It takes a year…

Anne Hendler

It takes a year…
by Anne Hendler.


Two months after my university graduation, I found myself teaching in a kindergarten – the same ten kids, five days a week, four hours a day. It was frustrating. I wasn’t trained. I didn’t know how to teach or manage a classroom. The recruiter had told me that the school would train me. The first thing my predecessor showed me was a game where he sits in a chair and the kids run around the room as fast as they can and try not to get caught by him. The second was one where the kids rearranged all the furniture in the classroom and made it into an obstacle course and tried to avoid getting caught by him. I observed his class for one day and then I was on my own.  

Slowly over the first year I built up the skills and confidence to be effective. I learned to adapt the curriculum to the kids as I got to know them. I learned classroom management skills that didn’t involve throwing a temper tantrum worse than the kids’ one. I learned to use repetition and set routines. I learned that just because kids don’t get something the first time doesn’t mean they’ll never get it or aren’t interested in it. I learned that kids change a lot in a year.   

At the end of the first year, having invested so much of myself in the school, the curriculum, and the kids, I didn’t want to leave. I stayed for five more years.  

Fast forward ten years. When I took a new job in a new country and a new context, I expected to walk in as the expert teacher that I felt myself to be when I left the kindergarten. What a humbling experience the reality has been. And once again it has taken a year to get comfortable with the curriculum, the students, the attitude towards English, the way language is learned in conversation schools, the expectations for students and teachers, when and how English is used in and outside of class. All these things factor into a very different experience. I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an expert now, or even thinking I might feel like one in five years. 

This year we have a new teacher starting at our school. She has never taught kids in Japan before, and my coworker and I were assigned to train her. And one of the things I want her to know is that it will take a year. A year to get to know her students. A year to get to know how best to manage the classroom and use the curriculum. A year to begin to understand the bigger picture of young learner conversation school teaching in Japan. And a year to feel comfortable. But we will help as much as we can. We will listen and learn from her new ideas and suggestions. We will all share our successes and failures and help each other out because we are better together.  

A Day in the Life of an Eikaiwa Teacher

Anne Hendler
Anne E. Hendler
By Anne E. Hendler

It is 5 a.m. She wakes up and springs out of bed. The sun is up, too, and the day is bright. Mornings are free for leisurely breakfasts, bicycling or hiking, keeping up with social media, or other projects that might come up. Today she has promised to answer the 19 student letters that arrived from Korea by post last month. The task takes the whole morning, interspersed with coffee breaks, social media breaks, and general breaks. Memories of a day in the life of an English conversation school teacher in Korea surface and she indulges them briefly before putting them away. Her new life as an English conversation school (eikaiwa) teacher in Japan is not so intense.

Letters finished, it’s time to get ready for the main part of the day. She has dressed carefully in loose pants and a super-mario alphabet t-shirt. She makes sure her monster-shaped pencil case is in her bag. Now she checks on the small things: wallet, keys, phone, earbuds, watch, bracelet. Ready. If she leaves now, she has 30 minutes before she has to be at work. Enough time to ride the pretty way. Leaving her apartment, she carries her bicycle down the stairs.

She arrives at school at eleven. She leaves her shoes at the door and enters the cool, air-conditioned school in her bare feet. The toddler class is just letting out, so she dumps her bag and goes in to play with them for a few minutes. It’s a good way to start the day. Once they’ve gone, she starts her task for the morning: cutting out ice cream scoops and cones for the kids to color and build during their craft this afternoon. There are even cherries and whipped cream that is rather unfortunately-shaped. Her lesson planning is finished. Entering her classroom, all she needs to do is set up the activities. She counts her flashcards and checks that they are in the order she wants, making sure one or two are upside down or backwards.

It’s 2:00 now and the classroom assistant has arrived. Together they run through the schedule, noting any special circumstances. Since today is a craft day, that demands extra work on both their parts. They role play how the craft will go.

