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Work Day

My schedule at K-chu is even more sparse than usual this week due to exams. I had no lessons at all on Tuesday, so I was told I could come in if I want to or stay home. Let’s see—come to school and do absolutely nothing for eight hours or stay home and spend time in ways not limited to staring at my computer screen? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Yeah, I think I’ll stay home.

Interac lists these days as “Work Days” on your schedule, because the theory is that even if you’re not going to your own assigned school, hypothetically you should still be available to take a substitution assignment if one comes up. I’ve had quite a few of these Work Days and not once have I ever been called to sub, so the name always seemed the height of irony to me. “Work Day” in actuality seems to mean “Day Off”.

I got up at my normal time of 7:00 a.m. and went for a run. Normally if I want to run in the morning I’ve got to wake up an hour early but today I had the luxury of not needing the extra time to get ready. But when I got back from the jog I saw I had a missed call from Interac. Seriously? I’d missed the call by just two minutes, so I listened to the message and found that they were asking me if I’d be able to take a sub assignment for the day.

Let’s see—stay home and do the same things I can do every weekend or go off on an adventure to get a taste of a totally new school for a day? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? I called Interac and told them I could do it, and they sent me the details in an e-mail shortly thereafter.

I’d be going to an elementary school in a town near Funabashi, about three-quarters of the way to Tokyo. I was surprised they were asking me to travel so far. Even if I could have caught the 8:36 train I wouldn’t have been able to get there until 10:30 due to all the train changes. Luckily the 9:12 train got me there at the same time, so I didn’t have to rush. They said the ALT for this school has been absent five times so they really needed someone to get there without delay. Absent five times this year already? It’s barely been three months. Made me wonder if there’s something about this school that saps the teacher’s motivation to go in.

So there was some trepidation on my part as I made my way there. This school was much farther from my location than any of the four I’ve been to. It’s not out in “the sticks” as many would refer to my area. Around here it’s little pockets of town surrounded by acres of rice fields and patches of woods. But get a little further into the mainland and you enter the gargantuan concrete sea of Tokyo-suburb-world, where there’s no distinguishing where one town ends and the next begins. Perhaps in these parts the students wouldn’t be as respectful, particularly to a substitute teacher. That might make for a particularly difficult day, but at least it would massively increase my appreciation for the schools I’m currently assigned to.

I found the school from the train station easily enough thanks to a little help from my iPhone and the satellites tracking it, but the entrance was a much trickier thing to find. The school was huge and mostly surrounded by high walls, parts of which were even topped by barbed wire (though I’m pretty sure those were not part of school property). I walked around the whole building as the kids were having their recess, immediately getting a sense of how massive the student body is. This was going to be an interesting change of pace indeed.

I couldn’t find anything that looked like a standard entrance to a school, but when I got to an open gate with some people who might have been teachers nearby, I asked them in Japanese if this was the elementary school and where the entrance was. The man gave me directions in English, slowly and cautiously as though dredging up information from English lessons long ago, and I thanked him in Japanese and walked towards where he directed me. I still found nothing that resembled a real entrance, but luckily a teacher looking out the window a few floors up spotted me and told me where to go in and that I should go to the second floor. I found the second floor but didn’t know where to go from there. A teacher walking by eyed me curiously until I asked him in Japanese where the Teacher’s Room was. For a split second he must have been wondering what this foreigner was doing just wandering into an elementary school.

At least when I got to the teacher’s room, the woman in charge of the ALT was there to greet me and tell me what I’d be doing. Apparently in this school every grade gets English lessons, though fourth-grade and under only gets them in short 20-minute bursts once a week. Tuesday is the day for second and fourth grade, so I’d be taking over those lessons. Because I’d missed the first two periods, they’d be combining four second-grade classes into two and I’d be teaching them first. The material was actions—things like “sit down”, “stand up”, “turn around”, “jump”, “spin”, etc—and they had flashcards prepared but said I was welcome to use my own games if I wanted. I explained that I’d never taught students below 5th-grade before, which she naturally found surprising. I asked if the students knew the numbers 1-10 because I’d brought my materials from the other elementary schools and they were learning numbers, but she said they didn’t. So apparently I’d just have to wing it.

I was brought down to the English room, a normal-sized classroom only completely devoid of desks and chairs. The teacher found the flashcards for the lessons I’d be teaching and showed them to me, as I read the Interac lesson-plan they’d printed out telling me in unclear and poorly-written directions how I was supposed to use them.

