Going Back

I went back to Numajo.  Numajo was the all girls’ high school I taught at my first two years in Japan.  Still working in the same prefecture, I took a job last summer as an advisor for language teachers and a teacher for special needs students.  I didn’t realize how sad I would be when the time came to leave the girls’ high school, but when the time came I held back tears.  Nine months later I had the chance to back.  The words, “I went back to Numajo,” sum up something life changing for me.  I am not sure how I can explain what it meant to me or the depth of exhausting emotions I experienced going back to the school; all the memories it brought up and feelings of nostalgia, confidence, inadequacy, hope, frustration.  When I returned home the other day, on the train I used to take so many times, I felt so tired.  My mind was in a way numb, but numb because it was so overloaded with thoughts and emotions.  My time at that school, learning to be a teacher, learning to be a mentor, stumbling through Japanese, and experiencing connections with Japanese people and experiencing a new culture, was an instrumental time in my life.  At times, I feel that I went into Numajo as a teenager (though I was in my 20s) and came out an adult.

Why?  What was it that changed so much about myself?  It was a hundred little things all mixed into one that changed me.  It was living on my own for the first time.  It was meeting my husband to be.  It was teaching.  Most of all, it was the school itself and my experiences there.  The first few times I walked into a classroom I was terrified.  There I was, standing in front of 30 or so students all looking expectantly at me and waiting for me to teach them something.  I felt stage fright. I felt inadequate and unprepared.  I couldn’t speak Japanese. I was nervous.  The previous ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) left me with very little.  No lesson plans besides a textbook and a short note about each class.  No guidance about what makes a good teacher or how to behave in the classroom.  Those were things I had to learn on my own and things I had to prepare myself for by drawing on my past experiences and the new ones I faced everyday in Japan.

So I started, carefully, to follow the textbooks; to choose which pages were most useful and relevant for the lessons.  I started to get to know the teachers; I made overtures of friendship, though a bit hesitantly, through the communication barriers that existed.  At first these simple things seemed to be enough. I gained confidence in front of the class and I tested out the different roles I could have in this new job.  After a short time, it became clear to me that the textbooks were not interesting; not for me, and not for the students.  So I began to suggest new and different activities; ones that were based on the book, but added an element or two of my interests or my students’ interests.  As I got to know the teachers, we were able to work together to develop material for our classes; we could offer suggestions and criticisms constructively.

My tactics seemed to work and my role at the school evolved.  For classes where we had previously merely followed the textbook we added new, bold activities to increase the students’ interest.  For one class, I worked closely with the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) who I taught with and together we developed our own, new and interesting, curriculum for the class.  Her enthusiasm for teaching, and for English, was infectious, and as we became friends our friendly banter showed the students English in a new light.  I truly believe the lessons we developed unleashed more of the students potential than the previous uninspired textbook topics, such as “Are real pets better than virtual pets?” and other things which the students had little interest in, and which had even less application to their real lives.  We incorporated my strengths as a university theater major and created a skit based curriculum which boosted the students’ interest in English.  Gradually, my class-load increased, for which I was grateful.
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As supervisor for the English Club I honed my skills at guidance and explored the possibilities of my role.  My first day at the club, the room was crowded and I had no idea what I was doing.  I later learned that most of those students were not actually club members, but had come just to see what the new ALT was like.  The English Club actually consisted of a handful of students, or at least only a handful regularly came.  In spite of the small size, I tried to build our relationships and do interesting things.  It may not come as a surprise that English Club is not really a “cool” club to be in. It is the club that students join when they don’t want to commit to a serious club like basketball or chorus.  They join so that they can at least put on their college applications that they were in a club, never mind their level of participation (or lack thereof).

But, as the years progressed, we gained momentum and members.  The first time I participated in the school festival to entice new students into joining clubs, I was thrust onto the stage with little preparation to introduce the club in English, along with the club president introducing the club in Japanese, with of course the Beatles playing softly in the background, while most of the other clubs did choreographed dance routines, or shot arrows at balloons or soccer balls into goals.  Surprisingly, we managed to gain a few new members that year.  The next time the school festival for clubs came around, I was ready.  I filmed the clubs activities and made a video.  The club leader and I introduced the club in English and Japanese, while Gwen Stefani’s ‘Harajuku Girls’ played in the background, and the video played upstage.  It was a great success!  That year we gained many members, but not only that, they were dedicated to the club.  That year, English Club evolved a lot and I got to know the students exceptionally well which allowed my relationships with them to take on deeper dimensions as I tested the role of mentor; someone more than a teacher, but not quite a friend.

My second year at the school was, in whole, completely different from my first year there.  The atmosphere was different; I had clarified my roles, learned how to be a better teacher, and bonded with the students.  I learned how to prepare easy to use lesson plans, and to find the best opportunities to meet with the other teachers.  The atmosphere with the teachers was more friendly and open, and feeling with the students was as well.  I ate lunch a few times a week with several dedicated students who I have kept in touch with after they graduated.  I think I fully realized the benefit of my role as part-teacher, sometimes almost-peer, when one student asked me about a crude lyric from a Franz Ferdinand song.  I am sure that she did not feel comfortable asking a Japanese teacher the same question, as I believe she suspected the meaning might be a bit different from their usual vocabulary words, but she felt comfortable asking me, and I was greatly touched.

I helped students prepare for speech contests, and spoken English tests; spending hours after school to ensure that they felt prepared.  I had students come to me afterward and thank me profusely because they had passed the oral exam, or had gone far in the speech contest finals.  I prepared students for their exchange programs in the U.S. which for many of the students profoundly changed their relationships with learning English.  I worked hard and did the best I could.

I learned so much in those two years; though not every day was full of successes.  There were days I was frustrated with my language studies, or stressed in the rush to decide the final grades. When I left the school I felt a great sense of achievement and an overwhelming sense of sadness.  One student threw herself crying into my arms, and I could barely hold back.  The students gave me letters of affection, thanking me for everything, and leaving their cell phone email addresses for me to keep in touch.  The English Club bought me a parting gift, a “Nightmare Before Christmas” wall clock, which, though I have no place to hang it, I truly treasure.

Every morning as I drink my coffee out of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse mug that English Club students gave me for my birthday, I think about the school, and remember.  These are the reasons why going back felt so big.  The emotional hangover I had on that train going home was intense, and in some ways is still lingering.

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