Teaching in Japan: Part 1

My first week in Japan

by Rachael Hornsby

After months of saving for flights, researching jobs, and attempting pretty unsuccessfully to learn some basic greetings in Japanese, I was eager to get over to Japan and find out for myself what it was like. I packed up all 25kg of my life in my snazzy new Tesco suitcase, said goodbye to all my friends and family, and left my lovely England once again so see what the homeland of sushi and sumo was to have in store for me.

Having caught the travel bug teaching in Thailand for a year, I had decided to set my sights on a new Asian adventure, and since everyone I’d met who’d been to Japan had loved it, and there are such great TEFL opportunities there, it seemed like an ideal place for the next step of my journey. Rather than choosing one of the many jobs I perused online, I decided to play it safe and follow a friend to a job and location I knew she had loved, and took a position teaching kindergarten in Kurume, a small city on the island of Kyushu in South West Japan.

After a long flight from Heathrow, and a short stopover in Seoul, I finally landed on Kyushu in Fukuoka, a city closer to North Korea than it is Tokyo. It was evening when I arrived, so my first sights of the island were just of big city lights on the drive from the airport with my colleague, with my main impressions being ‘why is everyone driving around in tiny white toy cars?’. My hotel on for the first night was pretty much like any other hotel, apart from the shower that only reached as high as my chest (the first of many ‘tall girl Japan problems’), and of course the infamous Japanese toilet, with its innumerous temperature, direction and pressure settings for your post-business ‘shower’- even more impressive than my beloved ‘bum gun’ in Thailand.

After a little tour of the not-too-exciting Wednesday night down town Kurume, my friend took me for my first Japanese meal to a gorgeous little yakitori restaurant. We sat at the bar eating sticks of meat and fresh salmon sashimi (my first ever!), surrounded by a strong aroma of tasty barbecuing and annoying cigarette smoke (it’s still legal to smoke inside here).

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Salmon sashimi, part of my first meal in Japan

I moved into my adorable little apartment the next day, which made me feel yet more like a giant (I get through my door ways with about an inch to spare above my head). The flat has all traditional Japanese sliding doors separating the rooms. The bedroom floor is all tatami (Japanese straw mats fitted together). The furniture is low to the ground, and the bath is deep, almost cube-shaped (my first few bath times were a bit of a floating somersault act!). It was one of the most stereotypically Japanese buildings I’d see yet, and I half felt as if I was moving into museum exhibit of what a period Japanese house should look like! I was also given a little moving in guide, complete with an ‘earthquake preparedness’ check list, which told you about how to get ready for an earthquake- it sounded just like the stuff we were learnt about in geography at school, so felt weirdly unreal, like I’d jumped into a textbook. Little did I actually know how soon this information would actually become relevant!

Other new essentials handed to me by my school included my inkan, which is a little bamboo stamp with my name on the end that I use instead of a signature for all my important documents (they could only fit the Japanese kana for my first name on- レイチェル, ‘Reicheru’), and my company car (woop!). I got off to a slightly awkward start driving. Having never driven an automatic car before, my foot tried to find the clutch and slammed the break down on my first drive, with a truck behind somehow avoiding crashing into us. But luckily Japan drive on the same side of the road as the UK, so after getting to grips with their road rules I was soon buzzing around town with ease down the city’s tiny roads the width of driveways. (Although I still sometimes set off my wipers instead of the indicators, as they’re on are the opposite side to my car at home. Some habits are hard to shake!)

My little automatic car ❤

The timing of the school year in Japan means that new teachers are lucky enough to experience the infamous ‘sakura’ season (the blooming of the cherry trees) almost as soon as they land. In my first week the blossom seemed to suddenly appear everywhere at once, making, for example the carp-filled canal below our building look even more picturesque. The way the blossom it is anticipated and celebrated in this country, helps you really make the most of it and appreciate the beauty. It’s a great example of the stunning nature of Japan that drew me here, and the people’s special relationship with nature that I think we should all try to emulate. As wishy washy as that is, they still know how to celebrate like any country here- with a good helping of friends and alcohol, specifically, in my experience, day drinking their way through cool boxes full of beer and sake under the blossom!

