ESL: English as Steady Loan Payments

Feminist-san is finally back! I have been using the occasionally working, stolen wireless for two months (I’m sure my neighbors are as excited as I am)! It’s been a great (and difficult at times) two months, and without further ado, I’ll catch you up on the happenings in my still new Japanese life. First up – schools and teaching. Hunker down – it’s a long and informative one. I’ll be back to picture-pretty and more entertaining posts after this!

Japanese school life is wildly different from that in America. At times, it seems the two are polar opposites. In particular, the hours students spend at school here are astronomical (and unthinkable!) compared to in America. Students are in class from 8:40-4:15 every day. In junior high, most then go home, eat dinner and then head to cram school – what I like to imagine as nationally funded tutoring for all students in all subjects- for several more hours. And forget about holidays and vacations; Students come to school nearly every day in the summer and during winter break – for classes, club activities or both! They live, breathe and wear SCHOOL; In this case, literally.

Students wear uniforms in every grade from kindergarten to the last year of high school. They even have uniforms for PE/any outdoor activities. The uniform…itivity goes right down their shoes and up to their backpacks (elementary school kids even have matching hats for walking to/from school!).

Uniforms vary between grade blocks (ie – high school girls roll down their skirts about 18 times, while junior high girls haven’t quite figured this trick out yet) and schools (sailor costumes outfits versus dignified account looks), but all uniforms are the the same shades of navy blue, brown, gray and white (same as their cars!).


Two of my students from Yamato Junior High in their winter uniforms. Little sailors in training!


Girls uniform from the back (took this photo from google images - not mine!)


Yamato students in their sports uniforms... and there's a endemic of FACEMASKS in Japan.


Me with the kids 🙂

Here are some other things that make school life crazy unique in japan:

  1. Lunch is served by the students in the classrooms. It is, of course, a uniform lunch (students can recite the food schedule, too).

Yamato - it was their turn to serve lunch to their classroom today. Here they're posin' in their serving uniforms!

  1. Cleaning time – there is a 15 minute time span around 3:30 every afternoon filled with children sweeping, scrubbing, trash taking outing and dusting every single day. I can’t abstain from mentioning the ridiculously cheerful (read: obnoxious) music broadcast through the school during this. Imagine implementing THIS in the States (and having that song stuck in your head – it’s almost as absurd!).
  2. The students don’t change classrooms – the teachers do.
  3. At the start of every class, the students take a quiet moment of meditation then stand, bow to the teacher(s) and yell (and I mean yell), “Onegaishimasu!” – or “YES, teacher, please let’s start this class! I look forward to every bit of knowledge you are about to impart on me!”
  4. Students’ textbooks are more like workbooks that they keep – all the way through high school.
  5. THEY NEVER SKIP CLASS (live a little!).
  6. You have to nearly raise your voice at a student to persuade them to answer a question (if you ask the class to say the answer in unison, however, they will blow you out the door).
  7. Students tend to be (not so surprisingly) only competitive in groups (4th grade me just died a little).
  8. They don’t have higher and lower level classes (except maybe a special ed class), they have higher and lower level schools (high schools mostly).
  9. High school is not a given or a right – students must pass examinations to get in – the higher they score, the better high school they will get into (and further away they will have to travel if they live in the country!). Students often spend  hours a day commuting to and from their high school.
  10. Students wear their uniforms even outside of school (11pm on the train on a Saturday night, and I see sailors everywhere).
  11. Students know really early their potential – only the above average are encouraged to pick a “dream.”
  12. Nearly every student is in a club (in junior high school) – these clubs meet every day (most days in the summer, too!) and compete even during breaks.
  13. The school year starts in April and ends in March.

The list could go on and on, but then… so could the similarities —

  1. Teenagers are teenagers – you still have to give them the stare down to get them to quiet down (this works in any language!)
  2. They want to know about your love life.
  3. Pop culture is god, and if you don’t know it, you’re a social outcast (I have never seen anime – in their eyes, I am 55 and thus dead to them).
  4. Wearing your pants low (for boys) gives you cool points even if your sailor jacket covers it.
  5. And mostly, no matter the country – the students can’t wait for 3 things: lunch, going home and playing video games and getting a boyfriend/girlfriend.

The system is different, but the kids are essentially the same.

As for my individual schools, I teach at 4. Three are junior high schools (grades 7-9) and one is an elementary (K-6).

  • Yamato Junior High is my base school. It’s about a 3-minute drive from my apartment and very inaka (in the country). I teach and have “office days” here (8 hours of nothing…). It’s the easiest school for me to get work done, and it has 2 of my favorite JTEs (Japanese English Teachers) with whom I like to chat.

Mizuno-sensei - my head JTE at Yamato. She has great English (she watches "Desperate Housewives" to practice!). She asks me to teach her American slang, and in return, she teaches me about Japanese customs.

