At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The rise of Aki (my life as an assistant language teacher)

Since arriving, I have been sorting my life out, writing about my experiences and studying Japanese (I need to study much more!) and just trying to fit in as much as a foreigner can in a small town on a remote island. I am only 2 weeks into my career as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) and it has already proven to be amazing.  I have a job that is known as the "One Shot ALT" which means that I am a visiting co-teacher in the schools and I teach at over 21 schools in a region of Japan called the Yaeyama islands.  I visit 中学校 or Chuu gakkou (Jr. High Schools) throughout this area, some of which I only visit every other month, and I meet and teach many students.  There are some drawbacks to this of course.

I will not get to see a steady progression of English language skills that my students are learning.  I will probably not get to know any of them too well either (though there are some memorable names and faces already in my mind from many of the schools).  That is a difficult thing to deal with for me as I think each of these students of mine are special and interesting (even the ones who seem to not give a crap about English).  I know for a fact that these are the people that I am going to learn the most from this year (along with the teachers, who will teach me how to teach or how not to...).  By the end of the year, I'll be up to date on J-Pop (Japanese Pop music), Anime, Manga (I've already learned about One Piece), teenage culture, what's hip and what's not, and, of course, the Japanese language itself (probably slang).

The interactions with the kids (some of them are quite frank about their feelings) can be a bit intimidating, but there are also really funny, awesome moments that happen as well (and while I did not exactly love that age, I do remember that it was a time to have fun and dream about the future).  I had a girl ask me about NYC, what it was like and how big the city was, a rather smart boy ask me why I had decided to come to Japan to teach as an ALT, another girl tell me she loved my glasses (she wears glasses as well), another ask me for a western nickname because she desperately wanted one.  I have also had some really funny interactions with some cheeky boys and girls in class.  The students here are overall much sweeter, less cynical and more naive than their American counterparts, but every so often you get students that are very bold.  I had a student at one of my schools ask me if I had a boyfriend and then one of his friends from across the room made fun of him for asking me the question by basically teasing him about liking me.  I think the conversation went something like this (part of it in English, part of it in Japanese):
Me:  "Do you all have any questions for me (after my self-introduction)".
Boy at the front of the classroom:  " you have a boyfriend?"
Me:  "No, not yet." 
Boy across room teasing boy at front of classroom:  "Oh! She's single! Maybe you can ask her out on a date??"
Boy at front of class then turns to his friend and says basically, "yeah yeah...shut it" albeit with a smile on his face.  
And to that I said, "I think I'm too old for you dude," "dame desu" (Japanese for "No good") and my co-teacher laughed (though probably more out of embarrassment than anything else).  Even if it is disrespectful, these are the moments that I find the most illuminating, and ones that show me that the students are really interested in my presence in the classroom. I also think it's pretty typical teenage stuff and priceless as well.

There are many things I am learning that are not easily categorized. Most of these things are internal, rather than external and have much to do with my perception of the world, my experiences here and those prior to moving to Japan, as well as my image of myself in this world.   In addition, I am really lucky to have a job that enables me to interact with a multitude of different personalities.  The Japanese school system is also something I am fascinated with and I find that it is, like any school system, something that cannot be spoken about as one entity so I am going to try not to make sweeping statements about it as each of the schools I visit has its own rhythm, personality, and in a way its own pedagogy.  Even though the Japanese have nationalized their pedagogy, one cannot ever take out of the equation the characters that populate the classroom -- the teacher(s) and the students -- and this is why sweeping statements do not work for me.

So what can I tell you about what it is like to teach and live in Japan?  Well, so far I've had the chance to travel to smaller, less populated islands in the area where only one or two children make up the entire school, teach classes with more than 40 kids in them and meet a number of interesting teachers who I am learning from.  Each day is brand new and while some days are more difficult than others, I really do have a blast in each of these situations.  I love being able to meet so many different people and perhaps maybe make a difference to some of these students (some of them really do seem absolutely excited about learning English and potentially traveling outside of Japan to see the world which is something I think they should do).

If I take anything away from this year, I do hope it is that ability to inspire others to do amazing things with their lives.  That and the hilarious anecdotes.

1 comment:

  1. It was nice reading your experience as an ALT in Japan. I teach English in Thailand. However, I'm thinking of teaching in Japan, What are your thought about non native teachers. Though English is my native language, I'm Indian national. What would you feel that would mean in Japan? Please be candid.