A Gratifying Ending: My last week of teaching, and feeling proud

My Last Week of Teaching

July 17-32

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?

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I made this poster for the English classroom. I hope they remember me!

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!

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I put this in the hallway to explain to students and teachers about my plans after Japan.  In retrospect the English I used was a little bit advanced, but I hope they got the idea.

Feeling Proud

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.



All students at the school are required to complete the race! It’s 3k for girls and 5k for boys. (We’re not supposed to show student’s faces so I made them happy. )

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 Midori!

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!

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Here’s the English room at Midori. Above my blue poster in the lower left, you can see all the previous English teacher’s posters.

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!

Hello everyone! I’m leaving Japan next week.
Minasan konnichiwa! Watashiwa raishu nihon o hanaremasu.
I’m going to miss you! I was really glad to teach you.
Totemo samishii desu! Minasan ni oshiero koto ga dekite, honto ni ureshikata desu.
But now I’m going to teach English in Spain.
Dakedo kondo Supein de eigo o oshieru koto ni narimashita.
You are all wonderful people.
Midori Chugakkou no minasan mo subarashii desu.
Before I leave Japan, I have an important message for you.
Nihon o hanareru mae ni, watashi kara no taisetsu na massage o otsutaeshimasu.
Communication is thirty percent language, and seventy percent feeling.
Communication wa kotoba ga san jyu percento dake desu. Kanjyo ga nana jyu percento desu.
If you speak from your heart, you will be understood.
Moshi kokoro o komete hanaseba, aite ni wakkate moraemasu.
For example, use gesture, eye contact, smile, expression, body language, intonation, and so on.
Tatoeba, eye contacto, egao, hyojyo, miburiteburi, intonation, nado mo yuko desu.
Be brave and follow your dreams!
Yuki o motte, yume o oikakete kudasai.
Also, special thanks to Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Ms. Z for taking care of me.
Saigo ni X sensei, Y sensei, Z sensei osewa ni nari arigatou gozaimashita.
For the last two years, thank you very much.
Ni nen kan honto ni arigatou gozaimashita.

Goodbye Japan! Sayonara! Mata ne!

*I changed the names of my schools and the teachers I worked with to protect their privacy.


Volunteering on an Oyster Farm

This story was also published in AJET  (Association of Japan Exchange and Teaching) Magazine.

Driving down meandering roads along the Sea of Japan, I felt a mixture of fear, homesickness, and excitement. I was heading for a week-long homestay on an oyster farm and guesthouse in Kumihama Bay, a tiny town that none of my Japanese friends had ever heard of. I knew that at least one person there spoke English, but I hadn’t met him.

I felt powerful yet terrified. What was I doing? I could be with my family in California. “You better be here next year!” The words of my grandmother during my last phone call home echoed in my mind.


Thanks to Google Maps, I had a location that I was driving toward, although I couldn’t read the name of the place I was going. All I knew was that a man named Atsushi had agreed to host me through the Help Exchange program (helpx.net) that I had used before in New Zealand and Australia.

I arrived at a house with an indecipherable sign. Looking at my phone, and then at the sign, it seemed as if the two mysterious kanji might be the same. I sat in the car for a few minutes, gathering my courage and telling myself, “Get up. Get out of the car. Get up. You can do this.”

A full five minutes later I stepped outside into the freezing dusk. To my left, I could see Kumihama Bay and a deck with two dark figures in blue suits spraying water at some crates. “One of them must be Atsushi,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should just wait for him to finish…”

But my legs betrayed me. I was already walking towards their front door when the grandparents spotted me.

“Ey! Konbanwa! We-ru-ko-mu! Watashiwa Tatsuo.” A wrinkled, grinning man came forward to shake my hand, American-style. “ここでなにしてるの?はは!じょうだんだよ!わたしたちのいえへようこそ!”

I blinked, confused. I couldn’t catch anything he had said.

“Oh no, not another one who can’t speak Japanese,” said his wife, a stocky, strong-looking woman. At least that’s what I thought she said.