But before I could even begin to visualize it, the lesson time was starting. One full-size class of second-graders was led into the room followed by another. They sat down while the teacher who’d greeted me explained to the homeroom teachers that I hadn’t taught this before and she used what little English she had to try and explain the game I should play. That was as much preparation as I was going to get. She gestured to the students, indicating that it was time for me to begin.

So this is an interesting moment. I could have been on the couch watching old football games in the comfort of my apartment. Now here I am in front of more than 60 eight-year olds being prompted to conduct a lesson without a moment’s preparation, having no experience or even training with this kind of teaching. Well…nothing like diving straight into the deep end.

I greet the class with an enthusiastic “hello!” Instantly the intimidating sea of staring faces transforms into a beacon of warmth radiating at me as they return the greeting. I say “hello” again in a high pitched voice, and laughter accompanies the repetition. “Hello” in a low pitched voice, and they mimic the change in tone. Taking control of a classroom, it seems, is actually quite simple. “Hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello,” they repeat. “Hello hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello hello,” they repeat with a chuckle. “Hellohellohellohellohellohellohello,” I bellow while waving frantically, and they’re only too happy to mimic me.

So that’s the easy part. Next I have to do a brief self-introduction. Luckily I’ve done this many times and it doesn’t really matter what age the kids are. I tell them my name and have them guess where I’m from and how old I am. All the kids are wearing big name-tags so it’s easy to call on students, and when some kids guess ridiculous things like I’m from Brazil or Africa, or that I’m 13-years-old or 100-years-old, it keeps the students laughing.

Now I go to the flashcards, and find that this part teaches itself. Luckily this is just a review for the students, so they already know every card and the action it signifies. I get them to stand up, turn around, walk, run, jump, spin, and all that stuff, of course joining in and looking as silly as possible in the process. For “hands up” and “hands down” I have them do this with increased rapidity until we’re all flapping our arms, which they get a kick out of. And since one of the actions is “Be quiet” I come up with the idea of first making lots of noise and then suddenly shouting “Be quiet!” to bring everyone to silence as instantly as possible. There might be nothing more that young kids love than being prompted to start yelling and screaming wildly.

I think my best preparation for this wasn’t any kind of training, but my brief stint with improv comedy back in high school. While I’ve recognized before that I’m implementing many of the principles of improv into my teaching, nowhere was it as apparent as this. Throughout the day I’d be coming up with and trying out ideas on the spot constantly, then repeating what works in the next lesson and discarding or altering what doesn’t. One of the best ideas I came up with came in the second lesson, when after I finished the first round of actions with “sit down” I had us run through them all again, doing things like spinning and walking while sitting down.

The game itself was as simple as it gets. I’d show one row of students a flashcard and prompt them to make the gesture, then the rest of the students would guess it. I would never have done such a simple and mindless game on my own, but it was all I could do with a room of that many students and no time to come up with something better. But by that point the students were already having a great time and had an absolute blast even with the most basic, can-barely-be-called-a-game-at-all game ever. Once all the students had had a chance, if there was any time left I’d have half the students gesture for the other but show them three cards at a time, and later I came up with pitting one half of the class against the other by having a volunteer come and do three gestures for each side, which made it a bit more of a proper game only the students were all perfect so it ended in a tie every time.

In any case, those second-grade classes were an absolute blast for everyone involved, probably myself most of all. Being only twenty-minutes, they were over in a flash but I gave it my all every time and the teachers seemed to recognize this. I have no idea how their normal ALT does it, but the students’ reaction to me suggests it’s not quite as enthusiastically. A part of me felt a slight twinge of guilt that maybe I shouldn’t be doing such a good job as a substitute (after all that’s exactly what I was worried my sub would do when I was stuck in America) but I found that I just couldn’t turn it off or tune it down when I was in front of those kids. Their enthusiasm gave me energy and the more they responded the more I wanted to give. By the end of the third and final second-grade class period (which was just a single class so only about 30 students) I was already exhausted, but exhilarated as well. This was about a thousand times more fun than anything I’d have been doing at home, not to mention a massive learning experience.

