I’ve only been teaching in Japan for the last year and a half, but with 39 students from ages 3 to 83 I’m confident I have some tips to share I hope you will find valuable.
Explain very clearly what you expect
You’re planning your first lesson in Japan. You have some material you believe is engaging and clear, and maybe it worked well in another country. Well, you’re about to be surprised. Your foreign textbook/exercise will be so unfamiliar to them that they won’t be able to understand what you expect them to do.
This really shocked me, but it happened with every student I met. Written exercises or practical activities I thought would be intuitive weren’t clear to them.
Example exercise: Yesterday Susan and I went/go to the park.
No one understood what to do here. I had to explain to every single student that they were supposed to choose between the verbs in italics.
Japanese are famous for adopting a “Japanese method” for everything ( I can’t stress it enough) and if you open an English textbook made in Japan I’m sure you’ll feel lost.
However, don’t give up on your materials! The struggle they are facing now to get used to your teaching is more important to them than you may think. Be intentional and clear and in time you’ll be able to skim through a worksheet and know when it won’t work well with your students.
Protect your students’ honor. Build trust relationships.
Japanese people put a great deal of effort into protecting their own honor. They are taught to not give an answer unless it is perfectly correct. Now, as a foreign language teacher, you know that to master a language you have to practice and that you learn through failure. Remind them that you expect mistakes and there’s nothing bad about it. Use every occasion to encourage them and to shift their attention onto the content, and away from them and their mistakes. With the time they will feel less embarrassed with you, but still very shy in front of the other students.
They love competition but only if it’s among groups. You have no idea how much damage you can inflict by making them compete as individuals. I once made that mistake and I completely spoiled the atmosphere for the rest of the day.
Never laugh at their mistakes, but laugh with them. They dream of relaxed and spontaneous teachers that put everybody at ease. They won’t laugh if you make the fool of yourself because they have to honor you. But they can be straightforward and relaxed if you are the same with them.
Insist (carefully) on critical thinking and open questions.
This could be your greatest struggle. You won’t receive many answers to your questions and it can be very frustrating. But insist on activities where they are forced to build sentences, but with visual support. You may feel you’re not making progress for a long time. Nobody has ever asked them to write something from their experience, not even in Japanese. One way you can do this in a large group is to break them into small groups and give them small speaking assignments. Give them models of sentences to emulate and repeat.
For one of my first lessons with a 15 y.o. girl (it was just the two of us), I carefully prepared the grammar explanations and then we did exercises. When I was sure she got it I asked her to make a simple sentence using her daily routine. After a few minutes of silence she started crying. I was mortified. Understanding the grammar is not enough, you have to guide them in the process of building a sentence, word by word, even better if you use a visual support. And reassuring them all the time. Now, this girl is able to answer my questions, but it’s because she came to trust me. And that took time. Now she says, “Maru-san is more of a friend than a teacher”. It’s not about their abilities, it’s about their relationship with you.
Go beyond what you see with your eyes.
In Japan it’s easier to take the blame for something you didn’t do than to contradict an authority by justifying yourself and tell the truth. So, think beyond your students’ words. Be understanding if they haven’t studied or they don’t answer. What you do matters more than what you say, and they surely won’t miss a detail. It’s Japan we’re talking about.
It is a beautiful thing to teach in Japan. It’s a service for God that he can use for building his kingdom up. You’ll learn to rely much on him for your daily struggles. With time Japanese will notice that your peace and confidence come not from a cultural trait, but by being rooted in Jesus. Be patient, because believe me, you’ll be challenged a lot.
But you’ll learn to appreciate the harmony and beauty of Japan. It’s a never ending source of wonder and surprises and you’ll meet amusing people, very generous and dedicated to everything they do. And you’ll also learn to be a little bit more like them.
By M, an OMF Marketplace Self-Supported Worker