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Published: December 29th 2007
Learning to Bow at Kabe Senior High School
These are the 3 words I hear before I start every class. I remember my first class - standing in front of 20 first-year Japanese high school students clad in blue uniform - absolutely petrified. The translation (which I learned very quickly) is “stand up” “bow” “Let’s begin class.” I stood there with my self-introduction in hand, Tsuchimura sensei standing beside me, hoping that I could make it through the 50 minutes. After talking about myself and America (speaking way too fast and maximum 10 words were understood by the students), a game of Bingo, and some student introductions, class was over. I survived. It was a disaster. I wanted to go home.
I have come a long way since then.
Now, with only 3 months remaining in Japan, I realize I have never written about my job and what I do from 8:20 to 4:05 everyday. I had never taught a class before coming to Japan, no clear grammatical understanding of the English language, and spoke no Japanese. Read on to see what I have learned about teaching and what it is I do everyday
at a Japanese high school.
My job title is Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). My job description states that JET “aims to promote grass roots internationalisation at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. It seeks to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level.” So what exactly does that mean? In 1987 the Japanese Government started the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in order to internationalize Japan. By bringing people over to help teach English, students would learn to speak English, allowing them to communicate with other nations and be exposed to cultures other than their own. Since Japan has been so closed off to other cultures for so long, JET was created to try to diversify their homogonous society. When I came in July 2005, there were 6,000 JETs from 44 different countries placed anywhere from the big cities like Osaka and Fukuoka, to the small villages hidden in the valleys of the mountainous terrain or left stranded on an island to fish for their own
I had no particular reason to come to Japan. In fact, when asked in my interview ‘Why Japan and not somewhere else?’ I fumbled with a good answer and thought I was for sure going to get a rejection letter within weeks. Why Japan? Well, I walked into the Berkeley Job Fair and realized that the last thing I wanted was to sit at a desk and be a cube monkey. While there I was surrounded by power-hungry students in suits handing out resumes left and right. I, on the other hand, came in with a big of a hangover from the night before dressed in a nice skirt and sandals. I didn’t even own a suit and a resume? Hah! I think I walked out with a pamphlet from Peace Corps and the State Department- to make myself feel like I accomplished something. I went to the graduate school fair a few weeks later, and although not as scary as the job fair, it was in a close second. Bottom line: I was not ready for a “real” job. I knew I wanted to travel or live in another country. The best way to get abroad is
to teach English. I thought I was headed to South America to teach English and perfect my Spanish. But, well, that would have entailed me flying to South America and looking for work once I got there. Mama and Papa Lary were not too keen for me to fly to South America solo and say I will figure it out when I get there. Since they were funding my post-college venture, this one didn’t look like it was going over so well. In my pursuit to get south of the equator I stumbled upon JET and thought it didn’t hurt to apply. Being a poor college student, the fact that JET paid for your flight to Japan and basically walked you through the entire moving process, it was too good to pass up. I received my acceptance letter in April 2005 and went gallivanting through my sorority- I was moving to Japan.
One of the setbacks about JET is that you don’t really get to choose where you are put. It is common for JET to place you in the countryside, often in towns with populations in the small hundreds. Since so many foreigners are coming to Japan to
This seems like years ago!
teach, big cities have no trouble finding teachers and can pay them much less than teachers on JET. After a brief 3-day ‘orientation’ (lets face it, it was a huge drunkfest of 1000 foreigners going crazy in Tokyo) we were set off to our respective locations.
I was placed in a small suburb or Hiroshima City, 20 km north called Kabe. When googled, it would return “do you mean kobe?” This place was gonna be small. I was lucky to be placed near the infamous Hiroshima City in a small suburb north. I arrived on a hot and humid Wednesday afternoon to Kabe Senior High School, realizing I was the only foreigner in my town. That night I was struck with fear and loneliness thinking “What the hell did I get myself into?” I had no idea how to use the phone (and well no one to call!), no idea even how to get back to my apartment if I decided to leave. I did the dumb thing and read about the bugs in Japan in our manual and was afraid a cockroach was going to run across my face in the middle of the night. At the induction
ceremony 2 days later I had never been happier to see foreigners. I will never forget seeing my Berkeley friend Jeff. As we made eye contact I ran towards him and he goes “God I have missed you” and gives me a hug. Apparently I wasn’t the only one out of my element.