Next there was to be one fourth-grade lesson, followed by lunch and the remaining 4 fourth-grade lessons afterwards. The physical difference between the 8 and 10-year-olds was noticeable, but the enthusiasm level was practically the same. The “hello hello” opening worked just as well, and the self-introduction just as smoothly. The material wasn’t much different either—just activities rather than actions. Things like “I wake up”, “I go to school”, “I brush my teeth”, “I watch TV” and so on. I’d have them say the activities on the flashcards and repeat a couple times using every funny voice at my disposal, then I’d play the same sort of gesture game only dividing each class in two and giving double-points to the first team to guess their team’s gesture. In the afternoon I experimented with other various things like having volunteers do gestures for the whole class first, letting the first person to guess do the next gesture. And in lieu of or in addition to the gesture game I’d have the students compete by drawing pictures of the activities on the blackboard. The entire experience was filled with laughter, cheers, and students enthusiastically raising their hands with more eagerness to be called on than I’ve ever seen before.

At lunch time, the teacher who originally greeted me came back to the English room to ask if I wanted to eat lunch there, in the Teacher’s Room, or in her classroom. Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Well, it almost is, but as tired as I am I only get one day at this school so I might as well interact with as many students as possible. She was a 1st-grade teacher so her students were as young as it gets, most of whom still had missing teeth. I’ve actually eaten with 1st-graders once before at M-sho, where they have me cycle my lunch between all the grades and not just 5th and 6th, but there it was a combined 1st-and-2nd-grade class that still had only twelve students altogether while this was a full-on at-capacity 35-student classroom. At least a dozen of the kids were keen on talking to me, so I had to push my Japanese-chatting skills to the limit and still failed to understand much of what they were saying. But with kids that young non-verbal interaction is perfectly fine, as nothing more than a funny face can almost always generate a smile.

The normal ALT doesn’t order school lunch so I had to bring my own, nothing more than a little rice-and-seaweed snack from a train-station convenience stand, so I finished very quickly and watched the rest of them eat and play with their food the whole time. When the lunch period was over I headed back to the English room where I thought I’d get a few moments to myself.

A few moments was all I had, as a handful of students from earlier classes came in to hang out. There were a couple of strings with various flags from different countries hanging from the ceiling, so I played a simple game where I called the name of the country and the kids would have to jump up and touch the right flag, sometimes having to guess a few times before they got it right. Unfortunately I barely recognized a quarter of the flags myself, so this game was pretty limited.

After that it was cleaning time so I did get some relative peace as I did my Japanese flashcards on my laptop and the kids assigned to clean the English room did their thing.

The afternoon lessons started at 1:45 and lasted until about 3:00, twenty-minute lessons interspersed with five-minute breaks in which I’d reorganize the flashcards and see how many of the students’ names from the previous lesson I could remember. Over the course of the day I’d met with 10 classes total, and with about 30 students in each class that made for over 300 students I’d met and known for 20 minutes before saying goodbye forever. I must have made a minuscule impression on all of them, and quite a few of them made a minuscule impression on me. Some students just really stand out no matter what, always raising their hand to volunteer or get called on even if I’d already done so multiple times. I’d always try to call on as many different students as possible, constantly scanning for hands I hadn’t called on yet, but some students were so eager and excited that I couldn’t help but call on them multiple times. Occasionally I’d call on a student who’d make a mistake and embarrass themselves, and I’d always try to remember to give them another chance. One girl seemed absolutely devastated when she got an answer wrong but I made sure she got two more things right over the course of the lesson and by the end she was just as happy as everyone else. My only big regret was when one team lost the game and I let them leave feeling dejected. I made sure to give the next team that lost a nice happy cheer in spite of it at the end to let them leave feeling like they still had a good time.

When I’d finally finished my last lesson I headed back to the teacher’s room and was glad to find the 1st-grade teacher who’d invited me to lunch with her class there and ready to help me get the appropriate form and stamp I needed. I’ll submit the paper with my actual pay sheets at the end of the month but I don’t think I actually need to. It was pretty ironic to think I’d have been paid exactly the same for the day if I’d stayed home.

On my way out the teacher asked me where I was coming from and was shocked when she heard it was as far away as Togane. She told me she heard from other teachers that my Japanese was very good and I was a skilled teacher, which is always nice to hear. After that I bid her farewell and began the long journey home.

Overall, taking the sub assignment was clearly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as it wasn’t just incredibly fun but also a tremendous learning opportunity. I got to see what a truly large elementary school—982 students total as I found out—is like, and what it’s like to teach in a more urban area. I got a good impression of what teaching younger kids is like, and while it was undeniably fun I’m not sure I’d want to do it every single day. It’s no wonder the normal ALT—yet another girl from Jamaica as I found out—has called out so many times. It’s exhausting, and if you’re sick it’s got to be nearly impossible to keep up the energy.