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Blossom at a park on my drive to school

At the Hanami (the picnic held under the cherry blossom trees) I had my first experience of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is done at different events throughout the year in Japan, and put simply it is someone serving you a cup of tea, but it involves a precise process carried out by professionally trained tea ‘makers’ (no idea what the term is for that!). Ours took a quarter of an hour or so, and I could write a whole blog post on all the elaborate steps, but basically we knelt beside a lady in a kimono who was preparing the tea with a little traditional stove, were given a sort of swan-shaped sweet to prepare out palette, and after its long preparation, were each served a bowl of bitter green matcha tea, before watching whilst everything was methodically cleaned and put away. (I have since found out there are many different ‘schools’ of tea, with their own unique ceremonies, and this is just one specific style). The whole thing was so slow and delicate it made you feel quite peaceful, giving a nice contrast to the noise and energy of the party, but afterwards I still had a bit too much sake (not wanting to be rude and turn down drinks from my new acquaintances of course!) and ended up cycling home along a slightly wonky line…

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My first week here was crammed with many more episodes, including starting my job at school, taking a trip to a stunning nearby temple town, and trying my first 100 yen sushi. And my first month here was even more eventful when the island was rocked by its strongest earthquake in on record…

#Travel: Poland – Krakow

Krakow, Poland is located near the Czech border in the southern part of the country. Millions of tourists flock to the city every year and this number is increasing annually!

Krakow is one of Europe’s best jewels. It is rich in history and architecture, has an abundance of restaurants and won’t damage your bank balance as badly as many other European cities.

In total, I spent 8 days in Krakow. I used airbnb to book a cheap apartment about a 10 minute walk from the city centre.

My Airbnb Discount Code:

https://www.airbnb.com/c/lhaddock4?currency=GBP

There are many places to stay in the city center, but if you’re looking for something a little quieter and cheaper, I recommend just outside of the old town.

8 days was a good amount of time for me to explore the city, chill and do some work.

Here are some things you need to check out when you’re visiting:

  • Krakow’s Rynek Glowny Town Centre
  • Wawel Cathedral
  • Wawel Royal Castle
  • Kazmiers The Former Jewish District
  • Lost Souls Alley

Two of the most popular things to do in Krakow are not actually in Krakow itself. They are half day/ day trips not too far from the city.

Auschwitz

I don’t have the words to describe my visit here. It’s an important history lesson that any visitor to Krakow should not miss.

Salt Mines

The Salt Mines were my most surprising part of my trip. I really wasn’t expecting much, but I was wrong! The structures and objects carved into the mine are incredibly impressive. It’s also a good history and science lesson.

So, there you have Krakow in a nutshell!

I hope to visit again this summer 🙂

Enjoy your trip!

Check out these handy resources to make sure you don’t miss anything in Krakow!

TEFL TIPS #9 – CLASS THEMES

Class Themes

When you peek inside the classrooms around you, chances are you find a lot of the same, especially in elementary schools—bright colors, number lines, and those same “motivational” banners that lose their appeal by day three. It can be hard to make your classroom stand out and to avoid having your space become completely mundane year to year. One way to spruce things up is to choose a class theme and to change it with either each semester or each new school year.

Adding a theme to a class can really help get students involved in their environment—it gets their imaginations turning and inspires them to create a whole world within the classroom. A theme also gives a sense of belonging and creates the mentality that the class is a team—“We’re all Tigers and Tigers are the best!”.

Of course, try not to get stuck in the rut of animals & fantasy creatures. Get creative and try out different professions (astronauts, sailors), environments (allow the class to create their own city or country), or even authors (Shel Silverstein & Dr. Seuss are always great choices!).

When cleverly executed, a class mascot can also be used to encourage positive behavior: “Ninjas are very quiet!” “Let’s go! Trains are super-speedy!”

