I have grown and developed as a teacher since 1989 when I began teaching in Japan. My teaching philosophy is based on everything that I have learned from my students, my colleagues and my MA TEFL studies. I didn’t start out as a teacher, but eventually became proud to call myself a teacher. I have worked hard over the past 20 years to get to this point. I continue to strive to be a sensitive observer of classroom interaction, to always learn from my mistakes, and to continue my professional development well beyond my MA TEFL studies.
The classroom and our students have truly changed a great deal over the past 20 years. When I began in 1989, the audio-lingual method was still the popular method. When I first walked into the classroom, my employer said, “teach speaking and listening”. My boss said that my students knew their grammar, and they simply needed the opportunity to practice with a native speaker. That was true to a large extent, especially for the motivated, private and language school type students. However, upon entering a high school in 1992, I quickly learned the importance of “context”: what works in one situation does not necessarily work in another.
In the 1990s, the communicative language teaching (CLT) methodology emerged. Through trial and error, I began to develop my own teaching technique. I learned how to manage a class – how to successfully elicit, check and correct my students. I could teach a PPP lesson (present, practice and produce) at any level from children to adults. This made me feel almost complete because I had reached a confidence level that I could have a successful lesson in almost any classroom. The MA TEFL, though, taught me an important new lesson.
Until the MA TEFL studies, I had been focused almost totally on MY teaching and not focused enough on THEIR learning. Since I had always been evaluated as an enthusiastic, professional, and cheerful teacher, everyone assumed that students would naturally learn a lot in my classes. Somewhere in my own mind, though, I sometimes felt like an imposter because there were some questions that never seemed to go away: Why don’t Japanese students speak more? How can they learn something this week and forget it completely by next week? Why do so many students give up on English? I needed to answer these questions in order to improve more. Thankfully, I have found some answers that now shape my ideas about teaching.
My students are better “motivated” and ”improve” more when I use the following approach: a balance of the 4 skills through input (listening & reading) and output (speaking & writing); teaching “grammar” as the best way to clarify meaning; and finally, “using English to learn English” through projects and presentations. Traditionally, native teachers (NTs) only taught listening and speaking. However, I now teach extensive reading (ER) as a very useful kind of input and extensive writing (EWr) as a valuable form of output. For ER, it is very important to read at one’s level, and for EWr students must write to convey meaning. I have had great results with this approach. Additionally, there are more opportunities for a wider range of my students to succeed at English.
New lesson materials must satisfactorily answer three questions before I use them: 1) Will students connect emotionally to this lesson? 2) Will there be a chance to transmit real thoughts, ideas or opinions between us? Will the activity build confidence or increase motivation? A good example of this is my extensive reading library (1400 titles). I use stories as a basis for writing opinions, character descriptions, story sequels, and even new original stories. I also use my own personal stories, my kids’ stories and news stories to provide authentic input and initiate discussions. I constantly search the internet for psychological quizzes, positive psychology activities or the latest Youtube video to catch student’s attention. Whatever they experience as input usually leads to an output exercise – either written or oral. My lessons always lead to a presentation of sorts – either in pairs, small groups or in front of the whole class. I encourage pair work for brainstorming and I encourage collaboration for output because we know that most Japanese students work better in groups than alone. Finally, I always keep my eyes and ears open to sudden learning opportunity windows (SLOW). These pop up constantly – when everyone overhears someone’s comment, or someone has an interesting reaction to something, or even when someone makes a funny mistake. These offer a unique catalyst for learning because the whole class has been captivated, and we can all learn something together. These are among the best teaching moments out there!