Posted in Teaching Things

To the “Bad” Students:

“Bad” is an awful and vague term. I’ve honestly never thought you were “bad.” Lazy maybe, sure, or unmotivated, burnt out, or exhausted because your Dad drinks too much so you can’t get home until he’s asleep. Yeah, I knew about that. You probably assumed I didn’t because I always treated you like everyone else, but I always know about you.

I know about the girls who wear make-up and date because they think their only option after school is to get married. You gave up on school a long time ago when the teachers gave up on you. I know about the boys who punch other boys because that’s all they’ve known at home. All the anger and frustration of knowing you’re fighting everything on your own. I know that your stained uniform is never gonna get fixed or replaced because it’s the only one you could afford. I know about you, and I see you.

I also know about the ones who can’t even afford Daiso notebooks and pens, so you’re constantly “borrowing” my pens and notebooks. It’s fine, I know you’re never giving them back, I would rather you keep and have them. Don’t feel bad about it. If you need those to get through school, by all means, take what you need from me.

See, now you’re not a thief, because I gave all those to you. I know you didn’t or couldn’t ask because you were scared to do it in the class in front of all your friends. That’s ok kids, I get it. School can be hell and your friends will do anything for a laugh. Like I said, take what you need.

I remember the girls I’ve found crying. I’m sorry I caught you when you were sobbing because you were failing classes, not because you weren’t trying, but instead because you obviously had a learning disability that no one could be bothered to help you with. I’m also sorry it was my first year teaching and I didn’t know how to help you. You weren’t stupid and you weren’t an idiot. Don’t call yourself one, love yourself for doing the best you can.

I remember the boys I found crying. I’m sorry that your homeroom teacher is an asshole and never gives you a break. Yes, you get into trouble, but treating every single situation like you’re the worst kid he’s ever met wasn’t the way to go about changing your behavior. I’m glad you let me hug you, even if I couldn’t explain at the time that middle school isn’t the rest of your life. I hope you’re okay in a university somewhere now. Don’t let that one bullying jerk dictate who you are.

I remember the girl who yelled at Miss K.N. in English class and made her cry. Don’t think I didn’t notice that you had a tear stained face later in the day too, and don’t think I didn’t know it’s because Dad left and Mom just didn’t want to deal with your emotions. Remember when I told you I’m a kid of divorce too? Remember me trying to tell you that adults are just people, none of them are perfect? It’s ok if you don’t.

I also wanted to say that I understood you didn’t trust adults anymore. It’s shocking to realize when you’re so young that the people you trust the most can betray and hurt you like that. I’m glad by the end of the year you and Miss K.N. were on better terms, and I’m glad you tried to talk to me in English more. Don’t be afraid to trust people.

I remember the boy who I kept after school nearly every day last year. I remember lecturing and lecturing you, keeping you there for a good hour once to prove a point, and the whole time you kept calling yourself stupid. And I kept telling you no you weren’t, you were the victim of a Japanese system that never required you to put what you know into practice. So we practiced, and practiced, and practiced, until you got that damn 95 on your final. Kid, I can’t tell you how proud I was. You weren’t stupid, and I knew it. Don’t call yourself dumb.

And to the boy who I ripped into in the middle of class last year, I had to yell at you then. I had to force you into the main office. You don’t know this yet, but you can’t be that guy. You have no bad home life, you come from a place of privilege and prestige. Your background is just an endless list of tournament wins and schools looking the other way when you act like a jerk. I had to shut that down, because in middle school it might’ve been cute, but in a university it would get you kicked out. You were spoiled, you still kind of are, so I had to be that bad guy because no one else had ever bothered to tell you that the real world doesn’t like entitled jerks. I’m glad you shaped up, and I’m glad you’re being a good senpai to the first years.

For some of you I was an ALT, the weird foreign teacher, emphasis on the foreign. I could hear you sometimes calling me names in Japanese. I didn’t get mad at you because I didn’t understand, I know what メス犬 means and I know that you’ll call me 外人 instead of 外国人 on purpose with a smile, I know that you think you’re being edgy. The fact is though your racism isn’t your own at this point, it’s just you parroting what you’re hearing at home. You look at me see a person who is just too different to comprehend, and you’re just calling me names because you don’t know how to handle this difference. I didn’t want to yell at you and be an angry person at the time because didn’t want to reinforce the stereotypes of us being the angry foreigners with you.

Besides, I tattled to your homeroom teachers every time you did it, so if you assumed all this time it was someone else in your class. Nope, it was probably me. So that after school extra cleaning you got? Present from me. I hope you enjoyed it. It’s been several years since then, I hope you’ve come to realize foreigners are human on the same level as you, that we’re all just basically the same species trying to find meaning in our lives somehow. I hope you’re not in one of those black vans blaring “GAJIN GO HOME!” slogans, but instead taking your American co-worker out to lunch.