You can also use that theme as a jumping-off point for arts & crafts, stories, and activities throughout the year. You can have class projects that revolve around creating a giant image of whatever your theme is (a class train or snake that gets longer with each completed unit; a giraffe or cheetah with increasing spots; a pirate with a growing crew or ninja with increasing shuriken, depending on the age group) as you complete different units or learn new facts.

Lastly, having a changing theme is a great mental break for you as a teacher—it inspires you to get more creative and motivates you to have a fresh outlook for a new class. It can help make the passage of time more visible too, and you realize how many subjects you’ve gone through or how far back a certain class was. When a new topic is one that really excites or motivates you it is bound to have a positive effect on your students as well.

-Ashley

TEFL TIPS #8 – PLAYDOUGH

In order to inspire creative thinking and maintain active engagement in the classroom, teachers need to sustain a dynamic environment. One great way to get kids involved is to involve more tactile activities and there are so many fun ways to include playdough in an ESL classroom! Not just for kids, either—even my adult learners have enjoyed some of the more challenging activities and welcome the break from books & paper. Below are some of my favorite activities:

Younger Learners:

Letters & Numbers: Definitely the most simple activity, having your smallest students practice their letters and numbers in clay is a fun way to help them focus on the shapes while also benefiting their developing motor skills. Offering them free time to create whatever they want afterward is also a great reward and as their skills grow you can challenge them to first spell out what they want to make afterward.

Footprints & Textures: For this activity, you’ll need small toy animals or hard, textured items like brushes, legos, & coins. Spread the playdough out on the table and make impressions while one or all students close their eyes, then have them try to guess what made the marks. This is great with toy dinosaurs or other plastic animals that can make different footprints and gives the opportunity to practice phrases like “I think”, “I see”, and “Is it…?”. Afterward, let the kids experiment with making their own impressions and see what pictures and stories they can create.

Intermediate to Adult:

Storytelling: In this activity, allow the students roughly 5-10 minutes to create anything they want, then have them present it to the class by telling a story about it. For those with lower speaking skills, ask questions (What is it? What is its name? Where does it live? What does it do?). It is a great way to maintain students’ attention as well, as they always seem interested to see what their classmates were able to create.

Pictionary: In this version of the game, a student randomly draws an English word or simple sentence and must create it out of playdough for their classmates to guess. This can be done in teams (with two students sculpting for their teams at the same time and the first team to guess wins the point) or individually (where a point will be awarded to both the guesser and sculptor if someone gets it right). However, this is best done in small classes—in larger classes being able to see what is being made quickly becomes a struggle.

This is just one of many ways to get students away from their books and into a more colorful lesson!

– Ashley

EPIK

This post is the second part to – http://tefltravelling.com/2016/01/26/the-korean-hogwan/

EPIK (English Program in Korea) is a program set up to help students learn English throughout the country. EPIK has been in existence since 1995 and has been used by thousands of teachers and students. Run by the Korean government, it is operated in public schools located all over Korea, catering to both elementary and high school.

EPIK should not be mistaken for the Korean private school system: The Hogwan.

Many ESL teachers choose to teach with EPIK for wide varieties of reasons that are briefly listed below:

Pros

Housing

All EPIK program jobs come with free housing; however, utilities are not included. Accommodation is usually standard but fine for its purpose.

Free Flights

EPIK provide an entrance allowance for teachers to purchase airfare to Korea (this is reimbursed during your first month). Upon competition of the contract, EPIK will also provide an allowance for teachers to purchase a flight to leave the country.

Paid Vacation

EPIK allow teachers 18 days paid vacation in addition to the 13 – 15 national Korean holidays. Vacation days can be used during the summer and winter breaks.

Regular Hours

In my personal opinion, one of the main differences between an EPIK and a Hogwan are the working hours. All EPIK schools run between 8/9.30 – 4/5.30, 22 hours of which is teaching time. Hogwans can start and finish at a wide variety of times and teaching hours drastically change between each one.

