Posts Tagged Teaching English in Japan
A few months ago I had a lot of fun being gaijin Santa Claus for Yamaha English School’s Christmas party. The teachers at Yamaha liked my work enough that they asked me to be a part of their summer party. When I moved to Japan I had no thoughts about being a children’s entertainer for hire, but I am trying to pay off student loans and save for a wedding so I happily accepted.
All of the English teachers at Yamaha are Japanese, so having an actual foreign English speaker show up is a rare treat for the students. The Penpal (a former Yamaha teacher) picked me up early and drove me to the small town of Izu Nagaoka, located in beautiful Izu Peninsula. In the morning I helped the Yamaha teachers entertain 47 children aged 2-3. In the afternoon I was the center of attention for 20 kids aged 5-9. I got to help the kids play games organized by the Yamaha teachers, and I got to act out “summer words” like campfire, jellyfish, and beach.
The kids all seemed to have fun, and unlike when I was Santa, nobody cried. I had some fun too, but being a fun, enthusiastic person for a room full of kids is hard work and very tiring. I have nothing but respect for full time children’s entertainers, and have no desire to attempt this as a full time job.
After everything was done, the Penpal and I returned to Numazu where we celebrated a successful day by watching The Blues Brothers, one of my all time favourite movies filled with very non-kid friendly language.
Teaching English overseas is a fun way to make some money and have some life experiences. Finding the right balance of experiences and saving money can be a challenge. When you are away in a fun, exciting, foreign country like Japan for a year or less, you want to get out and do everything that is available. It’s easy to end up spending as much or more than you earn.
The teachers who hang around longer than a year all find different ways to balance experience vs. savings. I have been doing my best to send some money home to pay off student loans while still getting out and experiencing the country occasionally. One of the best ways I have learned to save money is to find something fun to do at home instead of going out to the izakaya or karaoke for the 900th time.
Tonight, in the interest of being fiscally responsible, I invited some people over to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 presenting the classic film “Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell”. Please note: the term “classic” is not an indication of quality in this case.
DSatWfH is actually the third movie in the Deathstalker series. It’s the kind of movie you would get if a group of rich teenagers decided to act out their latest D&D session using only props and costumes they had around the house.
Although I did save money by staying in, I ended up spending more than expected on all of the beer I needed to survive this movie.
So tired. Very nauseous. No fun.
I was considering calling in sick, but there is a big shortage of teachers in the area at the moment and I am worried that lessons would be cancelled. I didn’t give any award winning English lessons, but I did teach some English.
Feeling terrible. I have caught the cold / flu thing that is going around through the teaching community. Blargh.
Despite not feeling well, I still put in a decent day of teaching. Don’t teach = don’t get paid.
Half way through the day my voice gave out, which is a pretty big problem for an English teacher. On my dinner break I went to a nearby convenience store looking for something to help.
Convenience stores in Japan are exactly that – convenient. Like convenience stores in Canada, they sell pretty much everything. Unlike Canada, you can’t walk down the street in Japan without tripping over at least two different convenience stores.
While browsing in the store, I found a mysterious looking coloured spray. What I could read on the bottle indicated that it was a throat spray. I couldn’t understand most anything else that was written on the bottle. I needed to try something, so I decided that it was probably safe if it was being sold over the counter.
I tried it out when I got back to work, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it helped! The pain went away, and I was able to speak at a normal volume again. The combination of mystery throat spray and doing my best to limit how much I spoke got me through the rest of my shift. I’m not going to press my luck by going out for karaoke.
** Note to readers – it’s probably not the best idea to take medicine that you don’t understand!!
One of the first things that is taught to new conversational English teachers is that Japanese students generally don’t like to make mistakes. This can be a challenge in a conversational English classroom, where identifying mistakes can help everybody learn. The teachers job was to create a fun, safe environment in the classroom so that students would speak as much as possible without fear of judgement if they tripped over their words.
Most students eventually became more comfortable speaking English, mistakes and all. There was one very memorable student who took his mistakes very personally. By all accounts he was a normal, pleasant person. However, when speaking English he would be very slow and deliberate, cautiously trying to craft perfect sentences. This was not unusual, but what happened if he made a mistake was: upon realizing his mistake he would slap himself right in the face! The bigger the mistake, the harder the slap. A particularly bad lesson would leave him with red cheeks. He came to be known as “The Slapper” by teachers in the area.
Seeing The Slapper in action for the first time was a shock for both teachers and other students. It was something that became less shocking over time, but it was still jarring to see an adult slapping themselves when they made a mistake. Teachers would do their best to discourage his unique form of negative reinforcement, and I was even part of a group class where the other students asked him nicely to stop hitting himself. I was impressed with the students both for taking an interest in their classmate and for asking him to stop in English; “please don’t slap yourself” was not a phrase that usually came up in NOVA lessons!
The staff got involved at one point, politely asking him to stop hitting himself because it was scaring the other students and the teachers. I think the message got through. Over time he got better at not hitting himself in the classroom, but he was never able to fully kick the habit.
Hitting yourself when you make a mistake is better than hitting anyone else, but it’s still not a recommended technique for learning English.
“No interacting with students outside of the classroom” is one of the cornerstones of NOVA employee policy. The idea is to prevent teachers from stealing students from the school for cheaper private lessons, and to reduce the risk of any unpleasant interactions that could cause the students to stop buying lessons.
** Please remember, when I say “students”, I am referring to conversation school students who are typically adults.
In Kawasaki I was aware that some teachers were seeing students outside of the classroom, but when I arrived in eastern Shizuoka I was surprised by how often it happened. Pretty much everyone other than supervisors had been to an “unofficial” farewell party with students in attendance. In addition, several of the teachers are or were dating students, and my friend Koalako shared an apartment with two teachers in Numazu.
Hanging out with students was an open secret in the area, with the understanding that everyone should keep it quiet and not let the supervisors or Japanese branch staff know. For the amount of times that teachers and students interacted outside of the classroom, it’s actually surprising how few people got caught. The good luck streak was broken in mid 2006 when teachers got caught red handed.
The two male teachers had invited two female Japanese students out for a drink, and for some reason decided to go to an izakaya near Fuji school that was popular with the Japanese branch staff. They were seated near the entrance, when coincidentally the branch staff came in for an after work drink as well. My understanding is that the teachers were called to a tense meeting with the area manager shortly after to remind them of NOVA’s policies.
I can understand NOVA’s point of view about the policy: they are a business and they need to protect their future profits. However, I think there is a lot of benefit from teachers and students interacting outside of the confines of the classroom. The best way to practice conversational English is to have a real conversation. Interacting outside of the classroom in a natural setting is also a great way to improve intercultural understanding. Other than good times at karaoke, I got a lot more out of my time in Japan by spending time with Japanese people instead of just teachers.
If you are teaching in Japan and decide to ignore company policy by hanging out with students, please be sensible, behave properly, and don’t ruin it for everyone else. Also, choose the venue carefully: you don’t want branch staff to crash the party!