This semester, I decided to take up a part-time job. Here in Japan, even working in a falafel shop or convenience store requires a level of Japanese far beyond mine, unfortunately. But the one アルバイト (Arubaito, part-time job in Japanese) that has a huge demand for non-native Japanese speakers is English teaching.
I honestly didn’t expect to be hired anywhere as an undergrad, but once I began the application process and interviewed and applied a couple places, I soon realized that there wasn’t any worry there. The worry ended up being which job to take!
I applied to three positions. One was with a big corporation, or the “McDonalds of English teaching in Japan” as the interviewer called it during our session. One was with a smaller remote English teaching and tutoring company with a few locations in Tokyo. The job I ended up taking, and have been working at for the duration of the semester, is at Showa University. I heard about it through my Japanese translation professor, Yaeko Kabe, during my job hunt. It is as a Saturday cram school English teacher for Showa Elementary school students.
I chose this job over the other two because though the pay wasn’t competitive, I liked that I would be helping a student-run program. I also liked the flexibility the job offered. It’s only on Saturday mornings, and I am not on a contract, so they understand whenever I need to take a weekend off to travel or go on school field trips.
My coworkers, all Showa university and Meiji university students, design the lesson plans themselves. Actually, the language class is taught through a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) method, which means that we are teaching English through art projects, science experiments, and engineering challenges. We teach vocabulary and grammar related to the project each lesson, instead of teaching vocabulary of any practical use. This actually reminds me of the way I learned Japanese, which was through elementary science and math, as well as unique cultural activities like suuji (Japanese calligraphy), mochitsuki (pounding rice for New Years), origami, and singing and dancing to Japanese pop music. Learning through activity rather than traditional grammar or vocabulary lessons is probably the best way to be able to truly understand grammar and what sounds natural in sentences
, because the brain can make associations of the sound of the word with the activity being done.
As perfect as it sounds on paper, this job has honestly been really difficult so far. I mean, working with the age group, first through third graders, on a Saturday, and only once a week, it has proved to be challenging to get to know the students and build good rapport and trust. Since they don’t speak English much at all yet, I often find myself filling in blanks for them in Japanese. When I was that age, my Japanese teachers just spoke to us exclusively in Japanese as if we understood, even though I usually had no idea what they were saying. As a language teacher, it requires a lot of discipline not to dip into the student’s mother tongue when trying to explain things in their foreign language.
Speaking of discipline and early elementary schoolers… disciplining students and holding their attention and obedience for a full hour is so challenging for me. I sometimes wish I was a bit more strict, but I am not capable of being very firm with the kids. I think with different age groups, and depending on the dynamic of the class, the teaching method must adapt.
As difficult as these challenges make my job, it has also been enlightening and rewarding to get to know my students and see their interpersonal skills and English skills incrementally develop. I have found myself looking forward to my Saturday mornings, even though I have to wake up at 9am (I’m not a morning person). I love grabbing my 7/11 coffee and salty salmon onigiri before I hop on the Setagaya line and reunite with my coworkers at Showa.
Topics we’ve covered in the STEAM class have varied heavily. My first session, we built musical instruments with straws, tape and paper, and taught on the physics of sound (extremely simplified). Another lesson, the students developed a pully system where they used a piece of paper with holes in the top and bottom and a string to pull an object/drawing of their choosing up and down. I taught them how to braid strings in a lesson on Rapunzel’s hair, wherein they learned the cell-makeup within a strand of hair. One of the lessons they had the most fun with was working together to build self-sufficient towers using chopsticks. In recent lessons, they’ve been using PCs to learn how to type on an English keyboard and sounding out Japanese words by spelling them in Romaji (English letters), and using another online program to animate a sequence of the tortoise and the hare. The lesson plans my Japanese peers develop every week never fail to impress me, and really introduce the kids to complex ideas of, and vocabulary within physics, biology, linguistics, music and art through kinesthetic activities in English.
I definitely see myself working in education, specifically arts or language education. I especially see myself returning to Japan and teaching English through the JET program, a longtime dream. Mika-Sensei has a ring to it. I might prefer working with middle or high schoolers, though.