Part 4: A Moment in Time at School (English)

I was contemplating writing this for a while now. Recently, I started my Master of Teaching program, so I felt inclined to do a bit of writing. With my university semester break starting, I have a bit more time for my blog to share some more experiences of living in rural Japan. I think it is important to understand that in any education systems there are positive and negatives. I could talk in detail about both. In this blog I would rather focus on the fun times as it's more pleasant to reflect on. If you are interested in becoming an English teacher overseas, please message me! I hope you enjoy reading about some stories from when I was an Elementary and Junior High School teacher in rural japan and some important lessons that I learnt along the way. I will not be sharing too many photos, so you will have to use your imagination!

I want to take you back. Take you back to a time when I was riding my bicycle along a dirt road in the middle of a farmland to get to school. On the left and right there were arches and arches of rice fields, and in the middle, there were pockets of elementary school students, carrying their ランドセル (randoseru, firm-sided backpack made of leath­er). The road stretched for about 1km, and as I weaved my bicycle around the students, you would hear in the background “Ari Sensei. Ari Sensei”, and I would eagerly reply to the students, “Good Morning!”. Students would take a detour if there was an interesting insect on the side, or if they were getting tired!

One of my first memories happened shortly after I gave my self-introduction presentation in class. As I started my role, my first lesson would be to introduce myself to the students and share my cultural background. I loved to be able to share my culture to students, as in many cases, I was the first foreign person that they had ever met. As I introduce myself I talked about my hobbies, my background and asked the students about their interests. I would mention a few Animes that I like, and you would hear the children go “oooooo” as they recognised one. I would mention an Anime called Chihayafuru, which revolved around a card game called “Karuta”. The following lesson, a student gave me a note letting me know they also like playing Karuta with their friends. They had a Karuta Club which they played during the recess break, so of course I joined in. I could see and appreciate the time spent, and the note was beautiful, and heart-warming. Despite pre-conceived barriers that I thought I might face as a teacher; it was a nice reminder that children have an innocence to be very accepting to the people around them. 

 Temaki Sushi (手巻き寿司)
As I was involved in the school culture, I noticed a dichotomy in independence and conformity. As mentioned in past blog posts, obeying to society's pressures occurs at a higher level here. This was present in the school system as well, where there is not a strong push for individualism. However, there are moments of independence and looking after one another. For lunchtime, students were assigned to collect food from the cafeteria, and then they served each other their lunch. This is called Chuushoku (昼食 ,ちゅうしょく). Usually consisting of miso soup, rice, and a main dish. They wore their chef outfits and portion out the meals for every student. All students returned their dirty dishes to then be brought back to the cafeteria. I typically ate my lunch with the students, and they loved to ask questions, or play games. The lunches were delicious and cheap. One of my favourites was a build your own Temaki Sushi (手巻き寿司) lunch. After lunch, students are assigned in teams clean a certain section of the school. The team are made up of students from different grades. The highest-grade act as the leaders and they would look after the lower grade students. Watching a 1st grade student, who was around 5 years old, using the tallest broom was adorable. These are a few characteristics of the way of life at school. I would rotate to a few Elementary and Junior High Schools throughout the week. I particularly enjoyed teaching at an Elementary school where there were only 30 students. We would eat lunch together, everyone would play together, and spend time with each other after school. In fact, when a parent arrived to collect their child, it was announced on the loudspeaker. The relationships I could develop with the students were very special, and it was nice to know the name of every student at the school.  
We had an excursion to clean a statue down at Katsurahama. It was a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma. There was a briefing, and then the students were fitted with protective gear, and the cranes were ready. The student would go into the crane, and they were lifted, and they started cleaning. They loved it with myself and the teachers included. And then a few news outlets interviewed the children. Such a good day! I remember on another occasion the students were learning about agriculture. We had grown some sweet potato, and everyone picked them together. It was adorable when the smallest child in the school picked a huge sweet potato. One of the teacher’s took a photo of her with it, and it was great.  One weekend, they had a bazaar event where members of the community brought items for the school to sell. This ranged from cutlery, plates, toys, and ceramics. The children came along with their small bags and purchased small items, and we all had lunch together. As I was browsing through the items, I found the most beautiful Japanese tea set, which I knew I had to have. It had beautiful illustrations, and the pot was sublime. Everything at the bazaar was also insanely cheap, so when I saw it was ¥200 (~2.37 AUD), I had to grab it. I brought it back with me and every time I drink some tea, everything goes a bit slower as I look back on those wonderful times. I have included some pictures at the bottom. 