You see kids, to me I never had any “bad” students. There was always a reason for you acting out, and believe me I wanted to do more for you. But then again, how arrogant is it of me to think I could’ve solved every single one of your problems? How utterly white saviour of me to think that I should even think I knew better than your other teachers? I’ll never really know, but I do know this much: You are not bad students, you are not bad kids.

You’re utterly normal.

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Posted in Uncategorized

Letters to My Students: Introduction

When it comes to teaching, there is a lot that I can’t say to my students in a classroom. I teach them English, try to encourage and motive them to improve in it, and in the end just try my best to make sure their grades reflect their efforts. So much gets left unsaid, either because there just isn’t enough time to talk about certain things, or because it’s not appropriate to get into [that specific conversation] in the class.

With the added challenge in my case of language barriers, my Japanese students sometimes don’t really understand what I’m trying to say anyway. They’ll just nod their heads and smile when I’m trying to have a Robin Williams carpe diem moment. It’s tough trying to be some kind of “inspirational” role model like person when your students can’t speak your language well.

It sucks because I feel as if sometimes they don’t get how much I care, or they just assume that English teachers aren’t invested in them as much as Japanese teachers. Sometimes that can be the case, there are many ALTs who come here for the vacation experience and not the work. I’m not one of them, never was, but I think my students would assume so until they got know me.

I’ve written one letter before to my Junior High School girls when I lived in Ibaraki, but I always meant to write more. I’ve filled pages of notebooks with things I’ve wanted to say to so many students. I think it’s about time I do it.

Posted in Jobs in Japan

Let’s Talk About Bad Teachers

I’m going to make a shocking confession: I never wanted to be a teacher.

Arguably, I’m still technically not a qualified teacher. All the same I have taught students in Japan for over five years, of varying levels and ages. My current employment requires me to facilitate testing, grading, check attendance, and deal out discipline. In all the ways that matter, I am a teacher.

For most of my life, though, I didn’t want to teach. I don’t have that “so-and-so teacher really inspired me to become and educator!” type of story. I could probably count about 10 teachers in the entirety of my K-12 existence that meant something to me. Most of all though, the bad teachers really soured my idea on the career.

I didn’t want to end up these bitter bullies, the ones who had nothing better to do than break down their students daily. I’m still terrified that I might one day turn around and realize I’m doing something just like them, and it makes me sick to think that is at all possible. I try, though, to remember being a student and how those teachers affected me even to this day.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on three specific bad teachers I had personally. Names will be changed, identities held secret, for their sake and mine. Hopefully, dear God please, these people have gone on to become better instead of worse over time.

The first one gets a special medal of bad that I’ll get into in a moment. Let’s call her Mrs. Misery, because that’s how she made me feel more often than not. As a fourth grade math teacher, she took her job as seriously as a Southern Baptist pastor takes to Sunday worship, which is to say a whole bunch of yelling that didn’t really explain anything concrete and was confusing as all hell.

Now, she and I perhaps would’ve gotten along better if it weren’t for a whole bunch of factors playing into my life at that time. My parents were getting into year two of a long and horribly drawn out divorce, which included moving out of our old home and moving into a new one. Then, I had her class after lunch. This is slightly more important, as I had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and if lunch didn’t agree with me, I’d have to rush to the bathroom so as not to crap in my pants.

She took my medical diagnosis as my “easy excuse” to leave her classroom, and boy howdy did she take that shit personally. Even though I had a doctor’s note explaining it in my file, she didn’t want to believe it was a real thing. She would bully me during and after class any time the bathroom got involved, and would even talk to other teachers about it right in front of me and other students.

Thanks for putting my business out to the world, ya bitch.

To put the cherry on top of this sundae, I wasn’t naturally good at math. I don’t know why, but literally everything else is easy for me. English? Please, I was at college reading level before third grade. Science took some studying, but eh, no problem. Same for Social Studies, and all the electives ever. Math just doesn’t compute, I don’t know why, but it’s way more difficult for me than anything else.

She made it abundantly clear that she considered my stupid, more often than once, right to my face. Oddly enough, I didn’t get too upset over that, because I knew she was wrong. Also, she called the smartest person in our grade level stupid once, and after that she lost all credibility to everyone in that classroom over who was or wasn’t stupid. We generally all made a pact to ignore anything she said in that area, but I’ve got it ingrained into my brain that I am math stupid. It’s a thing that persists, a part of my psyche, and it sucks.

Alright, so Mrs. Misery gets a special medal for being the worst teacher I ever had because she made me feel like shit for having a medical disorder, and thus making me ashamed of something I had zero control over (the start of many years of hating my body that lasted all through middle school). Then she basically gave me a Math Complex, where I firmly believed (and remain believing) that I’m stupid when it comes to this particular subject. And finally, she did all of this IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, like some horrid shame eating monster that could only be satisfied with the despair from children.