Now the students are arriving for the first class. They play for a few minutes until the “official” start time. There are five kids. They are mostly three and four years old. Today’s class starts with a “Hello” song. Then they all sit in a circle on a carpet. “What’s your name?” she asks around the circle. Today they all answer confidently and only two need help. She shows them flashcards as a quick review, and three of them are very confident about all the words. She makes a mental note that the two who are not also didn’t want to say their names. Then she introduces the craft. The school has no tables or chairs, so the students grab a couple benches that line the edge of the room and make a table. She hands the craft part of the class over to the assistant and sets up another part of the classroom for one-on-one. She calls students over one at a time to check whether they have learned the theme of the semester. This semester it is body parts, and one by one the kids point to their bellies, stomp their feet, count their fingers…. By the time she’s checked with all five kids, they’ve also built their ice cream cones sky-high, and no one has touched the unfortunately-shaped whipped cream. Two kids didn’t quite finish their craft. Yep, the same two.

Outside, the assistant talks to the parents about their kids’ progress. The next class starts in ten minutes, so the teacher is inside hiding small flashcards and starting the music for the song she wants to teach today. There are six kids in the next class. They are six and seven years old. She greets them at the door and explains the activity to them before turning them loose to find the hidden flashcards. Then they count to make sure they have them all (Oh no! One is missing! Did you check your pockets? No, no, not my pocket! Ahhhhhhhhhh! Tackled by six six-year-olds!). She follows up the game with the new song and returns to the flashcards. The flashcards are the words for their new unit. They go through them with games and she checks that they can identify the pictures and words. That makes it easier to focus on individual sounds. Today they focus on ‘P’. They practice writing, and she makes a note of which kids are left-handed. Sky writing and tracing helps her show these kids how to form the letters. Now it’s time to chant, and then it’s time for a story before the kids go home. 50 minutes go fast, but the next class starts in 10, so she wraps it up.

This class has five sixth-graders, and they are a very different group from the previous classes. They start the class seated on the carpet in a circle. Everyone contributes something to the beginning of the class: a short sentence about whatever is new in their lives. K had a swimming tournament last week. M went to an onsen (a Japanese hot spring) with her friends. They spend ten minutes talking like this, and then it is time for more structured activities. They review question words — something they’ve been struggling with for several weeks now — and play a game she learned from observing a teacher at another school. They practice reading and Y reads his story to the class. They turn to their worksheet and start the last activity. The students have to complete it for homework because their hour is up. The next class starts in ten minutes.

The last class is the most challenging. There are three girls – two are 10 and one is 11 – and they are silent. Today is fun, though. She starts in the circle, exchanging greetings and explaining the day’s schedule to them. They are very attentive and nod in agreement. The class alternates between group work and independent work, and she notices they are a lot louder when the other girls aren’t listening. The rest of the group activities are ones they are all confident with – like reading aloud and question-and-answer drills – and by the end of the class, they are all smiles. All three stay later to play with each other.

It’s almost 8 p.m. and only M’s mom hasn’t arrived yet. She reads together with M while they wait. It’s dark, so she walks her to the door and watches them drive away. Then she vacuums the classroom and goes through the class files for the day, transferring her mental notes onto physical paper and adding notes of which activities went well or need more practice. She’s the last to go, so she closes up the school and rides her bike home. There’s just enough time before bed to study Japanese and have dinner. Tomorrow is another day.

Learning from Feedback from Students

Anne HendlerBy Anne Hendler

When I started teaching, I had never taken any training. I learned on the job, and it was natural that I learned a lot from my students, even the youngest ones.

I have always valued student feedback. After all, they were really the only ones who saw my classes. Maybe they weren’t experts at teaching or learning, but they were (1) the customers and (2) the benefactors of the experience, and they knew what they liked, what made them feel confident or successful, what was fun, and what was boring. They saw things I didn’t. They saw what happens in the classroom in ways that I didn’t.

Initially I received feedback from students informally – by observing them, or by asking them directly in class or in the hallway, or by listening when they approached me individually or in groups to tell me what they thought.

When I started collecting feedback formally (primarily with teens), I passed out surveys, added a question to the end of their exam, facilitated discussions, and did a variety of activities to get them to express their opinions. It was a process – initially they just wrote vague and positive comments, such as “Everything is great.” “We love you.” It took time to build the trust required for more detailed feedback. After a while, they started giving more specific answers: “I want to do more games.” “I think this project improved my English.”

