I HAVE NO EXPERIENCE WITH TEENAGERS. MY STUDENTS ARE SMALL AND UNSMILING AND WEARING MILITARY-INSPIRED UNIFORMS. THEY TERRIFY ME. HOW DO I MAKE THEM SMILE LIKE THE KIDS IN THE PAMPHLETS AND IMPROVE OUR RAPPORT?
My first year as an ALT was a disaster. My one job was to help teach these kids English by coming up with fun and games and stuff. But I thought English was SERIOUS BUSINESS, so I was very much against fun and games. I was also about as shy as a bare-skinned ninja, so when I was in class, all I saw were 30(x2) EYES OF JUDGEMENT. Class was painfully boring and few of my students seemed to like me.
GET TO THE PART WHERE YOU TELL ME HOW TO MAKE MY KIDS TREAT ME WITH RESPECT AND OBEY MY AUTHORITY OVER THEM AS AN ADULT, YES?
Lol, you don’t have any authority, you moppet. Being closer to your expiration date than them doesn’t mean you deserve any respect or power. Just like everyone else, you’re gonna have to earn it.
BUT I’M WEARING A TIE.
Your suit and your age don’t impress your students, and it doesn’t make them like you, nor want to listen to you, let alone respect you.
Your students don’t trust you.
I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY, MY RECORD IS ABSOLUTELY PROBABLY CLEAN.
Think about it: There’s an unspoken contract between you and the younglings in your care. And they are children—some of them may be mature physically, but mentally, they are not yet adults. And they are looking to you to guide them.
The problem is they are teenagers or soon will be. Very young children are more trusting and open with adults because they are much less independent. As they start getting older, though, they become aware of their personal image and worry over it a lot. Until they develop adequate self-confidence, your average teenager avoids embarrassment and judgement like the plague, and is very careful about who they open up to.
HOW DO I MAKE…uh…PERSUADE THEM TO OPEN UP?
Your rapport, your connection with your students, depends on how you perform as an educator, how you present yourself as a person, and how you respond to your students’ needs.
– STUDENT NEEDS –
This foreign language thing is terrifying. In Asia, where foreign faces can be rare, there’s an added problem of anxiety around someone from a different world. That means you.
1) Your students need to feel safe around you. I’ll say it again: Smile, mother fucker. Don’t expect your students to always smile back. The bottom line is you are foreign and you don’t look like them (unless you’re Asian and you do look like them, which will make this part easier for you). Some of your kids will be drawn to you, some will be repelled. I’ve had kids who didn’t warm up to me until three years of showing a consistently positive, playful attitude. Eventually they started smiling back.
2) Your students need to feel safe enough to make mistakes. Encourage your students to speak. Use easy language, ask easy questions, let them build up the confidence to respond, and be patient. Don’t criticize every little mistake, because you will kill their confidence. Also, some students are especially sensitive, so don’t force them to speak. One of my students cried every time a JTE called on her to speak in English class for three straight years. Tears, as it turns out, is like Kryptonite to student motivation, so let’s avoid them.
Another not-so-obvious point is to get the JTE to participate. It’s extremely important for students to see adult Japanese people using English. Some JTEs are terrified of English, but they are your students’ closest role models. In my experience, when the JTE was actively involved in class, the students tended to be as well.
3) Your students need to enjoy English class. JTEs generally set the tone for class, but as ALT, you have a lot of power to turn a boring class into something bearable. English class is hard. Make it fun. Bring games and activities to class that allow even your lowest-level students to participate. Bring a smile and a positive attitude, while you’re at it, and leave your ego at the door—the teacher who can laugh at his own mistakes and doesn’t take things too seriously is the type who makes it easier for students to relax.
4) Your students need to know that you know that they exist. This would be higher up, but the reality of being an ALT is you might have hundreds of students that you meet only a few times a week. That, plus learning student names is studying another kind of Japanese makes it harder to remember your students’ names.
But think about how it feels when your coworkers call you by your predecessor’s name and politely avoid using your name because they’ve forgotten it. Not good, right? Same for your kids. So if you want to go that extra mile, maybe start a name and stats chart, which you can review before and during class. You can practice matching the name to the student’s face, and ask them questions to get to know them better. Using their names and referring to past conversations shows them that you’re making an effort to see them as more than a kid in a school uniform.
