Aiden Thomas: Assistant English Teacher at Kamigyo Middle School

I joined another KCJS student as an English assistant at Kamigyo middle school. The CIP met once a week every Tuesday, the starting time changing depending on when we were needed. Each session usually lasted about 1-1.5 hours, varying, again, on when we were needed.

Every week, the students worked on reading out loud a specified passage that they’d been working on. In the later sessions, after the contest was over, I helped students with a mock exam. The students had a set amount of time to read a passage, where they then had to answer a few questions not only about the passage, but two personal questions about their thoughts based on some aspect of the readings. I was then required to write down feedback for the students, and suggest areas they should work on, as well as ways to improve on those sections.

When working with the students on the speech contest, it was really interesting to see how each student responded and interacted with me. Most of them were shy at the beginning, but I had one student who was very enthusiastic. I had a lot of difficulty trying to get to know them better. The main hindrance was that I was on a very strict time schedule. I had about fifteen minutes with each student, and if I went overtime, the English teacher would come in and have the next student come in. This made it exceptionably difficult to ask personal questions, because I had to focus on their speech contest first and foremost. What further compounded this problem was that the students had difficulty answering my simple English questions. I would ask them about how their weekend went, or what they like to do as a hobby, and for the most part I got blank stares. I tried some advice I got from other students and from my Sensei, to stick to just present tense and to make the sentences as simple as possible. This worked better, and I got at least a basic response, if not overly-shy and hesitant. It was really interesting, though, to see what problems were common throughout the students’ English. Most of the big problems were pronunciation, but they were able to read everything they were assigned. As for if they understood everything, I do not know. Each student’s level of comprehension differed slightly, and some seemed to understand more than others.

When I had the opportunity to do the mock exam with the students, it was even harder to get to know them. Because it was a mock exam, I had absolutely no time to do anything personal, and from greeting the student to writing up a quick report, it was also extremely formal and timed. Everyone was able to read the initial passage just fine, and had little difficulty answering an almost word-for-word question from the passage. However, when it came to the next sections, all students except one had major difficulties. The situation required the students to look at a picture and describe to me what each individual was doing. Many of them did not understand the question I asked them, and needed me to repeat it multiple times for them to understand. After the first two repetitions, I changed the wording of the question to make it as simple as possible, and in one case, I had to point to the pictures to help the student understand. The last section had me ask two ‘personal’ questions about the student’s thoughts, the subject for which originated from the passage they had read. All of the students were able to answer these questions, albeit some more explicitly than others. At the end of this task, I had to complete a short evaluation form and provide feedback and comments. This was extremely difficult for me, because at that point time was almost up, and I was only able to provide the most minimum of details.

During the mock exam, a major concern I had was the presence of the English teacher in the room. At the start of the test, she would leave us alone. But as I was getting towards the end, the teacher would come into the room and watch us. This not only made me nervous, but I could visibly see the students freeze up. Most of the time, she came in towards the very end when I was leaving my comments, which I would then explain to the students. But the last student I had was having a lot of difficulty answering the questions, and he took some extra time. As such, the teacher came in while he was still answering questions, and then he became even more nervous and especially reluctant to speak in English. I was actually quite annoyed by this, but I was not able to say anything. The teacher even came over and helped him understand the questions, except she used Japanese to do it. Even though this was a mock exam, I think it was important to not use any Japanese at all, which I took care to do so. Using Japanese would have created a fall-back for the student, and should have only been used to explain once the test was over, not while it was still ongoing. Despite his difficulty, this student was actually the most enthusiastic of them all, and at the end he was really interested in asking me what I thought about how he did.

Overall, I learned a lot just by observing the students, even if I wasn’t able to get to know any of them personally. I was able to observe the general difference in the second and third years’ English, how they interacted with me personally and respectfully, and how the teacher interacted with the students. This was a very valuable experience for me, mostly because I am considering the JET program. I was initially unsure about this CIP because I was never in a situation where I tutored or taught someone other than a close friend or family, so this was an entirely new experience for me.  I was extremely nervous at first, and was unsure about how to do this CIP successfully. However, once I met the students, my initial apprehensions faded, and I started to look forward to visiting the students every week. This opportunity has definitely made me more interested in pursuing the JET program, though it is still more of an idea than anything.

4 thoughts on “Aiden Thomas: Assistant English Teacher at Kamigyo Middle School

  1. Aiden, it was so great to read all of your impressions of teaching in an English classroom! I have tried to teach English before and it can be really difficult in ways you’d never expect. It sounds like you dealt with your circumstances incredibly well. I’m guessing that, coming from America, you were used to a different style of teaching from what is normal in Japanese classrooms. What kinds of differences in teaching style, values, and philosophy could you see between the Japanese teaching method and your own preferred method/what you are used to teachers using back home?

    • Hey! Thanks for the comment!
      Honestly, one of the biggest differences I noticed was in the actual teachers who teach foreign language. The English teacher at the middle school was Japanese, and that wouldn’t be a problem, except that her English still had many problems. In America, it’s usually pretty important to hire a foreign language teacher who is actually of the nationality of the language that they are teaching. That way, not only do you have a native teaching the language, but they also are able to pass along their skills and abilities as a native speaker to their students. I feel like this is one of the problems with English education in Japan. Writing and reading were fine and can usually be OK regardless, but speaking is an entirely different problem. When the English teacher still has a heavy accent, or problems saying certain words, they pass that along to their students, and now their students are just as bad, which perpetuates the same speaking hardships over and over again.
      What I ended up doing with almost all the students I had is that I worked on tongue exercises with them. I’d open my mouth and actually show them where my tongue was, where it was placed again my teeth, etc, and then I made them do it with me. About 70% of the time, it worked! They were able to pronounce harder words (likes words with r’s) much better than before and much more clearly. The only problem is that by next week, they clearly did not practice, as they would not be able to do it anymore.

  2. Hi Aiden,
    I’m glad the suggestions from class worked a little bit to improve communication with your students! I understand your frustration though with not being given enough time to talk to them. It seems everything is about memorizing the readings and preparing for the tests, which doesn’t leave much time for anything else.
    That’s cool that they put you in charge of administering mock exams. It seems you have good teaching instincts because you made were careful to only use English in front of your students, and you cared about their performance.
    I’m curious–what were their reading passages about, and did the students seem interested in the topic?

    • Thanks for the comment!
      Their reading passages were actually pretty short, and on very diverse topics. One in particular that I remember was about the Hiroshima bombing, and the story actually ends with the character dyeing. But for the most part, these stories were only a couple of pages long. I think, that since the students were working on these passages for a while, that they were able to understand the meaning of what they were reading, and not just reading it without understanding. But each student’s level of comprehension differed slightly, and some seemed to understand more than others.
      In general, all the students seemed very interested in the English lessons, but I had one girl specifically who was very insistent on leaving the moment her time was up, and she did not seem very interested in what I had to say about her work. I would try to ask her questions about herself, or what else she wanted to work on, and she would immediately tell me that time was up and then she’d leave. On the other hand, I also had a student who took my help very seriously, and seemed to enjoy talking with me, although she was still exceptionally shy.