Saturday, September 15, 2007

I swear I have a job!

My grandpa is very concerned that I came all the way to Japan JUST to have fun, eat good food, and meet new people. He’s not too far off, but I am indeed employed and do some work every now and then. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t believe I’m actually working until he saw it himself – but a blog entry will have to suffice.

The truth is, I can hardly call what I’m doing, “work”. Something so enjoyable can’t be work, right? I don’t have half the stress I’m sure my fellow first year professional teachers are experiencing or bear the responsibilities so many of them have of running their very own classrooms. I am, after all, an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). So what does being an “assistant” in a Maebashi classroom require of me?

It varies from class to class and from lead Japanese teacher to teacher. My base school is a middle school where I work with two JTE’s (Japanese Teachers of English).

This is a pic from opening ceremonies at my middle school. I had to give a speech to all the teachers and students... my attempt at getting them to say "Good Morning" back to me after I said it failled miserably... the gym was dead silent. I did it in both English and Japanese and am pretty sure everyone just still thought I was speaking English when I was speaking Japanese because my pronunciation is SO BAD!

I have no idea how one of those teachers obtained that position, as he speaks English in the classroom maybe 5% of the time and generally understands what I am saying 25% of the time. Despite the fact that we sit RIGHT next to each other, we say maybe 20 sentences to each other all day (this includes our discussions about the lessons that we’re about to do in 3 minutes). Needless to say, I get most of my information from my other JTE. He’s super genki (energetic) and great to teach with. It’s a great example of team teaching as we usually get a chance to discuss the lessons before the class and he is very receptive to any suggestions I have. He’s always prepared and makes sure I feel comfortable with everything as well. Unfortunately, at the middle school level, much work is done out the text book which, surprise, surprise, is pretty dry.

Standard lessons for all three middle school grades generally go:

· English greeting: Good morning, everybody (students reply Good Morning Miss Sarah) How are you doing today (I am fine thank you, and you?) Then I usually say something crazy and all the kids are really confused until I ask them to, “please sit down”

· Sing an English song, which so far has included: Camptown Races (yep, the doo-dah, doo-dah song… Japanese kids hate it as much as me, but I try to make it fun), I Want it That Way by the Backstreet Boys, We Will Rock You by Queen, and my pick for the 8th graders: Help! by the Beatles. I really hope I get to keep picking out the songs “we” sing (very few students actually sing during this activity – namely just avoid eye contact and stare at lyrics; despite my pleas to SING LOUDER!): good karaoke practice!

· Read excerpt from text aloud

· Highlight and pronounce key terms and have students repeat (1-3 times)

· Read excerpt again, having students repeat as a class after each sentence (in a class of 30, about 5 are actually reading, and the rest are mumbling nonsense)

· Students pair up and take turns reading sentences to each other or together

· We come together as a class and take volunteers or call on students to read aloud

o Extrinsic motivation (stickers) are always given to students who volunteer. I hate extrinsic motivation. I have been given the duty of handing them out and getting them a prize for when they fill their sticker card. Ugh!

There are exceptions in the routine, but the most enjoyable thus far at the middle school level has been my role in the higher level 3rd (8th) grade English class. They have written a script for their version of Cinderella, and I am helping ‘direct’ and be lines and acting coach. The students understand me and take direction very well (a far stretch from our 6th graders Sundiata play, Tony!) – plus, they’ve got a great sense of humor and are fun! The first graders (6th grade) are the most challenging for me because their basis of English knowledge is so low, that not only are any directions I give useless, my sense of humor is completely negated and all I’m left with is body language, which is either not entertaining, doesn’t help explain, or another chance for them to make fun of me. It’s hard to connect there.

This pic is of my elementary school brass band. All schools have a brass band - and they're pretty freakin' awesome!
A pic of my other elementary school - absolutely massive by my standards, but the teachers consider it a "small" school. And yes, that student is on a unicycle. They can check them out to use during recesses and after school.

Onto the shougakkos (elementary schools). I go to one elementary school every Thursday and another every Friday. The staff at both schools has been incredible to me and do everything they can to reach out and be helpful and kind. Once again, that nasty language barrier makes it pretty tough to connect with staff or know what’s going on… ever – but it’s a good vibe from both schools and I’ve taken it upon myself to get into the classrooms or playground whenever I’m not teaching. Everyday there is a designated cleaning time, so it’s cool to connect with the kids and staff then by helping out sweeping and moving desks around (yes, Tony – school cleaning time in all public schools!

That’s totally gonna be my line back in Madison… “Well in Japan, students are required to clean everyday. There is no janitorial staff”). So, kiddos sweep, hands and knees wipe floors, the whole nine yards. I really like this routine… I think it creates (or maybe forces) much more respect from students for their school as well as a sense of classroom community and individual responsibility.

