Posted in Teaching Things

“Let’s Pretend I Know What I’m Doing”

There are many teacher phrases out there in the world, such as “sit down, be quiet, listen carefully, raise your hand,  Shiori I swear to God if you don’tputyourmakeupbackinyourbagrightthissecond-,” and so on.

But my more recent favorite is this one: “Let’s pretend I know what I’m doing and…”

I through this phrase around especially during exam time. I have to design tests, mark tests, and then put all the points into an Excel file. The points get calculated into the school’s grading system, and then students take those report cards home. I have to check and double check that everything I’m doing is not only correct, but also tallied up in the system.

Last Friday, I said this phrase at least three times. “Ok, Mr. Nasu let’s pretend I know what I’m doing. My plan is for the test to have both a multiple choice format, but also a writing section. I think I might throw in some sentence scrambles, too. It’s a fifty minute exam so…what do you think?”

Mr. Nasu replied with, “Sounds good?”

And with that feedback, I powered through making my test. You would think after six years of doing test stuff I would get better at it, but not always. This year in particular, I was put in charge of the whole Standard First Year Communication Course Curriculum. As someone who never designed curriculum, I felt a little nervous, and I needed to design this curriculum around all new textbooks.

Basically, throw out everything from last year and start from scratch! Yay!

Also, this side-note is neither here nor there, but I still question the logic of putting a person with the least amount of experience in curriculum design a whole division of a school’s English course. I mean, fantastic they all had confidence in me that I could handle the pressure of it, but if I’d been an administrator I don’t think I would’ve done it this way. Once again, notice how my new favorite phrase is, “Let’s pretend I know what I’m doing.”

The fact is “knowing what I’m doing” can only come from these kinds of experiences though. Without getting in over my head and having to figure things out quick, I wouldn’t be able to bang out a final exam in a week like I just did. I suppose it helps that I refuse to give up or throw in the towel for projects I’ve never done before, but instead just ask for help from fellow teachers (or ya know, Google it if necessary). Support systems are always good in times of stress, be they in or out of an office environment, especially for new adventures into the unknown.

As the year wraps up, I’m really glad I ended up being put “in charge” of this communication course. I would like to believe I did the best job possible given my lack of experience in this aspect of teaching, or if nothing else managed to accomplish more than I ever thought I would when given this assignment. My worst nightmare was getting a worksheet out, only to realize I couldn’t finish a lesson in time for a midterm or final, or completely losing a test file! Luckily, I can put those fears aside now.

I’ll be gaining new ones with whichever new job I attain, I’m sure. The odds are high I’ll be saying, “Let’s pretend I know what I’m doing,” a lot in the coming few months. Whatever the future holds, I think it’s a useful phrase, whether teacher or not.

Posted in Teaching Things

“We Do Not Copy in My Class!!!”

Today, it happened again. A very sneaky girl (let’s call her Ichigo) gave her friend (let’s call her Momo) a looksie at her paper. Ok so, Ichigo and Momo are both good students, and I rarely have any issues with them. Which is why I was surprised when I came around to discover the ultimate sin of my classroom.

Copying someone else’s work!!! 

As a person who grew up in the good ol’ U.S. of A school system, I am very much anti-cheating/ copying /plagiarizing. At the particular high school I work at, it’s considered “teamwork” by a decent amount of teachers, much to my absolute displeasure. I’m fully aware that everyone has done this at some point in their high school career, usually for homework, but in class?! No, I will never allow it!

Thus, I walked over to the girls, who froze in their seats with wide eyes. They knew that I knew they had been caught out. Unlike perhaps a couple of boys who tried to sleep through my classes, these two smart ladies couldn’t feign ignorance, they couldn’t protest my next move. Both of them had cultivated a reputation with me on knowing English well, being good students, knowing the rules.

“We do not copy in my class!” I proclaimed, snatching Ichigo’s paper away.

Ichigo and Momo both tried to talk me out of walking away with the half-finished paper, but it did them no good. I resolutely sauntered back to the front of the class, procured a new sheet, and returned to Ichigo. Momo suddenly realized that her paper was fine. That was the point: the person who let another person copy was the one who suffered the most. The copier was left with the guilt of their actions. In Japan, guilt is effective, shame even more so.

Ichigo grumbled to herself as she had to redo her entire paper again. Meanwhile, Momo floundered, realizing she must do this assignment on her own. Bum bum buuuuum!!!

For those of you who might think I’m a monster, allow me to explain the assignment.