Oh no,” I thought to myself. No one speaks English here. I’m doomed…”

“Kuruma? Pah-kin-gu? Doko?” The grandpa gestured for me to come — I think he wanted me to move my car to another parking spot. As I walked to my car in the darkness, wondering how I was going to survive the next week with my infantile Japanese, an angel appeared. Another foreigner was walking toward me on the street, frizzy red hair spilling from her winter cap. Hallelujah! I had no idea there would be another foreigner here.

“Hi, I’m Gosia,” she said. She helped translate for me what Grandpa was saying, and hopped in my car to direct me to the right parking spot. Later, I found out she is from Poland and has a master’s degree in comparative cultural studies with an emphasis on Japan. She has a one-year working holiday visa for Japan, and had already been volunteering on this oyster farm for almost a month. Gosia was my savior for the next week as I tried to adjust to the family and their habits.

Later, while drinking tea and attempting small talk with the grandparents in the kitchen, the door opened. In walked Atsushi, a tall and smiling man, looking windswept from working outside all day. He introduced himself enthusiastically in perfect English, and I immediately felt at ease. We would have many deep conversations in the next week. He showed me to my private room, made sure I knew how the heater worked, and asked me to try on my work uniform.


The ridiculous but very practical clothes he loaned us were blue overalls with thick, waterproof pants and a jacket underneath. Gosia and I joked that we looked like Mario.

The next morning, after a breakfast of granola and fruit, Atsushi assigned us our tasks, and took time to carefully explain what he wanted us to do. My job was to pack oysters into boxes, weigh them, and put stickers on the boxes to be sent to customers. It was a task similar to an easy puzzle, and I found it quite relaxing. When I finished a box, I would carry it to the grandmother, Ayako-san, in the kitchen, and have a brief exchange where she would offer me tea and a break. I would politely refuse and keep working.

My spirits were further lifted by Atsushi’s kindness. Every time he walked by, he would greet me with a smile and say something like, “Thanks so much for being here. You’re helping a lot! You’re an important part of the team.”

This ten seconds of his time did wonders for my state of mind, and I’m sure I became a more productive worker after his encouragement. I decided then and there that if I am ever in charge of other people, I’m going to frequently and genuinely let them know how much I appreciate their hard work. This was the first of many moments when I realized that Atsushi was much more than a simple oyster farmer.

Atsushi had loved English in junior high and high school, and he attended college for architecture in Osaka. When he was 22, he lived in Canada for a year and his thinking totally changed. “When I was in Canada, my world expanded more than 100 times,” he told me. He came back and worked in Japan for a while, but he soon went to Australia for a one-year working holiday visa. Six months into his trip, he started receiving letters from his family asking him to come back to Kumihama. Since he is the eldest son, it is Japanese tradition for him to inherit the family business and help his parents as they get older.

Now, he helps his parents, Ayako-san and Tatsuo-san, with their minshuku, or Japanese guest house. He also runs the oyster farm that has been in the family for three generations. His grandmother used to row out to the platforms in a wooden boat.


During the week, I had many eye-opening conversations with Atsushi about a range of topics from the politics of fishing to the failing education system in Japan.

Thanks to advice from a foreign friend, Atsushi discovered the Help Exchange program, where he could invite travelers to stay at his house for a few weeks or months at a time. People volunteer in exchange for room and board. This is a win-win situation for everyone: travelers are happy to contribute to his family, learn new skills, and live in a beautiful place for free, while Atsushi gets free help with his oyster work as well as cooking and cleaning for the minshuku. Also, he really wants his nine-year-old daughter Yuzuki to learn English.

Yuzuki-chan plays the piano, and every day I would hear her plunking the same tunes, including the “Mickey Mouse Club March.” At first, the girl was a little shy, but soon my ukulele, magical singing Santa hat, and frisbee won her over.  (I find that frisbees, games, and musical instruments help break the ice with non-English speakers. That worked in other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, too.) By the end of the week, we were playing together every day. She would relax with me and Gosia at the kotatsu (heated table) at the end of the day, drawing pictures or teaching me Japanese.

