Fall is drawing to a close. The days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting colder. Winter is settling in, and it’s time for me to reflect on my teaching and life in Japan. As always, there have been highs and lows, and today I’ll share a few of each.
Joining Art Classes
On a crisp fall morning, I drove on a winding misty mountain road to my small visiting school. Every Wednesday I visit this secluded community. There are 40 students in the whole school, so there are only 11 to 15 students in each class. They grow watermelons in a small farm plot next to their school.
After I scrutinized the schedule, I realized that that my three English classes were fourth, fifth, and sixth period. My supervisor told me we were doing interview tests, and I already had the questions ready. So since I had the first three classes free, I decided to join a class! With my kanji cheat-sheet, I can look at the daily schedule and decipher when my favorite Art (美術) PE (体育) and Music (音楽) classes are.
Before first period, I peeked into the art room and found the grandfatherly art teacher preparing some materials. Gathering my やる気 (‘yaruki’, or willpower), I said, “Ishyoni daijyobu desuka?” I was trying to ask if I could join the class… I hope I didn’t say anything rude. Apparently my sentiment was clear, and he said okay. (It’s not the first time I joined; last time we made sculptures!) Today was pencil drawings.
One student in that class is super enthusiastic about speaking English, so I sat next to him. He was trying to draw a picture of himself at a track-and-field meet jumping over a hurdle. It was hilarious to listen to him express his frustration in Japanglish about not being able to depict himself the way he wanted. He kept erasing furiously and blurting things like, “Oh! This leg! Wrong! Oh no!” for my listening pleasure.
When I join these kinds of classes, I always walk around the room and talk to each student about what they are drawing. I try to make it an easy, simple, low-stress conversation, and I hope each student can achieve one of those elusive but rewarding “I Can Speak English” feelings. Even if all they said is, “Dog,” they still communicated something, and I know it’s good for their confidence. Oftentimes I feel like my presence alone is enough to change the atmosphere, and I notice more people around my trying to use English. (On the other hand, sometimes I feel completely ignored and invisible when I can barely understand anything and no one makes any effort to translate for me.)
Even the lowest level student in that class, who scores only 20 or 30 points on tests where most of his classmates are in the 80 and 90 range, has been opening up to me. He also happens to be a very talented artist, and I try to compliment him as much as possible. At the beginning of last year, he used to avoid eye contact. Now, when he sees me, he greets me with a big “Hello!” and a smile.
Since I am maybe one of the only foreigners they will ever meet (at least in this part of their lives), I want to equate my presence with something more than just a language barrier. I hope some of them remember their interactions with me, not only in English class but also in other settings, and can make positive associations with all of us space aliens.
Olympic Athletes Visit My School
Today, two professional Japanese athletes – an Olympic table tennis player and a professional soccer player – gave a special lesson about goal setting to my students at my small visiting school. I didn’t have class at that time so I was invited to observe the activities. The warm up activity was trying to return a serve by the table tennis star. About half the students play table tennis every day after school, so most of them could do it! For the next 50 minutes, students competed against the adults in games like dodgeball and tag. (I wanted to participate but I was invited to observe only. I wish I could have joined the games though.)
After that class, I approached the athletes and asked, “Zenbu no chugakkou ikimasuka?” (Are you going to all Junior High Schools? I wanted to know if I could see them at my other school.) To be honest, I just wanted to start a conversation because I was curious to see if they spoke English. Lucky for me, one of them did! The soccer player asked me where I was from, and told me he learned English so he could play soccer abroad.
In the next class, the table tennis player told the students his life story. I could only pick up bits and pieces, but I’m pretty sure he moved to China when he was 8 and back to Japan when he was 13, and the overall message was that he had to work really hard and made a lot of mistakes but finally he was able to achieve his dream. Then, students brainstormed about their own dreams, and two students shared their ideas in front of the class. One boy said, “I want to be a pet trimmer!” Another said something like, “I don’t know my dream, but I’m going to search hard!”
After everyone bowed a few dozen times and thanked each other profusely, the athletes were heading out the door. I knew I only had a few seconds to make sure the kids heard my new friend speaking English. So I rushed over to him and asked, “Hey, can you tell the kids that you can speak English?” He was a little surprised, but he repeated what he told me for students – “I played soccer in 13 countries, and you should study English so you can travel!”
