Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Surviving your first week in a Japanese Junior High School

After meeting new trainees and already feeling like an old hand, giving advice on teaching and living in Japan as if I'd been here for... y'know, more than five months... I thought I'd prepare a little guide for surviving your first week in a Japanese Junior High School. This may come a few days too late for the latest Interac batch, but I'm sure someone will find it useful, if not amusing...

1) The Checklist...

OK, so you've got your suit ready, ironed and pressed, right? Good. That won't last long. I give it two weeks before you forget that you bought an iron. Still, first impressions are everything. Some other things that you will need: a bag, for carrying around all those lovely books and pieces of paper you will soon acquire; loads of stationary, for making notes, planning lessons and storing all those lovely pieces of paper that I just mentioned; extra, indoor shoes*; your own chopsticks - they do not come with lunch, everyone brings their own!; whatever props and pictures you intend to use for your self-introduction lesson; a book, because there is a high chance that you will spend your first few days stranded at a desk, doing nothing; oh, and money, just in case. Anything else? Remember to set two alarms - you do not want to be late on the first day!
*If you didn't know, in Japan it is PURE CRAZINESS to wear the same shoes that you had on outside, inside. In some places (on tatami mats and apparently on Leopalace linoleum floors) you only wear your socks. Every teacher will have their own shoe locker at the entrance of the school, where they change from outside into inside shoes. If you have multiple schools you will usually end up carrying a pair of shoes wherever you go.

2) The First Impression...

If you're lucky, your company will provide you with a local translator who will take you to your school on your first day. If not, you will be left with a map and a bus timetable and sent on your merry way. I would advise leaving SUPER early, because you are likely to get lost on your way, especially if you're driving. Buses in Japan are rarely late (and if they are, it's by about 5 minutes) but leave enough time to make sure.

So, you've arrived on time - in that neatly pressed suit, sensible and tidy, no piercings or tattoos on show, a big friendly foreign smile on your face, right? Be warned; there may be nobody outside waiting for you. One of my schools (which I visit every 2 weeks) likes to leave a big sign welcoming me, directing me to the teacher's room, but one looked desolate when I arrived. So, wander in and hopefully bump into a staff member. If you speak no Japanese, try "Konnichiwa. Atarashii ALT desu... dochira desu ka?" (which is just "hello. I'm the new ALT. Which way is it?") - hopefully they will direct you to the teacher's room. OH! And make sure you change your shoes at the entry!

Suddenly, you are standing in front of a dozen or so Japanese people, smiling expectantly at you. If you speak Japanese, I'm sure you don't need me telling you how to introduce yourself. If you don't, well, the most basic I can come up with is "Konnichiwa. Watashi wa desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu" (Hello. I am  . Nice to meet you) - and then bow, of course! Hopefully someone will show you to your desk. If you're lucky, you will get your own computer to play with, too.

Sooner or later you will be invited to meet the koucho sensei (principal/headmaster). Enter the room with a bow and a "shitsureishimasu" and well, be super polite. Perhaps you don't have to look quite as much like a rabbit in headlights as I did on my first day, but they might appreciate the humbleness.

3) Omiyage...
Four syllables you will come to dread if you're kechi (stingy) like me. The Japanese LOVE gift giving... not only do they have fifty thousand gift giving festivals throughout the year, but they also traditionally bring back gifts (usually individually wrapped foods special to a certain area) whenever they travel anywhere, to share among workmates.

As Japan specialises in this, every shop and train station you ever enter in Japan will sell numerous varieties of omiyage (a word I remember because it kinda looks like "homage", even though it is pronounced differently). When you first arrive from your native country, it might be a good idea to bring some kind of gift. Of course it is harder to find this kind of thing in other countries, but individually wrapped cookies or something would be great. In London, I found individually wrapped toffees in a tin shaped like Big Ben tower, and tea bags in a red double decker bus. They love it, and one lovely teacher claimed the tin without ever asking...

It is up to you when you present your omiyage, but I went for about an hour after meeting everyone and being shown my desk. I also gift wrapped it, but that's up to you - I've since noticed that most teachers just leave their open boxes of omiyage in the staff kitchen with notes inviting everyone to help themselves. For extra brownie points (or brown-nose points, whatever you want to call them) give the koucho sensei an extra, special gift. This all depends on how many schools, and space in your suitcase, you have. I was originally told that I'd have six schools... I have three... meaning that I still have about ten million English teabags floating around my apartment now.

4) The Teacher's Room...

Soon to be affectionately known as your second home. If, like me, you only have three or so classes a day, the rest of your time will be spent at your desk in this open-plan office. Don't be surprised if most teachers ignore your very existence - unless you prove that you can speak Japanese, they will assume that they can't communicate with you. The English teachers might be your friends, although some of them don't speak much English, either. At first you may feel as if you have to appear busy at all times, but look around and you'll notice that everyone else is playing the same game. I've seen teachers sleep at their desks. There's only so much lesson planning you can do, too. All I'll say is I'm glad I have a laptop in one of my schools and a heavy novel in the other one... you will probably be able to help yourself to tea and coffee, as well as the school's supplies, but for the first week I would always ask someone, even if it's just pointing at something and tentatively asking "ii desu ka?"(is it OK?).

5) Meet the students...