Teaching in the shougakkos has been… interesting. I knew in the States that I would never teach below 4th grade. But here, 1st and 2nd grade are actually really fun. Good for a few hours at least. Nice change of pace from the middle school because the kids are super excited to learn English. Apparently saying numbers and fruits three times is the coolest thing in the world. Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes rocks too. Other classes have been hit or miss. Some teachers have an outline for the class, some just say “go ahead – teach”. I never know until that day. So, I always have to have something prepared. The majority of my first lessons are a “self-intro”, which I’ve gotten pretty good at – visual aids and all. At one of my elementary schools, I get to teach 2 Eric Carle books. It’s cool designing those lessons, but I need more support in some classes because: I don’t speak Japanese!!!

In short: the job and students are really great and a lot of fun. HOWEVER, there are some major frustrations. Backtrack to me not knowing what’s being said around me 95% of the time. That’s tough. You know what? We’re going bullet style on these bad boys:

Work related frustrations:

· Not knowing school profile and useful information about students

o I get snippets here and there about students with cognitive disorders or personal interests, but overall I don’t know the demographics of students or information about the schools in general.

· Not knowing lessons and therefore not being able to plan or effectively develop lessons on English.

· Teaching incorrect English because I am handed a script to read. I.e. JTE says, “What you like color?” and I respond, or students ask in unison, “Where come you from?” or having students list their “rikes” and “no rikes” on the board.

· Coping with hopelessly shy students, obnoxiously loud students, blatantly rude students (that I don’t understand and just know they’re making fun of me), apparently shy students, or comatose students.

· Adapting to the varied English ability levels of over 30 students in each class.

· Not being able to meaningfully connect with students or staff

o Staff is so sweet to me – but we namely just share food and daily greetings. There’s so much more I want to know about my coworkers. A key component in my educational philosophy is the importance of getting to know students personally and academically through the individual students. I had all middle school students fill out a worksheet and took pictures of them in hopes of getting to know them better, but that dang language barrier and the fact that I have 319 middle school kids, and over 600 elementary school kids makes it near impossible. That doesn’t mean I can’t connect with students or staff… it just makes it more difficult and I might have to come to terms with the fact that I might not reach them ALL.

· I still don’t know what happens during some mystery time periods.

o I know what classes I am teaching by the day of… but then there is some free time in the mornings or afternoons when I don’t know where other teachers are or what exactly I’m supposed to be doing. Last week I went to one of my classes to find nobody was there. By the end of the day I found out there was a school election. Good to know. Teachers run busily in and out, and I have no clue where or when.

· I live a 30 minute bike ride from one of my schools. I sweat from existing right now in the summer, so you can imagine how I feel when I get there. Fast forward to the winter. Upon telling other teachers and JTE’s in the region I only have a bike – they act very surprised and ALL tell me about how cold and windy Maebashi gets in the winter. The last thing I want is car payments/responsibilities/problems/deaths… still trying to sort this one out.

· Teachers stay until an average of 8pm. I feel like a putz being the first to leave at 6pm. Enough’s enough though… a girl’s gotta eat!

· Having snotty handed elementary schoolers grab me, poke my hands, or motion to “kancho” (literally means enema… poke you up the butt with index fingers!) me.

The positives FAR outweigh the negatives, but I had to include the reality of the job and how I’m feeling. Like any job – it ain’t easy! BUT, one of the main (uninspiring) reasons I wanted to teach is so no two days were the same and I’d always have a good “how was your day?” story. Hit me up for one!


Linda Martinez Moersfelder said...

We believed you right from the start. We knew you had a job but we were kinda wondering if the work hours were really short in Japan! You know work a couple of hours and then off to eat, play and explore. NICE!! Well, it looks like your days are just as long as in Brookfield. If you recall, I rarely left the classroom before 6:30 pm. The language barrier is defintely a struggle. But, the first year teachers back in the states are just as confused, just as lost and not sure of what to do next. I mentored many of them as our prinicpal paired up "new teachers" with the "old teachers" so they could get assistance whenever needed. It seems that your Japanese schools should try that method with their JET teachers to give them a hand. We agree with you that the good out weighs the bad. I still smile when I think about my teaching days.

Take care,
Linda and Dad

Anonymous said...


I am sitting at my computer at 3:00 showing Alannah your blog. No joking, I am laughing out loud at your Sept. 15 entry -- I am passing it on to Susan Yapp and showing the Mrs. at home. Too, too funny. Hey, good luck with Cinderella. I'm not sure I'll ever direct a play again after that fiasco last year! I completely related to your comment about being surrounded by a language you do not understand. In China, I found the experience of being surrounded by a language I barely understood to be mentally exhausting. Keep writing. I will share the blog with the COW kids!

Tony Cina