Three words. One sentence. A concrete piece of advice that I have heard one too many times from experienced MY teachers who observed my lessons and whose lessons I have observed.
Three simple words that I continue to utter to myself whenever I plan a lesson and as I enter a classroom.
Several months into teaching with MY and I found myself struggling with “letting them (the students) struggle.” Since joining MY in the spring of 2022, I noticed that one thing I started doing more often than before is to reflect on my lessons, whether it turned out the way I had planned or had gone astray from the path I had intended .
And one question that I found myself reflecting on was “Why am I struggling with letting them struggle?” Is it the big brother side of me? Is it because silence in the classroom makes me uncomfortable? Is it because my idea of an efficiently managed classroom is one where things run continuously just like a Broadway musical where one scene almost always moves seamlessly onwards to the next scene? All of the above I guess.
Towards the end of the previous school year, I noticed some tiny changes in myself: I consciously (and patiently) tried harder to wait for one student to figure the situation out and ask the question I was waiting for or say the target language we’ve been studying. I told myself it was okay to see the students have a confused look on their faces.
Students successfully overcoming a hurdle made me see that letting them struggle does more good than harm.
I started seeing how letting them struggle is a way not just to learn about English but also having that skill to think and to make a decision on what to do in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation outside the four walls of MY. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a class of elementary first graders or junior high third graders. Students successfully overcoming a hurdle made me see that letting them struggle does more good than harm.
Through continued conversations with fellow MY teachers, the monthly trainings, reading up on language teaching on my own, and consciously making the effort to let the students struggle, I’d like to think that I am getting more used to seeing the students in unfamiliar and, at times, uncomfortable situations where they are struggling. And as I start my second year of teaching with MY, I also hope that, in time, I no longer have to struggle with letting them struggle.
Editor’s note: John and Sam both started at MY English School in April 2021. They have graciously agreed to share about their first-year experiences at MY.
by John Lin
Joining MY after being an ALT for 3 years was eye-opening. At first, it was a little bit scary, trying to learn a new teaching method. Going from an ALT who usually was taught to give students templates and run a class strictly, watching the MY teachers let students run portions of a class by themselves while they prepared the next activity showed me the way to make English learning more fun and engaging. Every teacher was also more than happy to pass on their game methods to me, and took time to give pointers on how to help children become more independent learners.
The many training days throughout the year also helped me keep track of my progress. It was also possible to not only socialize with colleagues from other schools, but to share ideas on how to improve lessons. After learning about the ball toss activities in the first training session, the second training had other teachers offering suggestions on how to make the activity more interesting for older students. Outside of the lessons and trainings, teachers will also meet up for some games or sports, bringing a sense of friendship to the staff. All of that comes together to make MY a wonderful learning and teaching experience for both the students and staff.
“I have been able to come to work happy”
by Sam Todd
Joining MY was one of the best choices I have made in my many years in Japan. Having worked for many different places, I have always felt that the focus is misplaced in the majority of schools. MY has a very clear focus on the student and the teacher. I believe that it is easy to see how this is beneficial, not only for them, but for MY. It has been a long time since I have been able to come to work happy because I feel that I am making a dramatic impact on students’ futures and greatly enjoy working with my teammates.
As a new team member, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to be amongst a group of people that already know each other well. Having to experience some growing pains in a new company is to be expected, but the always available aid, support and welcoming nature of my coworkers, has made the transition into something interesting and enjoyable.
We, as teachers, have a very important job to do, and MY understands that there are many different ways to get to that end goal. MY allows teachers (and students) the freedom to use their skills and abilities to reach the goal and always aids in setting up the next one. It must be said that it is also fantastic to be surrounded by like-minded coworkers willing to share their experiences, so that we always have the opportunity to improve. The experience of working in an environment in which everyone works hard and is not content with mediocrity, while maintaining motivation, is truly fulfilling!
Editor’s note: Andy has taught at MY during the past two years. As he relocates with his family back to his home country, he has offered to share his thoughts about the experience of working at MY English School.
In a country like Japan, with hundreds of language schools, eikaiwas, and online teaching platforms, you might find yourself wondering what the best option is. That will of course depend on what you are looking for. However, after more than 11 years of teaching English as a second language, MY English School has been the best in many ways, and here is why.
