In addition to prefectural boards of education, non-governmental organizations such as JALT are working to improve language teaching and learning throughout Japan. JALT organizes local seminars, holds an annual international and national conference, and regularly publishes research. For example, to assist students as they develop careers in the language teaching field this column highlights practical classroom applications of theoretical developments. According to Lamie (1998, p. 524) JALT once had “an international membership of more than 3,800 and 37 local branches or chapters.” Although its current membership has declined to 2,667 regular members, 63 of those are student members (J. Shirakawa, personal communication, June 1, 2017).
The merging of chapters in several prefectures, such as Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto and Nagasaki into just one, has narrowed opportunities for these student members to locally gain practical teaching experience. And fewer chapter meetings lessen our chance to hear directly from these fascinating student members. Therefore, in this issue’s Teaching Assistance I interview Kanami Ikeda, a senior-year English major who returned to her hometown to experience teaching English at Shibushi Junior High School. The population is declining in this rural area of Kyushu so her hometown cooperated with other towns to form a city in 2005. Some schools in the region were closed and others merged. Although the exterior of the school building looked the same as it did 10 years ago when she studied there, Ikeda says that she was surprised to find it now accommodates 120 fewer students. One classroom from each of the three grades has disappeared.
Prefectural governments are responsible for appointing public school teachers. Therefore, at least one national university in each prefecture must offer a teacher training course and grant teaching certificates. If accredited by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), any national, public, or private university can offer their students teacher training courses. To gain accreditation, the institutions must provide a certain number of teaching and pedagogy courses for academic credits. These required classes include teaching practice at regional schools. For example, education majors at the International University of Kagoshima can experience teaching practice at junior high schools for three weeks in May, or at senior high schools for two weeks in June. I conducted this interview on May 31, before and after observing an English class for second graders. This final class was instructed by the interviewee and evaluated by the school principal, vice-principal, homeroom class teacher and several other English teachers.
David McMurray: How did you feel about going home to teach English?
Kanami Ikeda: Before going to my former junior high school I felt confident. I felt my practicum would be successful. I’ve been teaching English at a cram school part-time for three years in a larger city, and I thought my practicum classes would be similar. At the cram school, there are a few students who are unable or perhaps unwilling to even write the letters of the alphabet. They are atrocious spellers, too. However, I manage to help most others who attend my class. Most junior high school students know the fundamentals of English grammar. They are responsive to pair work and group work activities. I am sure they have fun. When I assign questions that they had already learned in school, they let me know. They speak aloud without being afraid of making mistakes. So it is easy to conduct cram school lessons. With this experience in mind, on the first day of my practicum I confidently walked up to the front doors of my former junior high school. Wisteria bloomed. The principal was the first to greet me.
DM: What did you focus on during your first week of training?
KI: I observed my supervisor’s classes and assisted students with pronunciation when they read aloud from their textbook. The students generally seemed to be bright, energetic, kind and friendly. Some of them started talking to me on the first day. So it was very easy to build a relationship of trust with a few of them. On the other hand, some students caused trouble and tried to attract attention by yelling out in class. I assumed they had some personal problems or conflicts at home, but during adolescence these outbursts are likely normal reactions.
DM: Did your experience as a cram school teacher help you teach at junior high?
KI: I quickly came to the conclusion that teaching English was going to be very difficult at this junior high school. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to transfer my teaching skills to such a large class with a wide diversity of students.
DM: Can you contrast the ways you teach at cram school with how you taught at junior high school?
KI: Cram schools are voluntarily attended by students who want to study, improve their scores, and pass entrance exams. Grammar teaching methods are used to help students pass the tests given at school and in public high school entrance exams. In cram school classes, students participate actively, concentrate, and follow the instructions of the teachers. There are five to 20 students per class, grouped according to competency level.
Junior high schools in Japan are compulsory, so motivation is varied. There are about 40 students and one teacher in each class and teachers cannot pay attention to all of them. Each student seemed to have a different outlook on study. They had wide-ranging scholastic abilities. Teaching strategies include pair work or group activities. When students participate, the class can liven up and students can enjoy learning. In English classes, the students learn new words, grammar, and the content of the assigned textbook.