– CLASSROOM PERFORMANCE –
Your students need to feel safe and have fun in class, and it’s also important to show that you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, they might like you, but not exactly take you seriously.
1) Be prepared for class. This is easy. Know when your classes are and know what you’re going to need to bring. Always print extra copies. For lessons that you lead, have a plan in advance. A lot of ALTs get last-minute requests to come to class with an activity or game, despite no time to prep. This is poopoo caca. But it’s a reality, so it’s a good idea to have a folder with activities you can do on the fly, and ideas for games you can do with no prep whatsoever (Hangman, Telephone, etc).
2) Be prepared to help. If you find English grammar confusing, think about what it’s like for a Japanese kid. When you can, look up the next lesson’s grammar ahead of time, rewrite the explanations you find in your own words, and simply. Also, try to pay attention to the Japanese and basic patterns the JTE uses while teaching the grammar. It’s definitely more work, but you’ll have more confidence, and your kids will have more confidence in you.
Your JTEs may ask students to write essays in English, but forget to explain how to write an EFL essay, resulting in feet dragging and poor essays. Try to get your students to write their ideas in simple Japanese first and use idea maps to generate ideas.
For speeches, suggest focusing on the back of the room when speaking to improve vocal projection. Eye contact is easier if students sweep the room, locking gaze with random students briefly. As always, a subtle smile makes a great impression.
3) Shake up your classroom routine. I fully embrace the power of Fun and Games in the classroom, but it’s fucking hard to come up with new stuff that is fun, can be used with what the students are learning, and isn’t something the kids have already done a million times. It’s not easy, but there are a lot of resources available to you, in your office and online, if you look. If you keep things from getting old, your students will have a reason to pay more attention in your classes.
– PERSONAL PRESENTATION –
Your kids are looking at you. Not because your fly is down, but because they want to size you up and figure out who you are and whether or not you are really trying to help them.
1) Act like you want to be there. The energy you bring to the room is going to affect your students. If you come in relaxed, positive, and enthusiastic, you will make it easier for your students to be relaxed, positive, and enthusiastic with you. If you are shy, nervous, and gloomy, guess how your students are going to behave around you?
2) Speak as much English as you can. With all the apathy and anxiety about speaking English in Japan, it can be tempting to speak more Japanese than English with your students. There are stubborn assumptions about which people can speak what language in Japan, and these only serve to increase the barrier between both languages and people. It’s up to somebody to take a hammer to that bitch and knock it down.
I think it’s important for Japanese students to see foreign folks communicating in Japanese and for ALTs to show Japanese students that they can communicate in English. If, like me, this doesn’t come easy to you, you can create a crib sheet of simple, easy questions to ask your students from time to time. This, I think, will help them see you as an approachable ALT.
3) Give generous praise. It’s easy to forget the power of a verbal pat on the back. I love an underdog, so it’s second nature for me to praise students who don’t have perfect English but are trying hard. But there’s are also students who seem icy towards me or English juku kids who have above-average English. But finding something to praise lets your students know that no matter what, you are on their side and that you care about them. And whether they want to admit it or not, they appreciate that more than the alternative.
4) Be real. Probably the best thing you can do to make your students see you as a three-dimensional figure is to tell them about yourself. Your life, your interests, your hopes and dreams, these are the things that make you memorable and relatable. Kids are interested in you, but they might be reluctant to say so. Talking to them about the little details of your life will make them feel less vulnerable in volunteering details about themselves.
SO I SHOULD ONLY BARE MY TEETH AT STUDENTS WHEN SMILING?
Something like that.
I APPRECIATE YOUR PERSPECTIVE. I WILL NOW GO TO PEACEFULLY GAIN POSITIVE RELATIONS WITH MY STUDENTS USING YOUR TACTICS.
Good luck. Before you leave, here’s a link that dropped out of the first draft of this blog post, but I think is neat and fun relic from the 1960s. Enjoy.
Also, here’s a link to a paper that goes into far more depth with this subject than I do, and polls actual Asian students on their thoughts on teacher-student rapport. It’s interesting.
Let’s English, mother fuckers.
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