There are many things that flit through the mind of someone coming to a foreign country to teach English. How will I get to school and back each day? Will students be able to follow the lessons? How many luminescent highlighter pen colours is too many? Well, I can’t answer all of these questions (except the last one – the answer is “there’s no such number!”) but I can offer some insight into this question:

How big will my class be?

Class sizes in Japan vary a lot between different school types and areas but hopefully I can give any newcomers to the country a bit of info to help you prepare.

The Average Class

I’ve found Elementary Schools to have the most variance in class size. A big school could have as many as forty students in a class, but many schools seem to be aware that this number of screaming little folk can be counter-productive to a stable learning environment. A better number is twenty-five or thirty. The schools try to get a fifty-fifty balance of boys and girls.

Most Junior High Schools I’ve visited in Japan have had, on average, forty students per class. Overly rowdy first years can be a bit of a handful at this capacity but older grades work well. Here they also shoot for a good gender balance.

High Schools aim for a similar number of kids in a class but depending on the type of School there can be some big differences based on what subject strands students choose to study. This also affects the gender balance. For example, at my Agricultural High School there are three classes in each grade: A, B, and C. In first grade A and C have about thirty students each but B only has fifteen! A is mostly filled with boys whereas C only has one boy and B only has one girl. There’s also a noticeable difference in their English ability. A students are mostly pretty poor, C are mostly quite good, but B are mostly very good. These differences between the classes presumably comes from the different academic focuses of the classes. I think A are more heavily involved in learning about farming whereas C are linked to cooking and home economics. I honestly have no idea what B students focus on, but my guess is that they might have some more academic content.

Country Roads

As I’m stationed in the rural Japanese countryside I expected there to be some differences between attendance here and in major areas such as those around Tokyo and Osaka. A few years ago I worked at eight different Elementary Schools. Each day I was at a different school, sometimes visiting two schools in one day. How was there enough time for me to visit every class? Well, some of the schools were so small that they combined classes. So instead of a schedule that said “You’ll be teaching class 5-B, 5-C and 6-B today” I would get ones saying “Today you’ll be teaching Year 5.”

At a couple of schools there were so few students that there was only one class per year, and for a lot of subjects, including English, they would combine year groups. So, I would frequently find myself teaching years 5 and 6 in the same lesson. This could make lesson planning tricky but considering that if they didn’t amalgamate I would have been teaching classes of five or six students I didn’t really mind.

Decline

At one of those small schools I mentioned above I used to teach every year group and it was painfully clear to see the effects of a nationwide declining birthrate in this tiny community. Where the oldest class I taught there, the combined years 5 and 6, contained about twelve or thirteen kids, the youngest class, a mix of years 1 and 2, only had six little cherubs. The advantage of such small groups was that each student got plenty of individual attention and so they were all happy and cheerful and a total joy to teach. I also found it interesting to note that the school was rooted away so far into the mountains that in the winter many students chose to ski to school. In the time since I worked there I’ve heard tell of other remote Elementary Schools closing due to dwindling student intake and I fear for my happy little mountain school.

This decline in student numbers is also evident further up the education chain. There’s been talk of High Schools in my area merging to avoid class sizes from getting too small. Another reason for these kind of actions is that there are not enough teachers. I know more than one Vice Principal who has been asked to return to his previous profession as a classroom teacher in order to cover staff shortages.

It’s a worrying situation, the impact of which is being felt all over the country and it’s my opinion that the only realistic solution is for the country to improve their foreign relations and increase the number immigrants settling here. For this to happen requires the support and hard work of English Teachers to spread the goodness of international integration.

How big are your classes? Let us know below.

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