After lunch, I go to the staff room and see my fellow teachers peering out the window, chuckling as they watch students throw snowballs at each other. But I don’t want to stand there and watch the fun from afar.
So I slip into my rubber boots and enter the chaos. I make a snowball, and decide that the baseball captain is my first target. He looks shocked, but retaliates; luckily, I dodge it.
Now that I’m in, there’s no going back. I lob snowballs at the giggling packs of girls and chase after the troublemakers. Even the shyest students who barely speak to me are creating attack formations. Before I know it, I’m laughing and running from students who are pelting snowballs at me.
So what is my role at this school? Am I a teacher, a friend, or somewhere in-between? While I aim to be respected, I don’t want to be an unapproachable authority. Sometimes I want to jump in the action and feel like I’m one of them. Ideally, students will be comfortable around me, even if they don’t like English.
When I first came to Japan, I met a Japanese teacher at the Fukui City Summer Camp who had been teaching for over 40 years and worked with more than 20 ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher). So I asked her a question I have repeated over and over, to any teacher willing to answer:
“What makes a great ALT?”
She said, “Great ALTs play with the students.”
What a simple answer! Yet so profound.
Later, at a JET conference I was told the secret to being a great ALT was to arrive more than 10 minutes early. I was not satisfied with this answer. To me, it showed that fitting into the culture is more important than any skills or creativity. I was annoyed because I don’t always equate myself with fitting in. I think of myself as free spirited and unique, and I hope to spread my unorthodox ideas to students and open their minds with my weirdness. Do any other teachers at my school have snowball fights, or dance the macerena in the hallways? Is it okay if I wear colorful mismatched socks?
Maybe I worry that I’m not being professional, but I have to remember that I’m a different breed of teacher: one closer to their age, and their mindset. Even though I’m 25, I pride myself in my immaturity. I want to be like a child, free of judgment and unafraid of what other people think of me.
But at the same time, I find myself wondering if it is professional to play catch in the classroom with an eraser. I did this with one boy from the baseball team who seems to hate English. At the time, I was happy that we were interacting, because he usually associates me solely with English and only scowls at me. After the fact, I couldn’t help but question myself. As a teacher, was I supposed to chastise him for throwing an eraser in class? Instead, I followed my gut and just started playing.
Even though I’m still not sure if my behavior is appropriate, I’m beginning to realize that my time outside of the classroom is where I can build my strongest relationships with students. So I’ve been going to after-school clubs and sports, joining PE classes, and wandering the halls during free time and after lunch.
A few months ago I was beginning to feel depressed at work. There was a big test coming up, so most teachers were too busy to acknowledge me. I had no classes scheduled for a few days, and I felt ignored and isolated. I would walk the halls between classes, trying to engage with students, but besides that I had nothing to do all day. I told my supervisor this, and he told me: ‘Don’t feel isolated! We like you. But we’re busy!’
Unfortunately this didn’t solve the problem. So I had to take action.
I needed to create something to look forward to, so I decided to ask the PE teacher if I could join his class. To my surprise, he checked the schedule and instantly aid yes! I often worry that I might inconvenience people, but the PE teacher welcomed me.
So I joined a kendo class later that day. I took off my shoes, and sat on the ground next to the students, and pretended to be able to understand what he was saying. He loaned me a bamboo sword. I floundered about, not sure what to do, but students rose to the challenge and stepped up to give me instructions in English. Suddenly, there was an instant role-reversal: they were the experts, and I was clueless. I hope that they felt empowered by teaching me.
Later, I joined a first-year PE class where students were doing gymnastics. The PE teacher seemed thrilled to learn the English word for ‘handstand’, and I was able to show off my cartwheeling skills. Most importantly, I had fun cheering and high-fiving students after they performed their acrobatics.
Whenever I join a sport, my aim is to boost student’s egos. So far I’ve tried basketball, volleyball, table tennis, track and field, soccer and badminton. Playing sports with them forces them to connect with me, even if they are the type who typically avoid eye contact in class.
At basketball practice, the captain took me aside and gave me some pointers on shooting technique. This student doesn’t particularly like English, but because I showed interest in his sport, he wanted to share his skills with me. I felt lucky that he gave me his unsolicited one-on-one attention!
I was worried that the track and field team would leave me in the dust, but I was happy to find that they were cheering me on. They even invited me to practice with them again.
So should I throw erasers in classrooms? Should I join the snowball fight? Should I showcase my weirdness? Until I hear someone tell me not to, I’m going to keep doing it. It makes my job more fun, and deepens my connections with my students. I’m here to be involved, so I might as well take action.
I can’t post photos of my students, but I hope you enjoy my snow photography!