Down to the Basics:
My base school is Kabe Senior High School, a mere 10 minute walk from my apartment. Close enough that I can sleep in late, but far enough away that students don’t know where I live. Japanese high schools are very different than most in America:
There are 3 grades. Instead of referring to them at 9, 10, 11, and 12th grades, they are called year 1, 2, and 3.
The school year starts in early April and ends in mid-March.
They have school vacation for a month in August, 2 weeks in March between school years, and brief period over New Years.
Every student wears uniforms. They buy a winter and a summer uniform when they start high school and wear it everyday. They are strict on the lengths of the skirts and making sure the boys’ coats are buttoned all
When inside, your shoes stay outside! They have the funkiest shoes
the way to the top. Students try to add flair to their uniform with crazy shoes, belts, hairstyles, colored glasses, or sometimes girls will get away with a flashy bra that shows through their white shirts. They are not allowed to wear jewelry or dye their hair. During the holiday some students will dye their hair (usually blonde) for the short interim from school and dye back to black when school starts again. After school, the length of girls’ skirts shortens a good 2-6 inches. If the whole Catholic School Girl look is your fetish, Japan would be your Heaven. Look don’t touch, they are all under 18!
At most schools students and teachers are required to wear indoor shoes. It was pretty funny at first to see male teachers decked out in a nice suit, then wearing slippers!
Now for the daily schedule
8:20: I arrive at school. Being punctual is VERY important. You do not show up late to school. When I arrive at school the entrance is lined with students and one or two teachers who greet everyone. They often greet me with an “Ohayou Gozaimasu” with a slight bow. I reply “Good Morning” to
Kabe flag, Japan flag, Hiroshima flag
them. I go into the main office to greet the office workers and get my key for the English room. It’s kind of their way to make sure I am coming and leaving on time.
8:20-8:30: Teachers Meeting. Every morning the teachers congregate in the main room on the second floor to discuss any school issues or make announcements. I am not required to go to this meeting since it is all in Japanese and usually does not cater to me.
8:30-8:45 Home Room: For 15 minutes homerooms of 40 students and their homeroom teachers meet to discuss classroom issues/announcements and turn in homework. The homeroom is a key aspect of Japanese high schools. It becomes your family. By taking on the responsibility as a homeroom teacher, you basically become another mother for 40 students for 3 years. They play a huge role in their students’ lives. For example, if a student gets in trouble with the police, not only will the police call their parents but their homeroom teacher who in turn becomes partly responsible for the student’s actions. Whereas in America, teachers and students keep their personal lives very separate from their students. Homeroom teachers even
act as problem solvers with fights and boy-girl relationships.
8:50-4:15: 1-7 periods. They have 50-minute classes with 10-minute breaks in between. During this time I teach classes or plan lessons. As an ALT, I am never in the classroom alone with the students. I am always paired with a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). I am an assistant, meaning I help the JTE. This basically means that I can do anything from planning and conducting the lesson myself, or I am simply a voice that students repeat after. At Kabe I plan and teach my own lessons. At some of my travel schools I am there so infrequently that I come and am a walking tape recorder.
When I first started teaching I thought I was responsible to teach the students grammar. They gave me a textbook to work from that I thought was terrible and found no grammatical importance. I was so lost. They forgot to mention that I teach Oral Communication (OC-1), meaning my class is just listening and speaking. While I teach half the class OC-1, the other half is learning grammar-in Japanese (the problems with teaching English in Japan!). Once I figured this out life
was so much easier! I end up teaching the same lesson 12 different times. If I wanted to, I could follow the lessons directly from the book but that is boring and would shoot myself after the second time. I take the English from the books (since they use that to study for school and college entrance exams) and make the lessons fun. My lessons often involve standing up, moving around, speaking, music, and as little Japanese explanation as possible.
I came here with no teaching background. I have taught kids sports at summer camp, but that is very different than standing in front of a class for 50 minutes. I am a great English speaker, but can’t tell you why I say ride on a bicycle and ride in a car. I hate when my JTEs ask me what the past participle of “have” is- I really have no clue. I have learned that teaching is basically copying what other teachers have already done and tweaking it to make it work for you. Over the past 2 years my teaching skills have improved tremendously. I used to freak out if I ended 5 minutes early. Now I know how
to utilize those 5 minutes and class ends on time.
