When my alarm woke me up Monday morning I couldn’t believe I was actually about to go into school. I went through the normal morning routine with my mind in a complete haze, the effects of last night’s alcohol consumption still far from having worn off. Not exactly the best state-of-mind for meeting a bunch of new colleagues, but at least the bulk of the morning would be spent at the opening ceremony, which would require almost no brain-power at all.
Most students arrive before 8:00 but some don’t get in until 8:30, which is the time I’m supposed to get there. As I was walking in at 8:25 some first-graders were riding in on their bikes. Unfamiliar faces. We’re not on “hello” terms yet. Ever since Friday I’ve been seeing kids in that uniform out and about (I think that was an orientation day) and while I could always exchange a wave and a smile with any kid in that uniform, now I never know until we’re right up close whether or not they know me. I’ve definitely waved to a few students who didn’t wave back and must have been wondering why that gaijin was waving at them.
So the students I saw on the way in were unfamiliar, as were the teachers standing outside to guide them in. When I got inside and into the teachers room, I was confronted with even more unfamiliar faces, a deeply unsettling feeling (especially in my hazy state of mind), and when I saw another teacher’s stuff all over my desk I almost wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong school. Luckily T-sensei was there to greet me and show me to my desk’s new location, now at the corner of the first-grade teachers’ section as opposed to the second-grade section, and facing the window instead of the wall.
The moment I looked to the front of the room and saw a tall and intimidating-looking new vice-principal in Ta-sensei’s old seat, that’s when it really hit me. The last school-year took so long to end that when it finally ended it didn’t even feel like an ending. But this was it. The new year is under way. The old year is gone, over, finished, buried in the past forever. I badly miss Y-sensei already.
The whole morning felt like I’d stumbled through some kind of portal to an alternate dimension and came out in Bizarro World. Everything was the same but different. The building was the same but half the people were different (technically it was only a third, but it felt like half). The teacher’s room was the same but everyone’s place had shifted around. The student’s uniforms were the same but a third of their faces I don’t recognize.
Even my neighbor in the teacher’s room had changed—it’s no longer T-sensei but a new part-time teacher, O-sensei. She was the first new teacher I met, introducing herself as my new neighbor when she sat down. We exchanged brief pleasantries but didn’t talk much because she had other things to do. I was glad to be left alone, considering my terribly cloudy head. Suddenly I was in a position of having to make a first impression all over again, and I wasn’t nearly as capable of making a good one as I would have liked.
At least not all changes are painful: The replacement for Y-, the super-cute young woman secretary, is another super-cute young woman. But unfortunately, my desk no longer faces hers.
At 9:15 I went to the gym for the opening ceremony, which could be described as “bizarro graduation”. Like the graduation ceremony, there were parents seated in the middle, but they were the parents of the new first-graders. The old first-graders were now second-graders and seated immediately behind them, with the second-now-third-graders sitting in the back. A few of the third-grade boys waved at me when I came in. Ah, familiar students’ faces. How refreshing.
I took my seat in the teachers’ section in the front-right corner of the room, and at 9:25 the new first-graders entered ceremoniously and took their seats in the front section. It felt strange to think that three years from now, those same students and parents will be in those same positions for the official ending of what was officially beginning today.
The ceremony itself was pretty typical. Everyone stand up, sing the school song, hear a speech from the principal, speech from the PTA president, someone from the board of education, and one welcome speech from the third-graders to the first-graders, delivered by none other than M- from the Speech Contest. It was nice to see she’d gotten that honor.
After all the speeches, it was time for the principal to introduce the teachers, starting with the homeroom teachers who lined up in the order of their grades and classes in the front of the gym and stepped forward one at a time as the principal called out their names. They’d take a bow and say “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, the standard formal Japanese greeting. A few of the popular teachers got random applause from some of the students in the back.
