(Monday) Office Life: The Best Moments of Teaching ESL

In the Office Life two weeks ago, I talked about 5 frustrating moments of teaching ESL here in Japan. However, the good always outweighs the bad (and if it doesn’t, you might consider switching jobs), so here are ten of my favorite moments of my job on the JET Program.

Be warned, I wrote entirely too much.

10. When a lesson 100% succeeds. This is one of my top favorite in-the-classroom moments. For a lesson to succeed so well, many factors are at play: the students must be in the right mood to learn, the game / activity must be interesting or helpful to them, and perhaps the stars must align. Voila! You have yourself an absolutely stellar class that will make you smile like an idiot for the rest of the day, and fuel you through two or three weeks of okay classes until the next big hit.

These types of lessons aren’t exactly rare, but they also don’t happen every day. For some of my highest-energy lessons – like my Categories (aka Scategories) game with a Telephone speaking warm-up activity – I leave the classroom and students are still animatedly discussing the lesson. Those are the ones that make me smile because we teachers somehow tricked the students into having fun with English (and we ourselves enjoyed the game, too). On a different level, I have activities like a board games with clocks that I use in my smaller, quieter school. By the end of the lesson, the students who struggled to read a clock before can tell you the time in English within seconds. Those lessons make me smile because students are smiling with more confidence in themselves.

9. The social aspect of being a 先生. Teaching in Japan is a very social job from the very start – when you aren’t in class with students, you are at your desk in the Teacher’s Room surrounded by 20 ~ 40 other staff members. Desks are crammed into the room next to each other, so there is very little privacy. Speaking as a more introverted person, I actually really like this open floor plan. It’s easy to join into conversations (or look politely interested and get pulled into conversations), and I know my colleagues a lot better because of it. I don’t feel isolated at all. However, the constant social interaction can be draining,  and I go home happy to live alone.

Outside of the Teacher’s Room, there are a lot of other social events for staff. The most frequent are enkais – or drinking parties. There are enkais after important events like graduation; there are enkais after school events like Class Match and Culture Festival; there are enkais to say goodbye to leaving staff, and to welcome new staff; there are big, fancy enkais around Christmas; and sometimes, there are enkais “just because we haven’t had one in a couple of weeks.” My base school and my Wednesday visit school invite me to most, if not all, of their enkais. There have been busy months where I go to three different enkais, a new one each week, but that’s (luckily) uncommon, because those parties can get expensive. My Wednesday school honestly has the best enkais – the staff is younger and goes a little crazier. I just went to a graduation enkai with that school where they made a 30-minute movie to honor / poke fun at the 3rd grade homeroom teachers, and even though I couldn’t understand most of the Japanese being used, it was hilarious. The principal also awarded each homeroom teacher a “diploma” of their own – I couldn’t understand exactly what was being said, but apparently there were a lot of inside jokes being thrown around because everyone else was dying with laughter.

Other social events include PTA bus trips to nearby famous attractions, lunches together at local cafes during testing weeks or student holidays, and my favorite: the annual Table Tennis Tournament.

Every February at my base school, the teachers spend an afternoon in the gym for this teachers-only event. There’s a twist to the Table Tennis Tournament though: you don’t compete with paddles, because that would be too easy. Instead, players draw cards to select their table tennis paddle replacement: options include a spatula (extremely difficult), a rice paddle (also difficult), the back of a guest slipper (personally, my least favorite) and a nabe pot (easiest). Hot coffee, tea, and snacks are provided for those who aren’t playing that round (or those pairs who have lost). In the end, everyone gets a prize – but the winners get to choose first. Last year, I accidently won the mega prize: 6 boxes of strawberries (probably costing about $30 total). This year, I won a 6-pack of beer, but I traded with one of my JTEs who got stuck with a fancy box of chocolates. We were both very satisfied with the exchange.

8. The “Lightbulb Moments.” When a student finally gets it. You can actually see their eyes light up with understanding. I’ll keep this one short and sweet.

7. School events. Class Match and Sports Festival / School Festival (my schools rotate between the two depending on the year) are the two major events in the academic calendar, aside from the 2nd grader’s trip to Okinawa, of course. These days are both exciting and slightly awkward for ALTs – awkward because you aren’t necessary and you usually don’t have a job, but exciting it’s a nice change up from being in the office and teaching classes.

Sports Festival and Class Match are both athletics-based, so basically I spent those days outside, cheering for students and sometimes getting dragged into running relays myself.

For School Festival, I spent most of my time going through all the classrooms-turned-haunted houses and buying all the food my students made (the donner kebabs that the 3rd graders at my Tuesday school grilled were a definite highlight). At my tech school, two of the classes constructed small roller coasters in their classroom for the School Festival – students are truly amazing!

6. When an unmotivated student suddenly puts in effort. Recently, a student who had failed the two previous interview tests suddenly sat down for the third test and answered every question I threw at him easily. Seeing that he had clearly studied made me elated.

Sometimes, this  happens outside the classroom, too – such as when a student who seems to hate English class sees you outside of school (usually in 7/11) and asks you a question or two in their best English. Maybe they don’t love learning about past participles, but they still try to communicate in real life.