At the end of the day, I was proud that I had gotten in a plug for English. I hope these students realize that learning English will open a lot of doors for them.
Feeling Grateful for my Childhood
Of course it’s nice to share the highlights of my experience in Japan, but I don’t want to make it seem like everything is perfect. Sometimes I am so frustrated and annoyed at school, I’m so bored and I feel like my talent and time is being wasted, and I wonder why I came all this way to be ignored and not utilized. Many ALTs face these feelings of idleness, especially during test weeks (which happen about once a month, it seems.) The secret is to channel my energy into something productive, instead of dwelling on these feelings.
Something I’ve noticed is that there’s quite a difference in discipline in Japanese schools. I have heard some teachers yelling – really screaming at the top of their lungs – at students more than once, and it makes my blood boil. It reminds me to be thankful for my childhood. I don’t recall any teacher ever yelling at me. I grew into a confident and successful person, partly because many people showered me with praise when I was growing up – my parents, teachers, grandparents, sister, and friends… I received very little negativity as a child, and I think this contributed to my success.
A few weeks ago, I went to a cafe to meet a friend, and when I was leaving the woman at the cash register asked me where I was from. The conversation continued, and we realized that her daughter goes to my school. Her daughter is a nice girl who talks to me quite often, and who has really opened up to me, and I actually remember her name. (I think I know about a third of my students names.) I told her mother that I thought her daughter was smart, and her mother promptly responded, “Oh no, my daughter isn’t smart. She’s quite fat, too.”
I had to quickly say goodbye because I was so annoyed by what she had said. Why would any mother say this about her daughter? Why would she tell a complete stranger that? If someone had told me that when I was 13, who knows where I’d be today!
I’ve lived in Japan for about a year and a half, and I still am a total outsider to this culture. I can’t understand why a mother would say that about her daughter. I can’t understand why a teacher would scream so angrily at a room of scared 11-year-olds. Of course, my observations of these few instances are in no way representative of all teachers and parents in Japan. But I’m still shocked and appalled when I witness situations like this, and I want to understand why they occur. If anyone reading this has any clues, please enlighten me.
The Ichi-Nensei Students at my Visiting School
For me, perhaps the best thing about being a teacher is seeing my students change. In particular, I remember the first time I met my ichi-nensei students (equivalent of US 7th graders) at my visiting school. When they first saw me last August, they looked at me like I was a space alien. Then they started speaking to me in Japanese, and I told them honestly that I couldn’t understand them. I think they were shocked to realize that there are genuinely people in the world who don’t speak their language. Maybe they had seen foreigners on TV or had met one a few times at their tiny elementary school, but I think I’m the first foreigner they get to see on a regular basis.
A turning point was when I ran into one of them outside of school. I joined an all-girls Japanese soccer team, and we have our practices on Thursday nights. Miraculously, my team shares a field with a junior high school team – and three of my students are on that team! I was so excited to see them there every week, and they must have been surprised to see me, too. They taught my name to their teammates, and sometimes when I did my warm-up lap around the field, I’d be greeted with a chorus: “Oh, hallo, An-bah!!”
Now, I had something new to talk to them about at school – “Oh, I saw you on Thursday! How was practice?” One student even said to me the next day, “I liked your green socks yesterday.” A student from the smaller school told his teacher and all his classmates about it, so suddenly the whole school knew where I was on Thursday nights.
Lucky for me, this soccer player is one of the leaders of his class because he is loud and fearless. When I first brought my ukulele to his class, he brashly approached me and demanded that I give it to him. My instincts didn’t warn me that he was going to smash it, so I handed it over – and to the classes amusement, he tried to strum a tune. Ever since that first interaction, with his peers watching, a few other students have approached me and asked me to teach them the ukulele, too. Every week they want to learn more!
Fast forward to now. They’ve been seeing me once a week for about 4 months, and now they approach me in the halls willingly! Some of them are still scared of me, but a few of them have really started to be friendly and ask me questions, especially about Donald Trump or the Pen Pineapple Song. (Beware, it’s obnoxious but obscenely popular.)
I’m honored to watch their transformation. They motivate me to come to school early so I can talk with them more. I hope that I can see them again in 10 years, and that some of them will be thriving in whatever they choose to do.