Just like how his daughter has an atypical childhood, with a never-ending parade of foreigners coming and going, Atsushi is not your typical oyster farmer. He wants to change the way oysters are grown in Kumihama Bay, borrowing ideas from French, American, Australian, and Canadian farmers to make the process more productive and efficient.

When he took us out on the boat to see his platforms, he asked us to lift a cockle box and feel for ourselves how heavy it is. Both Gosia and I were able to lift it, but just barely! There is a lot of manual labor involved in oyster farming, and the process can be sped up with the help of simple tools like a metal hook to grab multiple boxes at once. Machines, such as one that Atsushi uses to break up the clumps of oysters, can also replace tools like hammers and streamline the process.


One of Atsushi’s oyster platforms

Atsushi thinks that rural areas in Japan need innovation, because populations are decreasing and young people don’t want to continue the work their grandparents started. Other farmers are reluctant to try new techniques because of their traditional values, but  one of Atsushi’s goals in hosting volunteers is to collect ideas.

One night, he sat down with Gosia and I and asked, “What ideas do you have for me? What can I do to make your experience better?” I was really impressed with his openness. I have volunteered on ten farms in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia with the Help Exchange program (I wrote this articleabout it a few years ago), and I have never met a host who asked volunteers for advice.

After experiencing volunteering as a means of travel, I realize that sightseeing is exhilarating but exhausting. I don’t have a strong desire to do it for more than a few weeks. However, if I try to integrate into the community, make some friends, and feel like I’m contributing to something larger than myself, I can stay in each place longer, learn more, and make deeper connections. As I’m observing and internalizing, I constantly ask myself: what do I want to adopt or exclude from my own life?

Mostly, volunteering makes me realize that there are hundreds of people with different lifestyles than mine, and that there is more than one way to live on this planet. Before I traveled, I only had a narrow vision for what was possible. Now I realize that it’s possible to start a cashew factory in Bali to help a needy community, or to have a zero-impact life on a self-sustaining farm in New Zealand. I lived with these people and was able to see the world through their eyes. I’ve picked up skills like milking a goat by hand, chopping firewood with an axe, cutting sashimi, and more. I’ve learned the process behind how foods from kiwis to milk to oysters are cultivated.

Atsushi told me that when he went to Canada, his perspective expanded more than 100-fold. Every time I travel, I feel the same way. Every time I volunteer, I can entrench myself in a community and force myself to be involved in a way that sightseeing does not allow.

I’m planning to use Help Exchange to volunteer again. There are more people to meet, more skills to learn, and more adventures to have. I’m young, and I have the energy to do it, so why not?


Here are some more photos from the adventure!

Kyoto for a day

A few weeks ago, I was surprised by a message on my phone from a mysterious sender. It read, “Do you want to go to Kyoto with me?” It took me a few minutes to figure out who it was from, but once I did, I immediately replied, “Yes!”

Kaoru is a young Japanese teacher at my school who coaches volleyball and is one of the few teachers eager to practice her English with me. Sometimes we make small-talk in the teachers room when she can find a moment of peace in her hectic day.

When I asked why she studies English, she told me that she just has a feeling that she wants to learn it. She told me that she studies English once a week at an eikeiwa (conversation school.) Then she asked me what is the best way to study English, and I answered: “Make foreign friends, and spend time with them.”

So a few weeks later, she followed my advice, and asked me to spend the day with her.

It was raining but I decided to bike to the station anyway.  I arrived slightly damp but excited, and we bought our tickets together at the office and got on the 8:30 train.

In a typical Japanese way, she had prepared an immaculately planned schedule. I appreciated her meticulousness, because when I travel, I am more of a drifter, seeing what I discover and who I meet, and making up my plan as I go. But she had done her research so we were able to hit three popular destinations in one day: Kinkakuji, Fushimi Inari, and Byodo-in.

