Lessons I Never Thought I’d Learn Teaching English

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Dressed as my small town’s mascot, Omuran-chan, for the school’s Halloween event.

In the eye of an emotional storm last summer, I remember talking with my alternative energy practitioner about how I so badly wanted to move to Japan. She asked what was keeping me from simply going and seeing what happens. Instead of considering that path as an option, I dismissed it and instead unloaded a truck full of excuses about why it wasn’t possible.

“It’s not that simple. There are visas and immigration systems in place. And besides, I need a reason to be in Japan. I need to have something grounding me there otherwise I’ll just travel the country like an extended vacation. I’m not the kind of person to just go and see what happens because if it doesn’t work out then I’ll be disappointed and I will have wasted a lot of money and time for nothing and be right back at square 1 but even closer to rock bottom than I already was.”

That was my way of thinking, and to some degree it still is. As I get older I find it’s getting harder to be spontaneous. Anyway, my move to Japan wasn’t on a whim. Thanks to my former Japanese teacher and her best friend whom I currently work for, I was presented a wonderful teaching opportunity. It was the universe’s way of saying “YES, LET’S GET YOU TO JAPAN,” and I was elated. As my departure date neared, however, I started questioning whether I could do it. Could I really be a teacher? After all, I had zero teaching experience so what the hell was I going to do? In my mind, I had already failed before I even started.

Now that I’m 8 months into it, I realize that worrying was useless. With any new experience comes a learning curve, and I should never expect to be good at something right off the bat. But I should always try something at least once because I will never know what I’m good at until I do. With any trade it takes years to get the hang of it, and my first few months have been packed to the brim of lessons I never thought I’d learn teaching English.

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Lesson Plans
Stepping into this role, one major concern I had was coming up with ideas for lesson plans. The school I work at doesn’t have a set curriculum so there’s a lot of freedom when it comes to teaching materials and methods. As a creature of structure, coming in without a clue what to do and having to wing it was completely nerve-racking. As it turns out though, I needn’t have worried so much because my students actually give me new ideas every week. When I hear them talk, I pick up on their weaknesses and create lesson plans based around that. On top of that, the more I get to know their different personalities, likes and dislikes, etc., I can tailor lessons around their interests to make learning more fun for them.

What Language is
In studying Japanese and teaching English, I’ve come to learn that grammar and vocabulary are not enough. To really become fluent in a language, it’s important to understand body language, nuances, slang, shortcuts, and context as well. Language is knowing how to talk to your elders vs. your friends, conduct yourself in an array of situations, read the air, and express yourself through speech and silence. I’ve found that mixing conversation with hands-on activities (origami, cooking, etc.) and real world media is more beneficial than textbook learning. Furthermore, I am not only teaching English but I’m revisiting the nuances of English that are second nature to me and discovering how unique they are or how difficult they can be to grasp from another culture’s point of view. For example, trading in the bow for a handshake or making small talk to make one feel comfortable in an interview. Every day I discover new ways to express myself in my native language, how to simplify my thoughts, and speak more eloquently.

Motivation
For 6 years, I studied French in school, but at that age, I didn’t give a damn about learning a language. I only took those classes because language courses were required in order to graduate. That was the problem. I didn’t love French. I wasn’t drawn to it the way I am with Japanese. I really love learning Japanese, and I think it’s important to love the language you’re learning. Otherwise it becomes a task instead of a passion. Japanese is like this giant puzzle that I’m slowly putting together, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. Even so, I’ve had my fair share of days where I feel like giving up, and wonder why I’m doing this or if it will be worth it. But on those days, my students’ determination and motivation to study English encourages me to work twice as hard on my Japanese skills. We’re both working hard to meet each other halfway, to be bilingual, and that’s plenty of motivation for me.

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One of my students wasn’t too thrilled about wearing a bunny mask at the school’s Easter event.

Confidence
At times, I feel more like a comedian than a teacher. What can’t be communicated with words gets translated through gestures, song, dance, and charades. When I’m around the right people, I’m known to be a goofy person, but in letting my guard down to communicate effectively with my students, I’ve learned to love looking stupid. They really make me step out of my comfort zone and give me enough confidence to laugh at my mistakes instead of being ashamed of them. Because of my students, I look forward to going to work every day. They make teaching (and entertaining) fun for me.

How to be a Chameleon
In the same vein of developing lesson plans, I’ve learned how to adapt the same or similar material for different levels. In one week, I can use a set of flashcards for matching games for little kids, a spelling challenge for elementary and intermediate students, and story creation with adults. Doing so has taught me to be efficient with limited resources and creativity and think on my feet.

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Empathy
My students and I may be learning different languages, but we share similar obstacles on the road to fluency. Therefore, the classroom becomes a level playing field. Students may call me sensei (先生 – teacher in Japanese), but I’m as much of a student as my students are teachers. When I’m working, I keep in mind what kind of Japanese teacher I would want and use that to be as good of an English teacher as I know how. That empathy is incredibly advantageous and creates a comfortable but lively dynamic in the classroom.

Solutions vs. Self-Abuse
When a lesson doesn’t go as planned or I’m simply having an off day with the students, I have a knack for mentally berating myself. I get frustrated over why I’m not getting through to them and sink into these rotten thoughts about how my ideas suck and how it’s all my fault that it didn’t work. Those demons have created mountains of stress at times, but slowly, I’m learning to be proactive about finding different solutions rather than choosing to wallow in failure and give up.

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Staying Young
You know how you hear all these things about how right-handed people or people with pets will live longer or products promise to make you look younger? Well, I can’t speak for any of those, but I do believe being around kids every day helps me stay young mentally and emotionally flexible. The toddlers simultaneously melt my heart with how cute they are and break my heart at the attitudes they’re developing. Their boundless curiosity, playfulness, and sense of wonder is intoxicating and quite frankly, some days it’s more fun to talk with kids than adults.

Respect for Mothers
As amazing as it is to watch students grow and learn, it makes me sad because I want them to stay young forever. I want to freeze this entire experience so far and watch it in rewind as often as I’d like. However strong this feeling is for me, I imagine their actual mothers feel the same way but x100. Are all women born with maternal instincts or do I have to own up to the fact that one day I might actually want kids?

I Can Be Anything I Want
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I understand now that it’s not about knowing everything before going in but learning how to do it on the way. It’s all about the journey, and I’m never to old to do or learn something. The possibilities are endless (something I still have to remind myself of every day), and if I wanted to be, I could be a mechanic, a tour guide, a business owner, or anything I set my mind to. There’s a lot of comfort in that freedom, and from here on out, I will let my strong desire to learn guide me.

Of course, teaching isn’t cotton candy and unicorns all the time. In fact, I’ve had more frustrating days than I care to admit, but moments where the lightbulb goes off during a lesson or I can see how much a student has improved in only a week’s time, make it all worth it. A teacher can only do so much for a student. In order to master something you have to work hard individually as well. But if I can make it fun for them so that they feel motivated to study on their own then I’ve done my job and I can walk away with some sense that I contributed something valuable to their studies.

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