The students only had to write their everyday activities. For example, “On Monday I am going shopping. On Tuesday I am playing baseball after school. On Wednesday I’m singing a song at karaoke.” All the way through the week, and that’s it. I allowed them to look into their textbooks for examples (specifically so the two boys in my class who were a bit slower than the rest could get ideas). The assignment wasn’t a Herculean effort to accomplish, Momo was just lacking the confidence to do it.

Cheating as well as copying are often symptoms of a lack of confidence, not a lack of interest, at least from my experience. I have many students who simply don’t understand English because they have this mental block from years of getting “Grammar Rules are God!” things drilled into their heads. They stumbled mentally to connect what they learn in textbooks to real life application because they get caught up on the stupid language rules.

Momo is a “good student” in that she usually follows all the rules given to her by teachers. Today, she was faced with conflicting rules: be perfect at English grammar and no copying papers. She knew she couldn’t be perfect at the English grammar, so she gambled with breaking the no copying rules. The odds weren’t in her favor this time, so now she’s faced with the reality that she might fail in both endeavors. Failure for Japanese students is often akin to shameful behavior, and that sucks for us English teachers.

I need for her to make mistakes, or as she views in her eyes as “failure.” Without these mistakes, I can’t help her to improve. It’s a Catch 22, and I have to toe that fine line between asking too much of her and not. Ichigo is going to be fine, she not only has the confidence, she can very well teach other students what she knows.

I encouraged Ichigo to do so when I said, “You,” I pointed at her, “can give Momo examples, but you can’t give her your paper. Help with spelling too! You can do it. I believe in you.” Ichigo did, brightening up a bit at the praise. She leaned over to talk with Momo, and I did something that might shock you. I walked away.

Ichigo and Momo aren’t the only students who need help in this class, of course. I dealt out my punishment, no need to hover. I move from desk to desk, helping out others with issues translating Japanese to English, some spelling questions, etc. After about ten minutes, I return to Ichigo and Momo.

Ichigo had finished a new paper while Momo was still trying. I could tell their papers were turning out differently, so I was pleased. Even if Momo didn’t finish the assignment today, I was going to be happy she wasn’t leaning on her friend’s knowledge of English. A crutch is only useful when you’re broken, not when you already know how to walk and are moving on to how to jog.

I graded Ichigo’s paper, told her to use it for the speaking test next week. Momo came up last in the class, but I noticed with pride there was only one mistake. I had her correct it, and then she was given full marks. I always give my students a chance in class to correct their mistakes for full points (see, not a monster). She was smiling, happy that she got it done just in time.

And I would like to believe that perhaps, just maybe, she gained one more stepping stone towards English confidence. I don’t want her to fall back on old bad habits, so hopefully she’ll remember how Ichigo had to do her work all over again, and won’t repeat the copying problem. With the full marks in the grade book, she’s realized that it’s better to try at something she won’t be perfect at rather than take credit for someone else’s work.

In university, copying does equal plagiarism, so she could get kicked out of her undergraduate studies. Momo can’t take credit when she gets a job if someone else does the work, she’ll get fired. There have been many a Momo and Ichigo in my classroom, boys and girls (and others who identify as neither). I believe it’s my job to prepare them for all of it, not just the writing and speaking in English responsibilities.

For those of you who think Momo might hold a grudge, at the end of class when I asked for a volunteer to return the classroom key (we use a free room), she was the first one to raise her hand. She also apologized, with a smile, not a single bit of sarcasm or hatred in her tone.

“Thank you!” I said as I left.

Her, being the cheeky one that she is, asked, “Bonus pointo onegaishimasu!” 

So as you can see, not only was she fine, but she had the nerve to ask for bonus points afterwards. Kids bounce back from discipline if it’s fair, if it’s not breaking their spirits, and if they understand that they are in the wrong from the get go. Ichigo was with her, laughing as I walked off to my next class. I’m not worried about them getting bent out of shape.

After all, everyone knows it’s a rule in my classroom. They may not understand all the intricacies of why I do what I do, but they also understand I’m not going to be meaner to them for breaking rules. No one gets favoritism, and no one gets more punishments than the others. Everyone is treated with discipline regardless of marks. Momo and Ichigo know it, and I think in time maybe they’ll come to appreciate it.

Or maybe not, at least I tried! Trying is all we teachers can really do, so until I’m blue in the face I’ll keep shouting, “No copying in my classroom!”

