when we're in Kobe for the recontracting conference it'll be 10 months since our arrival in Tokyo. what a trip!
a writer for UWM's Edline asked me a few questions for an upcoming article. Here are the answers i wrote. They could have all been different. I have been contimplating over them for a couple of weeks. At first, it was hard to sit down and write, to find the words, to decide on the "right" answer. I tried to answer as honestly as possible for the given moment. it was probably different 5 months ago and it'll be different 5 months from now.
but while i'm away enjoying myself on the mainland, here is something to read.
What are your plans for after you leave Okinawa?
I have been constructing all sorts of travel schemes in my mind. Most of them take me from northern Japan through Russia and Central Asia into Eastern Europe and then home. But if you meant in terms of jobs, I am not certain. It’s looking like teaching is something I enjoy doing, even when it’s not in my own language, so perhaps I shall continue on that path.
If you will be teaching, where and what grade level?
Wherever I settle, I know it will be a city, either the size of Milwaukee or larger. I like being surrounded by options for entertainment. When I was leaving Milwaukee last year, I was starting to like it quite a bit, so perhaps going back there initially might be a good idea, especially since my family would appreciate being closer to me after such a long absence. I would prefer to teach high school but I have been enjoying working with middle school kids in Japan, so I won’t automatically turn down a job in middle school.
What is the most important thing you learned from your experience teaching in a different culture?
It’s difficult to quantify the learning that has taken place in the last ten months, and that is yet to come in the next 14 months. I think I learned that it’s important to acknowledge the differences within a new culture without judging them too harshly. I also realized that I may never understand the reasons for these differences, but should conduct myself as much as possible within the boundaries of the culture. It’s important to be reflective when living in a new culture. I found it easier to deal with “culture shock” by writing about my daily life on the net and in a personal journal. Thinking through writing helps bring out my frustrations but also my understanding of the culture. It’s also important to create a comfortable and personal place within the new surroundings. Because I am here for a limited time, I don’t feel the need to assimilate within the culture, so it’s important to have a place where I can be myself and act in a way that is normal and natural to me. And the most important thing I have learned is that smiling goes a long way. It’s the best way to dispel discomfort and to establish communication. Being open to and smiling through new experiences is the best policy while living in a different culture.
How will you bring your experiences into your future classrooms?
I hope that at some point I will have the freedom to teach high school students about Asian cultures and religions. They are very unique and unlike anything in the West; I believe students would greatly benefit from learning about different perspectives that coexist within Asian cultures. It would be great to show students how similar their counterparts are in Japan, but also how different and why. I would also like to teach students Japanese expressions and ways of behavior in the classroom. I think it’s important for teachers to show students the diversity that exists in our world and to encourage them to evaluate and think critically about those similarities and differences.
What is most different about teaching in Okinawa?
When compared to my teaching experience in MPS, I would have to say that most things are different. The schedule is flexible—classes are cut, skipped, lengthened and shortened depending on the needs of extra-curricular activities and teacher meetings. Sports and other clubs are an integral part of the school life and sometimes it seems that they take precedent over academics. Every student is required to participate in a sport or a club until the middle of their 9th grade, when the focus shifts to high school entrance exams and students are expected to study the entire time. I work in a small junior high school of a village. My students are respectful, motivated (most of the time), eager to learn, and good natured. The school structure here supports communal behavior and students are always working together on projects. Group relations are extremely important in Japanese society, and the skills for group communication and success are honed in school. Individuality, as it is exists in the United States does not appear here. Students are responsible for one another, they are competitive but they will also help each other. A student does not make a decision of their own when the group is involved; all decisions are discussed and agreed upon, whether through unanimous vote or a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Students are responsible for their school: there are no janitors; students clean the school, tidy gardens, etc. Students also set up for lunch themselves after it is delivered, freshly made and healthy.
Teachers are responsible for students’ actions, academic achievement, and behavior in and outside of school. Because students spend some much time in school, doing homework and participating in sports, teachers become the first point of contact for any wrong doing, accident, or inquiry regarding a student.
I could go on and on. The differences are vast.
But I think the one difference that I am constantly aware of is how much students enjoy being at school. In America, it seems that schools are a punishment to the kids. Students can’t wait to get out—same goes for the teachers. Here, students spend more time at school than at home. Their primary social network is here, so are their surrogate parents who care for them. School equals friends, fun, sports, clubs, play, and of course, academics. Come long summer break and most of the students will be at school in the mornings, practicing sports, studying, or getting ready for major school events.
What is most similar to American classrooms?
The relationship between a teacher’s ability and enjoyment of subject directly correlates to students’ ability and enjoyment of subject. I work with a teacher who doesn’t seem to have changed the way he conducts his classroom in 15 years of work. He lacks enthusiasm for English and it shows and students are very quick to pick up on it. I don’t believe he is at all concerned with how much students have actually learned before he moves on to the next subject. I met teachers in MPS who were there only to get through the day and get their summer vacations. Teachers like that create apathetic and unmotivated students. It’s not different in Japan.
Would you teach abroad again? Would you teach in a different place?
At this point, I can’t say for sure. A part of me would like to experience other countries and cultures first hand, but I that feel after I finish on JET my primary reasons for moving abroad will have been fulfilled, so it won’t be necessary to move again. And then again…
What is the most rewarding result of your experience?
Knowing that I can do it. I can live abroad, on my own, surrounded by a vastly different culture, language, people. I can teach. I can motivate. I can cause laughter in students and push them to success. I can be innovative and creative. It’s very rewarding to know all these things, and also to know that I get to learn something new every day, if I wish. Meeting, and getting to know, and becoming friends with exceptional people has also been a great plus.
What is the most frustrating or the biggest challenge for you?
Working within a school system that does not encourage critical thinking or student centered learning. Working with a teacher who is unwilling or unable to change for the better.
And the Okinawan drivers! Talk about frustration! It’s called “right of way” people!!