As mentioned in previous article entries, I was incredibly lucky to be a part of so many wonderful communities, and to be involved in many activities, festivals, and everything in between while living in Japan. However, I never would have felt fulfilled if I did not get the opportunity to work in a Japanese workplace. One of my favourite things to do was to get to the school a bit earlier, greet everyone in the office with a very brief  “Ohayo Gosaimasu”, and then immediately run to the playground to play basketball or soccer with the children. I was very lucky to work along some wonderful and resilient teachers. I learnt more from them than anyone during my time on the JET Programme and being able to observe so many different teaching styles, and as a result, develop my own, was an invaluable experience for me. There were some challenging moments in the classroom. Sometimes you have a great feeling where you feel great progress was made, and you can reflect with your fellow teacher. And on other occasions, the class was in complete havoc, and there were a few children who spoil it for the bunch. It does not feel great and makes you questions what you are doing. However, I always knew in the back of my mind to go back and do your best for those few students. I never knew why I felt that. It was more just my nature to leave no one behind. About 1.5 years later, I discovered why while I was writing an essay for an assignment last month. As teachers, it is important to remember that achieving goals does not correlate to the ability or potential of a student. The aim for the school and a teacher is to help all student to exceed their potential, regardless of these achieving goals. I slowly concluded recently that these difficult students are my favourite students to teach even though it was hard. It takes the resilience that I learnt to tap into their potential and use various pedagogical approaches to form a strong bond to lead them to their goals.

School events in Japan are not a rare occurrence, and it happens all the time at the school. At the Junior High School, the Sports Day (運動会) was always one of the most anticipated days of the school calendar. Although it is not my personal favourite day of the year, it means a lot to the students where many special memories are made and marks a culmination to final year students as they move onto High School. A memory that I do not think I will forget any time soon was the Music Festival (音楽祭). In their classes, all the students prepared a musical item to present to each other and the parents. The teachers also prepared an item, and the Vice Principal asked if I would like to join, to which’ I of course said yes. He passed along some sheet music and asked me to learn this. Typically in these situations, you have no idea how it is going to turn out, and you just hope for the best. I practiced, and below are the fruits of our labour. To my left is the School’s Vice Principal, who was a lovely man. He was a fascinating person who lived in Laos for a few years, doing volunteer work. Learning from his life experiences was remarkable, and his calm nature was very comforting. He also helped me a lot, like giving me an opportunity to launch my own English Club. As we looked out at the sea of children and parents, it was hilarious to see their reaction. If you are wondering who that centre person orchestrating us, that would be the principal.  

Wada先生 and I at Ryoma Marathon

As I integrated myself more into the staff workplace, one of my favourite things to do was to bake for the teachers as a show of gratitude. I love to cook from my mother’s cooking, and if you would like to follow her on Instagram. I tried to bake things that they might have never tried before. So naturally I baked Australian desserts. I ended up baking large portions to distribute to the various schools and it was very satisfying to hear everyone enjoy what I made. I created strong bonds with many of the teachers and had so much fun teaching besides them in the classroom. I became very close friends to a teacher named Wada先生We had so much fun together in the classroom, and the children loved it. I would remember when we would demonstrate some dialogue, I would always say to him, “Let’s just wing it, trust me”. We trusted each other, and would walk from either side of the classroom, stop abruptly, and just start talking. Somehow, we would include the grammar point we were learning that day, and it always worked out. The children were always in hysterics after our improv scene and it made us feel good. When I was going to run my 2nd full marathon, Wada先生and I created a running team with some other teachers.  I would finish up teaching at a different school, and I would meet him at his school. It was around 7pm, and most of the teachers were still there. We would get changed and hit the streets to run around the area. At the time, it was freezing! All the training paid off as we started the marathon together. After the marathon, and when our legs could work again, we went to get Banh Mi with his family. 

Cranes Cranes Cranes 
One of the hardest parts as a teacher is when you have to say goodbye to your students and fellow teachers. I have been through this process countless times, and it never gets easier. Throughout teaching in Japan, I was placed at 7 different schools, often concurrently. I grew to have very strong bonds with everyone that I was involved with in the school, so it was hard. I recalled on my last days, I would receive the loveliest gifts. Students would write little notes or write on a large card with a group photo. I would sometimes have to give a speech to all the students and teachers, which was a bit daunting to say the least. On other occasions, I would say a few words in the teacher’s office. I remember in one class, the Japanese teacher who I taught with asked me to just sit in the middle. The students came up to the front and performed a musical act for me. After the class, they proceeded to hand me a large bag of cranes, which symbolizes good fortune and longevity. To be the centre of attention is difficult for me and to be recipient of all these lovely things is hard. Although it comes back to a concept that I mentioned in Blog 1. お持て成し(Omotenashi) is the way of life while living in Japan, especially Kochi, where it’s more profound. It is an appreciation to the beautiful gesture being presented towards me, and mindset to provide that same お持て成し to the people around me. This kindness towards me happened Every. Single. Time. As a token of my appreciation to the teaching staff, on my last day, I would bring the same homemade cake for everyone to try. It was my Chocolate Pavlova cake. As the last day finished, saying that final goodbye was hard. However, that is just the nature of life to be able to challenge yourself in different ways. 

I felt like I did not even scratch the surface of all the different experiences that I had as an English Teacher in Japan. It was a wild ride, filled with new adventures, seeing things for the first time, and developing my skills as a teacher. As I rode my bicycle to school, or helping students in the Judo Club, I would say to myself, how did I end up here? For me, it has always been about the teaching, and to allow all students, no matter their financial background, physical or mental disability, and particularly in the case for Kochi, rural placement, to have access to a quality education. There were many high points, and there were also many low points. But it put everything back into perspective. I am the kind of person who never really dwells on the negatives, so sure there were some hard times in the classroom, but it made the good times feel even better, and that is what I will remember.   

Thank you for reading! 

Here are some additional photos from my collection of 10,000 for your viewing pleasure