After our 2 hour train journey, we arrived at the bustling Kyoto Station and, after some trial and error, found  the correct ticket office, where we bought a one-day transportation ticket (1250 yen) which allowed us to take most buses and trains around the city. So we hopped on a bus to our first destination.


After a 30 minute bus ride eavesdropping on some French tourists (I could pick out a few words!) we got off at the famous Kinkakuji, (金閣寺、きんかくじ)* also known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto, so its picturesque but also crowded.  If you only have time for one temple, I’d reccommend Ginkakuji (the Silver Temple) because it is surrounded by stunning gardens. Both places cost 600 yen.

Temples in Kyoto often have interactive activities, and at Kinkakuji you could buy a prayer candle with different themes (and funny typos.) You could select ones heart’s desire, a family in safety, be in safe and sound, or schoolwork accomplishment. I bought a family in safety candle for 50 yen and thought of my family in America as I lit it.

Kaoru picked a restaraunt for us nearby, and they miraculously had a vegetarian option! I ordered udon and tempura, and it kept me full for the rest of our busy day.

Fushimi Inari

After lunch, we took a bus to our second destination: Fushimi Inari (稲荷, ふしみいなり)*.

I had been there once before, but it was during New Years, when thousands of Japanese go to celebrate. (Don’t go during New Years!)  This time it was less crowded, and I was excited to hike the whole mountain, which took about an hour and a half.

Inari is the Japanese God of rice popular in Shinto and Buddhist belief systems. A shrine at the bottom of the mountain was founded in 711 AD, which made me reflect on my own young and immature country. Inari is also a kind of sushi – rice wrapped with sweet fried tofu – and I learned that its the favorite food of foxes. Also, foxes are messengers for Inari. So on the mountain, there are many statues of foxes guiding the way as you ascend.

On the way down, I bought a treat called taiyaki. There is sweet bean paste inside this fish-shaped pancake. おいしいでした!(It was delicious!)

Byodoin Temple


Lucky for us the sun came out as we approached the temple.

I was especially excited to visit Byodoin Temple because one of my students had recommended it to me. In fact, he always writes about it in his essays on tests (recently I asked him to challenge himself and write about something else!!) He always says the same thing: ‘Byodoin is a famous temple in Kyoto. You can feel the history of Kyoto there.’ He was right, though.

As soon as we walked through the gate, I was immediatly filled with an all-encompassing sense of calm. Sunlight filtered through the clouds, and the lake around the temple reflected it like a mirror.  I pulled a 10 yen coin out of my pocket, and compared the real view to the engraving on the coin.

We payed an extra 300 yen to enter the temple and admire the Buddha. Even though I couldn’t understand the explanation that was only in Japanese, I tried to ask a question about the hand-shape of the Buddha. The guide couldn’t speak English, but another Japanese tourist made an effort to answer my question.

They have a museum but don’t allow photography or drawing inside, or I would have documented its inspiring interior.  The museum has a large collection of statues and artifacts, and I would have stayed longer to admire them if time allowed!

The neighborhood surrounding Byodoin is famous for green tea, so we stopped and had some overpriced but delicious maccha (600 yen).

Finally, after buying omiyagi (お土産 , おみやげor souvineers) and these picturesque bentos (弁当 , べんとう, or meals to go), we caught the train back to Fukui.

Kyoto is a cultural mecca of Japan, and I feel so lucky that I live just 2 hours by train from here. It was my fourth time there, but every time I find more to explore and discover. The longer I live in Japan, instead of feeling like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen enough,’ I keep realizing there are more places that I want to visit.  It can be kind of an overwhelming feeling, since I know it’s impossible to see everything.

I was really lucky to go with Kaoru, who was enthusiastic and well-organized. We did some language exchange, so I learned some random words like 写し , うつし , utsushi, or reflection and 苔, こけ, koke, or moss. Furthermore, if I had been alone, it would have been nearly impossible for me to figure out how to get from place to place so efficiently.  It was a win-win for both of us, because she got to engage in English conversation for most of the day, which I hope was a special experience for her. Now we are better friends at school. Today she suggested that our next destination might be soba making!

