English teachers face unique challenge amid pandemic

Many schools across Japan resumed classes in mid-June after months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers are scrambling to get their programs back on track with new teaching methods that are both safe and effective. It’s a particular challenge for English teachers, whose subject requires students to do something that could increase the risk of infection: speak out loud.

Face shields

“Please wear your face shields,” says Kawano Mitsushi, an English teacher at Tateishi Junior High School in Tokyo’s Katsushika district. It’s one of the ways he tries to limit the risk of infection in his class. His students are not allowed to sit face to face or work in groups. And when they want to talk or talk to someone, they have to put on a face shield.

Kawano believed the shields, which are made by parents and distributed throughout the school, would allow students to speak in class without wearing face masks. He says the masks muffle sound and cover the mouth, making it difficult for him to assess pronunciation. But almost all of his students chose to wear the shields with their masks. Kawano says only one student feels safe enough in the classroom to trade a mask for a shield.

Students wear face shields during an English class at Tateishi Junior High School in Tokyo on June 6.

“It’s understandable,” Kawano says.

“I’m worried about an infection, so I wear both,” says one student. She says she does this despite the fact that it makes her uncomfortably hot. She adds that the shield often fogs up, making it hard to see.

“Speaking is essential to learning a language,” she says. “We need to talk, but we also need to prevent infection. I feel protected wearing both.”

Kawano says addressing these concerns poses a unique challenge.

“I feel like I’m juggling two things, education and infection prevention, that are almost impossible to manage at the same time,” he says. “Avoiding face-to-face communication and group work largely disrupts the fundamentals of language learning. I’ll do my best to find out what works, but my options are limited.”

Kawano teaches English with a face shield
English teacher Kawano Mitsushi says it’s important to watch mouth movements in language lessons.

Social distancing

The Kawano school reopened on June 1 and implemented a staggered attendance system before returning to regular hours on June 22. Vice-Principal Yutsudo Yukari said students are now required to wear masks at all times, but can switch to shields during music and English lessons. She says the school has also implemented physical distancing measures which are more difficult to implement.

“We try to provide as safe a learning environment as possible for students, but when it comes to social distancing, the size of the classrooms makes it difficult,” says Yutsudo.

Digital tools

Some public schools have turned to digital tools to minimize the risk of infection. In an English class at Higashi High School in Hadano, Kanagawa Prefecture, students are allowed to leave the classroom to practice their pronunciation, using iPads to record their voices. It allows them to express themselves without worrying about transmission in a way that they couldn’t have with their classmates.

Students say using iPads is helpful because they can take them out of class and talk without worrying about transmission.
(Watch the video: 03:45)

Sato Akihito, the school’s English teacher, says the tool allows him to carefully check his students’ pronunciation and provide more in-depth feedback.

“Complaining about what we can’t do now doesn’t help,” he says. “Instead, we should think about what we can do.”

Sato also uses videos to further reduce the risk of infection by limiting the time he spends in front of the class. He and his colleagues began producing video lessons in mid-May, when the school was closed. They decided to continue making the videos after school reopened, as it offered a way to minimize the risk of infection while allowing students to review at home. The school now has its own YouTube channel with over 60 videos.

teachers shoot videos in class
English teacher Sato Akihito says the pandemic has been a learning experience as he adapts his teaching methods.

How schools are able to adapt their teaching methods is crucial for today’s generation of students. Torikai Kumiko, professor emeritus at Rikkyo University, hopes some of these innovations will help shape the future of the country’s public school system.

“In the time of the coronavirus, the methods that teachers have long relied on have proven ineffective,” she says. “They have become physically impossible. The pandemic has given teachers a chance to think about how to help students learn. They are forced to think outside the box, and I think this is a great opportunity to create a new style of education.

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