In my first year, I had no idea what I was doing. I had taken one semester of an education course before heading off into the JET Program to be an ALT. I know for a fact that I messed up a lot, and I might’ve even hurt some of you in the process without even realizing it.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never wanted to be a teacher. I fully intended to be something else, a writer of some sort. Yes, I was that type of English major, the snobby one with elitist ideals about writing short stories and novels for a living. But then I got hugely discouraged half way through university. I was told my writing was mediocre, that it lacked substance. Most of my writing coaches and teachers informed me with kind words that my stylistic choices were not good. I was encouraged by friends to keep going, but when you’re told often enough by your perceived “superiors” that what you write isn’t good enough, well, you kind of start to believe them.
I still kind of do, it’s a hurdle to get over.
But this isn’t about me, it’s about you, it’s always been about you. From the moment I got off that plane to this very day, I do everything I can to be a good teacher. I am human though, so I’ve made several mistakes, some of them obvious and some of them not.
I’m awful at remembering names, so I’ll apologize for getting names wrong a thousand times. It wasn’t you, I just had two junior high schools and two elementary schools to visit during the JET Program. To my current students, I teach over a thousand of you, I just don’t have the brain capacity for it. If you ever thought I didn’t care about you because I didn’t remember your name, that’s just not true. I’ll remember everything else: your club, your dreams for the future, that time you threw an eraser at my head at lunchtime trying to hit your friend, that time you scared me with a fake spider in class, I will know you. I’m just the worst with names, sorry if I ever hurt your feelings because of it.
I’m sorry for the times I promised something and had to rescind my promise. Sometimes I’d say yes to something, only to find out later that there were school rules against it. For example, some of you wanted to go to my apartment, where I used to live just across the street. I said sure, and you were excited, but then I discovered it wasn’t allowed anymore (A teacher had an affair with a student at their house…so no more of that). And there were other times I would plan for a big, cool project and I’d give it to you all, but then I’d run out of time or money to make it happen. I wanted to make you all English pamphlets once for a class, but I couldn’t, so we did something else. I hated myself for a while for that one.
I know I’ve also hurt feelings due to the language barrier. Sometimes you all would get so frustrated and upset because I couldn’t understand you, and you wanted to tell me something heartfelt, but couldn’t. We would both try, but sometimes communication would just break down. Nowadays, I’m usually never without my cell phone nearby for emergency translation, but back then I didn’t. Whatever you wanted to tell me, I’m sorry I never got to hear it.
Often, I would also feel so helpless as an ALT. As I mentioned in a previous letter, when I would know that a student had a learning disability or some kind of behavior problem, I didn’t know what to do. I would ask the teachers to do something, try to maybe talk with a counselor about it, but I remember one student simply transferred out of my school because of all the problems. To this day I still regret that I couldn’t do something to help you, even though I know that wasn’t my job, and that I did all I could with the knowledge I had at the time. Still, I hate failing any of you.
I’m also sorry about how awkward I generally am as a person. See, in my first year, I was so tense about being a foreigner in a new country, I didn’t quite get how to just relax to get to know you (or just others in general). I didn’t really open myself up and chat with you all outside of class as much as I should’ve, and thus you didn’t get to practice as much as you should’ve. Every year I got more and more confident about it, and now I feel like I’ve bonded with more than a few students at my current high school. All the same, I’m sorry for the ones I was too awkward and shy around at first.
I’ve also done that unfortunate mistake of punishing the wrong person. Once, some kids threw a pencil case, and I took it, not realizing it was a bullying tactic. I made a girl cry, and even though I returned it, I still feel awful about helping bullies to bully in any way shape or form. I made sure they got told off by the homeroom teacher, but I made you cry and that’s not okay. Another time I took a boy’s pencil because his friends were trying to stab each other with it, so I took it and yelled at the wrong kid for it. Apologies, I made a big error there. And there are more, with details I can’t remember. Trust me, I will feel awful about these incidents until the day I die.
For my high school students, I’ve been pretty good about being more outgoing and personable, but I’m still making mistakes with you. For you, I worry so much about making mistakes with the class, because I will only have you once a week for speaking lessons. I know for a fact that I’ll mess up on intonation or spelling, and it matters so much more with you because you have university exams which could determine what job you get, and thus the rest of your life! Trust me when I say for all that I appear nonchalant in the class, I’ll be panicking about lesson plans behind the scenes, and grades, and scores, and-! Everything with you matters, and that’s why I’ll just go ahead and apologize for…everything and anything.
And finally, I’m sorry I got sick a lot. Sometimes you all would wonder about why I might miss class some days, and that’s because I’ve got a terrible case of I.B.S. Due to this chronic stomach problem, I can sometimes eat food and then get super sick. This sickness will in turn make it hard for me to leave the house some days (I could be spending hours at home in pain and running to the bathroom). It’s not fun, and sometimes it just goes off for no real reason.
I never really told most of you because, well, I didn’t know how to explain it in Japanese. Only about a year ago did I find a doctor with medicine that makes me feel somewhat normal again, so I’m not missing classes like I used to, but it’s still a hard battle to fight.
Some of you thought I was just unhappy living in Japan, but that’s not true at all. I love Japan, and I love my work (like 95% of the time). It’s just that I’ve never been in perfect health, so it’s not your fault or the school’s fault, it’s my body’s fault. I do what I can to keep it regulated, but sometimes that doesn’t work.
That’s not nearly everything I feel bad about, but I’ve always been hard on myself. Just in general, I’ve never felt like I was the best teacher. I cared, but I wasn’t well trained for it with any certifications. I winged it as best as I could, I gained experience until I eventually got comfortable in the role, but at the expense of you all having a bumbling teacher. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would go back to the start of JET to be a better teacher. I would like to think I wasn’t the worst teacher, or a particularly bad one, but definitely not anyone’s top ten favorites most likely.
Please don’t think too badly of me, I did try my best. I hope the ones that I’ve wronged can forgive me, and I want all of you to succeed regardless of my influence. After all, I was not the only English teacher you’ve ever had, so hopefully your other teachers inspired you more, taught you with better explanations, and did good by you. I’m sure there are professors out there ready and willing to give you the guidance you need.
Maybe I’m too hard on myself, maybe I’m not as bad as I think I am, but I would rather admit my failings than pretend I had none. I would rather learn from my past rather than ignore it or never change my methods.
If nothing else, maybe I am a good teacher in that I refuse to let myself stagnate, instead continuing to improve as time goes on, because I was influenced by all of you.