Monthly Archives: April 2011

School = Fun

It has occurred to me that I rarely go into the specifics of my job and what it entails, and considering that some of the people who read this blog are likely thinking about applying, have been accepted, or are already working for the JET Programme, this might be a good time to give you a bit of an idea of what it’s like. Contrary to what you might think from reading some of my other blogs, I do actually work here as a teacher (yes, believe it or not, I don’t get paid to skip around Japan with a notebook looking for opportunities to take the piss), so here’s what it’s like to actually teach…

This term I’ve been given a total of 16 lessons a week (3 more than before) along with quite a bit more responsibility and room to move within the syllabus. Firstly, I have 8 classes of “English I,” a class for which I pluck a topic from thin-air and create relevant lesson plans, and I do that same lesson plan for all 8 classes. Wonderfully, because I’ve already created 2 terms worth of materials, I have only had to prepare 2 or 3 lessons from scratch for the next three months; the others are all the best ones (i.e. most enjoyable/important) from last year. My topics are as follows:

Self-intro, Classroom English, Syllables, Pronunciation, Numbers, Telling the Time, Opposites and Rhyming, Directions and TXT Language. That last one is just a bit of fun for the end of term. Again, I have total control over these topics and could have chosen Tiddlywinks and Extreme Ironing had I deigned them suitably important for the kids to learn about. I might change a couple of these before the term is out but we’ll see.

My school, Kagaku Gijutsu High School, is a fantastic place to work. I’ve come to realise this more and more as I talk to my fellow JETs about their schools and the restrictions in place there. There is no such thing as a standard experience on the JET program; some ALTs will simply have to work from a text book every lesson – no arguments, no deviations – some will have to use the themes in the text books but can adjust the lessons to make them better/more relevant, and the unlucky ones will simply assist in lessons, reading passages from text books, acting as glorified CD players.

The freedom I have makes my job 100 times more enjoyable for me and my students, and every time I have a great lesson I get an ego boost from the fact that it was my content that helped to create the atmosphere. There’s nothing quite like coming out of a lesson full of whooping, cheering and laughing, knowing that they learnt and understood all the materials and had a great time in the process. It makes you feel pretty bloody good, and is more or less the kind of feeling I was trying to generate by coming out here in the first place.

(N.B. I’m listening to ‘Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun’ by M83 at the moment so if I get a little emotional then that’s why. Check it out here. It’s majestic.)

Along with the freedom comes the great students. Many people (including myself before I came here) would consider the idea of teaching four hundred 15/16 year old boys (10% girls) rather daunting; perhaps even terrifying. Certainly, if my old school was anything to go by, then I would’ve expected by now to have been hung, drawn and quartered; my bleeding remains staple-gunned to a blackboard and a board rubber wedged in my mouth. My students are good kids. There’s plenty of camaradarie and messing about, but there’s nothing vindictive or nasty going on. Most are enthusiastic and willing to learn, which is particularly impressive considering the sheer volume of school work, tests and club activities they have to do every day. Some of these kids get to school at 7am and won’t leave until 9pm thanks to compulsory membership to an after-school club of some sort or another.

There’s also the lovely JTEs, the kind staff, the laid-back vice-principal, the heating and air-conditioning (non-existent in older schools). It really is a good place to work.

In addition to the 8 English I classes (1st years only), I have Writing classes with the top sets of the 2nd and 3rd years, an additional Writing class with some 2nd year students who chose to do English as an elective, and an Oral Communication class with the top set 1st graders. The first two are a bit stale (there is some of that human CD player nonsense I described earlier, along with some sentence correction and that’s about it) but the elective and OC classes are, quite simply, awesome. For my elective class I am teamed with Yukari-sensei, a great lady who is always helping me out with my Japanese; she’s easy to chat to, and respected by the students as a knowledgeable and thoroughly likeable teacher. In addition, the students there all want to learn English, and it makes a big difference to the morale in the classroom.