When it was time for the part-timers and random faculty members to introduce themselves I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go up there too, but after they’d all lined up someone indicated to me that I should too so I took my place at the end of the line and scanned the giant group of new faces before me. I was glad I didn’t have to make an introduction speech like I had at my first assembly back in September, but at the same time a part of me wishes I could because I’d been able to hook the students in right away with my jokes and Obama pictures. The students were all clamoring to see me after that, but these new first-graders won’t get to find out how frickin’ awesome I am until our first lesson.
When the principal called my name I just waved and said, “Hello, everyone” then bowed and gave them my best yoroshiku onegaishimasu. There was an amusing murmur of approval from the girls’ section in the back, as apparently a bunch of them were surprised at how good my Japanese sounded. But I have to confess I felt a little disappointed that nobody clapped for me. Some of the boys had clapped for the new cute secretary, which everyone found amusing but I think made her uncomfortable.
But I got a few more smiles and waves as the second- and third-graders filed out while I stood at the side of the gym exchanging a few more words with O-sensei. A lot of these kids had seen me drunk the previous evening, which was crazy to think about. One of them, a third-grader named K-, made the loudest burst of a giggle I’ve ever heard when she saw me.
Once the only people left in the gym were the first-graders, their parents, and a few teachers and faculty members, I left and went back to the teacher’s room. I called Interac because at this point I had no idea what I was supposed to do. They still hadn’t sent me a schedule (even today they still haven’t) so I didn’t know if I was supposed to stay the rest of the day and come in every day this week, or if I was to go home and not return to the school until regular classes begin.
Kono told me I could probably go home, but she’d confirm it with a faculty member just to be safe. She called but at that time everyone was busy and there was nobody available to answer her, so she told me to wait and she’d try again in an hour. I had the most overwhelming desire to go home and sleep off the rest of this hangover, but I had a few things to do on my computer anyway so I stayed and did them.
During this time I met K-sensei, the new male teacher Dan had told me about at the hanami. As Dan had described, he struck me as a very friendly, very down-to-earth and uncharacteristically-for-Japanese easygoing person. He told me he really likes to practice speaking English, and he asked me a few things about my living arrangements and what I think of the Togane area. I knew I wasn’t making as good of an impression as I could, but I think it went OK. I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to ask him anything about what he would expect out of me in our lessons together and how much control he’d be willing to give me. But I definitely got the impression that if I ask for more control over the lessons, he wouldn’t refuse. Most of the teachers who use their ALTs as human tape-recordings are the kind who don’t like foreigners and are bitter about having to share the job they took years of school for with some gaijin who barely had any training at all.
So two out of the four new JTEs seemed OK. I didn’t meet the other two. When an hour had gone by since Kono had first called the school, I decided to give her another ten minutes, but just then T-sensei came up to me and said I could probably go home. I explained about my previous phone call to Kono and that I also didn’t know if I was supposed to come in the rest of the week. O-sensei had informed me earlier that the first week is all preparation and normal classes don’t start until Tuesday (this week school is open on Saturday but closed Monday). T-sensei called Interac and after a conversation that seemed to go on much longer than I’d assumed it had to, she handed the phone to me and Kono told me I could go home and not return to the school until Tuesday, though I had to stay in my apartment until 10:00 every morning and be “on call” on the infinitesimal chance they’d need me for something.
Had I not been hungover and deeply tired, I almost certainly would have stayed anyway and introduced myself to the other teachers and talked about what to expect from our lessons this year, but at that point I just wanted to go home and pass out. Besides, they weren’t serving school lunch and I hadn’t brought anything to eat. So I wished everyone a goodbye and left, figuring that my Spring Vacation had just been extended another week.
But over the rest of the day a feeling of regret began to grow. I’d failed to make a good first impression with my new colleagues, and that could be a big mistake if I want them to trust me with more control over lessons. If I was just the guy who showed up the morning of the opening ceremony and then went merrily back on vacation until the following week, I’d be confirming all their stereotypes about lazy Americans.
