It’s hard to believe I’ve already been in Japan for 3 months!
I work for the JET Program, which stands for “The Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program.” It’s sponsored by the Japanese government, who want to integrate foreign teachers into their schools to promote “cross cultural exchange”. It’s the world’s largest teaching exchange program. They employ teachers from 43 countries. Currently there are 4786 participants, and the website proclaims their goal to increase the number to 6000 before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
I am the only foreign English teacher at my school, and I started with zero Japanese. As you can imagine, I’m learning a lot!
My title is Assistant Language Teacher – or ALT – so I work alongside a JTE, or Japanese Teacher of English. It’s interesting to watch their different teaching styles and try to blend with theirs, but sometimes I feel frustrated that I don’t have more control of the class.
However, I hope that my coworkers are starting to realize that I’m serious about teaching. Some ALTs come in straight out of college whereas I spent the last few years traveling and volunteering as an English teacher.
Most of my JTEs let me take charge of the class a little bit every day. I`ve been creating slideshows about my weekend adventures, and I make these into interactive lessons. I’ve also been teaching English through songs; the students (and I!) love One Direction!
Both in and out of class, one of my biggest goals here is to give the kids the chance to approach me. I want to talk less and listen more, and give the students the chance to talk.
During lunch, I join them in their classrooms. Every teacher and student is surprised to see me there.
It works like magic. I barely have to say anything. The awkwardness of my presence forces them to talk to me. Sometimes I practice my Japanese phrases: “Ichiban suki na dobutsu wa nan desu ka?” (What’s your favorite animal?) Usually I just try to be as quiet as possible and wait for them to talk to me, and they usually do.
There is testing this week, so a lot of English classes were cancelled. Instead of being bored at my desk I decided to participate in a PE class. I changed into my athletic clothes and joined the students in the gym. Every time they looked at me it was like a shock to their system. What is she doing here? I imagine they were thinking.
We warmed up with 5 laps around the gym, did some stretches, push ups, and sit ups, and then started playing an easy version of volleyball.
I joined a team of two preteen boys who at first seemed like they wanted nothing more than for me to disappear. Neither of them particularly like English, and I recognized one of them as being the silent and broody type from class. However, by the end of the hour, I was setting the ball for them and they were smashing it at the other team. I gave a lot of high fives, and hopefully made some new friends.
As I’m re-learning, I have to take action to make my life exciting. This is something that I discover again and again, wherever I happen to be in my life.
The other day, I stayed after school for tennis club. Wearing my athletic clothes, I waited on the side of the tennis court, holding a borrowed tennis racket, watching the students play. I noticed a small group of girls gather and whisper, looking at me over their shoulders. They approached me and asked me – in English! – if I wanted to play with them.
This is the kind of interaction that makes me feel the most proud. I kept my big mouth shut, and gave them the chance to be brave and talk to me.
A similar thing happened last week at art club after school. I asked if I could join, then quietly sat down and started drawing without speaking to anyone. Slowly, some girls began to crowd around me and see what I was drawing. (A dinosaur.) One girl in particular was fascinated with me. She stopped what she was doing and just watched me draw. Even though the girl was only 12 years old and spoke very little English, we had a beautiful interaction. She taught me some of the colors in Japanese and I praised her artwork.
On the other hand, there are moments here that feel like utter chaos.
Today, I tried to control a class that was in disaster mode. The JTE is a very quiet woman who is not confident in her English. The students in the class are immature and take advantage of her gentle personality and lack of experience and use the class to goof off.
I was amazed at how disrespectful they were today, in comparison to my other classes. They were literally working on homework for other classes and making loud and obnoxious noises while she was trying to lecture them about grammar.
Her lecture was in Japanese so I couldn’t understand or contribute at all, but I walked around the room and confiscated distracting items such as math homework and pencil cases.
I tried to get the class to practice some dialogue, since that’s what we were supposed to be studying in the textbook. In most classes, when you say “Please practice this with a partner” they actually do it, but in this class it seemed like the only groups that were talking in English were the ones I was hovering over.
Despite this rowdy class, overall the students are shy and respectful, at times almost painfully so. Games and activities are a good way to break the ice. I usually carry my ukulele and Frisbee around. Recently I bought a magic wand that I pretend to zap people with in the hallways. Hopefully my happiness and fun-loving spirit is contagious, and spreads to both the kids and teachers at my school.
Since I don’t have to make lesson plans, I have more time during the day to interact with students in a non-academic context. After lunch, I often play Frisbee with a large group outside.
So far, my biggest challenge is feeling isolated at work – some days, no one makes an effort to talk to me. Not because they are rude, but because they are busy. After all, I am the only foreigner in their school, and most teachers and not confident in their English ability. It seems like one of the best ways for me to make friends at work is to learn Japanese. It’s a huge challenge, but I’m learning, slowly but surely!
Another challenge is coping with feelings of uselessness when the JTEs start lecturing in Japanese during English class. Oftentimes I can see the students eyes glaze over – as do mine!- and I desperately want the teacher to acknowledge me, or at least talk to the class in English so I can occasionally jump in. Part of this job is learning how to be patient and work with the system. At the same time, I want to make a big impact while I’m here. Standing and watching is sometimes neccessarry, but I want to be as active and involved as possible.
One day last week when I was feeling especially useless, I was on the verge of tears. I kept repeating to myself “I can do this…” throughout the day, but I just felt so alone. Some teachers had cancelled class with me, and I felt like I was banished to my desk. It seemed like everyone was too busy to even make eye contact with me. Many ALTs are happy to relax and do their own projects or study Japanese at work, but I get bored after being ignored for hours and hours.
So I asked the Speical Education class if I could join their class. There are only 2 students in the class, Haruna and Yuto, and both students emanate sweetness. I showed them postcards from Santa Barbara and some American money, and they were so curious. We examined every inch of that dollar bill.
Later in the day, they invited me to plant garlic with them. As we walked to the school garden, Haruna took my hand. It almost made me cry; it was like she could sense that I was having a bad day, and wanted to help. Despite her trouble with reading and writing, she has a deep emotional intelligence that sets her apart from other students.
All in all, my experience in Japan is quite amazing. I’m learning something every second. School is both challenging and fulfilling. Outside of work I have many friends, both foreigners and Japanese. I play basketball, indoor soccer, and ultimate frisbee with other ALTs. I joined a gym, make green smoothies daily, and am healthier than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I feel lonely, but overall I’m quite happy.
Thanks for reading. If anyone has any advice about teaching, or anything else, please contact me.