Becoming A Team Teacher In Japan

David HayterBecoming A Team Teacher In Japan

by David Hayter


Japan is a one of a kind country in many ways. I’ve had the opportunity to live and work here since 2014. The English education system here is probably quite different when compared to other countries. All students in Japan are required to study English and both teachers and students spend a lot of time at school.

Is team teaching in Japan really so special? 

First off, let’s try to figure out what team teaching means. On the surface, team teaching appears to be just like solo-teaching but involves two or more teachers working in a classroom together. However, the team teaching situation in Japan involves a lot more complexities than you would probably think.

A lot of us aren’t trained teachers

The academic requirement for most ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan is that they possess a bachelor’s degree in any subject. When many ALTs come to Japan, it may be their first time working in a professional environment. There can sometimes be a steep learning curve in the transition from being a student to becoming a teacher.

Although I didn’t study how to teach English, I do know what it takes to learn a foreign language. Foreign languages have always interested me. In high school I studied Spanish and Japanese. In college I continued studying Japanese and took some classes for Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Turkish. When planning lessons, I often think back to how I was taught and how I learned languages.

I am fortunate to have received a month of training in my current teaching program. However, many ALTs don’t receive any formal training. A lot of what we learn either comes from trial and error, talking to other ALTs, or online resources. That’s why online learning communities like this one and ALT Training Online are invaluable in filling in the gaps and helping us improve our skills as teachers.

Success in team teaching depends on how you deal with people

A team-teaching situation creates a different social dynamic in the classroom as two teachers have to work together to advance the class and there isn’t always one clear person in charge.

From my experience, I’ve found that the people who perform the best ALTs in Japan aren’t necessarily those with the best teaching skills but those who have the best people skills. The same goes for JTEs (Japanese teachers of English). If someone doesn’t like you, it’s going to be really hard to work with them. If you are pretty likeable and show willingness to learn, you’ll have a pretty good time.

It helps to think of your fellow teachers and students like customers

Sometimes ALTs can get lost when thinking about what they can contribute to the students’ education. One thing I do is to take a customer service approach. Think about all of the people who you can help. What is the best way to help them?

The first rule of customer service is to understand the needs of your customers. ALTs in Japan usually have two customers: Japanese students and Japanese teachers of English. I find myself keeping them both in mind as I work with my team of teachers to deliver good lessons for the students.

There can be cultural differences and a language barrier

Another hurdle to overcome in dealing with people in Japan is understanding Japanese culture. While most people around the world are more similar than different, there are a lot of unspoken rules and norms for interactions between the various people in a school. There is definitely a hierarchical structure that can sometimes be very confusing for those who aren’t familiar with it.

We want to work together to do what we can’t do alone

Every summer when we run our month long ALT training, I tell the new ALTs that the goal of team teaching is to do something together that we can’t do separately.

ALTs in the classroom are viewed as a human resource to provide knowledge and model English. The JTEs teach their classes more often than we do, have been trained to be teachers, and know more about how to deal with their students. In this type of situation, we want to bolster each other’s strengths and mitigate each other’s weaknesses.

Supporting the students and teachers is paramount

Depending on the situation, being an ALT can be frustrating at times. I’ve heard about some ALTs who really want to teach English classes their own way but are bound to the material in the textbook because students have to get ready for tests. The result is often that students are technically proficient in reading, writing, and translating English but can be lacking skills in other areas like speaking, listening, conversation, creativity, and spontaneity.

Another challenge in teaching Japanese students is that all students have to study English. They are also moved along regardless of performance. That means that level of the students we have in each class can vary greatly. Some students know everything in the lesson, others have little to no interest in learning English.

Despite these challenges, I always do my best to try to support the students no matter what. Since I can speak Japanese, I try to let these students know that being able to speak English could possibly lead to better job opportunities in the future. It’s always a good way to make friends and learn more about the world.

That’s it! 

When thinking about team teaching, it’s important to remember the team aspect. By staying flexible and doing my best to support English education in Japan, I’ve learned a lot about how to work with others and how people learn. When it comes to team teaching, it’s all about creating a cohesive team environment!

Working With a Colleague Who is a Friend

Chris MaresWorking With a Colleague Who is a Friend

by Chris Mares.


For some reason the phrase “team teaching” has always had a positive connotation for me. I’m a people person and a team player so it’s understandable. I love teams and I love teaching. But what is team teaching and how should we set about it in a principled and positive manner? In this post I will describe one of my experiences.

A number of years back, a colleague of mine, Laura, and I were sharing the same class during a four-week summer session. Laura taught in the morning and I taught in the afternoon. It was a small class of around ten students who ranged between low and high intermediate.

Of course, we could have taught in a parallel fashion, simply focusing on the skill sets our classes were designed to focus on (listening and speaking for Laura and reading and writing for me). I’m sure it would have been fine and the students would have been satisfied, but Laura and I decided we would do something different.

As most of the students were only in Maine for the four weeks of the program, we wanted them to benefit as much as possible from our teaching.

We arranged to meet every day, both before class and at lunch-time, to go over what we planned to do and to discuss the students in terms of how they were doing and what was going on in class.

Very quickly it became apparent that there was a lot we could do in terms of recycling vocabulary, key phrases, and grammar points. We could also share details about what students had said, what they had done, and how they were feeling.

Pretty quickly the students realized that Laura and I were talking to each other about what went on in the class. This impressed the students because they realized that we cared and that we wanted them to do as well as possible. This motivated the students and they became even more motivated than they already were.

Here’s what we learned.

  • Team teaching is effective provided it is principled and organized.
  • Commenting on what students did or said in the other class is motivating for students. It shows you care and that you take the time to plan your lessons to be as effective as possible.
  • Knowing what your co-teacher is doing in class in terms of target language makes it easy for you to recycle.
  • Having two teachers observe students is useful as one teacher won’t always catch everything that the students say or do.
  • If you have a mixed class in terms of gender, it is good to have co-ed teaching team. Sometimes female students are more comfortable with a female teacher and visa-versa.
  • In order to communicate efficiently note down everything you do in class immediately after class, especially words, phrases, or structure you would like your co-teacher to recycle.
  • Always meet your co-teacher at the same time and in the same time. Make the meeting a practice.
  • Meet every day.

We had a great four weeks. The students’ pleasure in the fact that their teachers were working together was palpable and they made great progress in the brief amount of time they had together as a group.

At one point, one of the students asked me if Laura and I were married. I knew what she meant. She detected a level of communication that was far deeper than simply chatting about class. It was an intimate pedagogical relationship.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I have team-taught in other contexts and it hasn’t gone so well for a variety of reasons, most of which are obvious – the lack of chemistry between co-teachers, unwillingness to share, a desire to “own” the class rather than share it.

At the end of our four-week program Laura and I agreed it had gone so well for several reasons: one, we were on the same page in terms of our approach to teaching. Two, we both enjoyed the class and recycling each other’s material. Three, we both had energy and presence, though clearly we were our own woman and man. And finally, we enjoyed the change and believed in it.

Finally, if you are new to teaching and haven’t team-taught, give it a shot. You have nothing to lose and I am sure you will learn a lot. It is also a way to get close to another teacher’s approach without physically observing them teach.


Defining the Team in Team Teaching

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?