 

 

Posted in Teaching Things

To the “Ha-Fu” Students:

It will always bother me that you are called “half,” because to me it almost sounds like you’re being called half a person. It bothers me that you’re not “Japanese enough” to be called Japanese, even though you were born and raised here. I see the teachers and other students treat you differently, because you’re different.

The United States has its form of racism, and nowadays often violent and in your face types of racism. In Japan, racism is generally subversive. It’s brushed off, excused, and even defended by the people who love the country so much they don’t wish to hear a bad word ever said about Nippon. But the way you get treated is a form of racism, and I’d be blind not to see it.

I lost one of you this year to hateful and racist bullying. It wasn’t violent in physicality, but it was awful nonetheless. A group of boys yelled at you, made fun of your last name, over and over in the cafeteria until you cried. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time they’d done it, but it was the last time you were going to take it. You transferred out, moving onto a school that might do better by you. I hope you’re happier there.

I’ll never forget you, the girl who showed me her speech about coming over from China. I read in horror as you told the story of coming into the school (before my time) and you were bullied so bad that you got your arm broken. You were so proud that you eventually became friends with the classmate who broke your arm.

Meanwhile, I was furious for you. I wanted to find the principal and punch him for letting it happen to you, for allowing your abuser to continue coming to this school, for the adults who didn’t make an appearance in your story. Odds are, it’s because they didn’t do enough for you, and thus were relegated to footnotes in your story.

I have an unpopular opinion here in Japan, one I don’t share much because some people would get so offended they’d go into a blind rage. Here it is:

There is no pure human anything. I don’t know how people delude themselves into the idea that genetics works by land mass alone. Neither country of birth nor skin tone dictates anyone’s superiority or inferiority.

None of the people who bullied you were pure Japanese, but they were taught they were by parents and grandparents. And until they take a scientific DNA test to discover the Russian/Korean/Chinese/Taiwanese, hiding within them, they’ll never believe they are anything but Japanese. And it’s so sad you have to suffer through that lie.

I see how even Native English teachers will call the students “ha-fu,” and I know I’ve been guilty of it more than once. I try my best not to feed into this idea, because I’ve seen the hurt it causes. There’s even “positive racism” that comes from this societal misconstruction that bother me.

I see how it’s assumed you’ll know English better, like it’s in your genetics to know English. Never mind that some of you are “half” Russian and Japanese, or “half” Spanish and Japanese, or “half” Mexican and Japanese, etc. Still, you are lighter skinned, and thus the burden of English and foreign cultural knowledge falls on your shoulders. It’s not fair you get that added pressure.

And I’ve seen how “half” Korean, “half” Chinese, and “half” Filipino kids don’t get hold to this same standard. They will “pass” as Japanese, and so aren’t expected to be great at English or foreign languages. They also don’t get picked on as much, don’t get treated differently by teachers, as well as get the added benefits of it being “assumed” they are Japanese.

When these kids get older, they won’t be accosted by cops demanding for a citizenship check. They won’t have to prove to their employer time and again that they “really do” know Japanese. They won’t have to validate their existence in Japan.

Because here’s the most racist thing about it all: If you can “look Japanese,” then you’re not “ha-fu” to most Japanese people. The homogeneity is only skin deep, you might say. If I were to put pictures of a Chinese exchange student, and then of a “half” American and Japanese student, and ask the question, “Who is Japanese?” It’s obvious who they would pick. It’s all boiled down to who looks the most like us, and not “genetics” at all.

It drives me crazy to see it happen to you. I try my best to treat you like the typical high school students you are, like you’re just another kid in class. I don’t put extra pressure on you to answer questions, I don’t force you to do the example sentences, I endeavor each time to just treat you as another Japanese student. Emphasis on the Japanese, there.

I wish I could make Japan see you as Japanese. It would be great to see society accept you better as the years go on, as the “trend” of more and more foreigners entering Japan means more and more intermingled genetics. The definition of “Japanese” is going to have to change, the identity of being “Japanese” having less to do with looks.

I hope it does anyway. See, if I’m still here with a child, I don’t want them to experience this kind of treatment. I don’t want my children to be treated like outsiders my the majority of people they know and meet. I want them to be accepted and loved for all that they are, and I would love for them to be just “Japanese.”

And for what it’s worth, I do think of you all as Japanese, even if no one else in Japan might.