Inclusive and Multicultural
One of my biggest concerns when I started looking for teaching jobs in Japan was that I do not come from an English-speaking country. It is well known that several companies in Japan will not even look at your CV unless you come from England, America, or Australia. They don’t really care about your experience or teaching skills; it’s more about using the ‘native speaker’ card as a way to market their services, even though we know that teaching involves a broad set of abilities and a certain kind of sensibility that not everybody has. In a world where there are more non-native speakers than native speakers, this just feels like a way of perpetuating supremacy, which is exactly the opposite of why I teach English as a second language.
At MY English School there are people from all over the world, making it a rich environment in which everyone is constantly learning from each other and where students naturally grow more curious about languages. We use multiculturality as a way to create meaningful experiences that help students acquire useful language and skills. Not to mention that we are giving a great example of openness and inclusion by giving everyone a chance, regardless of where they come from.
If you are tired of spending hours commuting in packed trains and the ridiculously fast pace of a big city’s lifestyle, you will love living in peaceful Yamagata prefecture.
With a wide variety of things to do and places to explore, you will enjoy discovering the beautiful Japanese culture. Great ski areas, hot spring baths, restaurants, shopping malls, hiking trails, and some of the most delicious fruit I’ve ever had are some of the things you will find in Yamagata. Click here to check out some of the highlights that this amazing prefecture has to offer.
I had never been in a school that dedicated so much time and effort to improving its teachers’ skills and techniques. At MY English School, we have usually 10 training days and an expo every year, in which managers, advisors, and outside experts collaborate to create a comprehensive agenda to help both new and experienced teachers develop themselves professionally.
Not only do we get training, but we also have days to observe other teachers at work. The number of activities, techniques, and general understanding of how facilitating works that I can get from it has been priceless. After having worked here for almost 2 years, I can say it’s been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had as a professional ESL instructor.
Our teaching system is based on a method called the Questioning Approach, which encourages students to find out what things are by asking questions and then playing with the language. The way teachers engage students here is different to many other places. We are expected to create a sense of adventure and excitement that naturally draws kids into the lesson. On the other hand, our lessons intend to be as student-centered as possible, which means you will have to find ways of setting up an activity to then pull yourself out of the equation.
For some teachers adapting to this way of teaching can be quite challenging and even confusing at times. However, once you start feeling more comfortable you will find endless ways of expanding what you do with your students in the lesson. It is a job that can be as creative as you want it to be. You will be encouraged to explore new possibilities and to keep building on what you have previously done. You can take a look at part of the curriculum and some of the materials we use by clicking here.
Managers and staff care
I’ve been surprised more than once by how much support I’ve been given by everyone around me, something you don’t see everywhere. Just to give you an example, last year someone in my family was sick back home and travelling was quite complicated due to Covid restrictions. When I told my boss that I needed to take some weeks off his first reaction was to find a way to make it possible, even if it meant covering the lessons himself. Advisors are also wonderful people who will not hesitate to give you a hand, whether it’s doing paperwork or dealing with classroom issues, in fact, I know it’s not uncommon for them to drive new teachers around until they can buy their own car. This is a company that truly feels like a team pulling together in the same direction. You will never be left on your own.
The base salary at MY is ¥270,000-¥290,000 a month. You might get more or less, depending on your qualifications and experience. There are also opportunities to increase your income doing work in other areas, such as marketing, professional development, and management. You will also receive reimbursement according to law in case you have to drive to a distant location.
Whether this salary is good or not, that is totally subjective; however, here are some facts to put it into perspective. Eikaiwa teachers and ALT’s usually get an average of ¥250,000 a month, and often even less than that. You can read some more about average teacher salaries here. The cost of living in Yamagata is also one of the lowest in Japan, with an average of ¥179,000 for personal expenses per month. This of course implies that you will be able to save or spend more on what matters the most to you.
I’ve (almost) never had a bad day at MY. Sure, sometimes you are sick or tired, but I can always go to bed with my head clear, no anxiety about things going on at work. We have a culture of talking through issues and finding solutions together. This is priceless and extremely important for your mental health. We have a casual dress code and we can even wear shorts and flip-flops at some training events. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not just fooling around. Everyone at MY is super professional and dedicated to their jobs. We just understand that wearing a tie doesn’t make you a better human being. In fact, it is when we are relaxed that we can perform at our peak.
Working at MY is not just teaching
Do you think teaching English can be tedious and repetitive? Well, it can be. The good news is you will be doing way more than that. You will be learning, sharing, laughing, playing, and getting immersed in the Japanese culture. You will make great friends and probably even go out and have some drinks at times. You will be living life at its fullest while touching the lives of hundreds of children in the utmost positive way. If that sounds like something you would like to do, please get in touch with us!