Team-teaching is a very interesting concept and hard to do. I always try to plan lessons that involve both teachers, but more often than not the JTE acts mainly as a translator and disciplinarian. I am not responsible for keeping the students in line, thank God! Fortunately my students are well behaved. I have been fortunate to have some incredible teachers at Kabe and my other schools. They have become an integral part of my happiness in Japan. I love talking to them and share cultural differences. I had one JTE who I despised teaching with and getting through the 50 minutes together was painful for me. I have been blessed with a supervisor who is my confidant, mother and friend. She is an incredible person and I would be lost without her. Whether I have lost my wallet, have a broken heart, need to go to the doctor, tell someone about my crazy drinking stories- she is there for me. I swear when I leave her job as a supervisor for the next ALT will be a piece of cake. I just keep her on her toes most of
the time! If I could get her one present before I left it would be an IV full of coffee constantly running into her bloodstream.
The best part about my job is that the more fun I am having, the more fun the kids are having. Japanese students are shy. They hate speaking in English, they hate speaking by themselves, they hate being independent. When asked to formulate their own sentences and ideas and think outside of the box, they don’t know what to do. This is somewhat reflective of Japanese culture. Japan is very good at taking inventions and improving them ie the bullet train and their hi-tech cell phones. I have concluded they love math because there are answers and they love baseball because no matter where the ball is hit, they can predict where the play will go next. So, it is my personal mission to get these kids out of their comfort zone. I must admit this requires more energy on my part, but in the end the results are great. As most of you know I have more energy that most, and the kids love/are in awe of it. I come in with a
Kabe Speech Competition
Jr. High Students come to recite English and I get to judge them.
loud voice, big smile, excitement and am usually bouncing off the walls. The students thrive off of it. I begin each class with an English greeting. Instead of the “kiritsu, lei, lets begin class,” I have them say “Stand up, bow, I love studying English!” I make them do games that require them to compete against each other, talk to their peers, write on the board, and hope they have a good time. As long as I do not take my job to seriously, all is well. I do get frustrated because despite having 3 years of English in Jr. High before coming to high school, their levels of English are still very low. I realize these students are trying hard and I respect them for it.
Three days a week the students have 6 classes. Two days a week they have 7 classes. There used to be classes on Saturdays but has been outlawed by the national government. I still don’t really understand their schedule of classes because it changes everyday. In America, everyday of the week math would be first period, history second, and so on. Unlike in America, the students stay in one room and the
I wish i got to teach these munchkins!
teachers rotate. Homeroom classrooms have all their classes together for all 3 years- you better like the people in your homeroom or it could be a long 3 years! When I am not teaching I go to the English teachers’ room on the 4th floor.
My job is the perfect job for someone who likes to have a lot free time- which is the bane of my existence. Whenever there is a school holiday or testing, I have no classes to teach but I have to be at school. I would say 3-4 month AT LEAST of the year I have no classes to teach. When I do have classes, the most they normally give me is 3 a day. It drives me bonkers. I constantly ask for work to do or more classes to teach, but no dice. So with all this free time I start to do my own projects and when they ask me to do something they are invading on my time. I “work” full-time but my actually hours of actually working is part-time or less. When I do get to actually teach I love it. When I don’t get to teach I get cranky. Fortunately,
my supervisor if very lenient and enforces the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. I can go home for lunch, and sometimes my lunch turns into 3-4 hours. Lunchtime is the perfect time to call home. I have also started many projects: I study Japanese, study for the GRE, read books, have started a Hiroshima JET Newsletter, do charity work, and plan events for other JETs since I am a co-chair of Hiroshima AJET. I have resorted to working out at school as well. I ask to go to other classes like home economics. Other schools let their ALTs do stuff like this, but Kabe doesn’t want me to do anything but teach, which is somewhat understandable. With me in the class it becomes more work for the teacher.
In terms of time off, I get 15 paid days off a year, 3 summer days off, all 13 national holidays, a few days off around the New Year. This is the one very subjective part of JET- everyone has a different Board of Education and how much time off they allot varies. I have friends with 25 days off a year and when they don’t have a class to teach
they don’t have to be at school. When I am sick all I have to do is bring in a receipt from the medicine I bought. Some of my friends are required to bring in a doctors note or have teachers show up unexpectedly with chicken soup to make them feel better. I have only been sick once or twice- one time I took a sick day and went to Hong Kong! Regardless of time off, we are all paid the same exact salary. Speaking of which, is more than most first-year teachers get and they probably work twice as hard as we do. They used to fly JETs out in business class. What can I say, JET is a pretty sweet deal.
