Aug 20, 2018

Virtues to develop as an English teacher in Japan

If you want to teach English in Japan, there are, of course, skills you need to learn and keep on developing. Obviously, there are the technical skills necessary for teaching the language such as a good foundation of grammar, a rich vocabulary bank, and a comfortable level of IT proficiency.

And then there are the soft skills, or virtues and ways of being that you must be able to generate for yourself regularly, especially when you are serious about teaching here - be it teaching kids or adults. Here are just some of the important ones:

1. Patience.

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That's usually a given. Teaching (and learning) in any form requires a great deal of patience. But let me describe or expound on patience in the Japanese cultural setting.

One of the challenges a language teacher often faces is explaining 'in context' vs. 'literal translation.' This is so magnified in the Japanese setting since generally, the Japanese people are such sticklers for rules, and anything that doesn’t go by the rules has to be thoroughly explained, before they become amenable to it.

Simply put, saying “because that’s how it goes” or “because it is what it is” to reason out just doesn’t cut it with them. So, be ready to explain things in context.

A good thing to remember when you are beginning to lose patience with a student is that while you are keeping your patience (or sanity) with them - just them - they are also keeping their patience with you AND with themselves.

The thing is, as a teacher, your patience will be tested not only inside the classroom, but also outside of it. Meaning, it's not only with the students you’re going to have to be patient with but also with the system in general. It could range from the country’s English education system, to the culture as a whole.

With that, what you are willing to tolerate or adapt to will depend entirely on you. Do you have to blend in? Well, frankly, you can try. But I can tell you now, even if you spend your entire life learning and adapting to Japanese culture, you’ll never become “Japanese” enough. That is because to this day, Japan has remained extremely homogeneous. In other words, to them you will remain a foreigner no matter how long you have lived in their country.

What I would recommend instead is for you to embrace your uniqueness while at the same time, keep your patience and broaden your mind in understanding them and their culture. You are a foreigner, accept that. Choose that. In choosing and accepting that identity of yours, you are actually arming yourself with a rich and powerful teaching tool that is beneficial to your students. Remember, they are studying a foreign language. Between you and a Japanese English teacher, who do you think is more credible?

2. Curiosity.

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If there’s one virtue that continues to work for me as a teacher, it is that of curiosity. Yes, I like asking questions. Why does this work? Simple: how can you get students to talk if to begin with, there’s no question to be answered? And how can a student continue to speak if there are no questions to keep pushing him or her through? Japanese students are quite infamous for giving painfully short answers - and that is partially due to their native language influence.

The Japanese language is considered a high-context language. Meaning, two persons speaking in Japanese can already understand each other even with less words. They quickly understand what is said and even what is not said. The English language, on the other hand, is a low-context language. What it means is that the one speaking is entirely responsible for ensuring that the listener understands what they are saying.

So, in order for the students to have a more realistic "feel" of the language they are learning, they have to get used to giving the context of what they are saying in detail - or in other works, speaking longer. As a teacher, you can definitely encourage that by asking questions, and making sure that the students don't fall into their "safe" answers just to end the conversation (some of them do that trick from time to time, trust me).

3. Creativity.

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Teaching, in general, demands creativity. A good teacher encourages creativity on his students at all times, and therefore he himself must cultivate his own creative spirit.

So how can you develop your own creativity? In my experience, my motivation to squeeze my creative juices came from one statement I began telling myself each and every time:

“I've got to have something to share.”

True, your students must talk more than 50% of the time. Most advanced or higher-level students will actually expect that from the teacher. However, when it’s your turn to talk or explain, do you honestly want your students to see (or hear) a teacher who is not well-versed? Or, would you like your students to think that you’ve somehow become one-dimensional, that there’s nothing more to you besides work? I certainly would not want that.

Why? Because most of the students that you will encounter - if you decide to teach adults - are already that: one-dimensional. They are most comfortable discussing their work (house work if you have housewives as students), and they are more than pleased to talk about it with pride. Rarely will they open up about other things that they are into, so you as a teacher must encourage them to talk about those. And how can you effectively encourage them if you yourself have got nothing to share? Leadership by example. That’s the key.

If you'd like to know some ways you can develop yourself and have something to share in class, click here.

4. Tenacity.

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Tenacity is defined as "the mental or moral strength to resist opposition, danger, or hardship." You can view that as courage or determination. Simply put, don't give up easily. As you teach in this country longer, it becomes so tempting to be resigned to some of the cultural aspects of this country and just consider it as "adjusting". Do not succumb to that quickly, because these cultural factors that you may become resigned to may actually be the factors that are hindering them from fully embracing the language that you have committed to teach. Do not give up on embracing your uniqueness. Continue to be patient, but be resilient because again, they have to get that along with studying a foreign language is accepting a culture that may challenge what they have become so accustomed to live in.

5. Self-awareness or self-worth.

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Why is this important for you to hone? As a teacher you will likely be placed in lots of situations where you will give all the energy that you have, or share all that you are with your students. In the process, you begin to forget who you are and what you truly value in life. You might end up working to the point of losing your ability to make yourself happy or worse, lose your sanity. You are the only one with the power to prevent those things from happening. Know very well what you can tolerate, accept, and/or compromise. Only by knowing your true worth can you compel the people around you to respect you.

Another reason why self-awareness is important to cultivate is that if you really look at it, at the core of your desire to improve on anything in life, including your career as an English teacher, is an awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses. Being truly self-aware gives you the humility to accept criticisms and advice to improve oneself, and also the grace to acknowledge and appreciate yourself for any good work that you do. True self-awareness gives you access to that balance that you so constantly need in your life.

As you can see from the soft skills that you must muster, teaching English here - well, living here in Japan, in general - can and will actually change you. However, it will be entirely up to you on how much change you are going to allow for yourself.



A teacher by profession, yet always a student of life. Currently living in Kanto, but in love with Kyushu.