A new school year means new staff members and sometimes big changes in the previous schedule. I teach at a few different elementary schools and whether I’m the main teacher or the assistant depends on the school and on the grade. It took me 9 months to get used to one way and the next couple of weeks will be spent getting used to another. At one school I’d be the main teacher for only 5th grade and not 6th, at another I’d do both by myself, and then at another I’d help out as a human tape recorder and that was about it. Yesterday was my first day back to one school where I had been the main teacher for both 5th grade classes and the assistant for the 6th graders. The school affairs teacher wasn’t sure what role I’d play this year so I had to ask the teachers individually after we introduced ourselves. The conversation naturally came to “so…(sucking air through teeth sound) what are we doing today” and luckily thanks to having started Hi Friends at another school, I was prepared for it. The 5th grade teachers seemed relieved that I had something planned and when I got to 6th grade, I was expected to teach on my own as well, being told “that’s probably for the best”. Thankfully, it went well and for the first time, I kind of feel like I’m getting the hang of things. Being an assistant language teacher that teaches alone seemed really weird to me but that’s how things are done in my town and I’m still figuring out how to deal with it. I always wonder if some of the elementary school teachers resent being told to teach English on top of every other subject. It’s like asking me to teach Italian based on the little I remember from high school and no formal training. It’s not impossible but it’s in the ball park.
When I first came on JET, the “so, what are we doing today” question made my stomach drop and I’d have this internal panic. I didn’t even know how to properly schedule a lesson let alone teach on my own to young kids who can be adorable and then later be as nasty as kids were when you were a kid (all in a different language that you do not fully understand.) 9 months of teaching later and, while I still get nervous when I see kids not paying attention or mimicking, it’s easier than it was. I let it go, keep going according to my lesson plan, and usually doing some weird voice during choral repetition brings the focus back. It’s gotten easier and I’m hoping it continues that way. Ever since I had what was arguably my worst day on the job back in October at one of the schools where I’m expected to teach all grades based on my own lessons, I’ve slowly started to learn how to deal with things changing unexpectedly and being thrown off. Still getting used to how things work, I basically showed up without much of a plan and with only about a month in the classroom, I didn’t know how to stretch a textbook activity into something useful. After a disaster of a class where the kids didn’t speak up at all and the teacher essentially had to take over, I got to enjoy being talked about by the teachers in front of me without consulting me about where to go from there. It was decided I’d be T2 since I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. On top of that, I had no time to prepare for one class and wasn’t allowed to use any of the working computers to print. I asked to use my lunch hour to work (like I’ve been able to in other offices) but the office lady wouldn’t excuse me until everyone in the teacher’s room had finished lunch. Meanwhile, having not prepared a real lunch other than some thrown together soup, I sat nervous, hungry, and tired for 15 minutes while everyone enjoyed their lunch. I walked into the next class so under-prepared and embarrassed. Afterwards, I went to the bathroom and cried. My supervisor drove me home and I cried some more. I took off the next day to sleep, pull myself together and realize I was going about this entirely wrong. The problem with not having an education background means no experience with lesson planning, no backup games to pull when you don’t have anything concrete planned, and I spent my first couple months here fumbling awkwardly through nearly every class. I felt the need to try and reinvent the wheel pretty much and went overboard doing something different for each lesson at each school. I learned the hard way that a couple games of bingo goes a long way and requires no preparation.
Things I’ve done since then that have helped me level out and made things go much, much smoother in the classroom
1. have a set of backup games in class lessons finish up sooner than expected. Nothing worse than realizing you have 10 minutes left, nothing to do, and 17-25 kids just staring at you expectantly.
2. crafts. With grades 1-3, I sometimes introduce arts and crafts that coincide with the lessons because it gives the kids who aren’t really verbal a chance to do something creative. It also quiets a rowdy class down and it kills about 10 minutes which is great when you have a class of 7 year olds who can’t stay focused for very long. I’ve also learned not to put young kids on the spot to showcase what they make. Instead, they share with their lunch groups or I use the projector and have the kids yell out colors, fruits, vegetables, etc that their classmate used.
3. futon tataki. For any new JETs coming in this summer assigned to elementary schools, this game will be a life saver. Go to Daiso, pick up fly swatters or futon tataki rods and after introducing vocab, hand it out to kids split up into two teams. As soon as they see me pull them out of my bag, the kids go crazy. It’s a fun game that reinforces vocab we just learned, gets them excited, and can be used for pretty much any lesson.
4. I got a notebook to keep track of things I do with elementary school teachers who are T1 in class. They use a lot of different games that I’ve never done before so I take note during class and then figure out ways to use them again during the days I’m on my own at other schools.
5. Mom blogs. I’ve gone through most ESL blogs but I’ve found that mom blogs run by women who home school their kids have been great for ideas, especially when I’m with kindergarteners or young ES kids.
6. Realizing that there is only so much I can do. I can’t make every kid like English, some just don’t care and I get it. The only thing I can do is introduce whatever lesson I have scheduled for the day so that for the kids who do like English, they get something out of it and for the kids that don’t, the 45 minutes we spent together isn’t boring and painful.
Something I do want to try this year that will hopefully pay off for the kids who are off to middle school next year is more emphasis on phonics and a little bit of writing. My predecessor introduced phonics packets a couple years back and now that I feel more confident in the classroom, I want to expand on that and do more activities. Luckily the teachers have been on board for that this year. I’ve had teachers that sometimes forget to do phonics and so at the end of last year, some kids in one school were further along than others. Being the main teacher with 5th and 6th grade means I can make sure we cover the textbook and practice pronunciation because by God, if the kids I teach learn anything I hope it’s how to distinguish between m and n, b and v.