in the classroom is only part of your job. Even if you come out of your classes for the day being all like, “Ahh, that went terrible, I should’ve prepared in such-and-such a way instead,” or even if you think you left a bad impression on your first day or whatever, there are still lots of chances to do things right that you already know how to do–like cleaning the school with everyone, joining the teachers or undoukai practice, etc. You shouldn’t get so caught up worrying about how your first teaching day went that you forget that you have lots of nice coworkers who like you, haha.

Because of all these things going through my head, I didn’t know how on earth I was going to write it all down, but thanks to Meeseok, who asked me a question, I was able to narrow it down somewhat cohesively! Thank you! Keep asking questions! Haha.

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