On-the-Job: Teaching English Classes in Japan

My work day starts at about 7:50 when I leave my house for the short walk to the junior high school. Although I walk alone, these days it seems as if I am constantly running into people I know during this short journey: my neighbor hurrying past me on the way to her job at the bank, the owner of the yakitori shop I frequent, my English-speaking friend driving her daughter to school, and the man who installed my “Western-style” toilet on my first day here (and who charmingly showed me how to use it, as if I didn’t know). There are many others I pass who don’t know me, but who know of me and bow politely and say “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) or simply avert their eyes in shyness. Both actions are signs of their feelings toward the only foreigner living in this rural town of 10,000.

Often during my walk I hear the sounds of giggles and sneakers slapping the cement and I know that I am about to be bombarded by a group of my students, usually girls, who are anxious to walk and talk with me. “Good-o moh-ning” they say and instantly break into peals of laughter, self-conscious at having spoken English. I try to speak with them in English, but we usually end up speaking Japanese, since their English is worse than my basic Japanese. We talk like this the rest of the way to school – in my broken Japanese, bits of English, and lots of laughter – until we part at the front entrance, where I walk in the teachers’ entrance, and they walk in the students’ entrance. I remove my shoes in the foyer and put on a pair of indoor shoes, $10 espadrilles I bought at Target before I came. These shoes will stay on my feet until I exit the building again. I walk in the teachers’ room and announce my arrival by saying “ohayo gozaimasu.” (One thing that surprised me about Japan is that one does not enter or exit a room without saying some kind of formality.) I am answered with the same robotic greeting in near unison by my 25 co-workers, some of whom don’t even look up.

My first class is second period, so I spend first period preparing the lesson plan with the Japanese teacher with whom I will be team teaching. My school has roughly 400 students in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. I teach in every English class once a week, so every student sees me about 50 minutes each week – not enough. I teach with a Japanese teacher of English – there are three altogether, one for each grade – and together we try to illustrate a grammar point through conversation. While sometimes we are successful, most often we are not. One of the teachers hardly speaks English herself and almost never speaks anything but Japanese in the classroom. While the other two teachers are quite good, they spend the four days of the week when I am not there teaching grammar only, so the conversation level is very low. This system , slow to change, is quite typical throughout public schools in Japan.

Frustrations aside, I like teaching here simply because I love my students. Sure there are a few slackers and a few rowdy kids just as there are in the U.S., but for the most part the students are sweet and funny and receptive to me. Initially, I know they only liked me because I am a foreigner. While that may be a good thing, it also means that I did not get the same respect that a Japanese teacher does, nor was I asked for assistance when a student needed help on an assignment; however, I’ve been here for a year now and things have changed somewhat. I still don’t know that my students see me as a teacher, but I do believe that they no longer think of me as just “the gaijin.” I talk with them on a personal level as much as possible. I show them that I, too, am a person and not much different than they are. We talk, we laugh, I tell them about the U.S. and they tell me about their boyfriends or their favorite comic book. They even ask me for help now, just as much as they ask the Japanese teachers.

It is for this reason – my students – that I love Japan. Perhaps in the future, many of them will forget me, but I do feel I’ve made a small difference in some of their lives. They have certainly made a difference in mine.

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