DM: What did you focus on during your second week of training?
KI: I started to make my own lesson plans. I taught classes every day, but I couldn’t implement these classes as planned. It was difficult for me to teach English to every one of the students. Based on my supervisor’s daily evaluations and suggestions, I tried to improve the subsequent lesson.
DM: How did your supervisor help you during the practicum?
KI: Specifically, my supervisor offered advice on how to facilitate group work. She also regularly consulted with the school principal on my progress. Knowing I was constantly being observed was stressful, but it served as an incentive for me to perform my best.
DM: What had you overlooked when planning group work?
KI: I came to realize that it was important to tailor activities to differing language competency levels. Although I wanted everyone to do pair work or take part in group activities, some refused to cooperate. I had to devise unique solutions to address the differences in their preferred learning styles. Some students concentrated on what was happening in class, but a few students tried to obstruct lessons. For example, they chatted with friends around them, slept, and studied subjects other than English. The high-achieving students listened to their teachers. I could see them concentrating on what was being explained. When I spoke to the students about why they were studying so hard, they told me they wanted to get a good score on their exams and go to a good high school. Other students clearly were unmotivated to improve even their spelling. Some couldn’t read sentences on their own. A few refused to participate in activities with classmates. They seemed indifferent and didn’t listen to instructions.
DM: What did you focus on during your final classes?
KI: I had to prepare for two finals, a class of English and a class of moral education. After reflecting on the previous three weeks of classes, I decided to focus on how best to draw out the interests of each of my students. I decided to emphasize group work, even though I realized some had previously refused to do it. I had to challenge this teaching technique because I felt it was an important skill for the students to be exposed to. By incorporating group activities, students could also learn how to participate and interact with classmates.
DM: How did you gear up to teach group activities in your final English class?
KI: Before the class, I tried to build a relationship of mutual trust with the students. If I could achieve this goal, the students might participate better in the class. For example, I asked them to speak to me honestly. I asked them to give me some advice about what to do when it got boring in class. I aimed at giving a lesson in which nobody would nap or chat. I told them every time they obstructed my teaching, my heart was broken. I asked them to tell me their ideas without hesitation.
From that moment on, most of the students and all of the teachers encouraged me. Some gave me advice and even wrote letters. Thanks to these demonstrations of kindness, I could achieve my goal. Their replies helped me to improve my lessons. They promised me they would do group study if the topic was about famous characters.
Knowing it is important for all students to feel a sense of achievement in the class, I tried harder to get to know each student. I needed to know not only their individual levels of English competency but also their ability in other subjects too. I tried to think of a way to teach English grammar by using handouts rather than the textbook or writing on the blackboard. Completing a handout is an opportune way in which each student can get a sense of achievement. But it is very difficult to make handouts for a diverse range of students.
DM: So, how was your final class?
KI: Well, one day before the final class, I made a preliminary handout using new grammar. I asked students to fill in blanks with words from a story about famous characters in the textbook. As soon as they looked at the handout and tried to answer the questions, however, some said, “I don’t know what I should write.” I had to quickly rework that handout on the morning of the final class.
And it worked. I was finally able to give a lesson in which the students seemed to enjoy learning English. Those who had previously been a bother actively joined in my lesson. When I saw how much they enjoyed my lesson, I became very happy and privately cried tears of joy. The lesson was openly praised by the supervisor.
DM: What have you come to realize about teaching?
KI: Three key concepts that I learned in my hometown school that I will take forward into my future career are as follows:
- build a relationship of mutual trust,
- use group activities to increase interest, and
- tailor handouts to different levels of English competence.
I have come to appreciate the teaching strategies implemented at cram schools. I realized firsthand the ups and downs of teaching English at a junior high school. I better understand the challenges of teaching to a large class with varying levels of language competency. I experienced problems and suffered setbacks, but I now enjoy much happiness from the language teaching profession.
- Ikeda, K. (2017). Mack Seminar. Retrieved from http://mcmurrayuniversity.jimdo.com/4th-year-1/kanami
- Lamie, J.M. (1998). Teacher education and training in Japan. Journal of InService Education, 24(3), 515–534.