Teachers who have been at MY for three, five, ten years or more and teachers who are in their first year at MY have very different training needs. The gap in knowledge and experience is significant, and many of MY’s training efforts are aimed at helping newer teachers close this gap with experienced teachers as quickly as possible.
Experienced teachers become teacher trainers, which offers many new challenges and room to grow. However, experienced teachers need training, too, and usually this training needs to follow a different format from what may best help newer teachers. Planning training sessions to meet the needs of both experienced and new teachers is a challenge.
The most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers.
MY’s owner, Ryan, has sometimes joked that the most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers. (MY isn’t going to do this.) MY typically adds at least two or three new teachers ever year, and so the experience gap is always with us.
At our August training day, experienced teachers enjoyed an opportunity to step back from training others and focus on our own professional development. What are we doing to develop ourselves professionally? What more can we (or should we) be doing? I invited the teachers to complete this survey of their professional development during the past year.
What stood out to me from our training session is how diverse the experiences of MY’s teachers are. As we discussed what activities we have done in the past year that we think we will still regard as memorable and significant to our professional development five years from now, every teacher listed a different activity.
MY gives so many out-of-classroom opportunities to our teachers that this is not surprising. A teacher involved in developing curriculum grows in different ways from a teacher involved in hiring, software development, leadership, or management. What impressed me from this training session is that there is no one-size-fits-all training for experienced teachers. The more we pursue diverse interests and opportunities, the more diverse our professional development needs to be.
One early morning in March 2020, I was on my way to our Sakata School to interview Chris about his five years at MY which, unfortunately, were coming to a close. It was bitterly cold outside, snowing so hard that I had to drive 20 km/h just so I could see 20 meters ahead. It was a Monday, an official day off, I was just getting over a small cold that I had for a good while, so with all the factors combined I think it’s needless to say, I did not want to be at the school. I would much rather lie down and degenerate under my fluffy blanket with a smartphone in my hands looking at owl pictures and memes.
I opened the door of the school with a fair few filthy words directed at the weather and saw Chris looking pensively at a massive cardboard box with a picture of a bookshelf on it. After greeting Chris, I inquired about the box in my customary expletive manner, and he simply shrugged and said: “I figured we needed some more space to store the new Extensive Reading books that we’ll purchase later this year”. The notion surprised me. Why, I wondered, was someone that was leaving their workplace for a new exciting adventure bother themselves with prospects for the future of their previous place of employment? Regardless, while I was setting up, Chris unpacked the box and the conversation began.
Chris has a rich experience of living and working in Japan. He used to be an ALT working for a dispatch company for five years before joining MY. “There was little opportunity for professional growth outside the classroom”, said Chris while glancing at the incomprehensibly Swedish manual, figuring out how to put the bloody thing together, “I did two years of off-site kindergarten lessons and received no training on how to do it at all”. After getting tired of not having any fun or opportunities to grow, Chris moved to MY in 2015. A former employee of MY, Pat Conaway, who later moved on to teach at a university, remembers Chris’ first days at MY. “Chris used a lot of songs with his Finding Out classes”, Pat said. “Up until then almost everyone ignored the music CD with Finding Out, but after he demoed using songs with Finding Out activities other teachers started using the songs too”.
Even as a new teacher, Chris was able to change his far more senior co-workers’ attitudes towards songs in the book, starting as he meant to go forward at MY. “When Chris first started, he was still a very fresh teacher despite having worked as an ALT for a couple years before joining MY”, says Melissa Ng, the former head of the Professional Development team and the current manager of the Kansai schools. “However, he made a solid effort to get advice from veteran teachers and attend professional development events, such as PanSIG and ETJ”.
Chris’ drive for professional development organically led him to joining the Professional Development team at MY in 2016. “I wanted to grow as a person”, said Chris. “The job was challenging and yet I enjoyed the nice, friendly atmosphere and the autonomy it gave me”, said he while putting two pieces of the shelf together. Melissa also recalled that with time, Chris started to take on other leadership responsibilities at MY by actively creating better connections with the local communities, teaching lessons at community centers which eventually led to the opening of our Tsuruoka school. Ryan Hagglund, the CEO of MY, mentions that he appreciated not only Chris’ leadership skills, but also his honesty. “One thing I always appreciated about Chris was that he wasn’t afraid to tell me his thoughts on things”, said he. “I remember one time when after a conversation we had, he felt a little discouraged by something I had said. He contacted me later in the day to talk and let me know how he had felt after our conversation. This honesty and willingness to tell me how he viewed things was invaluable”.