Posted in Teaching Things

To The Students Who “Hate” English:

Guess what? It’s fine. Really, it’s fine you don’t like English, and that you put in as little effort as possible into the subject. Honestly, I hated math class, and I made sure to choose a path that didn’t depend on it for my future career. And when it comes to language skills? It can be tricky.

Some people can soak up new words like a sponge, grammar changes don’t bother them at all, and speaking with the right intonation is second nature. I want you to know, I don’t measure your English skills by that genius scale, as it wouldn’t be fair to you at all. I want you to improve at your own pace, learn what you can as best you can, and I try to make sure your grades reflect that improvement (or let’s be honest in some cases, lack thereof).

And here’s why: I recognize that many students might end up using nearly none of the English I’ve taught them. Maybe occasionally you’ll speak English directions to a tourist or something, but for the most part I don’t honestly see most of you becoming fluent. That’s not a bad thing, though. If you live the rest of your life with only basic English, that’s probably all you’ll need to get a standard “salaryman/salarywoman” (I’m aware they’re called office ladies in Japanese, I don’t care, both sexes get salaries, deal with it).

I do try to encourage you to know as much English as possible because there will come a day when you want to go higher. If a promotion comes up, and it’s between someone who knows only a little English and someone who speaks it fluently, you’re not going to get it. Unfortunately, the fact is whether a company is international or not they’ll always choose higher fluency English speakers over even the most dedicated worker. You’re probably thinking right now, “Oh, I’ll just work at a small company in town, so I’ll never have to worry about it!”

Well, it’s not just big companies anymore, it’s a national trend for all company sizes. You will be at a disadvantage, and it’s going to be so expensive later to get caught up. I used to work at Coco Juku, and I taught several business people who couldn’t go any further without a certain TOEIC score. They paid so much money to come to our eikaiwa to re-learn everything they were taught in middle and high school. It was not easy for them to do it, between a full time job and a family, it was such a struggle for them. I don’t want you to be that adult, to be the one struggling and paying through the nose for lessons, living in regret that you didn’t pay attention in class.

Maybe you don’t want to work in a company at all, though, or maybe you don’t want to be a higher up. Just a steady income would be all you need to be happy, maybe a few hobbies or sports on the side. No English required for a part time job, right? I want to say that’s fine, that if you’re happy that’s all that matters. I don’t want you to choose that path just because you don’t like English, though, I want you to think it through and decide because that’s the best path for you.

Consider why you hate English, too. Is it because it’s too difficult? Consider finding ways to make English less difficult. Watch English movies, listen to English music, read fiction in English, get away from the government approved textbooks. I hate the textbooks, too, don’t worry. Try to learn in different ways from the input and repeat cycle you’ve got in school.

Do you hate English because you’ve no interest in America? Consider researching about other countries that speak English. America is not the center of the Western world (as much as it really wants to be). I love Ireland, personally, it’s a really pretty country. Australia is a popular spot for Japanese tourists. Fine somewhere you can get interested in and connect with instead of just America.

If you just hate English just because, then consider thinking about learning a different language instead. Chinese and Korean translators are also in high demand. China is better in terms of reading and writing thanks to kanji, but the Korean grammar structure is similar to Japanese (and doesn’t have the super strict intonation rules of Chinese). When you have another language under your belt, you’ll have more options available to you, and I want you to have those options.

At the same time, I would rather you try to struggle through the English (or other language) basics now rather than regret not knowing them later. Trust me, it’s so much harder to find the time and energy to learn languages when you’re nearing thirty.

DSC_1350.JPG
I speak from the pain of experience! 

So I’ll badger and pester you every class to learn, emphasis on speaking English rather than reading and writing. I want you to get used to communicating with people face-to-face in another language. I want you to go as far as you dream, and the odds are good you’ll need English to do it.

On a slightly different note, here is another way to think about it: Japan speaks Japanese, but using Japanese to get around in other countries? Few and far between. English is useful worldwide (except in Canada, they don’t care for it), so if you want to ever leave Japan be sure to at least know some English to get out there! Although Spanish and French are pretty useful too, English is already taught in your schools. After all, our world is becoming more and more of an international community as time goes on, and I want you to be a part of it.

I want so much for you, and I worry that your dislike of English will prevent you from having what you need or want. But who knows what the future really holds? I’ll keep trying to help you learn English, even if you don’t like it, because it’s too important for me not to try.

Even if you fight me every step of the way, I’m not giving up on you.

 

 

Posted in Teaching Things

To the “Good” Students:

I see a lot of myself in you. Studying hard, reading books, obedient to teachers, standards held high by yourself, and already as stressed out as any adult. You’re constantly putting the pressure on your shoulders to succeed, and academic success is what matters in school. Top priority always and forever!

