(Monday) Office Life: The Most Difficult Moments of Teaching ESL

I love my job. I really, honestly do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy.  Here are five of my… least favorite moments of teaching ESL in Japan.

  1. When a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) says that they understand the lesson you planned…. then you get to class and realize the JTE has no idea and is giving the students false directions. This really isn’t frustrating – depending on the JTE, we usually laugh about it together – but it does confuse the students and waste some class time.
  1. When you and a JTE stare at a silly grammar point in the textbook and try to turn it into a reasonably fun activity for students. This can become a bit of a Mexican standoff. The JTE often expects us ALTs to be bursting with creative ideas. In turn, ALTs often expect JTEs to be full of activities from all their years of teaching experience. In reality, neither of us knows what to do with a textbook that wants students to use the infinitive to begin a sentence. Examples are “To see is to believe!” and “To hear him sing is an experience.” A long silence stretches as we both wrack our brains for activities. Eventually we scrape something decent together, and usually, the lesson ends up just fine. But those long moments of planning a lesson around silly grammar points are not my favorites!

  1. Having absolutely nothing to do. This isn’t unique to the JET program… having nothing to do can happen at any job, in any part of the world. These times can be boring and sometimes, they make you question what you are doing here. Luckily, this doesn’t happen to me too often, for multiple reasons.

First, I’m a slight perfectionist with my worksheets and my PowerPoints, so it can take a good half hour of google-searching to find the perfect picture to add. Imagine making a set of 20 pictures for Halloween Karuta cards… it can take me a loooonnggg time. Second, I work at 5 schools. When one school is testing, I prepare lessons and materials for my other four schools. I can’t imagine what it is like for ALTs who only work at one school!

However, there are two times in a school year when I fall prey to having very little to do. August (when students are on summer break) and March (which is a crazy molting month of change). March is coming up fast, and honestly it’s a strange month in the life of an ALT. There will be classes as per usual one day, and then students have the next few days off because Jr. High School kids are testing in, or because teachers are grading the entrance exams (an all-day event), or because there’s a huge teacher’s meeting. Then classes resume for a few days, only to be cut short by more meetings or ceremonies. And then, all of a sudden, it’s Spring Break! You’ll have a week or so to prep for April classes (which will inevitably include your Self-Introduction class for all the new ichinensei). Overall, there are two tricks to feeling accomplished when you don’t have much to do:  first, plan for the future – motivate yourself to prep for future classes, organize your lessons, make a schedule – and second, live in the moment – chat with coworkers and read the news!

  1. When a lesson that won students’ hearts in one class – they were laughing and cheering and genuinely enjoying being tricked into speaking English – completely fails in another class. This is particularly disheartening, because you know the lesson has great potential for fun, but that particular class just wasn’t interested on the day.

This has happened to me a few times, but most recently, it happened with The Price is Right. I play that game as the final part of my lesson on Big Numbers – the whole lesson is high-energy and one of my students’ favorites…it’s infallible, or so I thought. But I entered 2-2 class this past December, excited about the lesson, and students just weren’t having it. Most of them ignored the number warm-up cards that I put on their desks. They were too tired to give much effort. They barely looked at the board for the 5-minute review of “thousands” and “millions.” And The Price is Right didn’t interest them. It was a lackluster class, and I left disappointed.

A reasonably good class can occasionally bomb a lesson. There are usually reasons for it, though. For 2-2 class on the day of the Big Numbers lesson, I think a big factor in the mood was that quite a few of their “mood maker” students (the ones who have a great effect on classroom atmosphere) were missing that day—sick with the flu. The remaining students were tired, and it was a cold, rainy afternoon. I understand all the reasons; I understand that any lesson I chose would’ve been lackluster that day; but still, it’s sad when such a good lesson goes awry because of classroom atmosphere.

  1. Finally, number 1. My absolute least favorite part of the job: having an unmotivated class whose students refuse to do the activities you planned, week after week.

I have one class like this at my Tech school (out of the 6 classes that I teach there), and one class like this at my Commercial school (out of the 15 classes I teach there). These two classes consistently refuse to do any of the games I plan. Most of the students just chat with each other while I’m explaining the instructions, and during the game itself they text on their cell phones, read manga under their desks, or put their head down and take a nap. There are usually about five quiet students in each class who try to play the game, but five students out of a class of 40 is pretty pathetic, and the game just fizzles out. Every week, the lessons that I have with these two classes crash and burn. The JTEs aren’t much help – they are too easygoing, and the students have learned over this past year that they can break the rules without getting in trouble. I, myself, can get in trouble if I try to discipline students – it’s in my contract – so I can’t do much except to walk around the room and individually encourage students to participate. Sometimes that helps… sometimes it doesn’t.

Between my four high schools, I routinely teach 39 different classes. Having only 2 “super-unmotivated” classes out of the 39… well, that’s not a bad place to be. Especially since all my schools are very low-level schools… I’ve heard that a few other Ibaraki JETs who teach at low-level schools have an entire visit school  full of unmotivated, undisciplined classes. Chairs being thrown out windows and everything. I’m pretty lucky.

However, I still dread going to those two classes. I’ve resigned myself that most of these students just hate English and won’t bother trying. I try to be energetic for the handful of students who care, but unfortunately, it’s exhausting to keep high-energy and smiling when the majority of the class is talking over you or asleep. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Come on, guys, this is meant to be fun! It’s not grammar exercises, it’s a game! If you give even a little effort, you might enjoy it like all the other classes!”


These are five of my least favorite parts of being an ALT in Japan… but as always, the good outweigh the bad quite considerably! Next Monday’s Office Life will focus on my favorite moments of the job, a piece that I’m excited to write.


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