  • Mistui JH – this is a school in the “suburbs” of Hikari City (kind of). This is my favorite school to be bored at (I’m bored a lot – it’s good to have a favorite!). The office is nice, the teachers are all friendly, and I have a a computer. This school also has my two favorite JTEs to teach with. Both of them have high-level English skills and really know how to command a classroom and make English a dynamic and fun subject for the kids. Their lesson plans are great, and they are both really open to my ideas.
  • Murozumi JH – This school is located in Murozumi – which used to be its own little town until it joined with Hikari some odd years ago. This is my least favorite school when I have nothing to do (no computer – no… anything, really). The JTEs are all nice, and I like them all, but their English is sometimes limited. On the upside, my favorite students out of all my schools are here. This school has really intelligent kids. My favorite student has a Belgian tutor and is so good at English that he has begun to understand my jokes. He calls me, “John Lennon” and I call him “Michael Jackson.” He teaches me Japanese and often brings English dictionaries to my desk and we go down the pages, word by word, learning correct pronunciation.
  • Murozumi Elementary – I teach 5 classes a day when I’m here, so I go non-stop! I eat lunch with the kids, go to recess outside with them and am loud and silly in class. While it’s tiring being so genki (happy/energetic) all day, I love my days here! I have about 2 a month. On the downside, of my 5 JTEs here, only 2 speak moderate English. English education in Japan is undergoing a lot of changes, and many teachers were told to teach the subject, though many of them didn’t speak English at all. Things are getting progressively better, though!

In addition to the 4 schools, I also have days scheduled at my Board of Education (BOE). I despise these days, as there is only 1 (part-time) person who speaks English, no internet (as of late) and absolutely no purpose in me being there. I usually bring books and travel guides.

My typical schedule in a week has me at at 3-5 different schools, and it’s all in Japanese. Fortunately, they color code it, so I read by that. 🙂

Miraculously, I have not gone to the wrong school on the wrong day… yet.

And now, I’ll impose upon you how I feel about my job here (the actual blog part of the blog? No way!).

This job is really boring. (I promised full honesty and disclosure when I started this blog, right?)

I struggle to find a lot of purpose in this job, especially when 98.9% of these kids will never need to use English or know it except to talk to their ALTs in their offices when they grow up and become teachers or otherwise work for the government. That is frustrating. It’s frustrating to walk into classes every day and teach students correct English grammar and pronunciation and then listen to the JTE re-teach them the wrong thing. It’s never intentional – it’s characteristic of the system’s flaws. It’s frustrating to think, as I do on days when I’m particularly annoyed by the system, that I am paying back $65,000 in loans while doing a job that most any Westerner can do (ie – reading words like “truck” off of cards and asking the students to repeat it 10 times). In many classes, I’m just a recorder or the token foreigner. Many JETs say they feel this way – and it’s exaggerated when you live in the countryside… these kids are kids of farmers and many will grow up doing the same thing. And it’s frustrating to know that we are here to internationalize them – to “Westernize” them. Japanese big business has to globalize to stay big, and they need more of their citizens speaking English to make that happen. And that goes against everything I’ve come to love about this country – that it’s NOT Western. It’s Japan – it’s not supposed to be.

All this ranting said – the 1.1% of the kids I teach that may use English and want to learn it – they make it worth it… most days. And when they don’t, there’s stuff like Speech Contest – at which I worked with the kids my first two months here preparing them and coaching them. Of the five kids that I worked with most closely, three won awards in their categories, 2 went on to the Prefectural competition – and 1… got first place at prefecture. 🙂 I nearly cried I was so proud. Those times, when I get to really be involved with them and get to see the difference it’s making and how much they are enjoying learning – THAT makes this job pretty awesome.

Even on days when the job’s not great, and I’m feeling down about the meaning of my degree and life… it takes me all of 10 minutes to look outside, go for a walk or a bike ride… and remember just how beautiful this country is and how incredible it is and fortunate I am to be living in it. The job and this experience will be what I make of them – so I’m finding ways to make the job rewarding and worthwhile. The experience – it doesn’t need any help 🙂

This is my self-introduction that I gave to all the students. I did it over 50 times… spent my entire first full month teaching doing this ALONE. I got really sick of myself, but I did reaffirm my ability to act. They may not understand all the English, but they do understand pantomiming!



Next post: I don’t know yet… there’s so much to post… anything can happen!

~ by C on November 10, 2009.

One Response to “ESL: English as Steady Loan Payments”

  1. I’m sad that you feel that way about your job, but glad that it does make you happy some times. If it helps at all, when I was studying over there a lot of the college students (if not most) spoke a decent amount of english – especially those going into business. It was very clear when speaking with the other students which ones had good JETs in their schools growing up. I’m sure your kids will be the same way.

    On a side note – you should get one of those masks and see how it helps the picking up of boys 😛

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