5. Long chats with colleagues. I’m really lucky that, working at low-level schools, many of my colleagues have time to chat with me. And I’m talking about 30 ~ 60 minute conversations here, not a “How was your weekend?” “Fine, thanks, how was yours?” kind of exchange (although those happen too!). Through these longer conversations, I’ve discovered that many of my coworkers live secretly fascinating lives. Outside of work, they seem to stick to only one or two hobbies, but they pursue those hobbies intensely.

I have a long list of examples, but to throw out just a few…. 1) One of my Home Economics colleagues fences and competes in a fencing tournament in Australia every summer. If I remember correctly, she won a medal in her age bracket last year. 2) One of my Social Studies colleagues is a professional tree-climber. With his guidance, the first-grade students at his school climb the 100+ year-old tree on the school property every year.  3) One of my Vice Principals is an extra in several movies. Rumor around the office has it that he won a small speaking part in a movie being released this summer. 4) One of my P.E. colleagues has judged numerous international gymnastics competitions, including the 2000 Sydney Olympic Trials and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Trials. 5) One of my math colleagues is secretly an avid painter in his spare time and sells his art abroad. 6) And finally, one of my JTEs lived and worked in Madagascar for two years.

Of course, we don’t always talk about their impressive hobbies. Sometimes what makes me happiest are the organic conversations that spring up naturally. Such as the day when I found out one of my JTEs was halfway through watching the 6th season of Game of Thrones, and we spent the next hour discussing which character was the most evil (Ramsey) and our predictions for the 7th season!

4. Long-term projects. I only do long-term projects with my smaller classes, but they have been very rewarding. The JTE and I have assigned skits, interview prompts, and presentations, and even though they are low-level, students have risen to the occasion marvelously. Usually, such projects take up 3 ~ 4 weeks of class time. We announce the project, give out a grading scale, pair up students, and then step back and let them work on their scripts. By a certain date, students have to turn in their finished scripts so I can correct the English, and the last day is full of presentations!

My personal favorite project was a creative interview prompt where two students pretended to be actors from a famous movie, and the third student was an interviewer asking them questions about the best behind-the-scenes moment while filming, or what they did to prepare for the role. One group chose Pirates of the Caribbean, and the student pretending to be Johnny Depp demonstrated one of the sword fights, to much applause from the rest of the class.

3. EIKEN Interview practices. One of my favorite parts of my job is helping students practice for the EIKEN (English language standardized test) Interview. This past EIKEN cycle, 10 students from my base school took the test. I try to plan 3 1-hour practices with each student, so it takes up a good chunk of my non-teaching time. Despite that, these interview practices are one of the only times I get to really talk to students individually, and I really value the time.

It’s hard to have meaningful relationships with students when you see them once a week, for 50 minutes, and they are only 1 student in a class of 20 or so who need attention. And in classes of 40 students? I don’t even know their names. But one-on-one, students tend to be more relaxed and open to chatting. Through these interview practices, I’ve learned about students’ true interests (one student reads incessantly about space, another watches a lot of Kdramas), students’ dreams (one student wants to go to college to become a zoo veterinarian, another longs to visit London), and even students’ relationship status (two of the girls love to talk about their boyfriends…). Over the course of the practices, I see them getting more confident in their answers, I see them self-correct their mistakes. These are the students I’ll remember most, and I love seeing them grow into better English speakers (and more confident human beings).

2. Hilarious English. Language is a difficult thing. And dictionaries don’t always give enough explanation to guide proper word choice. Hence I end up with worksheets telling me how a student wants to “help all the ancients” and that they ate “fire bird” last night for dinner.

Another golden language moment: for Final Jeopardy recently, I gave the students the word puzzle “26 L of the A.” I was looking for “26 Letters of the Alphabet” and we gave out hints saying “You learn this when you first start studying English!” One group came forward, beaming. They knew the answer, they were confident. “26 Lessons of the Apple.”

Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) are not immune to funny English, either. I don’t know what movies they are watching, but they pick up some very interesting phrases! I have one JTE whose email signature includes the phrase “Miles of smiles!” before his name. It always makes me chuckle while simultaneously reminding me to go to the dentist. Another JTE always starts class by announcing, “Today, we have the Karen-teacher!” (Articles are a bitch, aren’t they?). Finally, I have a pair of male JTEs whose desks are next to each other in the Teacher’s Room. They have great banter, and the younger colleague often teasingly praises the older one. This never fails to elicit an accusing finger and the label, “King of Flatters,” from the amused older JTE.

1. Kids Say the Darndest Things. Forget all those stereotypes of polite, studious kids devoid of creativity — Japanese high school students are exactly like American high school students. And they are hilarious. Here are two worksheets that gave me a good chuckle recently:


This student was meant to write a short piece about her best friend. But instead, she decided to write about her favorite vegetable! After reading 100+ papers about “My best friend, Ayaka” who is good at “singing songs,” this particular worksheet gave me a great laugh.


The goal of this worksheet was to give a show-and-tell using passive voice once or twice. Most students chose to write about their favorite band or their favorite movie, but this boy decided to write about a picture he had taken of “the very cute friend” who is a “very gentle gangster.” The best part is that “very gentle gangster” is a perfect description of the classmate he’s talking about!


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