I suppose I should thank her, in a weird way. Because of her, I’m the teacher that lectures students after class once everyone else is gone. I try to keep notes on who has what kind of illness. When students raise their hand to go to the bathroom, I just let them go. If they’re gone for more than ten minutes, I write a note saying they get less class points. I don’t want to make anyone feel that bodily functions are shameful. I never call students stupid, I discourage other students from calling others or even themselves stupid.

The next one we’ll call Ms. O’Hara, and I actually managed to get revenge on this lady in an epic fashion. Ms. O’Hara was known for being what you might call a literary snob and a grammar Nazi, so it was fun times for us kiddies who grew up in Kentucky all with Southern sensibilities and kids to boot. She liked to pick on the kids who didn’t have much money and were a bit slow, usually farmers kids. She’d tear them down for mispronunciation, misspelling, and missing the mark on the “grand points” of some book or another we’d be forced to read.

Now, I managed to skate through her class mostly unscathed, since as mentioned previously, English class was my jam. I loved the written word, I read books daily (not kidding, I can chow down a paperback in 24 hours or less), so for me the class was a breeze. Yet,  she decided not to give me my grades, as in call them incomplete, until I did my AR points.

For those of you who weren’t a part of this inane literacy program, consider yourselves lucky. My school district opted to use the Accelerated Reading program in order to “track the literacy level of the schools.” They would put books by a certain grade level. How the system chose the grading levels, I don’t know, but odds are length and vocabulary had a lot to do with it. The higher the grade level, the more points you get. It was annoying and pointless since most kids just read Cliffnotes and passed the stupid tests regardless.

Well, Ms. O’Hara wanted my class in particular to get the points at our specific literacy level. I was at college reading level, which meant I got two choices in the library: “Crime and Punishment” or “Gone with the Wind.” For a twelve year old, those were both daunting choices. I chose the latter, and sped read through it, hating every single bit of it. Scarlett was an abusive, manipulative she beast, and no amount of literary analysis will ever make me look at this novel with wonder and awe.

I read it, I did the stupid test, and passed with flying colors. Whoo-hoo.

Ms. O’Hara was furious, because while other students were reading at least ten or so books a semester under her regime, I read only one for her. What she must’ve not realized is that college reading level books had the highest scoring points, as in enough points to cover me for an entire semester and half way through the next. She was forced to give me my grades, and I felt unimaginably happy to have thwarted her attempts to bully me with extra work.

Once again, I should feel a bit appreciative towards her, because I’ve learned that managing expectations in the classroom is very important. The class should be challenging, but not impossible. Homework and projects shouldn’t be piled up high, but set at a reasonable timeline with class time given to help struggling students. Notice I said help! I don’t tear my kids down over English mistakes, I take the time to explain and help them remember the rules, and I practice with them to make it better even outside of class. I want them to make mistakes, because making mistakes and correcting them is how everybody learns.

Finally, let’s talk about Mr. Sports. Mr. Sports was yet another abysmal math teacher, a high school dude who wanted to talk about basketball more than geometry or algebra. Often, the jocks in class would get him started on some tournament, they’d talk about that for the next hour. We wasted countless hours of class time, learning nothing, and it was pretty obvious the dude was only coming in to get his paycheck and be done with it all. He was useless, not really a bully, just a complete waste of time.

I remember being frustrated that he wouldn’t cover any of the material in class, but would still demand we learn everything by the midterms. I don’t recall how I passed those classes, but I suspect the main reason is because the internet was finally booming into something amazing, and I started looking up “How to Math” on AskJeeves. I learned enough to survive, and continued taking his unfortunate classes because my schedule for everything else AP and/or Advanced wouldn’t allow for a different teacher.

From him, I’ve made an absolute promise to myself to never, ever put material on a test I haven’t gone over in class. If we haven’t practiced it, wrote it into notebooks, or whatever then it’s not going to be on the tests. I won’t make my students suffer that kind of agony that’s not fair and beyond asinine to inflict on them. I don’t care that’s not the speed the school wants, too bad! Fire me and replace me with a useless person instead, I’m going to spend my hours teaching and therefore helping students LEARN.

I suppose in the end, I learned a lot about what not to do from these bad teachers. They’ve stayed with me, remnants of the past that have healed and scared over, so I take those experiences to turn them into fuel to become the best teacher I can possibly be. I will try my damndest every single day not to be the teacher that ruins an entire subject subject for a student, that will educate instead of shaming, and will use every minute available to give the students a fighting chance at using what they’ve learned long after they’ve graduated.

So thank you Mrs. Misery, Ms. O’Hara, and Mr. Sports! I guess in the end I did learn something from you.