My Last Week of Teaching
Two years went by in the blink of an eye! This week I taught the final classes to my Japanese junior high school students. I’d been thinking and thinking, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the question: What should I do for my last lessons with my lovely students who I might never see again?
I settled on two simple activities: a game and a song. The song is called “When I’m Gone,” also known as “The Cup Song,” and its fun because every student gets a cup to drum on while we’re singing. The lyrics were quite appropriate for the occasion:
“When I’m gone, when I’m gone. You’re going to miss me when I’m gone! You’re going to miss me by my hair, you’re going to miss me everywhere, you’re sure going to miss me when I’m gone.”
I passed out cups, and demonstrated the drumming in slow-motion a few times. After practicing it a few times, I asked students to put their desks together in pairs (or make a circle if the group was small enough) so we could play the rhythm game and pass the cups. Some students loved it, and asked to play more after class.
The game I chose was simple “shiritori,” an easy word game where teams compete against each other. The last letter of the first word starts the next word. For example: egg, giraffe, elephant, tree, etc… For ichi-nensei (first-years, or 12-13 year olds) I accepted words of any length, but for san-nensei (third years, or 14-15 year olds) I asked for words with five or more letters. I divided the class into 6 teams, and the first student wrote a word on the board and passed the chalk to the next player. Everyone loved it! By the second round, the whole class was standing and cheering for their teammates.
It’s an easy and fun game, and good for road trips or train rides. I play it in Japanese sometimes with my friends (For example: origami, itadakimasu, sushi, ichigo, etc) I hope that some of my students will play it again someday!
For the past 2 years, I’ve been working at two junior high schools in Japan. Midori* has 380 students, and Chugo* has just 40. I went to Chugo every Wednesday, and Midori every other day. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience, I’m really proud of my efforts at both schools.
My first year at Midori, I strove to recreate the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. When I first arrived there, there was no clear system for making a team teaching schedule. The Japanese English teachers I was working with were so overwhelmed with their other work so they rarely talked to me before our classes together (which is a problem for many ALTs!). I felt that I had to fight for change, for my own sanity as well as for my successor and every other ALT after us.
So I asked other ALTs for advice, and came up with a new system for the schedule, and presented it to my supervisor. I made my own schedule and printed out copies of it for my co-workers the week before classes.
The whole experience was a mental battle, since everything was happening in Japanese, and in order to feel involved I had to take action. So I decided to be extra friendly, and made a point to talk with teachers as much as possible. I consider myself to be an extremely outgoing person, but the language barrier made it harder for me to connect. I came to Japan knowing zero Japanese, and only 3 people besides me at my school could speak English well (the other English teachers.) Some of the other teachers knew a little English, but it was a constant challenge to fight feelings of isolation at school.
My first year, I wasn’t confident in my Japanese, but I knew I had to push myself to communicate with coworkers and new friends. So I found a tutor, and started meeting with him twice a week. Mr. Nakamura, who I met through a mutual friend, is one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. At the end of each lesson I was always surprised that I had been able to communicate in Japanese for an hour! After classes with him, I think I realized that ideal language classes should be conducted almost entirely in that language.
Thanks to Mr. Nakamura, during my last few months in Japan, I noticed myself using more Japanese with my co-workers. This helped me strengthen relationships with teachers. I made it a goal to have a pleasant exchanges with every teacher at the school, and talk to at least 3 teachers every day, and most days I did it.
At the end of year staff party, almost every teacher wanted to shake my hand and offer some kind words. They also gave me a beautiful book with hand-written messages, in Japanese and English, wishing me good luck and thanking me for my time.
Besides talking with teachers, I’m proud of the way I used my free time at school. Junior high school ALTs often have an excess of free time, because there are monthly tests at school which emphasize reading, writing, and listening more than speaking. Before the tests, team teaching classes often get cancelled as teachers want their students to prepare for the tests. I didn’t want to stay at my desk during these long bouts of free time. So I found ways to be as active as possible. My first year, I made it my goal to participate with every after school club – basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, baseball, badminton, table tennis, soft tennis, art club, band – and I did it! I also ran the school ‘marathon’ with students.
Teaching the Special Ed Class
At my desk in the teachers room, the katakago (special education) teacher sat across from me. She always seemed exhausted, with a class of 5 rambunctious special education students to manage all to herself. When I walked by her room, I noticed they were louder and rowdier than other classes of 30 very quiet, respectful, rule-abiding students. I knew she couldn’t speak English at all, so I was a little hesitant to make friends with her. But once I gathered my courage to start talking with her, I asked her if I could help teach English to her students. She immediately smiled and said yes, of course!
In the next few months I taught with her several times. She stood in the back and helped with classroom management while I directed the action of the class. It was so fun! We sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” a song that they vaguely knew but had forgotten, and then played Simon Says using the same vocabulary. We also played charades and pictionary. They loved it!
Goodbye to my Visiting School
While Midori is in a valley surrounded by rice fields, Chugo is a tiny school nestled in the mountains behind my apartment. I really looked forward to Wednesdays there. Students and teachers at smaller schools are still busy with classes and after school sports, but small class sizes make a strong sense of community that was rather welcoming.
The English teacher at Chugo, Ms. Horie*, was a pleasure to work with. She told me early on that the only time she had to practice English was talking to the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher, or me!) who came once a week, so I always made it a point to talk with her a lot. She always made time to discuss lesson plans with me. We taught some great classes together, including a few demonstration classes where visiting teachers from other schools came to watch us. In one of our most memorable classes, the unit of the textbook was “Fair Trade,” and we had students make skits about shopping for fair trade items. She conducts all of her classes almost entirely in English, which I really appreciated.
Chugo only had two clubs after school, table tennis and badminton. The table tennis coach was also the social studies teacher, who was a young man about my age who could speak English quite well. We became friends and I invited him to my salsa dancing club, which he joined several times. Thanks to my friendship with him, I felt comfortable joining table tennis every Wednesday. I grew up playing occasionally with my dad on our table at home, so I thought I was good until I played against a Japanese 12-year-old. Those kids are machines! They play 6 days a week, so even the tiniest students were more skilled than me.
On my last day at Chugo , Ms. Horie organized a special ceremony for me. I said a goodbye speech, which I chose to make in Japanese (for added challenge!), and one student said a speech to me in English thanking me for my two years with them. I was crying as they handed me a beautiful scrapbook with beautiful notes and photos from each student. It’ll be my treasure forever!
Amber’s Farewell Speech
Here’s my speech (in English and romanji.) It took me more than a month to think of the message, write it in English, have my Japanese tutor help me translate it, and memorize it. I said it at both schools. At Midori , I had to say it in front of 400 students and teachers!
*I changed the names of my schools and the teachers I worked with to protect their privacy.