So on Tuesday morning I wrote an e-mail to Interac asking if I could go in one day this week to meet the new English teachers and discuss the lessons for the year, as well as make my preparations for next week’s lessons. I got no reply all day, but at 7:00 in the evening my phone rang and it was Kudo, who is now apparently the new Interac contact for Togane instead of Kono. More bizarro crap—same company, different contact. Can nothing stay the same?
Anyway, Kudo told me he’d spoken with my school’s vice-principal (I don’t know if it was the new one or the old one) and he’d said I was free to drop in any time I wanted this week. I wouldn’t be able to meet with all the English teachers at once but I could meet with them individually whenever they had time. That’s all I’d expected anyway. He also said he wants to come with me to the school on Friday at 1:00 p.m. so he can introduce himself to the administrators and JTEs.
So I resolved to make the following day a bit of a damage-control operation, to repair the less-than-stellar first-impression-performance I’d made on Monday. I got up early Wednesday morning and went into school at 8:00—a half-hour before I’m supposed to be there when I am supposed to be there—and marched into the teacher’s room to greet everyone. T-sensei was surprised to see me and I told her what I was doing there. She didn’t have much time because she had to get to her homeroom (she didn’t have one last year but now she’s in charge of 3-5, formerly 2-5, a great class), but told me the first lesson for the third-graders wouldn’t be a textbook lesson but to just come up with some kind of conversation practice game. Very vague, but that’s how I like it. At least with T-sensei I know I’ll have nearly total control over my lessons, and since she’s now teaching 4 out of the 6 third-grade classes that suits me perfectly because they’re my favorites (they were actually my favorites last year too when they were second-graders—don’t know why).
K-sensei was also pleasantly surprised to see me, but he said he had no time that day to meet with me but maybe Friday. I’m glad I was able to demonstrate my professionalism to him by coming in when I didn’t have to, but I won’t know until Friday what I should expect out of lessons with him. He’s teaching mostly first-grade (they’ve actually made him the senior first-grade teacher) but one third-grade class as well, so it should be very interesting to see the differences in his approach to older students.
Going into work when I didn’t have to was clearly an excellent move on my part. The old vice principal noticed and greeted me enthusiastically, obviously impressed. As a bonus I even got a super-warm greeting from the new cute secretary, who gave me the impression that it wasn’t just niceness alone (as it had always been with Y-) but that maybe she likes me. Hmmm…
Naturally, O-sensei was also impressed that I’d come in, and she was the first to have time to talk with me because she’s only part-time and has very little to do this week. This was when I really started to feel better about all these changes, as while I didn’t think it was possible O-sensei might be an even more helpful neighbor than T-sensei. She started off by going through every incomprehensible sheet of paper that had been left on my desk and explaining what each of them were: a schedule for this, a memo about that, etc. One was an invitation to a welcome party being thrown by the PTA this Saturday at 5:00 p.m. I’m not sure if it’s an enkai but I’ll most definitely be going no matter what. I want to get comfortable with all these new people a.s.a.p.
O-sensei is doing first-grade classes so my self-introduction will be the first lesson with her, and I told her what I’d done for that lesson last year and she thought it was fine. The only thing is, by the time I had my intro with the first-graders last year they’d already been studying JHS-level English for four months. These new first-graders know only basic elementary-school stuff like colors, numbers, and a few simple phrases. They haven’t even learned the alphabet yet.
It was O-sensei who showed me the schedule for all the teachers and translated all their Kanji names to roman letters for me so I could see who teaches which class when. She even took a print-out showing the layout of the teacher’s room and where each teacher was sitting and wrote their roman-letter names on that too. There were two JTEs I hadn’t met yet, one part-timer who would be “team-teaching” in all the third-grade classes (I assume that means standing quietly in the back and helping only when needed), and a full-timer in charge of all the second-grade English classes.
