Let's Get Started
If you're moving to Japan to be an English teacher, hopefully you've already worked on some basic Japanese. In order to get the most out of your experience at school, though, you'll need to learn quite a bit more. Your recruiter might have assured you that all you have to do is plan lessons and show up to class, but sometimes the school doesn't quite get the same memo. Other times, the school gets the memo at first but eventually forgets that you can't read "Assembly in the gym at 9:00 am!" on the staff room whiteboard.
Either way, knowing your gakkou (school) from your benkyou (study) isn't going to be enough. While you don't need to memorize all of these words right off the bat, you'll want to at least glance it over before arrival and use it as a study guide. For best results, make sure to learn your months and days of the week as well.
Schedules and Times
after school, dismissal
These are some of the first words you'll hear on your first day. First and foremost, if you hear gaikokugo, remember that they're probably not just talking about any foreign language - they're talking about English! You may sometimes hear kids use the word eigo (英語, English), but the class schedule and teachers will typically refer to your class as gaikokugo.
While the loanword sukejuuru (スケジュール, schedule) can be used to refer to a schedule, you'll most commonly hear jikanwari used to refer to a school's daily schedule. Gyoujiyotei refers to a school's upcoming calendar of events, though you hopefully won't need to pay as much attention to that.
Kouji and jikanme can both be used as suffixes to indicate what period a class is taking place. Sankouji and sanjikanme both mean third period, for example. However, jikanme can also be used to indicate what hour or lesson of a unit your co-teacher is on. If your co-teacher uses both kouji and jikanme in the same sentence with different numbers, don't panic - he or she is likely indicating which period they're teaching with you, and which section of the unit they're on.
While hirugohan (昼ご飯) and the loanword ranchi (ランチ) can both be used to mean "lunch," you'll most commonly hear kyuushoku in schools. Kyuushoku can refer to both the lunch food and the mealtime itself.
Hiruyasumi (昼休み) refers to the post-lunch recess, while nakayasumi (中休み) refers to the mid-morning break that many schools have at around 10:30am. Natsuyasumi (夏休み) means summer break, and fuyuyasumi (冬休み) means winter break. If a teacher or student is absent, you might hear someone say "oyasumi desu."
Ichigakki, nigakki and sangakki are first, second and third term, respectively. First term runs from the start of the school year in April until summer vacation starts in late July. Second term is from September through late December. Third term is January until the end of the school year in March.
Meetings and Events
before-school staff meeting
after-school staff meeting
start of term ceremony
end of term ceremony
business trip or errand
study by observation, field trip
Chourei and shuurei are quick meetings usually reserved for announcements and other minor business. They happen once or twice a week, and while it's not standard for ALTs to participate, it's wise to at least stay out of the way when they're happening. New staff may also be introduced at these meetings, or a teacher may announce their marriage or maternity leave here.
Uchiawase can refer to anything from field trip planning to planning English lessons. Depending on your employer and contract type, you might not actually do uchiawase meetings with the school, and may instead receive instructions directly from your employer.
Typically, you won't be expected to participate in kenshuu, especially if it's all in Japanese. However, you may be expected to participate in fire or earthquake drills! Keep an ear open for the word kunren if you notice everyone leaving the building or hiding under their desks.
Shucchou can be used to refer to any kind of school-related business, like having to run to another school to consult with their staff. This will usually only involve one or two staff, and likely won't affect your work.
However, kengaku and shuugaku ryoukou will almost definitely disrupt your schedule at some point during the year. Kengaku usually refers to a daytime field trip and can happen at almost any grade level. Shuugaku ryoukou is an overnight school trip, and at the elementary level, this often refers specifically to the special trip sixth-graders take in the fall. Depending on the area of the country the school is in, students may visit sites of historical and cultural significance, including the sites where atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Finally, keep an eye out for katsudou in reference to club activities (kurabu katsudou, クラブ活動) or student committee activities (iinkai katsudou, 委員会活動).
clerk, office staff
While the literal word for principal is kouchou and the word for vice principal is kyoutou, you will likely always use these words with "sensei" after them. (There are occasions where you will hear others drop the "sensei," including when the principal and vice-principal are introducing themselves.)
Depending on the size of the school, the jimuin may have a fairly large range of duties, including collecting school lunch money and ordering supplies. Be kind to this person, as they will be your best friend if you need to make flashcards or other materials.
Elementary school staff will often use kodomo (子供, child) to refer to students, but in more formal situations you will hear or see jidou.
Each class will typically rotate nicchoku duties among the students. Depending on the grade level, nicchoku duties may involve bringing the class to order, cleaning the blackboard between classes, or other light work. If you're ever in a pinch because your co-teacher disappeared and the students didn't hear the bell ring for class to start, just point to the part of the blackboard that says "日直" and someone will remind the nicchoku-san to do their job and shut everyone up.
waarudoruumu, eikaiwa ruumu
World Room, English Conversation Room
first floor, second floor
When you're not in class, you'll generally be expected to be in the shokuinshitsu, where all teachers do the bulk of their grading and other work. Next to this room, you'll usually find the principal's office (校長室 , kouchoushitsu) and the broadcast room (放送室, housoushitsu) but you won't be in these rooms unless specifically invited.
The jimushitsu is where you'll find most supplies, and where the jimuin is often working. Sometimes this room is locked when the jimuin is absent, so if you need something urgently, ask the vice principal or another staff member for help. Always check with the jimuin or another staff member before taking supplies.
On rare occasions, you might be invited to the library (図書室, toshoshitsu) or some other room for a club activity, but you generally won't have to worry about these. You'll have a hard enough time keeping track of what time to go to which classroom, unless you're lucky enough to have a "World Room" or other dedicated English classrooms!
Shidou can refer to discipline matters, as well as more benign and general leadership. If you hear that a teacher is shidouchuu (指導中), that may mean they're in the middle of lecturing a student! It's also used in the word shidouan (指導案) which refers to lesson plans.
While meate is commonly used when referring to the goal of a lesson, you may occasionally hear mokuhyou (目標) or nerai (狙い) used in similar contexts in schools.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 29, 2018:
This is a useful dictionary for anyone looking at Japanese schooling.