Teaching and Volunteering in Japan

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Written by: Vicki Holman

At 12.20 exactly, a jingle like my Mum’s living room clock chimes for lunch. Moments later the familiar sound of the Beatles at 20 decibels, scraping chairs and stampeding feet echo through the hallways. No more than five minutes later, the children have collected the huge stainless steel vats of food, and begun slopping them into little bowls and putting them onto plastic trays. The classroom is transformed into a noisy canteen, staffed by small children. It is an unusual sight to say the least.

I am summoned at this point, and by the time I have collected the various little bowls, some chopsticks and a bottle of milk, all of the children are sitting waiting, their identical lunches in front of them. Each day, two different children will be given the privilege of saying ‘Itatakimas’ (thank you for this food). One phrase brings the kids’ hands together in an identical slap, then the magic word is spoken, like the bullet at the start of a race; these kids could win prizes for the speed at which they eat. Within ten minutes, it is all cleared without trace, and I could almost forget that I am in a Japanese school; the kids go out to play, the teachers rest in the staffroom.

Before I came to Japan, I had a notion that Japanese classrooms would contain row upon row of immaculate and impeccable children, disciplined and studious. This was certainly not the case, particularly at my junior high school, where in my first week my English teacher warned me what to expect. ‘The area is a former mining community,’ she explained. ‘Many children live on government welfare, some live in children’s homes, many think that education is a waste of time, especially English. They never need to speak it.’

I wasn’t especially worried. I grew up near Middlesbrough, I could handle a few hard nuts. The classroom environment was very different from what I expected though, as discipline wasn’t exercised, seemingly regardless of what happened during our lessons. Students frequently shout out, talk over the teacher, sleep and even wrestle on occasion. The philosophy is that education is for all, so everyone must attend, but it is up to the individual whether to study or not. Despite this seemingly liberal approach, I’ve been told that corporal punishment is acceptable when teachers deem it necessary, though it is very rare.

Fortunately discipline is not my department, as it is impossible for me with no language skills, and also as a young female. Sometimes kids will refuse to read to me out of insolence, and I persevere by standing beside them and pointing at the book, often with no success. Also, there have been a number of occasions when students have said things to me that I knew were inappropriate, just by the pleased look on their faces, though my Japanese is not yet good enough to translate. To be fair, it is quite hilarious that they can say literally anything to me, with no repercussions; I think most kids would enjoy a little sport with that!

Teaching in Japan

A TEFL Placement in Japan

Another surprising difference in Japanese schools is the teacher-student relationship, which is more like a friendship than anything else. The kids often hang out in the staffroom during break times, chatting and joking with the staff. Even former troublemakers, who have discontinued education, frequently come back to chat.

There are also fewer taboos in Japan and even physical contact represents no issue. Teachers think nothing of jovially punching a pupil on the shoulder, talking to a student whose arms are draped round their necks, or having a student sit on their knee, even at junior high school. One day I was shocked to see a 13 year old boy, sitting on his classmate’s knee, in an innocent demonstration of friendship. Kids are kids for longer here, it seems. It is sweet and refreshing though still surprising to me as a personal-space-loving Brit.

Some of my favourite times at school have been during the lunchbreaks or compulsory cleaning hour, when all the students have to sweep and mop the school. At these times I have more contact with the kids on a one-to-one basis. Many are so friendly and so sweet. At elementary school they cling to me like cute little koalas; at junior high, they want to see pictures of my boyfriend, or ask me about my clothes or hair; usual teenage stuff. One cheeky 15-year-old boy repeatedly asked me if I like pretty Japanese boys, whilst winking. He’s a funny young man, quite a character.

Despite the language barriers, there are some things that are universally understood. One rainy afternoon, whilst cleaning the girls’ toilets with three elementary students, a girl ran out of a cubical squealing, only for us to find a gigantic spider there. We spent a few hilarious minutes, running into the cubical, seeing the spider scuttle across the wall, contemplating trying to catch it and then running out again squealing. Perhaps I should have been the grown-up in that situation, but that wouldn’t have been so much fun!

I’ve been lucky with both my schools as the teaching staff are friendly and kind, and the atmosphere is good. It is an overused saying among people on the JET programme, but ‘every situation is different’. The amount of support you get, how friendly and approachable people are, what your students are like, all depends on where you are and who you are working with. One friend in a remote town in the Akita region, North Honshu, describes her school as being a little like a boot camp, but it is difficult to say whether that is typical of Akita or not.

Though the Japanese are generally extremely hard-working and conscientious, it is often said that the people of Kyushu are slightly more laid-back than in other parts of the country. In my schools, it certainly seems that way, though I haven’t experienced other parts of Japan, so it is difficult to say. With their Penny Lane lunchtime music and knee-high socks, I love the quirkiness that brightens up my days at school.

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