Those mischievous little scamps. Most of them are like sharks; they're actually more scared of you than you are of them. Try talking to them and they'll giggle and run away. But, like horses, you can slowly win their trust over time. Show then that you're fun and approachable. If you can understand Japanese, technically you're not meant to show it, but it can help you win them over. I don't know about you, but if some foreigner moved to my country and tried to teach me his language, and hadn't learned a scrap of English or Welsh, I wouldn't be very motivated to pay any attention to him. Just sayin'.

In class, they are shy and not very confident about speaking English. There are some very bright sparks who make up for the unenthusiastic ones, and over time you will learn which ones are which. As a general rule, first grade students are still pretty much children, and so are fun and bouncy and will even sing songs in class. Second graders are a little dead inside, a process that I think happens at some point during first year when they learn the harsh realities of a very demanding Japanese education system - it's hard to get them enthused about much. Third graders are slightly more awake, despite the fact that they spend every waking hour studying or practicing for sports tournaments.

Children will ask you strange questions. During your self introduction, be prepared to answer "how old are you?" and "do you have a girl/boyfriend?" a few times, as well as "why did you come to Japan?", "what Japanese food do you like?" and "what do you like about Japan?" - honestly, sometimes it feels as if they just want an ego boost on behalf of Japan. They don't really seem to care about your home country, although I would tell them that I lived right by Manchester United Stadium, which made the boys think I was cool - before whipping out a picture of my cats, so that the girls would be won over by cuteness (those cats have been dead for a few years, but they don't need to know that).

If you are fortunate enough to eat lunch with the children, you will see another side to them. One of the most memorable lunchtimes was during my first couple of weeks, where I was greeted with the question: "*Pointing to his crotch* Japanese one is small. Is English big??"... and hey, I'm a girl. From what I've heard from guys, these kids will not only ask about your junk but try to touch it. Hey, read the legendary Gaijinsmash and learn to fear the kancho. That's more an elementary school thing than JHS but.. keep your back against the wall, anyway.

The novelty of a foreigner is not as great in some schools. If you are in the sticks, you may receive a lot more staring, pointing and exclamations about how foreign you are (and how blue your eyes are, how blonde your hair, if you're one of those), while other kids see gaikokujin every day and aren't that surprised.

6) Your First Lesson...

This will probably be your self introduction. If your company hasn't already let you practice this ritual at training, then they suck. Perhaps you will just talk about yourself, and (more importantly in some ways) your home country. Bring photos, props, just remember that most of the kids won't understand many of the actual words you're saying but will be taken in by the shiny things. Even better, at the end let them come and look closely at the pictures and touch the props. The method that we were taught was to turn the self-intro into a quiz, so that they are guessing things about you, for example "What food do I like?"... you could make it open-ended and see what interesting answers you get, or make it multiple choice, with three colourful pictures printed out as the options. If you like something Japanese, the kids will make that wonderful "eeeeee?" sound, as of course all foreigners love cola and hamburgers, and could never possibly like green tea or okonomiyaki... go on, mess with their heads! I like to pretend that I love Doraemon and really get down with the kids.

You were nervous, so your self-intro probably lasted a lot less time than you'd anticipated. Not to worry... tell the kids to get into groups, and tell them that each group must come up with one question for you. They will talk for a good 5 minutes, making you feel as if you did not rush through your entire intro in 2 seconds. You will feel slightly as if you are being interviewed all over again when questions like "why did you come to Japan?" are asked, but just make your answers simple and fun. Hopefully the teacher will translate! Every time you do your self-intro, it will get better. You will learn what to cut out, and maybe think of more things to add. Your timing and rhythm will improve... so if you felt that the first couple of lessons went badly, don't worry! Nobody can expect you to be perfect from the first shot.

7) Your first ACTUAL lesson...

All being well, the teachers will tell you well ahead of time what you need to learn. This is not a lesson planning guide (that may come later), but just remember - over-prepare and over-simplify. You may be told at the last second that your idea is too complicated, in which case you will have another one ready instead. You may find that your game lasts 3 minutes instead of your intended 10. Speaking slowly can double the time you take to explain a game, making sure that they understand everything. However, if your job is like mine, you will mostly stand next to the main teacher, smiling, checking students' work and occasionally presenting an activity or repeating some phrases. What were you worrying about? This is easy...

There we go! And remember these key points, too:

*Say YES to the enkai/start of term party. It's not about whether you want to spend money or drink, it's about bonding with your co-workers (even if they ignore you every other day). These are expensive, about 4000-5000¥ for all you can eat and drink, but in Japan it's usually more important to get on with everyone at work than to actually do your job particularly well... or so I hear.

*Leave your Western values at the door, with your shoes. I've seen opinionated people who think that the world is owed to them (for no particular reason) crash and burn in Japan (yes, already). You are not at home, now. When people tell you how good you are at using chopsticks, humbly thank them or deny the compliment and smile... don't act as if they have massively patronised you. You are going to notice a lot of cultural differences during your time here, but the experience is made much better by being open to it.

*Be GENKI! Always smile, be bouncy, talk English to the kids whenever possible. You will soon start to suspect that you are being paid to be the token foreigner (aka clown) rather than for your actual teaching abilities, so enjoy it!

So take a deep breath, and have fun... in a few weeks you won't remember why you were so nervous!

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