No Parent Involvement

Another HUGE benefit of EPIK over the Hogwan system is the lack of parental involvement. In many Hogwans parents basically run the show, which is not how a place of education should be run. In most cases, EPIK schools are run by professionals and people with experience.

Bonus

After a year at EPIK you will most likely be offered the chance to re-sign your contract, for which you will be given a re-signing bonus. It is also worth mentioning that for each year you stay at an EPIK school your salary will increase.

Training

Being an EPIK teacher requires you to participate in an EPIK training program.  This can be great for those with little experience or those looking to create a social circle within Korea.

Cons

VISA Process

The VISA process to work in Korea normally takes time and can be quite costly. In addition to the usual documents required for the E2 visa, EPIK candidates also need to provide 2 letters of reference.

Application Intake

A job at a Hogwan can be found all year round but this is not the case at EPIK. February and August are EPIKS two main recruitment periods; they need to have teachers in the country before the semester starts so they can complete the EPIK training programs.

Located Anywhere

You can be placed anywhere. EPIK places teachers not only anywhere in Seoul, but anywhere in the country. However, couples that apply together will stay together.

Training

EPIK training can also be a con because you can fail it.  Also, you won’t necessarily find out your location until after training and they are sorting you onto buses.

It is clear that the pros of working at an EPIK school dramatically outweigh the cons. Many argue that there is simply no contest between the Hogwan and EPIK.

Whether you chose to work for a Hogwan or use EPIK, it is always recommended that you use a good recruiter with a great reputation.

-Liam

TEFL TIPS #5 – Asking the right questions.

An important goal of TEFL teaching is to keep students talking, getting them to practice new words and reinforce those they’ve learned. A simple tactic for doing this is asking questions about what they have, whether it be a drawing, a book, or a toy. However many teachers, myself included, often fall into a rut of asking the same questions over and over long after their kids have outgrown them merely because it often seems there are only so many ways for a kid to describe something. Chief among such questions are “What color is it?” “How many are there?” “Is it big or little?”

As teachers, we have to move away from this routine. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, and it doesn’t challenge the kids to think creatively or use their English in new ways. It is important to remember that asking questions isn’t only intended to test their vocabulary, but also to help them think outside the box. Here are some more challenging description methods you can try with your students:

Give it personality: What is its name?
This can easily be asked of toys and drawings, and of everyday objects as well. Oftentimes when I start using this question they’ll simply tell me what something is (“Me draw bunny!”). But simply telling me that a drawing of a bunny is a bunny isn’t enough—by getting them to name that bunny, it often sparks a whole new conversation (“Bunny name is Zombie. Zombie is silly monster; Zombie eats shoes”). Names are associated with personalities and individuality—a concept not lost on children.

Break it down: What shapes is it made of?
Asking what shape something is can be very simple, but asking what shapes something is made of can become very complex and can also be a great way to discover new words. For example, try asking a kid what shapes a teddy bear is made of. They’ll definitely start with the most simple (“Nose is triangle; foot is circle.”) but will soon rise to the challenge of breaking down more complicated portions (“Ear is BIG circle and little circle; tummy is loooooong circle.”). Here the teacher also learns what shapes the kids don’t know and can introduce words like oval or oblong.

Opposites & Abstract: What is it not?
A great way to encourage abstract thinking is to ask the students for the exact opposite of the information they have. Basically, instead of asking “What is it?” try asking “What is it not?”. This challenges them to rack their brain for relevant words and phrases rather than simply identifying what they see in front of them, and then decide whether those words apply to the situation. Further, it helps them practice more varied sentence structure other than “It is _____.” For example, if you’ve asked your students what the weather is, try asking them what the weather isn’t today. Rather than the repetitive “It is sunny,” you’ll be able to elicit a greater range of responses (It’s not rainy! It isn’t stormy. No tornado today!”).

Give these a try.  See how they work in your classroom!

-Ashley