I introduced myself to the team-teacher (her name escapes me) and when I asked her if she had some time to speak about this year’s lessons and she clearly didn’t understand me, I realized her English might be the weakest of any JTE I’ve worked with so far. She seems nice though, younger than me and a little shy, but with a really cute voice.
The second-grade JTE is another T-sensei, so from this point on I’ll have to start referring to the old T-sensei (formerly “Mrs. T-”) as Te-sensei and the new one as To-sensei. When I first went up to her at the beginning of the day, To-sensei said she’d meet me during second-period. That meeting strengthened my relief, as she struck me as another substantially pleasant person to work with. She showed me that our first lesson together would be to teach a few words in simple past tense (they don’t start learning past tense until grade 2 of JHS) and asked me if I could come up with a game for it. Music to my ears. Games happen to be my specialty. Perhaps somebody had told her this. But I also explained to her that I love teaching, I plan to be a teacher my whole life, and that any opportunity I can have to do the whole lesson including the presentation phase would be great. She thought that was wonderful.
I also explained a couple of new ideas I have for classes this year, including teaching one useful English phrase at the end of every lesson. I’m getting tired of “see you!” and “long time no see!” as the only English expressions these kids ever say, so I want to supply them with more. And of course, I brought up my idea for after-school communication practice, with thankfully Te-sensei had already told her about. I explained to her exactly what I had in mind because I’ll probably need her help translating for the students.
Finally, I asked for her help with one more thing—determining which students were in which class for the sake of my name-cards. With 600 students, the only way to have the names of every student in a class fresh in my mind is to study the cards for that class before going. Now that the classes are different I have to rearrange the cards. Second to third grade is easy: 2-1 is now 3-1, 2-2 is now 3-2, and so on. But they mix up all the first-grade students and put them in different classes their second year, which presents me with the tedious task of figuring out where all of them went. To-sensei and O-sensei both thought my name-card strategy was fantastic, as they too have trouble learning the kids’ names. The list of which students were in which class this year was easy enough to find, but it was somewhat trickier to get a list of which class they’d been in last year. Both lists had the names in Kanji but with the hiragana pronunciation as well, so I could read them. Matching one Japanese name on a list of 200 to the name on another list of 200 is a tedious task, only made simpler by the fact that I’d already learned these names and knew whether to look for a boy or a girl. Still, I only finished off one class (determining where everyone from 1-1 had gone) before putting that task to the side for school-lunch, my first of the year…another benefit of having gone into work.
I left after lunch, telling everyone I’d be back on Friday at 1:00 p.m. with my boss from Interac, but I actually plan to go in tomorrow morning like a normal day and finish the stuff I was working on. I’d thought I might do that after Kudo’s introductions but I’d rather have the afternoon.
So that’s the start of the new school-year. It was extremely unsettling at first to have new colleagues, new students, a new desk-location, and so on. But after going in yesterday and talking to my new colleagues I already feel much better. It seems I’ve gotten lucky two years in a row, and probably (knock on wood) not have any problems with my fellow English teachers as so many ALTs do.
One last thing—when talking about my self-introduction lesson with O-sensei, she asked me if it was true that I’d lived in Germany for three years. It turned out she spent 8 years in Düsseldorf. I immediately asked her, “Sprechen sie Deutsch” and she said “Ein bisschen” and we continued a brief little exchange in German which I found delightful. I told her we’d have to bust out the German with our students sometime and she agreed. It’s going to be very easy to get along with her.
As for those first-grade students, they are the final hurdle before I can consider myself officially settled into the new school-year. I’m already sick and tired of spotting uniformed students out in the wild and not knowing whether or not to greet them. Though I did discover a way around it while riding my bike on Tuesday: just shout the school’s name at them as you pass by and give them a wave, and they’ll usually wave back whether or not they recognize you. Still, I can’t wait until I’m acquainted with all of them, when I’ve got all 200 of their names onto cards and into my brain. Then the school-year will really be rolling, and this time I’ll have an entire years’ worth of it to enjoy.