And here’s me telling you it’s ok to relax. I know you’re thinking about how to compete against the best, how you’re going to try to get into Waseda or some other top tier university, but you’re going to miss out on other opportunities if you only focus on the future. It won’t hurt to take a night off, go see a movie, go sing at karaoke, find yourself something fun to do.

Because you’ll have so much time later to be serious, you’ll have to be actually, so take the chances you get now to learn other things. Get to know your friends more, start figuring out how to be a good team player, join a club that’s not academic oriented (art club is always a good one that isn’t sports), and just don’t allow yourself to go too deep into your headspace.

I worry about you, because I remember being like you. I remember staying up nights crying and miserable because I couldn’t get the math problems right, and I hated myself so much for never being the perfect student. Don’t be hard on yourself like I was, don’t wrap up your whole identity in grades and scores. Those sheets of paper aren’t going to make or break your future, you’re going to succeed regardless.

See, you’ve already got most of the best adult features down. You learn and don’t need to be told twice to do something. You push yourself to improve instead of other people making you better. At any job you go into, you’ll be fine because no one will have to hover over your shoulder or threaten to fire you if you don’t do your job. You’ve already got that “can-do” attitude they’re always looking for in any field.

Just don’t fall into that comparison trap, comparing yourself to other people you think are doing “better” than you. No one is perfect, and you don’t need to be number one to get into any university. You just have to do your best, but not at the cost of braking yourself to accomplish it. If even your best isn’t enough, then go for something else, and change your ideas for your future.

It’s ok to change course, by the way, it’s not failure to decide you’re not going to some fancy private school. You choose the best path for you, not some imaginary perfect person’s future, but your own dreams and goals. Take some time to think, experience new things, travel around if you can, discover what inspires you.

If you spend all your time at school and home, you’ll never know what you’re meant to do or to become. You’ll just get trapped in this endless cycle of overworking, over studying, and over doing it all without a clear reason for why. Maybe your parents are wanting you to be a doctor, but is that what you want? Maybe you are forcing yourself to become a salaryman, but is that what you want?

Don’t spend 18+ years working for something, only to discover as soon as you’re out on your own that’s not what you’re meant for, and that you’re now drifting directionless. Instead, start looking for what you want, and start working toward that instead. Gain focus and clarity, not just more A’s for a transcript.

Of course good grades are what parents and teachers want to see, but that doesn’t mean they should mean everything to you. Please, take care of yourself, and give yourself more than just tests as a degree of self worth.

You’re already worthy just as you are.

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

Teaching Experience: Do you “need” it for the JET Program?

I get this question all the time. “Somebody said that they don’t accept people without teaching experience, is that true?” The long and short of that is no, otherwise I would’ve been rejected from JET. I had some tutoring and an observing education class in university (wherein I went to different schools to watch teachers in their classes), and that’s all I had. Before the JET Program, I had never taught in front of a classroom, so you don’t need to worry about it.

It doesn’t hurt your odds to get in if you’ve got teaching experience, so by all means if you do have it put that on your application and mention it in the interview. Be sure you can answer questions well, like “Why did you want to become a teacher? What kind of teacher do you want to be? How long have you been teaching?” Those kind of routine questions will be asked, and then they may go even harder on you. “What are some challenges you’ve faced in the classroom that you’ve overcome? How many students do you teach on average?” And so on.

Regardless of whether you do or don’t have experience, be sure you can answer the question, “Why do you want to teach in Japan?” My answer was along the lines of, “I want to be a good representative of my country in the classroom so students will have a good impression of foreigners, specifically American foreigners. I want Japan’s international relations to improve, even if it’s only in a small way.” It’s not a bad answer, I think, but there are better answers out there. For example, an art major I knew told her interviewers that she wanted to learn about East Asian art, and bring that experience back to America to influence her art. She hoped to be a part of the art after school programs in her school so she could teach them the Western styles of art and they could teach her the Eastern. It was a better answer in my opinion because it showed she’s future oriented, she’s thinking outside the box, not just the classroom but even after school activities.

Know this answer and memorize it. Practice saying and explaining your view before the big interview. I’ve talked about the JET program before, so be sure to take a look at both the video and the article to learn about what it takes to get in. Also, there’s a very nifty guide from Tofugu about the JET Interview. Read it to get prepared to give the best impression!