An ALT Experience: Teaching Elementary School

Updated: Jan 31

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Teaching jobs in Japan may lead you to teach various ages of people, so today I want to talk about my experiences with some of these age groups. I don’t have much experience in the tutoring and eikaiwa sector, so most of my experiences will be around Japanese schools.

As an ALT, you'll most likely be teaching grades 3-6 in elementary school, all of junior high school (grades 7-9) and high school (10-12). In elementary, there may be schools that might give you the opportunity to teach grades 1 and 2, but you might not.

In my last couple of years in Japan, I've had the opportunity to teach all of these grades, so I want to tell you all a little about how I felt teaching each one and how they might differ from one another.

Since I have to write about all my thoughts, I will divide this up into its grade level. This one will mainly be about Elementary School (Grade 1-6)

Part 2: Junior High School (Grades 7-9)

And, part 3 will be about: High School (Grades 10-12)

I will link them as I complete writing about each one. So please look out for them!

Elementary School (Grades 1-3)

Teaching elementary school is probably no different than teaching elementary school anywhere else in the world. Kids this age are mostly energetic, inquisitive and very receptive to just about anything. Especially the youngest kids.

I taught at about 3-4 different elementary schools in the past. No matter where I went, it was always the grades 1-3 students that were the most receptive to my existence. I really didn't have to do much to amuse them. Just being at the school, in the hallways and seeing me would really spark the interest of most of these students. They'd always shout "hello" (one of few English words they know in their young, inquisitive minds) the loudest in the hallway. Some of them who may have some experience going to eikaiwa on their own free time may try to practice what they learned with you.

However, with some of these kids, you may only be able to reach out if you spoke Japanese. After all, even in their native language, their vocabulary and understanding of the world is limited, so speaking in English may not be something they have the capacity for. Or be exposed to. Some kids love hearing your English maybe once or twice, but if you keep insisting on speaking English to them (which they don't understand at all), they'll just shut down and walk away once the novelty wears down. Of course, using a lot of gestures and just being silly overall will probably win you the crowd back quite easily - but not every ALT is comfortable being a clown all the time.

These are also the age of students where I've received adorable questions like "Do you speak Canadian in Canada?" - so they can absolutely be unpredictable! Just like most kids anywhere.

They're also the ones who will most like want you to play ball with them during lunch breaks, which is probably why you might hear that lots of ALTs just end up sporting track pants and polo shirts, ditching the stiff blazers and dress pants a few weeks into their jobs.

Because this group of kids are the most active in general, it often means that if you chance to teach them, your best chance of having them stay in their chairs and participating if you change up your activities about every 5-10 minutes. They don't have to be physical activities. It could literally just be sporting different techniques for flashcard learning, or playing different versions of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But definitely don't try to read them a story, unless you're good at making the reading dramatic and exciting (which I'm actually not really good at - and I avoid it lol).

But yeah, tons of fun with this group for sure! Can be a bit tiring for introverts (like me), but you don't need to push yourself to be active all the time if that's not your thing.

If you want to skip out on eating lunch with the kids every once in awhile (yes, a lot schools will schedule you in to do this - teachers all mostly eat with their students), or if you just don't feel like acting up for kids, let someone know well in advance (maybe adding a bit of a white lie might help). That way if they already scheduled you in for something, you can reschedule it for some other day.

Elementary (Grade 4-6)

This group can be really mixed depending on how they feel about learning English, and generally how they feel about school. Nowadays, English education has become more regular from 3rd grade onwards, but when I taught elementary, I had only grades 5 and grades 6 regularly. So most of my experience will be based on this.

4th graders are mostly still very receptive, but I've also have experience with the occasional class where they're just not having it. They're old enough that you can't just impress them with song and dance, but they're also not old enough for you to to convince them that English can still be fun - so you can be stuck in this grey area where your class might just not go well at all. However, 80% of my experience with 4th grades have to similar to the lower elementary school grades... so you'll never know.

5th grades are pretty similar, but I've mostly had a lot of good experiences with this grade. When I taught, 5th grades were the first years of students in elementary to get weekly English classes, so a lot these students are very eager to do something new. Or just something that's not Japanese and sitting at their desks listening to their teachers speak at them. And English-learning at these levels are mostly very speaking and listening-oriented still. There is a textbook that you have to use, but I've always used it more as a skeleton than just not. A lot of these kids are still willing to sing and dance if you made them, so it's honestly quite easy still to impress them and have a good time.

