Eunice TanDefining the Team in Team Teaching

by Eunice Tan.


Team teaching. One of the gnarliest issues of EFL teaching in Japan, and in my opinion, one that is fiercely linked to the idea of the “native speaker.” The notion that the Japanese do not speak English clearly (even though there is strong evidence opposing this) is still firmly rooted in the minds of many English teachers in Japan, nationality notwithstanding. Many schools across Japan still feature a “native speaker of English” JET (a participant in the Japan Exchange Teaching Programme), ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), or NET (Native English Teacher), who tends to be consulted on all things speech-related in the classroom. I know. All those acronyms!

Handy abbreviations and native-speaker-isms aside, another reason why team teaching is such a minefield in Japan could be due to how differently Japanese and non-Japanese English teachers understand team teaching to be. Brigham Young University’s Center for Teaching and Learning summarises the act of team teaching to be anything ranging from having two teachers fronting a lesson together, to any situation where educators collaborate on developing a curriculum or teaching materials. In a Japanese public school classroom, chances are that the two EFL teachers’ ideas of team teaching could be on very different points of that team teaching spectrum. Teru Clavel, writing for The Japan Times, also states that sometimes the labour policies of the companies or organisations that the non-Japanese EFL teacher belongs to can directly contradict what the Japanese EFL teacher has been told is allowed in team teaching.

With all the sound and fury related to team teaching, how have the non-Japanese EFL teachers been dealing with this issue, practically, in their classrooms? Earlier this year, a colleague and I crafted a survey titled “JETs’ Perceptions of Team Teaching” and asked former and current JETs to complete it. The survey focused on the use of textbooks in team teaching because most public school non-Japanese EFL teachers have to contend with using a set textbook.

We received 47 responses, most of which reported having mostly positive team teaching experiences. However, these were just 47 JETs out of the tens of thousands who have gone through the programme since 1987, hence the survey results were not an accurate representation of how most JETs feel about team teaching.

So, we decided to focus more on the advice they gave concerning team teaching (their imagined audience being current JETs), and the relevant parts are presented below.

Note: The term “JTE” used in the comments below refer to the “Japanese Teacher of English”, or the Japanese team-teaching partner that JETs usually work with. 

Get your team-teaching partner onboard!

I was lucky in that my JTEs allowed me to use the textbook more as a guide than an actual teaching material. I used it to find topics that are related or interesting and presented new material on that.”

“If the JTE is not flexible, try to make it more interactive. For example, one of the sections was about making coxinha so I pushed to do the lesson in the kitchen area to not only go through the section but also make coxinha. I made the mistake early in waiting for the JTE to approach me for lessons.”

Be Proactive!

Find a way to meet with the (Japanese EFL) teachers out of class and plan lessons properly.”

Actively ask your (Japanese EFL) teachers to plan lessons together. Approach them with ideas for each lesson.”

“Once I figured the JTE didn’t want to do much team teaching, I was proactive in creating things like games (in PowerPoint, etc.), flash cards to supplement, etc. which got me a pass into better team teaching.

Find ways to engage your JTE and students through warm up activities. Warm-ups are the best!!”

Ask your JTE what some of the phrases you are helping teach are in Japanese so you can help confirm or edit student dialogue later.”

Sometimes, you just have to accept things the way they are.

“…recognize that at times you will be unable to deviate from the curriculum because of test prep.”

“You’ll be very lucky if your JTE values English learning and by extension your input. Just go with the flow and accept the things you cannot change.

Just agree with the (Japanese EFL) teachers and things become easier.”


Good, solid advice, all of the above.

Lastly, here is a reflection on my own team-teaching experience. Before I moved to Japan to teach EFL, I taught in a secondary school in Singapore and was the sole teacher in the classroom. In Japan, I enjoyed team teaching for the most part, but I really felt uncomfortable and stifled by having a team-teaching partner. I hid it well though, because all my teaching partners thought I really loved team teaching!

After leaving the team-teaching field, I realised that the discomfort I had experienced was due to me trying my best to achieve an equal distribution of work in lesson planning and delivery. That is a unicorn in the making, a legend, a wish, a fable – but not in a wistful sense. There is no such thing (in my opinion) as an equal distribution of team-teaching work in Japan. There is partnership and there is each member of the team pulling his/her own weight. By and large, we bring such different things to the team, and each team-teaching unit is so different, that to try to achieve equality is to try to teach unnaturally. If I had sat down with all my different Japanese teacher partners and had together worked out what kind (see the Brigham Young article) of partnership we desired, I think I could have had a much happier team-teaching experience.

What about you? Do you know what kind of team teacher you are? Do you know what kind of team teacher you want to be?

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Eunice Tan

Eunice wants to be many things, but has decided to be the best educator, student, volunteer, and supporter she knows how to be. She started out teaching Literature and English in Singapore, and then moved to Japan to teach EFL in high schools. Educational technology and teacher training are currently the bae of her existence.

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