Saturday, 23 January 2010

Teaching in a Japanese Junior High School

I was recently subjected to the rather odd but lucrative world of teaching in a Japanese public junior high school. It was one of those random, odd gigs that come with the territory of being a foreigner in Japan. I formed part of a team of 6 people who had to visit 12 classes in 3 days. The main thrust of the lesson was learning English, but perhaps more importantly the idea was to deliver a bit of foreignness to the youngsters. Give them a taste of the multi-cultural in a land of mono-culture.

The Japanese in many ways provide an enviable education to its citizens: they have very high literacy rates and they excel in the teaching of math, but where they fall down is in instilling any sense of understanding of the world beyond Japan Inc. This was where we were supposed to come in.

So our merry band of six composed of citizens from England, France, Canada, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines were driven to a high school by the middle man who was obviously making a pretty penny for hooking the school up with a motley rag tag bunch of gaijin. Mr. Middleman reminded me of a Japanese del boy; an unreconstructed wheeler dealer in the shady world of language education. You want to learn something and he’ll fix you up with an unqualified teacher no problem.

Anyway he drove us to a school that had the same name as a supermarket and left us at the entrance. There we had to take our shoes off and put on green slippers that had been designed to fit the feet of dwarves. As I looked down I noticed all the kids and staff are wearing Nike and Adidas. Only we were subjected to the violent green mini slipper that freezes your extremities. We then shuffled along behind the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) to an empty classroom. As we slid down the corridor we noticed all the windows were half open. It was January, the temperature was in single figures, there was no heating in evidence and the windows were open. Bless this feels character building already. Talking of buildings, school supermarket name was a stolidly rectangular concrete carbuncle with stained walls that looked like it should have been condemned 20 years ago. If only they had painted the walls some bright funky colors like in Latin America, it would have brightened the minds of a thousand youngsters who had slouched through the building and sweated in the playing fields as they received their programming for adulthood.

The ALT was from England; a rotund sparky chap who spoke in a loud voice and had some type of Beckhamized haircut. He wore a dark wrinkled pinstripe suit that could have been plundered from the trash. He seemed to snap in and out of an advanced case of lazy eye that meant for long seconds at a time both his eyes seemed to look just to the side of you, rather than  at you when he wanted to communicate. I can only presume that being an assistant language teacher in Japan had caused this rare affliction. Or maybe it was a cunning ploy to minimize his bulky presence and fit into the ethos of anonymity and mediocrity which is at the heart of every young boy and girls’ pedagogical experience.

Young Mr. Beckham Cut whizzed through an outline of the ordeal that awaited us and made polite getting to know you sideways chat as we waited for some students to come and escort us to our first class. They are big into escort services in Japan. After all the population can’t find the toilet in their own apartment without the aid of a navigation system nowadays. And sure enough a bunch of giggling teenage girls in long navy blue plaited skirts arrived at the door and gawped unashamedly at the handsome young French man in our midst and then, reluctantly, lead us to their classroom.

The classroom had a black board and the walls were decorated in propaganda, more of which later. The sexes were segregated into alternate rows of boys and girls. Under their chairs were skanky looking towels pegged to dry – I was later to discover that the bathrooms had no towels to dry your hands, hence the need for the cunning under-seating-drying apparatus. The windows were open and the view was a brown concrete courtyard ideal for a World War Two sniper festival. Our band of 6 lined up in front of the black board at the front of the class while the kids were called to attention and made to stand up and greet us in English in unison with a pathetic lack of enthusiasm. Their ball breaking young female teacher stood in front of her desk looking to unleash untold reserves of ferocity on any of her charges who acted up or displayed any of the early signs of free thinking. I was already fantasizing about her in leathers and a whip punishing my unworthy foreign arse.

After Mr. ALT went through a standard set of questions and answers– What’s the date? How are you? How’s the weather? (It was always cloudy – or was that just the view) etc. He then launched into a quick explanation of the exciting lesson they had in store for them. As a warmer he started off with a game appropriately called ‘crossfire’. I say it was a game but there seemed to be no objective to it or any winners. You stand up, you answer a question and you nominate which row will sit down with you, or if only you will sit down. You are born, you respond and you can retire alone or take others down with you.

Next up, the ALT went through an explanation of the following activity which was to complete a questionnaire about us foreigners. He bizarrely shunned such phrases as ‘taking notes’ and ‘fill out the questionnaire’ and resolutely stuck with the keynote idea of ‘memos’. Perhaps because it rhymed (sort of) with Nemo, that cute fish. They had to ask us questions about places to visit, the money used, things to buy, food and animals in our respective countries. Naturally, the kids understood very little of this English summary of what was wanted from them; but obviously being in the dark about what they had to do was nothing new or worrying for the bright young minds of the future. Dominatrix teacher gave a few curt sentences in Japanese prior to the off. It must have been something about feasting on their hearts if they stepped out of line because immediately they got into ‘lunch groups’ and assumed the necessary seriousness to begin.

And so we began rotating from one group to the next, a few minutes at each cluster of desks. The kids stumbled though some questions and filled out their memos. Those smart enough to notice that Mrs. No Shit had written some of the questions on the board breezed through the Q & A. While the information about fish and chips and London and tea was being doled out by me I showed them a few pictures of my country. They seemed to lap up the visuals, after all anything was better than that view out the window which, if it got you in its sway, would insidiously cast a dark shadow over your soul.

One group followed the other as I made the rounds. I noticed the older Canadian chap was merrily rabbiting on about everything under the sun to do with his back home. It goes without saying that the students couldn’t fathom his meaning but they were in awe of his pictures of colossal amounts of snow. The Filipino bird spoke some odd dialect that passes for English back home and held up a CD of folk songs for the kids to consider. She and the woman from Singapore were both married to Japanese men and so spoke really good Japanese and I suspect spent a good deal of the time clarifying in Japanese.

Blessedly each rotation was mercifully quick in coming and before I knew it the class was over. The students got back into rows and were made to stand up and mumble something about thanking us. We left and headed back to the empty classroom where we were first taken.

We had just enough time for a cup of bitter green tea before the whole process was repeated. We taught 4 classes, following exactly the same routine and being overseered by the dark eyes of Mrs. Whiplash. Such repetition invited me to zone out. At one point I came under the sway of the view, like Bilbo Baggins putting on the ring; only evil can come of it. So I forced my eyes and mind to focus anywhere but out the window. Instead as I went through the motions of memo filling with the students I set my wandering mind to studying the classrooms. This proved most entertaining. Above the black board in one class was the acronymic WBC which stood for “We Believe Class”. A masterpiece of ambiguity that George Orwell would have had something to say about. My favourite, however, by a long shot was the delightful re-working of Alexandre Dumas’ classic motto of brotherhood. Instead of “One for all and all for one”, the huge poster read “One for all and all for all.” That sums up Japan for me right there.

Days two and three followed pretty much the same schedule as our first day. The only difference was that on the third day we did a thing about families. The students told us how many centimeters tall their parents were and how many kilograms their parents weighed. It reminded me of being arrested back home in the UK. The only other variable was the Japanese teachers. On day two Mrs. Blackhawk was replaced by dude in tracksuit and on the final day we had a grey haired bloke with an implacable look of disinterest on his face that might be the great forbearance taught by the Buddha or it might have been a secret surrender to the god of the concrete view.

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