No one ever used this.

At that point, I realized that I couldn’t just collect feedback. I had to read it and let the students know I was listening to them. I had to answer their questions and respond to their comments. So whenever I collected feedback, I typed it up into a document or spreadsheet and gave it back to them. We spent some time in class talking about it. Something about writing it all up was really helpful to me as well. Here are some things I learned from this process.

  • Strips of colored paper gave students the chance to give feedback about the class in general (blue for things to continue, orange for things to stop, brown for things to change). I found out that I talk too loudly in our small classroom. I was grateful for the response – how else would I have known?
  • Likert scales at the end of units to let students respond to class materials, how they are used, and how they could be improved. I learned that my students needed to brush up their summarising skills and that they weren’t doing their homework because it was too difficult, not because they were lazy or busy.
  • A round-table discussion in which students responded to my open questionnaire and also asked their own anonymous questions on paper was the best method of all. I dedicated a whole class to it, and I learned that students unanimously wanted more class time to prepare for tasks. It was really helpful feedback because it was a complete mismatch from the impression I had had.
Students’ questions and my answers

The questions they asked, in their turn, truly revealed the things they cared about. The trust we built through such questions and answers helped to open the door for hallway feedback. I’ll never forget the day a student came to me in the hallway at the end of a long day. Her class had been the last of the day and particularly challenging on that day. She said, “we are tired when we come to your class because of the pressures in our day and our other classes. So maybe we look bored, but really we are doing our best. We just need more time.” Her unsolicited feedback helped me to see the class in a different way and reminded me how valuable it is to build a mutual feedback relationship with students. It developed their reflective skills as well as my own, and gave me another lens through which to observe my classes.


A Supportive Work Environment

Anne Hendlerby Anne Hendler

“Anne!” My boss, Grace, calls me as I’m on my way home. “Are you still near the school? Can you come back?”

Inwardly, I sigh. It’s Friday night and my week is over. “Sure. Just a sec.”

She meets me at the door. I’m a little nervous because she had just observed two of my classes, something she rarely does. “Can I borrow your book?” Grace asks. “I told the high schoolers about the debate your classes had and they want to try it out.”

I’m surprised, but I fish out the book and hand it over.

She smiles. “Thank you for your hard work. Always.”

She goes back to her class.

My boss notices when I do extra work. When I organise a debate or make a test, she sees. She’s a teacher herself, so she is aware of the time and effort that go into the extra things. And she never fails to say thank you.

“Come and see!” Jessica, the only other regular staffroom teacher walks into my room with a big smile. I follow her out to her own classroom, where she’s posted the paragraphs and pictures the students have made on the wall. She describes the effort they put into the work and how proud she is of them. Jessica is our school’s Korean ‘English grammar teacher’, one of the quirks of ELT in Korea. But she means so much more than that to me and our school.

Another day: “How was your class?” I ask as Jessica sits down.

She sighs. “One student lost his temper.”

“I bet I can guess who.” I sigh, too.

Our biggest challenges are classroom management with the younger students. But we share them and talk through them together. We have a supportive work environment.

The four of us make a dedicated, hard-working team. I teach five days a week. Jessica and Grace teach six. Our boss’s husband teaches seven. We all work over 30 hour weeks. We all bring our work home to prepare classes and find, create, or adapt materials. And the thing I wish we had: more time and space to prepare for each day. Or maybe, just maybe, some extra help.

Challenges, Ideas, and Solutions – Anne

Ann E. Hendler

One Class Many Challenges – Anne Hendler


Staring at a blank piece of paper. That’s how I approach each class, every day during my prep time. What did we do last time? What did I assign as homework? It was just two days ago but it didn’t fit in my brain. Who didn’t make it to the class – did I remember to write it down in the rush of students coming and going?

I teach six or seven classes a day, with ten minute breaks between them. Ten minutes are barely enough time to catch my breath, write down the homework for the class that just finished, glance at the plan for the incoming class, and sometimes get a drink of water, so the hours I spend preparing for my classes in the morning are essential.

One of my teaching challenges is that, with so much going on at once and very little breathing space during the day, I have little time to reflect on my classes. As a result, I miss a lot. My perception of the class can be far wide of how the class actually went. One of the ways I am trying to solve this problem is taking a leaf from John Fanselow and recording my classes. I figure if I have time to watch the iTDi MOOC for an hour every night, I have time to listen to and transcribe parts of lessons now that the MOOC is over.

It’s 4:20pm. They storm into the classroom, chattering at the tops of their voices. Five boys and seven girls, all about ten years old. All of a sudden five kids are at my elbows: What was the homework? Did I do this right? I forgot my book/notebook/ workbook/ homework/ pencil. Can I go to the market? May I drink water? I did my homework! Check my homework first!

They sit in a large circle. Katie and Heather are in the corner furthest from me. They both have new glasses. Sarah and Cynthia are in the middle. Cynthia shouts rather than talks. Sometimes she shouts herself hoarse. My mom used to say I did the same. Charlotte is in the corner alone, always alone. She’s the youngest in the class. Next to her are Hannah and Alison. In the front are the bright, tiny Alex and his best friend Kevin. Chris is next – he never smiled or spoke before Kevin joined the class. Now he rarely pays attention to the lesson, but he is much happier. And on the far side are Jim and Jake. Jim is the oldest in the class. He rarely participates and doesn’t get along with the other boys, but won’t work with the girls. Jake does his best to get along with everyone. He has a birthmark that has turned one of his eyes electric blue.

Hello! I say, beginning the class. How are you? How are you Alison?

I’m happy and sad!


Happy is just because.

Sad is because in school we played a game (monkey in the middle) and I lost a lot and my friends sat on my feet. … How are you, Alex?

They ask each other in a circle. They talk about their school day, their homework, their high and low points of the day. Some of them remember new details and ask to have another turn. They help each other when they get stuck on words. Sometimes they end up all talking at once and the noise level soars to a glass-shattering pitch.

I walk around and check whether homework has been completed, making quick comments and corrections. Meanwhile the students chat. When I finish, I quiet them again and write the review on the board. Look at the board. … Alison, what did I say?

Review? Open the book?

Look at the board, please. Are you looking at the board?

I’ve written ten foods on the board without articles. What do you want to eat?

I elicit answers from the students. They don’t have a/an/some down yet. I’d love them to learn these articles, but I know that with the absence of articles in Korean and the mere hundred minutes a week of practice it is not very likely.

Meanwhile Heather and Katie are leaning back on their chairs. The other students are quick to tell on them. Next time you do that, you’ll stand up. That goes for everyone. Another distraction.

I want to drink some juice.

Good, Cynthia.

Ah, Anne? I want to use a tissue. Very dirty.

Here you are, Alison.

Okay, look at the board. We go over the food words on the board and assign them articles and go over the rules (count, non count, singular, plural, consonant, vowel sounds). They got it.

Anne. Can use the bathroom?

No, not now. Now we’re studying. … Heather, what are you doing now? … Okay, open your student books to page 65. Look at the pictures. They go over the images in the book and use them in sentences.

I’m hearing this: I’m hearing ‘I want eat a banana.’ I write it on the board.

No! to! to!

Right. I want to eat a banana.

They do it right next time. And again and again.

Alright, you’re going to work with your partners. Today’s partners are….

I assign the partners. They ask each other what they want to eat. I monitor, paying special attention to Heather and Katie, who are probably not doing it, and Jake and Jim, who seem awfully quiet. Suddenly I look up and see Chris slap Kevin across the face. *Blink.* Chris! Out. He goes. Kevin looks stunned. The students continue with the exercise. I go out to Chris.

Why did you slap him?

He slapped me first.

Are you fighting?





Never do that again, okay?


I send Chris back in and ask Kevin to come out.

Did you slap him first?


Are you fighting?




(at least they’re consistent) *smh*

Never do that again, okay? Don’t hit.


We go back in to a chorus of “May I go to the bathroom/ drink water/ not be in the room right now for whatever reason?”

No. We have to study now. Because whoever wrote your coursebook thought that “I want” and “I like” go really well on the same page when the focus is a/an/some, I say inside my head.

We practice. Cynthia is yelling so loudly she starts coughing.

Students shoot each other ‘do you like’ questions.