I have, of course, saved the best until last though. Last term the OC class was wholly textbook-based and contained 41 students. You try teaching a speech-based lesson to 41 people at the same time. It doesn’t work. The JTEs obviously realised this, and split it into two; more work for us, but a much richer experience for the students. I teach this lesson with a 23 year old chap called Kudou-sensei; a very nice, hard-working, energetic guy fresh out of uni. We use the same textbook as before but are free to choose the subjects we think are most useful and change them as much as we like. “Have fun with it,” was the objective we were given, and so that’s what we have set out to do. Without changing anything, it’s just a lot of ultra-boring reading, repeating and listening quizzes – hardly inspiring stuff – so for the last lesson I decided to take the theme (numbers and fractions) and completely rehash it using a combination of some stuff I’ve used before and a couple of new ideas.

First, some pronunciation practice; I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bore you with it again. After they were suitably warmed up to the idea of speaking we introduced Japanese numbers briefly to show that they are grouped into fours rather than threes (1,0000 is 1 man, 1,0000,0000 is 1 oku, etc.) and then introduced the English number system as far as billions. Many of them had no idea how to say/write a large number in English so I told them to use the commas to represent the words ‘thousand’, ‘million’ and ‘billion’. I also said that an ‘and’ is necessary after you say a hundred. After checking with Ashley I was told that they don’t actually use the ‘and’ in America but it’s what I was always taught in school so I decided it was important; to make the words flow into each other better if nothing else. After we’d covered the basics we played another game; Kudou-sensei or I would write a long number on the board and they would take it in turns to say one word at a time (i.e. “One,” next person, “billion,” next person, “five,” etc.). Every time someone messed up they would have to stand up and start again from the beginning. At first there were quite a few people standing, but slowly, they were able to sit back down after they got it right and eventually, they finished the first number. It had taken so much effort to get it, that when the last word was announced correctly, the whole class, Kudou-sensei and I erupted into a simultaneous cheer so loud that I’m pretty sure all the classes on the top floor heard us. It was totally spontaneous; like watching your country score a goal in your favourite sport after a long and difficult 0-0 stalemate. After that they had it; the next two numbers were recounted perfectly and resulted in similar cheers that stirred the cicadas from their slumber.

So there you have it… A wonderful reason for me to look forward to Fridays other than the obvious bonus of it being the beginning of another undoubtedly great weekend in Japan.

Perpetual Amusement

It’s the day before the start of term and things are hotting up. The mood in the office is busy, yet jubilant. More jokes, more excitement, more laughs and giggles. As usual I’m minding my own business and smiling to myself.

“What are you laughing at?” asks Takahashi-sensei as she walks past my desk.

“Oh nothing. Not really. I just, you know, laugh at funny things. Silly things that have happened in the past.”

“I see.” She considers for a moment…

“Like Japanese people?” she says with a grin. I burst out laughing.

“Sometimes,” I say, “sometimes.”

It’s not always Japanese people I’m laughing at but they do provide me with a great deal of amusement from day to day. A bowing attack never fails to make me snigger for instance, as I superimpose the sound effects of gunfire onto each bow and pretend that the rapid Japanese they shout in-between is used to distract the opponent rather than just as a simple courtesy.

People-watching is wonderful. Whenever I go to a big city all the excitement rushes from deep within my bones to the surface of my skin, threatening, but never quite managing, to burst out into the real world. Having an insane amount of people in my vicinity is one of the most invigorating feelings in the world, and living in Shizuoka (a city of about 800,000) only heightens the experience when you visit a proper city like Nagoya or Tokyo. It’s like a drug; do it too much and you become more and more immune to it’s effects but if you abstain, the effects are heightened the next time you do it (that’s what I’ve heard, anyway). I was 18 when I first went to London; I went to see my sister for Bonfire Night weekend. She was studying at UCL and living in a hell-hole in Tottenham at the time; it was freezing, full of bugs and damp, and the living room carpet had a burn mark in it roughly the size of a large saucepan. I had a nice spot on the floor somewhere between the bits of dried pasta and a few dead flies yet all I could feel was excitement. I was in London and I could hear the underground train, which I was on only an hour or two ago, rumbling past right underneath the house ferrying thousands of drunk, sweaty people further and further from the city centre. To quote… well… myself

…jumping on the tube only to have my head squashed between an elbow, someone’s greasy ear and a dirty smear on the door [was] interesting and exciting in a thrill-seeking “I could die of suffocation” kind of way…

…and it was! So much life! So much energy! So. Many. Weird. People.

