Am I a teacher yet?

When I interviewed with placement companies hiring teachers to work abroad, I was always asked why I wanted to work in said country. While I love traveling and wanted the experience of living abroad, I also always mentioned that I was interested in actually learning about education and becoming a good teacher. This seemed like a necessary pre-requisite to teaching in any country. I took clases and started studying ESL classroom techniques and activities. Once in country I began cataloging games and exercises to use in the classroom. I read grammar books to better understand and be able to explain English sentence structure. I taught mock classes to fellow teachers as training exercises, which gave me a chance to practice out lour as well as observe others and pick up ideas. All in all I was pretty prepared to be thrown in front of my new students, and was determined to make English fun and accessible.

People in our English agency have asked me how long I plan to work in Japan. My contract is for a year. I always reply, “I guess it depends on whether I’m a good teacher,” assuming that if I am lousy or don’t enjoy the work I have no business calling myself an educator. The response was always the same. “Don’t worry if you will be good at it.” Well, okay, I guess that’s a reassuring way of telling me not to stress about the job. Yet the statement was also tinged with an attitude that it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad at it. Since I possess the belief that education is sacred and should be respected with the same reverence reserved for religious tenets, this attitude struck me with  awe. Hoping I had misunderstood, I let the subject pass without giving it much more thought.

Because Andrew and I are totally new to teaching, we were placed in our city’s junior high schools. The junior high English classes are taught by a Japanese instructor and you are there to support and offer your expertise in pronunciation, spelling and grammar. This is a good situation for new teachers because you are not required to create an entire lesson plan or try to control teenage kids all on your own. Ideally the instruction time in a class period should be split 50/50 between the Japanese instructor and you, the ALT (assistant language teacher). During our training it was suggested that you might be responsible for a warm-up or leading the class in an activity reinforcing that day’s vocabulary or grammar concept, aside from your regular duties of reading and demonstrating correct pronunciation. Sounds good.

Fast forward to the first week of school. Since you are a new teacher who also happens to be a foreigner, you get to introduce yourself to each English class in the school The students may or may not have had an ALT before you, but either way it is a fun day to meet the students, show them pictures about yourself and play games about how much they can remember. Andrew and I both work at two different junior highs, so that each month all four in the city get visited. My first junior high school is public and quite large, so I got to do this introduction 12 times. It was fun to entertain the students (I sang and tap danced) while learning about Japanese students’ interests and behavior. They ask you some pretty off-the-wall questions like what kind of alcohol you like, if you want to have a baby, and what you think about them personally. “Well, I just met you thirty seconds ago…” One student asked if my husband was tender, and another what was the most moving experience of my life thus far. Wow, that one’s deep! Suffice to say week one was a breeze and I have my introduction down pat.

Now I am in week two at the same school, so I get to move forward to actual class instruction. There are six periodss in a day, and most of the twelve English classes meet three to four times a week. Some days there are English classes in all six periods, others only four. So you’d think I would be attending as many classes in a day as possible, especially since I am on salary. But for some reason I only teach a max of four periods a day, and some days only two or three. You’re thinking “Sweet, less work for the same pay.” Kind of, except that I am still required to be at school from 8am to 4pm, regardless of my class schedule. So the periods not in class I sit at a desk in the ‘teachers’ room’ and do….what? I wish I knew!

I would think that with any new hire, particularly one who is completely new to the job, the school would want to explain your duties and show you your resources and necessary materials. Also a tour of the school grounds might be helpful. NOPE. I was given no information, no textbooks, no outline or cirriculum for the year, no outline of a typical class structure, and no instruction on how to make materials or whether I should make materials at all. I have no idea where they keep pens, scissors, glue or construction paper. I have no computer to create worksheets and no internet access to make visuals Even if I made these at home I have no idea how to print the file at school. Ok, hurdle one.

Hurdle two: the Japanese instructors haven’t let me contribute anything to class. I ask if I can prepare something for the coming class lesson, perhaps a warm-up, activity or a demonstration of some kind. They look at me puzzled for a second, then respond no. I usually have no idea what we will be teaching until I go to class and am told to read the textbook, or write a word on the board. I demonstrate vocabulary once in a while, but the 50/50 ratio is more like 90/10. One teacher forgets that I am suppose to teach with him that day, and asks me to have a seat during classes that he calls “boring,” meaning they are entirely in Japanese and I have nothing to do.

After class I ask if I can correct papers, or help the teacher with anything. Again I am told no. So couple over four hours of down time at my desk with nothing to do and you get one bored, slightly frustrated “teacher.” Again, you might be thinking “Awesome, I’m getting paid to do nothing,” but I am not the type of person who is good at doing nothing at work. I can’t understand why I’m not in every class and why they are paying me to simply know English and show up. They also never tell me when things are happening, like half-days or when everyone on Friday deserts the building at exactly 3:30 and I am still sitting there wondering if I can leave. Do they believe that every native English-speaker is also gifted with the ability to mind read? I can’t pre-emptively ask questions about things I don’t know are happening

You might think, like I did, that all these lack of instructions are due to a language barrier, but it is not the case. Many of the teachers have a strong command of English, and the Japanese English teachers are perfectly capable of writing and typing in English. When it comes to not including me in their classes, I can perhaps think of a few reasons. Maybe I am the first ALT to come to this school in a long time, so they have been teaching without assistance and it has become their habit. Maybe they have been teaching the same grades for many years so their lesson plans are solid and well rehearsed. Maybe they believe this is the best way to teach English.

I was worried that their seemingly lackadaisical approach to preparing me for the classroom would also be a reflection of their work ethic as teachers. Were they this disinterested in their classrooms as well? The answer is no, they are diligent in their lesson planning and have clear goals for each class. In fact, everyone at the school seems to have a work ethic that is in over-drive. They are all there before I arrive and still working when I leave. Some of them spend up to four hours each day commuting. One teacher gets home and has about two hours to herself before she goes to bed at 9 in order to get up at 4am. The concept of a “personal life” certainly seems different than in the states, and according to Wikipedia the work roles in Japan are also the opposite of ours back home. The Japanese “blue collar” labourers typically work only 8 hours and enjoy much more time at home, while the “white collar” workers have 12 hour days and often sufffer stress-related maladies and heart conditions in significantly higher numbers than the manual labor employees. Over-work has led to many health problems for the Japanese, but they keep it up for reasons unknown to me.

This leads me to beieve that perhaps my teachers do not understand how to delegate, or they feel it is their sole responsibility to prepare for class. I’m starting to understand what my co-workers meant when they said “Don’t worry about being a good teacher.” Even if I’m bad, my students will never get the chance to know.

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