From July to December I traveled, but also in between those travels was of course the everyday life of Itako. It wasn’t until December that it occurred to me that I should talk about the actual, ya know, job I was doing and what it all entailed.And thus, I finally wrote about all that, and about other things.
MY SCHOOLS, STUDENT STORIES, AND ALT ISSUES
In Itako, I work at two junior high schools, Itako 2nd Junior High School and Hinode Junior High School. Right now I’m at Hinode JU, and next month I’ll rotate over to Itako 2nd. I love both my schools. Itako 2nd wasn’t damaged very much by the earthquake, so by the time I got there everything was fixed.
Hinode JU has construction going on right now. Basically, Hinode is rice fields all around. When the earthquake happened on March 11th, the ground actually collapsed downward. Poles are still drooping left and right all over the place. Some sidewalks are nearly vertical. The roads are a mess, with pot holes and gravel all over the place. I have to be careful when I drive, too, because sometimes the roads suddenly have huge bumps that could be mistaken for hills. I can go air born if I’m not paying attention.
Even My school is still undergoing reconstruction. When I first arrived here, the entrance had a space from the floor level to the ground. That’s been covered up with asphalt. There’s luckily no structural damage done to the building. The gymnasium was unusable for a little bit. The gym had a massive crack up the side, like it was torn in half (and I suppose it kind of was). That’s all fixed up now. Slowly but surely, Hinode is recovering.
Slowly, yeah, like a snail’s pace. Even as I left in my third year, they were paving and putting the roads back in the places they were supposed to be. The problem was that the area didn’t have enough money to fix everything, as in literally nothing much except to patch the most important things up (like the water lines) until money came in from tourism.
Oh, did I mention that the bulk of tourism was in summer? Yep, which meant we had to wait around for another year before things got back to a semblance of normal. It was no one’s fault, that’s just what happens when it comes to natural disasters. Stuff gets broken, stuff needs fixing, but the money has to come in later.
My kids are great. At Hinode JU I’ve got the more shy crowd than with Itako 2nd. Hinode students will take to me more often when I’m at the mall and at 7/11 than at school. I’ve started eating lunch with them so that they will speak more English.
Lunch at my school goes like so: Students don’t go to a cafeteria like in America. Instead, they eat in their classrooms. Some students in each class are selected to dish out the food. These students dress up in white uniforms that include hats, gloves, and face masks. They dish out the food onto other students’ trays. When that’s all done, the class says a big, “Itadakimasu!” (I humbly accept this meal!) And they eat. When they’re done, they say, “Gochisosama deshita!” (Thank you for the food!)
Those lunches were…decent. I see people sharing those viral videos about how “healthy” those school lunches are, and I guess in comparison to American lunches they definitely are. At the same time, most of the fish and meat parts are fried 9 times out of ten. The soups have veggies, but the salt content is high as hell. Most vegetables had obviously been frozen, reheated, soaked in salt and grease, and then put into a huge soup dispenser. Most of the other foods were processed like that.
However, there might be a few pieces of fresh fruit every now and then, like apples and grapes. I loved orange season, because we’d get oranges for days. Since the meal was regulated to one meat thing, one veggie thing, and rice, the calorie portions were well within dietary guidelines to stave off obesity. And like I said before, the taste was decent, as in not awful, but I wouldn’t say it was awesome either.
Most students weren’t fans of anything but Curry Day, which was like how students in America love Pizza Day. It’s not at all healthy, but it’s the one actually delicious meal of the month.The milk was my biggest problem. I’m lactose intolerant, so I would pretend to drink some of it, and then throw away the rest.
If you read manga or seen a single episode of a anime series set in high school, it will come as no surprise to you that Japanese students have to clean their schools. At Itako 2nd, students usually clean the school after lunch. At Hinode, students usually clean the school after all six periods are done.
It’s fun to watch them do it. Teachers supervise the students, making sure that they actually clean instead of play. Students wipe down windows, sweep, mop, and so on. When they have to sweep the gym, they’ll race each other to finish. They also like to janken (play rock, paper, scissors) for the tasks they hate. Loser, of course, has to do it.
I walk around when they’re cleaning sometimes and talk to them in English. I’m encouraged to talk to them in as much English as possible at my schools. From these conversations, I’ve gotten some pretty interesting questions. For example, one student asked me for my bust size in perfect English. I rewarded her with the correct answer and giggled for the rest of the day. I have boys asking me if I like them, which is adorable. Other students want to know if I’m eating KFC for Christmas (insert raging expletives here). And so and so forth.
There is a slight misunderstanding about students cleaning schools. For some reason, people are under the impression that janitors don’t exist at the schools. That’s a lie, they have janitors, but the janitors aren’t called janitors. School assistants with part time jobs, whose exact title changes with each school, are basically janitors and then some. They come into the school and deep clean about once a month, but they also have other tasks like scheduling lunch food drop offs, cooking (as in reheating the frozen food) lunches, and etc. They’re behind the scenes, and are often unappreciated in my opinion, because they make sure the school looks good and gets all the random tasks taken care of so the school works like a semi-well oiled machine.
I was friends with one of them at Hinode JU, until she retired my second year. She was a sweet old lady with a heart of gold. I do not remember her name, but she was also our office lady and she sneaked me sweets because I sneaked her some. She was awesome, and I hope she’s doing well.
I try out my Japanese on them sometimes, which makes them all kinds of surprised. I don’t use it that much with them because I want them to talk in English, but sometimes I can’t help myself. One time, I used an expression my friend, Nobuko, taught me on a boy. He was not looking at my eyes, so I said, “Anata sukebe ne?” Which basically means, “Oh, you’re a perv, huh?” And he shook his head and said “No! No! No! I am good! I am good!” I rewarded him with a sticker for the English and for suffering the shock of a lifetime.
Apparently, I didn’t set up why I said this, which is odd. The full story, because for some reason I still remember this, the boy said, “You have a body I like!” which astounded me because he’d not spoken but all of two English sentences before. Instead of reprimanding him (as I probably should’ve?), I wanted him to keep speaking English, but also make sure he knew that wasn’t ok. Thus, I shocked him with my Japanese.
Weird, why didn’t I mention that? Was I worried people would think I was adding to the ‘pervy-Japanese’ stereotype? The fact is that high school boys, no matter where in the world, are all high school boys. Not all of them say outrageous stuff and act crazy, but you know more than a few do, and sometimes they say things about bodies and butts and stuff. If I got angry with every single weird comment, I’d have no energy for anything else. Instead, it’s always best to match them with the higher level wit given to me over years of teaching (and having far worse harassment before in life).
Right now, we’ve got testing going on, so my schedule’s a little erratic. I can have anywhere from one class a day to five. The five class days are killer. I don’t know why, but it’s so draining. Just one class right after the other and talking to students at lunch, there’s barely anytime to go to the bathroom. When I have just one class, I try to use the time wisely by studying Japanese, but I might meander onto Cracked.com or Facebook when I get bored.
Here we come across one of the other reasons I decided to quit JET. As much as I loved those schools and those students, five classes back to back with lunchtime basically another class, plus hours after school for Interactive Forum for half of the year, I got burnt out. I was trying to tell myself that I could do it for five years, but the truth was that already in the first year I could tell that I wasn’t going to make it the full five.
I knew that other teachers had harder schedules, working five classes everyday with no lunch break at all, and little to no prep time except on weekends. Then again, other teachers didn’t have to prep at all, and they’d only have four classes with no lunchtime with students. Regardless, for me, the work schedule at that time came with also the underlying (i.e. unspoken) agreement that I couldn’t complain, because I was paid so much to “just be an assistant,” which was a bit unfair.
I was an assistant teacher to two schools, with two different sets of teachers with different expectations for classroom English activities, and two different sets of students who I couldn’t remember all the names of until the very end of each year. It was hectic, and even when I got used to it and rolled well, I was still struggling because nothing was consistent. I was getting flopped around back and forth between these different working environments and expected to just enjoy the ride.
Not saying I didn’t most of the time, but it was exhausting in ways that are hard to explain. A foreigner with little to no grasp of the native language, no teaching experience, and learning everything on the fly in a foreign country was already hard enough. Having an inconsistent environment to work in every month just compounded those problems.
I’ve started staying after school to play some sports. I played volleyball yesterday, and tomorrow I’m going to play basketball. The students are happy to see me, and the coaches help to encourage them to do English when I’m there. I love sports, I really do, but I’m bad at them. My volleyball girls would giggle whenever I completely failed at a maneuver (which was often). One girl, Kanna, helped me out with the footwork by trying to tell me things in English. In the end, she would say the Japanese, and I would say the English, and then she would repeat the English. Close enough, right?
At one point yesterday, I had a ball just fly left and keep going. I said, “Sumimasen. Sorry.” And one girl smiled at me and said, “It’s ok! Ball likes to go!” I wish I could’ve given here like a thousand stickers in that moment, because that was awesome.
“OH?!” you say at the fact I stuck around after school to play sports, “If you were so tired then why were you playing around? HUH?! Liar!” Well, no, not really.
See, there was this unspoken thing about being on JET (although sometimes spoken outright as well) that since we’re paid “so much” to “just be assistants” then it only makes sense for us to stay after school and on weekends to speak English with the students. Also, JET meetings and seminars were very intense on getting students to “speak as much English as possible” because they didn’t meet the required 90% English requirements in classrooms. So it was up to us, the hero JETs, to save Japanese students and fill their lives with as much English as possible!
But of course, what the JET meetings and seminars don’t say is that Japan shouldn’t need “heroes” at all. If Japanese teachers spoke the required amount of English in English classrooms, we actually wouldn’t be necessary at all. Also, getting paid for a full time job and telling someone they shouldn’t be paid that much because their level is lower than that of others in the workplace is a bit harsh.
JETs need that money, because moving to another country isn’t cheap. We have to pay for all sorts of start up costs: cell phones, contracts for cars, if you don’t drive then bikes, TV, internet, etc. We’re not just assistants, we’re foreign workers, and that’s why JET pays well. It wants to give incentives for people to stick with the job and not quit, and hopefully bring more people over. Not everyone wants to go to Japan, despite the high number of JET applicants telling otherwise.
Anyways, yes, I at times overworked myself too hard. I wanted to be the best JET I possibly could, and I was. I just didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t have to be the very best.
When I leave Itako 2nd, I go home by taxi service. No, it’s not because I’m that important, but instead because of this safety clause in my contract that states I can’t drive myself during school hours. When I’m at Hinode, I walk to school because I live so close. When I went to the elementary school, I would walk there, too.
I’ve only been to the elementary school once, but I want to go again really bad. They’re so adorable! Oh my god, I want a Japanese child! They kept asking me questions in Japanese, so I had the greatest test of my Japanese skills with them. I managed to make it through pretty well. Luckily, elementary Japanese is around my level of equivalency.
Jesus Mother Mary and Joseph, there was a time I actually enjoyed elementary school classes.
Let’s just say I’ve discovered over the years that I love playing with kids, but I don’t love teaching children. Especially when two classes (or that one time THREE) get all shoved together into the same time slot and I have to teach about 80+ children a lesson while also making sure none of them kill each other. It was fine at first, when I was only going a total of two days once a month and doing proper 30-40+ kids. When the school I guess decided to cut the budget and English class hours, ughhhhhh.
That being said, I heard Itako finally got around to hiring proper elementary school JET, so yay you new person, enjoy.
I got a lot of, “Are you married?” and “Boyfriendo?” questions that made me sigh. That question will never die. Unlike my junior high school kids, my elementary school kids really couldn’t believe it. They were so confused. I tried my best to explain, but I think I failed that part of the interview. Instead, I moved onto talking about MatsuJun and Arashi.
Nowadays, I get the question in high school, “Husbando? Boyfriendo?” looks cautiously both ways, “Girlyfriendo?” And the answer to that, even if it’s a lie, will always and forever be, “I’m single.” If you answer yes to any of those questions, the students will badger you until the day you die about every single detail. Best to just cut off that insanity before it even starts.
Most of my students and I get along pretty well. I have a couple of disruptions every once and awhile, but I’ve been figuring out ways to solve them as I go. In class, one of the best ways is for me to just move and stand close to a students that’s misbehaving. Out of class, I yell out in Japanese and startle my kids to cut it out. It’s the power of being a foreigner. People pay attention when you do anything. It’s a little unnerving at first, but I’ve started using it to my advantage at school.
Shouting was basically the only form of discipline I could do at my old schools. Nowadays, I keep them in the afternoon for study time and cleaning time. Back then I had no power or authority to do anything, so I just did what I could with yelling and tattling to homeroom teachers about super obnoxious or dangerous behavior (fights and such) but honestly I didn’t have to do that much. Japanese students are generally more well behaved than American students.
I love my job. I love getting up and working everyday. However, there are a few issues. People who are interested in the JET program and teaching in Japan in general should know the job can be challenging. After all, even the best schools and best students won’t be perfect 100% of the time, so sometimes you’ll find yourself feeling like maybe you’re all alone with these problems, exacerbating the already kind of isolation you get by living abroad.
Some of the issues I’ve faced as an ALT in my schools include getting time to discuss future lessons with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs). I’m lucky with my placement. I can usually get time before class to discuss a lesson with the English teacher in charge. However, that’s not always the case, and many ALTs are not so lucky. It’s not unheard of for an ALT to get no information on a class at all before having to walk in and start teaching.
