Warm up your Voice and your body to become a better teacher

If you do some vocal exercises to prepare for your job, you might find that your singing abilities improve as well.

Maybe you’ve never considered it, but lately I have started my days with stretching and warming up my voice. Actually I was doing the exercise for other unrelated projects in my life, but I immediately discovered positive benefits in my job as a teacher. If you don’t already, I’d recommend:

1) Starting your day with stretching

Stretching is all around good. It releases endorphins, which help your body and mind relax. Plus it gets you ready for all kinds of jerky movements.

Stretch your arms, legs, back and neck muscles. And for all those computer fiends out there — make sure to stretch your fingers and wrists as well!

To go further, you can massage your neck and jaw muscles and give your hands a wrists a good go-over, too.

2) Warming up your vocal chords

Singers do it, so why not teachers, too? After all, we are using our voice constantly throughout the day. Speaking with a warmed up voice not only feels incredible, but it also makes the act of speaking less stressful on the body.

How to do it? Well, here are some common exercise techniques that everyone can do:

  • Humming — as soon as I wake up in the morning I start to hum. Slowly at first, with perhaps just a, “Hmmm…” (like we do when we’re thinking) or an “Uh-huh” (like we do when we agree with something). Gradually I start to hum little tunes, but I find that I can always go back to the basics and just hum little sounds. The trick is to include some high and low notes, but to always keep it relaxed and smooth. Like stretching any muscle, the point is warming up, not hurting yourself. More and more I find myself repeating this exercise throughout my day. You can hum with and open or closed mouth. Just switch it up and get in tune with your vocal chords slowly and steadily.
  • Drinking and gargling water — your vocal chords need water to work properly, but most people don’t get enough of it. Speaking on a dry throat not only hurts, but it does more damage to your vocal chords. Stay energetic and stay hydrated with a bunch of water!
  • Yawning — Scientists still don’t quite understand why we do it, but that doesn’t concern us. Yawns are stretches for the neck muscles and vocal chords. Yawn with full yawning sounds (“Ahhhhhhhhhh…waawawawa…”) for maximum effectiveness.
  • Eating healthy — of course the foods we eat have an effect on our weight and energy levels, but they also effect our mood and our vocal chords. I’ve noticed that sweet drinks and coffee, for example, tend to dry out my throat. I still sometimes drink them, but if I do, I try to make sure to chase them with lots of water to re-hydrate my vocal chords.
Well, that’s it for this post. I seriously recommend finding a type of warm-up routine that works for you.  Work is work and warming up will keep you healthier and allow you to do a better job. If you do some vocal exercises to prepare for your job, you might find that your singing abilities improve as well!
To go further on the topic of vocal warm-ups, some search terms I recommend are: “Lip Rolls”, “Tongue Trills”, and “Vocal Fry”. Check Youtube or the internet at large for more information.

The Imaginary Land of English Class

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy" -Lewis Carroll

The content of an English class involves a fair share of abstraction. Students are transported from the real world of everyday life speaking Japanese with their close friends, to a fantastical world of wild symbolism and imaginary conversations with people that don’t exist. I almost make it sound appealing, but there are also wolves in this story. Students swim through the Seas of Monotony, apprehended by grammar explanations shaped like daggers. They reach an impenetrable Vocabulary Fortress and throw up their hands in despair when, before they know it, at last they meet the monster running around in the thickets of their imagination all along: a Jabberwocky of gargantuan proportions – the high school entrance exam – stirring up trouble everywhere it goes.

The fact is most students don’t learn English like an ALT living abroad and studying Japanese as Japanese goes. Our “catch as catch can” approach, where we have immediate cause to use almost anything new we learn, doesn’t bear any resemblance to how Japanese students often experience English.

Students report to me periodically that they have nowhere to use English while I’m standing right in front of them. Why? I haven’t yet shown them how to escape from that imaginary English world described above, with the free-reigning Jabberwocky running about, making a mess, and new additions being added to the already massive Vocabulary Fortress as we speak. They’ve added six new wings already!

Because the English classroom is so abstract, I think ALTs need to help bridge more connections between classroom English and practical English. In so doing, we can dissolve that imaginary world and help slay the Jabberwocky. I have a feeling that when we show students how English is real they’ll start treating it that way.

I have a few ideas for how to accomplish this.