Chris’ ability to be honest about everything was in fact, one of the first things I noticed about him. I joined the PD team the year Chris took over the role after Melissa went to Kansai to manage our schools there. During one of the weekly meetings, he criticized a staff member’s work attitude, which I thought was fair at the time. However, a week later Chris apologized for saying those words “because it’s unfair to criticize someone when they are not there to defend themselves”, and I realized that he was absolutely right, that his words were wrong, but because he admitted to being wrong first I did not feel upset at him. Myself being still somewhat a child in the world of adults, felt shocked by his accountability and willingness to accept the blame even if no one was pointing their fingers at him.
Looking at the mostly assembled shelf, Chris moved onto sharing his future plans with me. “From April, I am planning to study computer science for two years and work as a part-time English teacher”, said he while putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. He was excited to move on to his new adventure but he shared how grateful he was for the experiences he got while at MY. “I acquired leadership skills and an appreciation for time management and planning”, indeed, skills that are essential for the leader of the PD team.
Looking back, Chris was quite content with his work at MY, but “long drives to Nairiku royally sucked”, chuckled he. In the world of ass-kissers, Chris was a refreshing tool of brutal honesty mixed with a dazzle of the good old British sense of humour. “I also appreciate Chris’s sense of humor”, added Ryan. “His wife was apparently surprised by it, however. One time he and I were talking on the phone while he was driving with his wife. After the conversation, his wife apparently chastised him saying, ‘You talk to your boss like that? You might get fired!’” Chris is a serious educator, but I’m also glad for his sense of humor”, concluded Ryan.
Chris took a step back to admire his completed bookshelf and after a contented smile, I watched him stroll away to do yet another chore. I suddenly came to a realization that Chris’ behaviour made perfect sense. That is what he did. He cared about things, even if it was not “his job” per se. I have heard the “it’s not my responsibility” line so much that if I got paid a dollar for it I’d be the richest person in Japan. Apathetic, passive people plague everyone around them with their conscious decision not to act. Negativity spreads around way faster than positivity, and people that give in to apathy destroy companies, societies, countries, and the world in the end.
Chris though is different. His empathy, genuine care for people and ability to see situations from everyone else’s point of view and ability to admit his wrongdoings, made him extremely easy to get along with. For MY, Chris leaving was, dare I say it, a huge loss, but whichever path he chose afterwards, whichever employer he works for now, has gained a tremendous amount of professional attitude and enthusiasm. As the current leader of the Professional Development team, I understand that filling Chris’ shoes is a monumentally difficult task, but having had him as my example of how to lead with compassion and love, I hope that one day I will deserve the kind words that people still remember Chris with.
Two years of teaching… Finally, the almost constant feeling of panic and uncertainty about my lessons has been replaced by something that from afar, resembles confidence. Finally, I know the curriculum (well, more or less), I’ve taught all the books at least once, I’ve kept most of my classes from last year and I’m familiar with every school and advisor. After two years of having worked at MY I’ve gained enough expertise to try and sail by myself, fix the mistakes I’ve made over the course of two years so I won’t repeat them again, and I will be able to reinforce my strong teaching skills. I’m ready! I’m ready! Let’s nail it!
And then someone ate a bat!
Moving to remote lessons was devastating to my confidence. Yet again, I’ve come back to the square one, back to March of 2018 – having no clue about what I’m doing. It is terrifying, really, to have an enormous amount of expectations put on you and you feel that you just can not carry it all. The first day of remote lessons went disastrously bad. A myriad of technical issues, crappy sound quality, lessons being too teacher-centered, inability to do proper error correction, regular silence as a response to my question… To me, an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, this was too much. After coming back home I just wanted to let it go and forget about it, but I couldn’t. Suddenly being stripped of my strengths and ripped out of my comfort zone made me feel powerless and forced me back to the lesson-conscious Alina.
However, as weeks went by I started to feel better. Lessons went way smoother, and my students’ smiles returned to their faces. Wondering what happened I started to reflect on the first week of teaching lessons remotely, and I found a simple answer.
One of my favourite books from this year so far “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel has this amazing quote in it: “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”
Why is adaptability so important in the current uncertainty? Adaptability matters because being able to restructure to new circumstances and do necessary self-correction is one of the things that separate people and organizations of the past from the people and organizations of the future in our hyper-globalized world. An English school can easily fold its wings and shut down for several months because they can’t swiftly adapt to the unfolding events since it’s easier to wait for the “whole thing to blow over”. Another English school though can quickly reassess the situation and figure out the best a possible solution to the existing problem not only for the business side of things, but also for the clients.
In fact, this almost a buzz-word now, adaptability, is what I think separates MY’s teachers from those who don’t make it here. On this note, the list that Professional Development and Hiring Teams made together that talks about the kinds of teachers we are always on the lookout for, adaptability came first. Of course, one can come with a phenomenal amount of teaching experience, a great CV and yet fail miserably in a student-centered classroom. Another person though, even with zero teaching experience and straight out of college can still make a difference and blow us all away. The key to this, I think, is being able to see the environment around you and adapt to it.
I don’t know how many more people are doing this weird thing that I do, but often, when I look back at some traumatic and difficult experiences of my life, I remember them with warmth and gratitude. Being severely bullied in high school was a horrendous experience, but now thinking about it does not hurt anymore. In fact, it makes me feel grateful since it has shaped me and made me myself, and, to be frank, maybe precisely as a result of this I made it all the way here. Even the Japanese driving school that I attended last year brought me so much stress and anxiety because learning how to drive with my limited Japanese skills and awful sense of direction was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced. Nevertheless, now I remember that time with so much affection I sometimes wish I could go back and experience it all over again. I think, in the end, I adapted to most challenges in my life and ultimately feel beholden to those trials as a source of continued self-improvement.
I hope in a few months I will feel grateful about the remote lessons too.
A very familiar situation, isn’t it? Regardless of the situation, whether it’s a language school classroom or our day-to-day life, not getting an answer to your question is upsetting, annoying and, truth be told, sometimes infuriating. Especially in a teacher-centered classroom not receiving an answer can be seen as straight up disrespectful and rude, or worse – as a sign that your students are absolutely clueless.
Or are they? That’s what I noticed when I joined MY. Sometimes,
after presenting a new topic I realised that instead of a wave of different
responses and answers I got only silence. And, as human beings, we hate when
silence falls upon us. Have you ever been on a date that suddenly went silent
and you wished that you were anywhere but there? At first, that’s exactly how I
felt. Thinking that this grammar target is the easiest in the world I hadn’t
been prepared for my students’ silence. Upon encountering this, our first
instinct is to avoid the situation – scrap the activity, move on to something
else, hoping that the second attempt later in the class would me more
However, after several months at MY I noticed that sometimes I
used to get a different kind of silence. Not the desperate, students trying to
avoid looking in your eye’s kind of silence (“not Slytherin!”). No, there was
something special. This was a curious, hungry silence of someone who knew
exactly what was going on, but wasn’t sure how to express their feelings.
Allow me to give you an example.
In one of my elementary school 2nd grade classes we started to study occupations, and the first question we were supposed to learn is “What do you do?”. Excited, I sat down with my students and “accidentally” asked them “What do you do?”. Being MY’s loyal students, my kids immediately asked me “What do you do, Alina?”, to which I proudly announced “I’m a teacher! “.
And then silence fell upon us.
Concerned, at first, I felt that maybe they didn’t understand the
question, and maybe I should either make myself clearer or do another activity,
allowing them to think over this new mysterious grammar point. But a few second
later I saw that students, instead of avoiding my eyes, were actively looking
for answers by looking at me and at each other curiously. That second a very
simple truth for an experienced teacher suddenly hit me.
What if they don’t know how to say “student” in English?
What I did was I gave them several examples. Smiling
mischievously, I asked my students
(Me)- “What’s “hon” in English?“
(Students)- “It’s book”.
(Me) – “Hm, I see. What’s baggu in English?”
(Students) – “It’s bag.”
(Me)-” Hm, I see. What’s….“
(Students)- “ALINA WHAT’S GAKUSEI IN ENGLISH??”
And at that moment I felt badass like never before. And, because this knowledge was obtained through a hard thinking process where students were allowed to think things through, and got the answer only after asking other follow-up questions, I realised several months later that this knowledge was retained by them. Even last year, when I just joined MY, some of my classes didn’t keep this knowledge and we had to recycle it way more frequently than I’d wished, and yet with this class even after a long time they were still able to ping-pong “I’m a student” to your “What do you do?”.
Becoming more comfortable with silence is one of the most
fundamental changes I’ve experienced since joining MY. In fact, I might say
that I Mia Wallaced myself – now I’m able to shut up for a minute and
comfortably share silence knowing that my students are figuring out the answer,
making sure that this knowledge gained after some elbow grease will stay with
them and go into their long term memory.