Eikaiwa

eikaiwa

When I taught English in Japan, I had six public schools I rotated among throughout the week. However, I also had a weekly eikaiwa (English conversation). Here’s a little about that experience. It may vary from what your experience will be.


Overview

The town I taught in was a small mountain town that was originally five separate towns. The population was roughly 10,000 people, but they were spread out over about a two-hour drive. Because of this, the town’s board of education hired two foreigners to assist with English classes, and I was one of them. I had the eastern half of town, and my friend had the western half.

For the first year we were there, she had her two eikaiwa classes and I had my two. All the classes were at night, but the days and times varied. I would teach in one part of town on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday nights and the second part of town on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday nights. (Any 5th nights were free!) During our second year there, we joined forces. We co-taught all our classes, and we rotated every week: my 1st town, my 2nd town, her 1st town, her 2nd town.

Some of our classes had a “teacher” or supervisor to help, typically with the children. However, the lessons were all ours, and they assisted if needed, which was the opposite of how our time in the public schools went. After a time, some of the supervisors stepped out to do other work since we had established ourselves by then.

A Typical Eikaiwa Night for Me
During the First Year

Tuesdays were my longest days. I had two elementary schools I taught at, so instead of spending all day at one school and teaching perhaps three classes, I taught three classes at the first school, ate lunch, then taught two at the last school. I got home around 4:45, made dinner, and had to leave by 6:30 to get to my eikaiwa class on time. Sometimes I had lessons prepared in advance, sometimes I made them up during dinner, and other times I came up with it almost on the spot. (This was particularly necessary with the kids, so I became good at improvising.)

7:00 PM. I greet the kids.

My class for Weeks 1 & 3 had kids from ages 2 to about 9, and I taught some of them during the day, too. We sang songs, played games like “Red Light, Green Light”, did crafts, and learned basic words and phrases. It was difficult to balance lessons for toddlers with lessons for elementary school kids. Luckily, I had parents and my supervisor (the former eikaiwa teacher) to help.

My class for Weeks 2 & 4 was only elementary school kids from grades 1 to 6. I taught the 5th and 6th graders regularly and occasionally saw the others in the hallways at school. I had a board of education man there to help with the kids. He was extremely nice and always willing to do whatever I needed so that class ran smoothly. This group of students was, in some ways, more difficult to deal with. There were more of them and no parents, and some of the boys were rowdy. However, the lessons were suitable for all the ages, so in that respect it was easier to teach them. We played games, learned about holidays, made crafts, and studied basic words and phrases. I tried to tie the lessons in with what we were learning in class during the day.

8:00 PM. I bid the kids farewell and clean up any mess. At the same time, I greet the adults as they enter the room, and we chat as I prepare for the lesson.

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The pumpkin an adult eikaiwa student painted on my hand for our Halloween lesson.

My class for Weeks 1 & 3 was small. At most, we had five or six people. Two were middle school girls I taught, and the others were adults usually in their 50s or 60s. Sometimes it was just the middle school girls, and sometimes it was just a few adults. Our classes were casual. If I taught the kids about Christmas, then I had a Christmas presentation, explanation, or craft ready for the adults as well. Sometimes we had Q&A sessions, but most of the time we started a conversation and let it go from there.

My class for Weeks 2 & 4 was about the same size, but it consisted of adults from their 30s to 50s and 60s. Our lessons followed the same format, but a few students wanted to focus on conversations they would need to understand if they went abroad. I tried to bring in menus or teach words and dialogues, but with the questions they asked and so on, that plan didn’t cement itself well.

9:00 PM. I say good night to the adults, clean up, and head home. I arrived home anywhere between 9:30 and 10:00, depending on if we talked afterward and which class I was at that night.

Prepping for the Second Year

My friend and I talked throughout our first year and compared experiences. We agreed that it seemed easier for us if we could co-teach. It meant only one class a month for our students instead of two classes, but that was a sacrifice we thought we everyone could handle. We would be bringing them two teachers instead of one, and we would have new kinds of lessons for them. Co-teaching would help us manage the kids better and not stretch us so thin, and if the adults had questions one of us couldn’t answer, the other might know what to say.

So we approached our board of education coordinator and asked if we could try this. To my knowledge, it had never been done in our town before, and usually it can be a challenge to convince the Japanese to change the pattern. A teacher may like the idea, but the higher-ups might not, or the rules may not allow for the kind of change we want. This is true of any location, any subject, and any teacher’s ideas. It’s not to say that change doesn’t happen—it clearly did for us—but keep in mind that it’s not as easy as you might hope. But I digress.

Our coordinator and her higher-ups agreed to the plan. As it was new, however, they wanted a few things in return.

1. A plan for the whole year. It was a rough outline (ex: November – Thanksgiving; taste-test American foods), and we could change it as we went. The idea was two-fold. First, they wanted to hand the “schedule” out to the students, so they could know what to expect and could choose what lessons they wanted to attend. For instance, if we had a cooking lesson planned, students who didn’t want to cook could stay home that night. Second, the “schedule” was a guideline for us. I resented this at first because I wanted flexibility and I loved surprising students. However, I came to appreciate looking at the schedule, grabbing the items, and being ready instead of coming up with a plan that night.

2. Summaries of our classes. These were short and didn’t have to be written every week, just submitted at some point. We needed to talk about what we did in class that night, what we thought went well, and what might be improved upon. In theory, these notes went to our successors, who are still co-teaching night classes. I never followed up on that, though, so I’m not sure if it happened like that or not.

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“Gingerbread” houses during an eikaiwa Christmas class the first year.

A Typical Eikaiwa Night for Me
During the Second Year

7:00/7:30 PM. Greet the kids/students and prepare for class.

8:00/8:30 PM. Say goodbye to the kids/students. If it was Week 3 or 4 and we were teaching my friend’s students, then we would go home after this class.

8:00 PM. If we were teaching my students, we would say goodbye to the kids and greet the arriving adults.

9:00 PM. We said goodbye to the adults and headed home.

As mentioned before, we had a theme for each month. Typically these centered around American holidays, and often we had a presentation and a craft. We got permission to give out candy or bring in certain foods. I remember how polarizing their first pumpkin spice latte experiences were. We had to first explain what pumpkin spice even was, then explain how it’s everywhere in America during the fall. We made some lattes for them, and we let them smell the container of spice. A middle schooler I had absolutely hated it (I forget if it was the smell, the taste, or both), but an older woman in that same class asked to take some of the spice home! (My friend had a giant container of it, so she gladly shared.)

Final Thoughts

I’m glad I had two eikaiwa experiences. Both had their positive and negative aspects. For instance, when teaching solo, I liked being able to plan my own classes and do what I wanted to do with my students, since I knew what they had been studying, what they were good at, and what they liked. I didn’t enjoy having to manage 12 kids and also conduct a class. When co-teaching, I liked being able to fall back and let my friend take over for a while, but I sometimes didn’t like having the “schedule” in place.

Eikaiwa, for me, was an entirely different world than teaching at a public school. Most of my classes during the day were good, and the teachers were great, but I was following their plans, and some days I had less to do than others. They were also more structured classes than my night classes were. I purposely tried to make the eikaiwa classes upbeat, unique, and very much different than the classes my students attended all day. It was freeing.

I hope this peek into my eikaiwa experience has given you some idea of what you might expect when you teach your own night classes. If you have taught or are currently teaching an eikaiwa class, what is or was your experience like? If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them. I hope to get some lesson plans posted. You’re free to use them as you like, but let me know if you do, please!

Enjoy your eikaiwa!

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