As an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at junior high school level (JHS), I work with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). There really are too many abbreviations in this job. Anyway, this invites a “team teaching” approach to our lessons that thankfully doesn’t make me just a human tape player reciting from the crappy textbooks. We’ll prepare activities, present dialogue to give students a better understanding of “naturally” spoken English, and attempt to create a more involved learning atmosphere. But like anyone who is studying or teaching a second language, mistakes are bound to occur. The students present their own range of challenges, as I’ve discussed, but the teachers also can create some unique situations in the classroom.
Last week, the JTE and I were teaching the first graders about imperatives, i.e “Don’t run” or “Be careful”. The main activity involved the students drawing a warning sign of their own original design. I gave some crudely drawn examples; don’t swim, don’t eat and don’t fight. Apart from some questionable choices like “don’t commit suicide” and “don’t kill people”, the majority of students drew sensible pictures. The second part involved them asking their partner to write the caption underneath. As I wondered around the classroom to help those in need, I glanced back towards the blackboard to see the words “Don’t shit” written in chalk. I immediately rushed to erase it before the rest of the class realised. The caption should have been “Clean Up After Your Dog” but the teacher had clearly gone the direct route, and forgotten the word for excrement. Students will frequently ask me to teach them swearwords, which I’ll politely decline. So witnessing a teacher writing them on the board is definitely new to me. In that instance, I spoke with her after the lesson and pointed out her mistake.
The odd spelling mistake or grammatical error is a norm any job, and teachers aren’t invulnerable to them either. A question that gets asked a lot at workshops and training is “how do you go about correcting the teacher?” The response isn’t always clear as it totally depends the relationship between the JTE and the ALT. But there is a definite level of awkwardness in fixing the lead teacher’s mistakes during a lesson. Of course, as a native English speaker my job naturally requires me to make sure that the students are studying the precise spelling and grammar. But if I were teaching Japanese to a class and my assistant teacher was pointing out my errors, I’d be slightly frustrated. In my cynical eyes, it would undermine my teaching, and thus the students would start to judge my own comprehension and ability of the language. Imagine if Led Zeppelin were playing and then suddenly an audience member came on stage, took Jimmy Page’s double-neck SG and showed him the correct way to play the solo from “Stairway to Heaven”. It would be an awkward and tense moment for all.
My teachers have said that they have no problem with me correcting them during class. But I know that’s not completely the case. So in order to refrain from constantly doing that, I usually try and coerce a student to do so instead. They’ll usually get praise for pointing it out and win over some of their classmates. Other than that I’ll covertly make adjustments on the blackboard while the teacher isn’t looking, or just signal the them from the back so that the students can’t see. These don’t work all the time, but it certainly helps reduce the guilt. Well, kind of.