1) Make myself more available to students and give them a better chance to encounter English. It’s easy to stay in the teacher’s room. But out in the hallway, free and available, is where the students really need me.

2) Encourage students to speak to each other in English. I can’t be there all the time, so if they can learn to speak to each other, they can use English practically when I’m away.

3) Teach students how to say “cool” Japanese words and phrases in English. If it is a great word, Japanese students will be able to use it easily and spontaneously.

These are just a few thoughts. What are your ideas for how to make English studies more practical? How can we make English real for students?

Throw your Teaching materials out the window

Throw out your whole desk if you have to. GIF credit: A Beautiful Mind

Day 3 of a totally clear desk and this act of creative destruction has been awesome. All that stuff I collected over the years, all the lesson plans, all the advice, all the collective wisdom of hundreds of ALTs that came before, though good, had become like an albatross  hanging around my neck — too many materials, too many choices, too much paper.

So I just threw it all away and got it the hell out of my sight.

Perhaps there’s a fear that if one lets go of great materials, that their absence will be felt. But keeping phenomenal materials is a trap as well, you know. Materials can be so great that you start depending on them so much that you’ve lost your original thinking. Teaching becomes mechanical, an act of trying to recreate some spark of genius that led to their creation in the first place.

But, I’d say let it go sometimes. If you made something that rocked before, you can do it again.

Where’s the Instruction Manual for your Job?

Have you ever looked? The truth is, there really isn’t one. Perhaps there are some guidelines here, some unstated expectations there, some standards written in a course book, too — but otherwise, you’re pretty much on your own.

Like it or not, that means one big thing: you are the one who writes the rules, and you are the one who decides what kind of teacher you’ll be.

Will you be a teacher that tries to deliver the same unsuccessful English language program they have taught (with modifications) for the past 30 years?

Or will you take advantage of the new opportunities before you (i.e. more English classes, a big push for more English in the classroom) and start work on writing  your own manual?

Doing so allows you to discover your own ideas and strengths. It is the way you can bring meaning and purpose to your work. It is the way you can start delivering high-quality education to your students that actually teaches them to speak English.

You can sit around waiting for someone to finally give you the instruction manual. Or you can write it yourself and be better for it.

Make an Impact

I am now working harder and later than I’ve ever worked in my job before. And do you know what? I am happy as hell.

Who would have thought that more work equals more happiness.

But it’s not that I just have more  work — it’s that now I feel like I am actually making an impact, and my job has meaning.

It all started with our push at my school to introduce communication classes. I now do real lesson planning, team-teaching, collaboration and reflection with my JTEs. It’s the kind of work I’ve wanted all along, but I haven’t gotten until we introduced these new classes.

If you haven’t done so already, now is your chance to change your job at work. Now is your chance to become a communication teacher — not just a regular old, tape recorder ALT.

Now’s your chance to make a difference and to be wildly rewarded for it. The time is now to make  your impact.

Location, Location, Location

Changing my desk in the teacher’s room has changed my life at work. And if you’re having trouble at work for whatever reason, you might consider requesting a seat change yourself. Location matters and change is good.

I now sit at the center of the action in the teacher’s room. What are the perks, you ask?

Well, first, there is a steady steam of students that walk past my desk daily. I chat with them here and they revel at all the strange things on my desk — like my modified Rubik’s Cube and statue of a crazy dinosaur. Next, I sit next to a close friend and can enjoy talking while grading papers or studying Japanese. Third, there are two English teachers close at hand, and the move has made lesson planning and preparation a breeze. They are right there to talk with anytime. To top it off, I’m sitting close to a heater and the kitchenette to refill my coffee with ease.

I feel like I found the Strait of Gibraltar in the teacher’s room and I have a stake in all the action now. It is totally different. I feel like a part of the school and my work situation is totally engaging and new.

Before, my seat decidedly did not rock. I was sitting with a group of staff that rarely used their desks and I felt isolated from almost everyone. I think it affected my mood and my work performance.

So I requested a change. And it’s been nothing but good.

The thing is, location matters. And you have power to change your situation. All it takes is figuring out where you want to sit and putting in a request with the right people.  Like so many things, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

How is your desk situation at work? Does it rock or not? If so why? I have a hunch location is key to a healthy workplace, and that ALTs can improve their situation by finding a good location. I’m gonna write a follow up post and try to give some advice about what I think an ideal location might look like. Please write about your experience(s) and I’ll include them in my next post on this topic.