Now... 6th grade is where I've had some of my worst experiences. Even at a very good school, or even if you've built a rapport with them when you taught them in 5th grade. I've taught at some very bad junior high schools in the past, and had some terrible classes there, but the worst class in JHS just cannot compare to 6th grade classes as a whole.

It's almost like over the spring time during the transition from 5th and 6th grade, they had some kind of a calling and 90% of them just decided they're all too cool for school.

The students who once enjoyed singing English songs in 5th grade, would just do a complete 180 in 6th grade. It's almost like I held a gun to all of their heads or something before I turned on my warm up song, and they'd just move their mouths unwillingly. With more times than not, it's literally just pulling teeth trying to get 6th graders to repeat after you in the classroom.

At this age, a lot of the students are starting to normalize the whole lecture-style education. They prefer doing individual work, and studying from a book while listening to their teacher babble on about stuff from their book. And English education at this stage is still very much about more "active learning".

Because of this, a lot of students may know how to say something in English, but given the written form of something, most of them have never been taught this. They can probably recognize the "symbols", but the alphabet is foreign to most of these kids. Which makes the kind of lecture style teaching not possible to do. Not to mention you have a book to teach off of. You're not required to use it, but you're expected to use it. There are activities that teach alphabets, but you simply don't have the time to linger on it if your school want you to teach the whole book.

As an ALT, if the school and the teachers give you freedom to do anything in the classroom, than of course you can tweak the classes to make it as writing-heavy as you want. But because ALTs aren't technically teachers, and we work with a Homeroom Teacher (HRT) during our classes, the HRT often has more say on what he/she wants done.

In my experience, I have been given a lot of free reign to do as I please in the classrooms, but the HRT will often prefer that I follow through the book and do the activities necessary. Which brings us to my next discussion point: the HRT.

But before we end this section, I just want to say that not all 6th grader classes are bad. I've had some really decent ones who still enjoy the speaking and the activities... but, I do notice that the teacher you teach with will (and can) make or break your experience!

Your Co-Teacher in Elementary School

As an ALT, you are always expected to be in a classroom with a Japanese teacher. Since classes in elementary school not taught by different teachers based on subjects just yet (with some exceptions - like music, art or home economics), there is no "Japanese Teacher of English" - or what we call as JTE.

Instead, you will be teaching English with an HRT - the "Homeroom Teacher".

As you might have guessed already, HRT are not English Teachers. Most of them also cannot speak a lick of English. Not only does that make it difficult for you in the classroom, it can make planning lessons difficult too if you cannot speak Japanese.

Some schools may have an arrangement with a nearby Junior High School where they might send over a JTE the same time you're teaching your classes, in this case you may get some English help from the JTE in the classroom. It can also help with the language barrier between you and the HRT. And this also effectively means there will be three teachers in the room. A bit of an overkill in some instances, but it can be helpful (I'll explain later!).

I've worked in this arrangement once. I also happened to know the JTE since I was also assigned to the Junior High School in question. In some arrangements, you may not be assigned that Junior High School. I found that it really didn't matter to much, since my JTE left me in charge with the lesson plan and was happy to follow my lead. The HRT also was in the classroom, and I always made sure she was briefed about the lesson since she didn't speak English well - but they were always gung ho to participate.

And I can tell you now, if you can motivate those HRT to work with you and make them see that English isn't a drag - your elementary school classes will run MUCH more smoothly 90% of the time.

So it doesn't matter if there's one extra set of hands in the classroom. Your HRT might not know a lick of English, but it's more than likely that your kids will respect the HRT more than they respect you - given the amount of time your students have spent with those HRTs.

Now if this isn't a HRT the students respect, then it'll be a complete mix bag how the students respond to you....... but overall, HRT are a good source of information about the kids you're teaching if this is your first time at the school or first time teaching Elementary in general. So if you can communicate, try to talk to them as much as you can.

Final Thoughts

Elementary school can be a ton of fun if you love young kids. Even if you don't, it's sometimes a good change of pace to teach a group of learner who are still untainted by school and still eager to explore new things. For introverts like myself, it can be exhausting but it's not impossible to find a balance.

To be a good ALT doesn't always mean you have to be a dancing monkey or an energizer bunny; you just have to do your job, be friendly and when you can manage it - let the kids bring out the kid inside you!

That's all of my ramblings for today! Thanks for reading. I haven't done photo blogs in awhile, so I think I might pull up some old photos from past trips to talk about, so definitely stick around for those.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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