Do you like doyou? [soy milk, in Korean]

Yes, I do. Do you?

Yes, I do!

I monitor the questions and the time. It’s getting late and time for our final activity – a restaurant role play.

Do you like obait? [Korean for vomit.]

No, I don’t. Do you?

No, I don’t.

Cynthia, do you eat obait?

No, I don’t. They make gagging noises.

From another corner: Anne! Anne Anne Anne Anne! What is soondae English?

I end the activity because the noise level has gotten out of control again.

Time to check the comprehension – with both types of question (What do you want? and What do you like?) randomly interspersed. They got it. But they weren’t finished – Anne! One more time!


I like French Fries.

I want to eat some bulgogi.

I want to eat some chicken galbi.

May I drink some water?

No, you may turn your page, please.

May I drink some water?

May I drink some water?

What’s number 1? I ignore her. She just wants to get out as soon as we start using the book. Every time.

You are going to play the restaurant game. Listen up. You’re going to be in groups of four. Chris and Kevin, change seats with Cynthia and Sarah.

Endless groans. The play rock scissors paper for who has to sit next to a boy. The girls try to make sure the boys don’t touch their bags.

Choose a waiter for your group. Hey…. sit down! Shut your mouth. HEY. Listen. Each team choose one person as a waiter. 

NOISE happens, but resolves itself into rock scissors paper. There are only five minutes left for the activity and I know it, but starting is better than not.

Waiter, your job is asking the question, “What do you want to eat?” Waiters, let me hear you!

“What do you want to eat?”

One more time!

“What do you want to eat?”

Thank you. Customers, your job is look at the menu and decide, what do you want to eat. You can say, “I want a…. chicken sandwich and some soup and some water, please.” Waiter, you have to take the order of three customers. THREE customers.

Ready? Start.

Sit down?

No, stand up.

Oh, I mean Stand up?

Yes, stand up.

The game begins. Alison circles the orders on the menu. Heather tries to do it without getting out of her seat. Charlotte tries to climb on the tables. Hey! This is a nice restaurant.

Alison begins by asking her customers how they are. She doesn’t finish taking orders. Heather passes off her waitressing duties to Katie.

I write the homework on the board while they are still doing the activity, but they drop the activity as soon as they realize it’s time to go.

Bolseo?! [Already?!]

And away they go. Did all that just happen in one class? What do I need to remember or write down before the next group begins? My head is spinning.

Not this kind of spinning.
[Fire spinning by @sandymillin – ELTpics – creative commons]

Luckily, this time I remembered to record the class. I don’t have time to transcribe more than I have just done. My impressions from writing this based on the recording, the transcription, and my memory of the class are that it wasn’t as bad as it felt to me at the time.

  • There was a lot of conversation and a lot of English happening.
  • The students all did quiet down when I asked for their attention.
  • They were eager to do any activity I asked of them (although not necessarily with the people I asked them to work with).
  • They tried. They made mistakes. They corrected their mistakes. They tried again. They succeeded.
  • The face slapping was unexpected, but no one was hurt and no one cried and I managed to keep my temper.
  • I felt like my brain was going to break, but it didn’t.
  • The noisy periods when they weren’t engaged in anything were not as long (objectively) as they felt in class, and the periods that I thought were wasting time were also not very long and were more authentic uses of English than most of the class.

In the future, I think I am going to ask the students to check each other’s homework. I think I will also begin to ask them to write down directions in their notebooks. That might help keep them focused and keep it real.

I will record this class again and transcribe it. It was really useful to visit the class again after the fact. One thing I noticed today that I didn’t notice during the class was Alison’s (clearly intentional) use of TL when she asked for tissue.

Things I wish I had done differently:

  • paid attention to what kind of noise there is in the class, rather than just the volume.
  • paid attention to how language is used in the conversations that were not based on the book.
  • allowed Cynthia to drink water.
  • figured out what was up with Chris and Kevin and the slapping.
  • started the restaurant activity earlier and skipped the ‘do you like’ part.

I don’t have time to do this more than once a day, so I think I will make this class my project for a few weeks and see if I can change the way I see what happens in the class and slow my brain down a bit.