Miller, 28, from Scotland, spent two years teaching English to mixed age and mixed ability groups at an eikaiwa – a private ESL school – in Yokohama, Japan.
“My time teaching in Japan was an unforgettable experience. I could go on and on about how great it was and how it continues to impact my professional and personal life. Admittedly, the daily teacher schedule in Japan isn’t for everyone. Classes generally start in the early afternoon and finish quite late, but it means there’s no need to be up at the crack of dawn, like in many other Asian countries. Here’s an example of my typical teaching day.”
10.00 AM: My day starts with a breakfast from the local bakery. Japanese bakeries were an unexpected revelation for me – they’re so good! I then go for a quick run along the river. I live in Yokohama, only about 60 minutes from Tokyo, but my school is located in a relatively quiet suburb.
12 noon: Get ready for work. Wearing a suit to school is the norm in Japan, which is something that I quickly got used to and actually started to enjoy. My apartment, provided by the school, is only about a 5 minute walk from work, so I have plenty of time to grab a coffee.
12.45 PM: Arrive at school. I have to check in with the Head Teacher and Center Manager to confirm that today’s schedule is the same as expected. I then pick up the materials I need for my classes and greet students as they arrive in the school lobby.
1.00 PM: First class of the day. As is often the case for early afternoon classes, I have a group of older retired women. In this case it is a group of six ladies who are at an intermediate level. For some of my students, studying English is as much a hobby and social event as it is an educational endeavour. Others are planning to use what they learn here while travelling. The older students are almost universally warm and enthusiastic. This class focuses more on communication and fluency than grammatical forms.
2.00 PM: Break time. It’s not uncommon to have significant breaks in the day. During this time I can return home as my apartment is so close; however, more often than not, I will grab a bite to eat from a local convenience store or bakery. Japan’s food stores are amazing. You wouldn’t believe the options or quality. I’m addicted to the sandwiches, dumplings and cold ramen in summer. I usually eat in the staff room with the other teachers and use the rest of the time to prepare classes. Materials are well organized in this school, and prep time is used more to familiarize myself with the materials and to to develop my own lesson plans.
3.00 PM: School meeting. All of the teachers and administrative staff participate in meetings. It can be quite strange at first for teachers. A fairly large focus is placed on the financial success of the school and on our financial targets, which is not a concept that is often discussed at schools back home. It is actually quite eye-opening and helped me understand the business side of eikaiwas. As much as I want to ensure that my focus is on education, you do realize that it is a business. In the meetings, we also occasionally collaborate on ideas for classes.
3.30 PM: Pop out for a quick coffee with the other ESL teacher. There are only two foreign teachers in my school. We became firm friends and still are today.
4.00 PM: Childrens’ class. For me, definitely the most challenging aspect of the job. This role was my first experience teaching kids. Behavioral issues in class are relatively unheard of in Japan, but the energy level required is extremely high. Today, I have a group of 8- to 10-year-olds. The class opens with me blushing through a few of the songs that the kids know by heart and love singing. Each class focuses on introducing new vocabulary and structures, building on what we have learnt previously.
The kids come in for only one or two hours a week and they seemed to have been saving their energy. I realized early on that it is best to keep them as active as possible. It’s effective to incorporate as many activities as you can into the 50 minute classes. Once the lesson is finished, I lead the kids back to the lobby to their parents. The class then show off what they have learned that day, with varying degrees of success.
5.00 PM: Another childrens’ class. Usually, I only have one or two childrens’ classes a day, and this is one of my favorite groups. This job made me realize that teaching kids can be really rewarding. You also build strong relationships with them. They are definitely the hardest to say goodbye to at the end of the term.
6.00 PM – Salarymen and salarywomen class. Evening classes are primarily made up of workers (salarymen), who have just finished work. Although they are often tired after work, they are generally enthusiastic about studying English. Students only come to school once or twice a week, which means that they often look forward to our sessions and motivation levels are high. Some of them are required to use English at work or feel that English skills will help them in future positions.
7.00 PM: An advanced class, full of a broad range of ages. This particular class is designed to help advanced students work on their fluency. In the past, the Japanese education system has placed a strong emphasis on reading, writing, and grammatical knowledge. This resulted in a lack of balance in students’ skill set. The most common deficiency among Japanese students is in their speaking skills, and eikaiwas are designed to help in this particular area. Many students do not look to their eikaiwa class to learn new grammar rules, but more as an opportunity to practice what they have already studied.
Despite fluency being the goal, many of these students are initially reluctant to speak. It took some time to get them comfortable with me and with their classmates. When we started together, I kept the correction light, but as we progressed I allocated a few minutes at the end of class for correction.
8.00 PM: Last class of the day. I always look forward to this group, who are at an intermediate level. All of them are young professionals who have been studying together for almost a year. They’re not the most focused bunch, but very talkative and as always, we spend a little longer chatting than we probably should. This is also one of the rare classes that does seek out grammatical explanations, maybe because they have not prepared for class as much as some of the other groups.
9.00 PM: As this is the last class of the day, we usually run a few minutes over. Several of the students have arranged to go out after class and I’m invited along. Socialising with students is perfectly acceptable at my school. I also ask around the staff and the other foreign teacher and one of the Japanese teachers decides to join us.
Going out after work is encouraged in Japan. Even when students are involved, outings are relaxed affairs. We go to an izakaya, which is a Japanese bar/pub. Drinks are the primary reason for going to izakayas, but they also have great food for sharing.
11.30 PM: Izakayas stay open dangerously late. In this case some of the group have to catch the last train, so we call it a night. Again I have just a short walk home to bed.
I personally loved my time in teaching English in Japan. Since leaving, I have returned every few years, and the relationships that I formed while there remain. I would always recommend this kind of opportunity to any relatively new ESL teacher.