12:50-1:15: Lunchtime! Many students bring bentos from home- the equivalent of a paperbag lunch yet much more ornate and delicious (in my opinion) with rice, fish, and many other delicious Japanese morsels. Many moms get up very early to make bentos for their kids. I either go home at lunch to call home (best time to call) or head to the cafeteria. I love cafeteria food! I can get udon (2.50), ramen (3.00), curry rice (3.50),
Kabe Song Festival
Tsuchimura's Class after taking second place
rice balls (1.00), French fries (1.00), fried rice (1.50) chicken karage (1.50), and donburi (4.00). It’s by far the cheapest and most delicious lunch option. Believe it or not there is much more to Japanese food than teriyaki chicken and sushi! Teachers are allowed to go 4th period to avoid the students, but I prefer to go when the students are down there. I love watching them interact outside of class. I strategically place myself in the center of the room, hoping that students come sit with me. I don’t want to interfere with their free time, but also want to give them the option to talk to me. After months of sitting by myself, some students finally warmed up to me. I have a group of boys who love to sit with me and talk to me about music. I even got one of them to lick the hot pepper flakes from off the table. My new lunchmates are my two hapa kids. It really trips me out to see them at school because they stand out in comparison to the sea of Japanese students. Shu and Kirby come and talk to me in English. They like to tell
students advertising their events
me of all the bad things I do- I have been caught kissing a navy boy (first and last) at a club and stumbling home drunk after the sake festival. I am a great role model!
3:15-3:30/4:15-4:30: The students go to their homerooms for a quick meeting and then are responsible for cleaning the classroom. Students are also responsible for cleaning communal rooms like bathrooms and the computer lab. I think this is a great system because students are less likely to dirty the bathrooms, which was a common problem at my high school. Yet, cleaning usually consists of hosing everything off with water- not the most sanitary cleaning methods!
4:05: This is my official end working time. I pack my belongings and leave saying “shitsureshimasu” which means “I am finished for the day.” They reply “Otsukuresama deshita,” which means “thank you for your hard work.” I walk down to the main office, return my key and do one more shitsureshimasu, and I am out the door.
After School: After this students can go home, but many stay for club activities. Club activities are a big deal in Japan. Everyone is part of one, ranging from sports
My students can cook!
teams, home economics, to broadcasting club. My personal responsibility is E.S.S. (English Speaking Society aka English Club). Once the students commit to a club they are expected to be there daily, Monday-Friday and sometimes Saturday. They do the same activity everyday after school. I honestly don’t understand how the students do not get bored. By the time soccer season was over I was more than ready for basketball season to start. After club activities the students go home. Some commutes are over an hour long.
School Festivals: Japanese high schools have numerous festivals throughout the year. My favorite is the Bunkasai, or culture festival held in the middle of June. If I was a j-high school student this would be my favorite 2-day event. All the classrooms are responsible for doing something whether it be a game or sell food, and all the clubs perform. It’s so much fun. The next best day is the Undokai- the sports day. The school is split into two teams and they compete against each other in all sorts of crazy games. There is also a song festival and marathon. This year I ran in the school marathon with the boys and beat
most of them. I earned a lot of respect from teachers and students that day.
Ceremonies: Like everything else in Japan, there are always opening and closing ceremonies. When the school year starts there is a ceremony welcoming the new students. At the end of the semester there is a closing ceremony. They have opening and closing ceremonies for festivals as well. You spend a lot of time bowing at high school ceremonies. Like in America, the largest ceremony of the year is Graduation, held in late March (in May in America). High school graduation is almost as sappy in Japan as it is in America. The third graders wear corsages and enter the gym as Pomp and Circumstance is played in the background. There are some speeches by the students, the principal says a few words, and its over. The ceremony is rather dull, but after all the students get all sad and start bawling. My favorite tradition is that on graduation girls go up to their high school crushes and ask them for one of their jacket buttons. With a bashful smile across their faces the boys happily fork over their buttons. It all becomes obvious
Pera Pera Dancing
who the cool guys were. I even got a button from a boy! This past year I even shed a tear or two saying good bye to my English Club members. They were the ones that made me feel welcome in this foreign country.