People-watching just isn’t the same without the weirdos; the people who talk to themselves incessantly, who scream at their imaginary babies and walk onto packed rush-hour trains to preach very loudly to everyone on it while they all pretend not to hear and hold their books and iPhones ever closer to their face. The Socially Awkward too, with their sideways looks and nervous hand-ringing as they try, desperately, to read any social situation and then fail dismally when they open their mouths and take in a barrage of strange looks and nervous laughter in reply.

The latter I can only stand so much. There is a limit to how much a grown man can cringe, and I suspect my threshold is at a much lower level than most of my peers (I can only watch one episode of The Office in any one sitting for example, and I’m completely unable to watch Peep Show), but I have all the time in the world for everyone else.

Some of the most sacred places in the world are in branches of Starbucks, Costa or some other utterly impersonal coffee chain located on a busy street. They are those little stools that line up along the window where you can perch for hours with your headphones in, and watch as the craziness of a normal day unfolds before you while the occasional smile creeps across your face. Living in Japan only adds to the amusement, and gives a person like me plenty of reasons to be smirking to myself throughout the day.

It’s Showtime!

That’s right folks, this Friday the long hiatus of Internet browsing and general time-wasting ends and I am thrust once again into a classroom filled with fresh recruits straight out of Junior High; and that’s not all. This year we have three, count them, three new JTEs and one of them is “totemo furesshu” out of University. You know what that makes me? A senpai, that’s what. As if my head hadn’t expanded enough when I started getting called sensei on a regular basis, I now have trouble walking through doorways without soaping up the sides of my face first. Eight months into a teaching job in Japan when I’d never taught or spoken Japanese before and now I’m looking after new recruits and showing them the way; the yin to their yang; the senpai to their kouhai. The mind boggles.

The new female JTE came to speak to me yesterday and we got to talking about where she lived:

“Near the station,” she says.

“Wow that’s convenient.”

“Yes it means I can drink and not have to get taxis or worry about last trains.” My sentiments exactly.

“I loooooove beer,” she says, “I have a beer every day after a shower… It makes me fart a lot though.”

Well that was the last thing I expected. I burst into a kind of nervous laughter but she remained serious and continued to tell me how many kilograms she’d gained in the last 10 years.

I’ve heard about this behaviour before from my friends; not the farting, but the propensity of some Japanese people to say things as they are, without smiling OR straight-faced irony; just in a “that’s-how-it-is” kind of way. Maria was once asked, while sitting in the office writing lesson plans, about lube by one of her female JTEs. As if that was a perfectly normal thing to talk about over a green tea and a Telling The Time worksheet. Maria is not someone who embarrasses easily, but talking about such things in England is taboo unless you do so with a smirk or a kind of fake-serious irony (in much the same way as we talk about everything else in fact). That is unless you happen to be a presenter on Embarrassing Bodies, then you can skip along a beach in a pair of Speedos and talk about Syphilis to strangers over a piña colada and a game of volleyball using a pair of fake testicles instead of a ball. “Make sure you cop a good feel! Be sure to find the lump! And you girls, don’t just sit there! Start feeling your tits up in case you’ve got cancer! And put some bloody sun cream on before you get burnt; do you want me to come over there and show you those pictures of sun-cysts again?”

I’m really, really looking forward to teaching again. I’ve hand-picked all the best lessons from the previous two terms and discarded all the rest, which means I only have to prepare two or three lessons in the next 4 months. Not only that but I now know what works and what doesn’t, what is required of me, what the students can do, I’m more respected by my JTEs and the weather is finally getting warmer. Yes folks, I’m as happy as this baby: