For the past 10 months, I’ve been an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) at two junior high schools in rural Japan. My bigger school has 380 students and is surrounded by rice paddies and rolling green hills. My visiting school is in a mountain valley that is famous for watermelon, and only has 40 students. I’m the only foreigner at both schools, and every day is rich in different ways. Some days I’m bored and unsatisfied, while other times I feel a deep and profound connection with students and teachers. I could easily complain, but its much more fulfilling and beneficial for my well-being to focus on the good. Here are a few of my best moments from the past few weeks.
Making Friends with the Music Teacher, 5/25
After lunch I usually alternate between playing basketball in the gym, playing frisbee outside, patrolling the halls trying to find students to talk to, or decompressing at my desk. For students, these precious 20 minutes are the only free time they have all day.
On this particular day, I had just finished eating lunch in the noisy cafeteria, and I was walking with the new music teacher who barely speaks English. I feel a connection with her because we are almost the same age, but my Japanese is poor and her English is nonexistent.
In past conversations, I’ve asked her simple questions in Japanese – なんさいですか (Nansai desu ka? How old are you? ) but I couldn’t think of anything in this moment.
But suddenly I remembered that she had studied concert piano, so after our typical “How are you?” exchange, I spontaneously blurted, “I want to hear you play the piano!” To my delight, she understood, and answered: “Okay!” with a big smile. “When?” I asked. “Now?” she replied.
Sometimes my impulsiveness gets me in trouble; other times it brings me miracles.
We hurried past giggling groups of pre-teens to the music room. She sat at the piano bench, spread her music out, and began to play. For the next 20 minutes, I felt like I had transcended my own reality. I could sense her years of training in her posture and subtlety. Just an hour ago we were struggling to communicate, but now I felt we had unified. As she played, the language wall that had existed a few minutes ago seemed to dissipate.
Then, she pulled out the sheet music for ‘Frozen,’ and I belted it kareoke style. A few students stuck their heads in, wondering what was going on. When the bell rang, it was like the wall had risen again, but with a few cracks this time. Now we have a connection, and as we continue to communicate, the language barrier will crumble.
Amber’s Passport, 6/2
I’m always looking for excuses to share my ideas, rather than just read and repeat the textbook. Recently, there was a good chance for this in ni-nensei (2nd year) classes. Their unit features a young traveler showing their passport to a customs officer at the airport. As an avid explorer, I am really excited about travel and wanted to share my feelings. So I projected my passport on the overhead screen and showed them my stamps. I encouraged them to read out loud the names of the countries I’ve been to in the past few years:
~ New Zealand ~ Australia ~ Thailand ~ Cambodia ~ Vietnam ~ Taiwan ~ Indonesia ~ Malaysia ~ The Philippines ~ Japan ~
After college I traveled for 28 months, with about 9 months in New Zealand and 10 months in Australia with working holiday visas, and the rest of the time bouncing around Southeast Asia. This time abroad hugely impacted my sense of self. It made me more independent and confident. I hope that students can feel my attitude and be inspired to have their own adventures.
“Hello Goodbye” 6/8
At my visiting school, there is a small class of about 12 ichi-nensei (first year) students who always expect me to sing as soon as I walk in the room. I’ve only taught their class about five times, and every time I’ve brought my ukulele and sang for them before the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) arrived.
I didn’t have my ukulele, but I was surprised that one girl knew the word a cappella! She approached me and opened the textbook to a page with songs on it. One of them was “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles. I waved over another girl to sing with me. I imagine it was quite a shock for the JTE to see me and the student belting out a tune in front of her friends before we had even started class.
“It’s A Small World After All,” 5/30
In the san-nensei (3rd year) textbook, there is a brief mention of the song “It’s a Small World.” So naturally, I borrowed my teacher’s guitar and sang it for the class, without any practice. At first I struggled to find the right key and made a few mistakes, but I think it went rather well because my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) asked me to sing it for all his classes.
Sometimes, I wonder if these students think I’m crazy when I burst out into spontaneous song (and dance) in class. I hope to not only teach them English, but also show them that its okay to be loud and inspired and weird.