Other Schools: On Wednesdays and Thursdays I go to other schools in Hiroshima prefecture. Last year I went to one junior high and 2 other high schools. I loved teaching at Sake Junior High School because unlike my high school students, Jr. High students are untainted, unembarrassed, love English, and what to know everything about me. At a high school question and answer session the only thing I get asked is “Do you have a boyfriend?” At the Jr. High they want to know everything about me from my shoe size to how many fingers I have. I love my cute and innocent Jr. High Students! They also have a school lunch instead of a cafeteria. For lunch the students serve each other food in their homerooms. They eat together as a class. At Aki Senior High School I was basically a tape recorder because I only went there once or twice a month. I
hated this school at first because I had to walk up a huge hill to get there. I grew to really like this school because the teachers and students were so nice. One of my closest Japanese friends was a teacher there. This year I go to Akiminami SHS on Wednesdays. So far I really like this school.
The most frequently visited school not including Kabe SHS is Hirosho. This year and last year I teach every Thursday at Hirosho- my commercial high school in western Hiroshima City. The school building is a historical landmark because it survived the atomic bomb blast. The school has over 900 hundred students. Despite being my most rigid school, they are also one of my favorites. I commute about an hour and a half to get there, meaning I am on the train at 7am. They also keep me after school for English club. But, the students are fun and the teachers very nice so its worth it. I teach classes of 40 students which is a bit intimidating. I can teach whatever I want, and since their level of English is a bit higher I can do more challenging activities. Most recently
Sports Festival Opening Ceremony
I turned the classroom into a ‘town’ and had them wandering between desks looking for items. If I mention to anyone that I teach at Hirosho they immediately reference their baseball team. In the past the team has gone to nationals and one. Every year they have a very successful team- I even watched them play on television! The baseball team has enough members to field at least 3-4 teams and they recruit all over the prefecture for boys to come play at the school. They even have a baseball house for students to live in during the week if their hometown is too far away. You can easily identify baseball players at any school because they are the boys with shaved heads. Each class I teach has at least 2 boys hat play baseball. They are also required to show the utmost respect to teachers- whenever I pass them in the hallway they stop what they are doing, stand straight up, bow deeply and say in a deep voice “cha,” short for “konnichiwa.” It is rather ridiculous and I feel like a movie star receiving praise from my numerous admirers. After school I help prepare students for English Recitation
Competitions. Being a great public speaker, this is right up my alley.
School Parties: Spending time with coworkers outside of work is very important. Although not paid, it is expected to hang out with coworkers. Work parties are called enkais. The few enkais throughout the year are the only times I have seen the real sides of my JTEs. What happens at enkais stays at enkais- or so I thought. After my first enkai (the day before my boyfriend broke up with me- I got a little drunk to say the least) I had teachers asking me if I was okay, and had an advertisement on my desk informing me about the upcoming sake festival. At first I really hated enkais because I always felt so awkward since I knew the English teachers were talking in English just for me, when they probably would prefer to speak in Japanese. I felt like a burden. But, recently, after sticking out a few very uncomfortable enkais, I have really started to fit in and they accept me. Being able to speak Japanese definitely helped a lot too! After the set meal and all-you-can-drink at the first enkai, many teachers move onto
the second enkai which is usually at a hostess bar or karaoke club. I one or two incriminating photos of my teachers from these events! It’s nice to know that although they work hard all day and are predominately serious, my JTEs can let loose and relax with each other as well.
So there you have it, a short explanation of what I do in Japan. It has definitely been a roller coaster. In general, I can honestly say I don’t like my job. But, overall it has been an incredible experience. Only after I leave will I realize how much fun I have had and really miss this place. I realize that through the past 2 years, the students have gotten me through the day. Most of the time they drive me crazy, but every once in a while they do something- whether its asking me how my day is, speaking a whole sentence in English, or yelling ‘I love you’ at me through the hallways- these small moments make it all worth while.
Just like the rest of my friends I got a job right after graduating college. I work long hours and at times
hate my job. Yet unlike my friends on weekends I get to travel to amazing places in Japan learning more about this intricate and beautiful place. I have learned a new language and embraced a culture so foreign to mine. I have even made a bit of a name for myself in Hiroshima with my newsletter and vigor to constantly meet new people and be involved. I also don’t have to pay taxes, and spend my long holidays in some of the most amazing places in Southeast Asia- not many of my friends can say they took a sick day and flew to Hong Kong! I think I’ve had it pretty good for the past two years, but its getting time to go.
Welcome to my life as an Assistant Language Teacher.
At the end of class the bell rings. One of the students yells “Kiritsu, lei” and they all say to me “arigatou gozaimashita.” In return, I say to them “thank you very much.” If they only knew how loaded that thank you was, for they have taught me more than they will ever know.
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