Stay tuned for our next adventure!

*For my friends who aren’t  familiar with Japanese, I thought I’d put some words in both Kanji, Hiragana, and Romanji, so you can notice the different writing systems. It’s excruciating to learn but beautiful to see, don’t you think?

Christmas in Japan


Since I grew up in Southern California, the snow is exciting for me!

If you start humming ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ most Japanese junior high school student’s eyes will light up, because they know the Japanese version: “Makka na ohana no tonakaisan wa itsu mo minna no waraimono. ” (The English translation of their first line: “The reindeer with the bright red nose, always a laughing-stock to everyone.”)

Or, if you bring your ukulele to school, and invite the entire school to sing Christmas carols with you after lunch, you can expect everyone to sing along.

Christmas as an ALT is one of the best parts of the year, second only to Halloween where we can wear our costumes to school and give out Halloween stickers (or candy, depending on the school.)

Last December, I recruited some teachers to sing Christmas carols with me to students after lunch. At my smaller school, the 居と先生  (kyoto sensei, or vice principal,  who is also a music teacher) played the piano, I sang and played the ukulele, and a musically-inclined social studies teacher gave some nice harmonies for “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.” This year I asked them again, but on the day we had planned to sing together the vice principal had to guard the phones in the office and the social studies teacher suddenly got sick and went home, so it was up to me to bring the Christmas spirit alone. I chose “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

I had a great worksheet with the lyrics in English and Japanese thanks to a very talented principal (and English teacher) at an elementary school in my town who made a translation  for her students. When I visited her school, she had all of her English classes sing it as a warm up. I made copies of her lyrics and brought them to my other schools so students could understand and pronounce the words correctly.

I had sung this song dozens of times in front of other classes, but this time I was a bit nervous because it was the first time I was gathering the whole school by myself. They surrounded me at the piano, and I passed out the lyrics with translations in English and Japanese.  I wore my magical Christmas hat and played my ukulele, and we sang: “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

To the students shock, I asked the crowd, “Can someone play the piano?” I knew it was almost an impossible request – imagine playing a song you haven’t practiced for the first time in front of your entire school! – but there are some talented pianists, so I thought I’d ask.

Besides Christmas carols, talking holidays in Japanese schools is fun because students don’t know much about them, and its a nice respite from their textbook. It’s our chance to teach them about an important part of our culture. I made a powerpoint with photos of sparkling houses, Christmas tree lots, gingerbread houses, and so on. After the presentation, we sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” as a class.

Whenever I deliver my presentations, I try to pepper my talking with questions. “What’s this?” “Do you have a tree at your house?” “What do you do for Christmas?” After a year of teaching at my Junior High, I’ve come to realize that most students don’t want to be lectured in English (or any language, probably) for more than about 30 seconds before their eyes start to glaze over. I try my best to make my talking as interactive as possible, with time for them to discuss ideas with partners and with clarifying questions at the end. Also, I try to use the grammar they’ve just learned.

Another fun thing about Christmas is that it gives us a chance to decorate the school. Thanks to my Facebook newsfeed I was seeing other ALT’s creative Christmas inventions, which prompted me to make my own. My British friend Becky (who is also a designer, you can see her work here)  made a one month advent calendar for students.


Mine weren’t quite as extravagant, but I’m still happy with how they turned out. I tried to make them educational with question and answer style format. I have two schools, so I made two of them.


After I made this board, two of my students approached me and asked me to sing ‘Let it Snow’ for them, because I listed it as my favorite Christmas song!


Here’s my Christmas board from my base school. I recruited a special education class and their teacher to help me make it.


Thanks to my friend Tony who gave me this magic hat last year. It sings and dances!!!


Fall Vignettes

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.


Fall in Japan is famous for “kouyou”, or colorful autumn leaves.

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.


Temples in Japan are tranquil places. This one is only 5 minutes from my base school.

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. 


I did this watercolor painting at a park near my house.


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.