Sometimes I’ve just had to wing it because the teacher’s been too busy with his or her other responsibilities to tell me the plan. After all, the teachers have to do so much. They have to plan out lessons, grade everything, keep the grades straight in the grade book, and so on. Also, most teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re also coaches, supervisors over school projects, members the Parent Teachers Association, and so on.
For times when you can’t grab a teacher to find out the plan, just give it your best guess and plan accordingly. Make two lessons, one which is grammar point oriented and another that’s much less difficult to do, just in case the JTE says, “Oh no, that’s too hard!” and you’re not left in stunned silence with nothing to do for that class.
One of the things that will be a little frustrating at first is trying to figure out the students English level. Students will know some words but not those words, and they will know this basic bit of grammar but something very similar is too difficult, oh and this cannot be said the way you usually say it because students get confused…You get the idea.
It’ll be frustrating, but it’ll be alright. If you get a textbook and flip through it, you’ll get an idea of what the students know and don’t know. If all else fails, ask the JTE. They will probably tell you a lot at first, “Can you make it easier?” and you will probably think, “But it is easy…” but what they mean by “easier” is actually like shorter words and shorter sentences. Think less complex and more elementary school English.
Past me is right about everything here. Japanese English teachers are super busy, they rarely have time to sit down and help you plan things out. Make the worksheets simple and easy in accordance with the grammar lesson, and don’t be afraid to fail. Some classes aren’t going to go well, just do what you can with what you’re given.
Also, you will speak English too fast when you first get there. It’s just a fact. You will speak English too fast at first for students to understand. Your JTE will inform you that you have to slow down over and over again at the beginning, and you will think, “But I am talking slow.” Sorry, still too fast. Don’t worry though because after about a month you’ll develop Shatner-esque style of talking that will become your default mode for students. It’ll take a while before you can get it to feel a little less robotic, but you’ll make it work somehow.
Also, if you have an accent, it will mellow out as time goes on. My Kentucky accent was already barely there in the first place, but it’s all gone now.
In JET, there’s this saying that they use at orientation called E.S.I.D. (Every Situation is Different). Meaning every class is different and every student is different and every teacher is different. When it comes to conversing with Japanese Teachers of English and other Japanese co-workers, the task is daunting at first. At Hinode my teachers are a little more shy and nervous around me at first, but after while they’ve gotten used to me and ask me about my day. Itako 2nd embraced me wholeheartedly and it feels like they never stop talking to me. Since I’m shy around people at first and a natural introvert, I had to force myself to speak and interact, with can be terribly difficult with the language barriers.
Once again, I forgot to mention that students will be shy as hell around you at first too. It’ll take them about a couple of weeks to get used to you, and even then, there will always just be that one shy kid in class who won’t have the nerve to converse with you until the very end of a school year. Just be yourself, your teacher self anyway.
Miscommunications can and will happen. That’s just part of it, but they can be hard to work through. For me, the miscommunications I have the most pertain to class and how to teach during class. There are some fundamental cultural differences between the Japanese style and the Western style of teaching. In Japan, it’s usually lecture style, with the teacher at the front telling students what to learn and no interruptions allowed.
I tried when I first got here to ask questions when I was at the front to get a more discussion style class going, but that quickly died. Japanese students are really not trained like Western students to be active in class. It’s actually considered rude to interrupt or ask questions because that means the teacher didn’t do a “good enough” job teaching. My JTE at Itako 2nd actually sat me down to talk with me about it, and said even though the Japanese schools want a more Western classroom for English classes, it’s a going to be a while before it actually happens.
Oh yeah, this problem. I fixed that within the first year. The trick is to give out stickers every single time someone says something, even if it’s wrong. Ask the teachers if bonus points are allowed for speaking up. I did more games, allowing for more talking, and made most of them conversation style. It took like 9+ months, but eventually most students could answer questions.
At the end of the day, I do my best to say goodbye to as many students as I can before I go home. I love my job, but I will say it’s draining some days. I try to remember my trump card: “I’m tired, but I’m tired IN JAPAN!” It still manages to perk me up. Also, when my students are shouting, “Goodbye!” and “I love you!” I feel a little proud that I’ve got such great kids.
And now, I’m going to go dive under my kotatsu.
They were great kids, I’m still proud of them. I met one of my old students at Tokyo Station once by chance. We exchanged LINE Ids, but then I got a new phone and lost all my old contacts (iPhones suck). Before I lost her, I found out she went on to be a student at Yokohama University. She was still studying English, and she was doing well. I was so happy she remembered me when she saw me, and I remembered her. Even if I never see half my students again, every single second I spent with them I wouldn’t take back.
I also miss you, my dear kotatsu. I hope my successor is treating you well!
Alright, see you in two weeks for the next flashback!