But even so, a part of me thinks I might prefer it to my current assignment. The big problem with my current assignment is I’ve only got 10 classes spread across three schools, so most of my time isn’t spent teaching at all but merely preparing for lessons or just finding ways to keep busy. The full-time elementary assignment may be draining but at least you’re always busy, and most of the lessons are quick and simple enough that you barely need to prepare anyway. And while the 5th and 6th grade lessons are the full-period and would require preparation, there being five classes in each grade would allow you to work out all the kinks by the time you’re done. Now I only teach those lessons two or three times each, which isn’t really enough to perfect them.

All that aside, the warmth of the students is still the biggest factor in my thinking. I can’t yet say definitively because as of now I’ve still only set foot in 5 schools total, but it seems that the larger the class-size the better, as counter-intuitive as that may be. Smaller classes tend to be quieter and more subdued, which I’m sure makes for a better learning environment but not a more enthusiastic one. Classes at Togane Chu were all about 30 students and they varied in enthusiasm, but these days I’ve got classes as low as 16 students and those are all the most quiet and least enthusiastic, even the elementary schools. At Togane Chu the 2nd-graders were generally the least enthusiastic but the 2nd-grade class as K-chu is the biggest in the school at 30 students and the warmest class of all. The 5th-grade class at M-sho is only 17 students and extremely quiet, while the 5th-grade class at H-sho is my biggest group—35-students—and also the most enthusiastic by far. The 6th-grade classes at both M-sho and H-sho are 20 students each and all three are about as quiet as each other. The 35-student class at H-sho is my favorite class of all the schools, and almost every class at the school I subbed at yesterday was like that class.

In many ways, the hardest part of the day wasn’t figuring out how to do the lessons on-the-fly, but saying goodbye to the students when it was over. With groups that big, there are always about a dozen or so students who are super excited to meet you and anxious to rush up and shake hands or exchange high-fives at the end. Students wave and make faces at you as they say goodbye, laughing when you mimic them. You want to get to know them better, to exchange those priceless little moments all year long, but it’s a sub assignment and the odds of having a Work Day on the same day their teacher calls out again (and that it would be on a Tuesday) are infinitesimal.

One girl took both my hands before leaving the room and did a little dance with me, delighted when I played along. She kept waving goodbye and saying “See you!” as she walked away and finally “See you tomorrow!” before disappearing out of sight. It nearly broke my heart in half. I’m so sorry, you adorable precious little person, but you won’t see me tomorrow. You’ll never see me again for the rest of your life.

There wasn’t even that kind of finality when it came to this past years’ graduation—I at least still live in the same town as those kids and do in fact run into them all the time. But the kids from Funabashi aren’t likely to be going shopping in Togane any time soon.

One very real consequence of the day, however, is that I’ve now already pretty much made up my mind to request a change of assignments again next year. I’d been wondering whether or not I’d want to stay on in this situation since I started it. About three months in I can already state definitively that I preferred my assignment at Togane Chu. The school was bigger so the students were friendlier and the days were busier, and on top of that the teachers were more helpful. The only thing better about this year is I get the added variety of elementary-school teaching, but 4 of my 5 elementary classes are actually rather cold and dull when I look at them in comparison to the classes I taught yesterday. The only thing I’ll miss when transferring that I was looking forward to is seeing my current elementary school 6th-graders become middle-school 1st-graders. It’ll be tough to say goodbye to some of them, but in the end I’d rather move on to a completely new batch of students, and I’ll specifically request that it be a big school. I’ve already pondered the idea of specifically requesting the school I taught at yesterday if its current ALT switches next year, but I’m hoping to sub at a few more schools throughout the course of the year to get a better idea of where I’d be happiest. Hopefully I’ll get to try a high school or two as well.

This morning I sent an e-mail to Interac letting them know I enjoyed the sub assignment and I’d like to have more of them. I didn’t get a response but we’ll see what happens. I’d never been called to sub before but they sounded surprised when I agreed to, so now maybe they’ll move me up on the list of who to call when they’re in a pinch. I just need more Work Days.

I had my M-sho classes this morning, and I felt compelled to try and tell them about my experience yesterday. I did my best to explain in Japanese that I’d taught for one day at a school of a thousand students, that I taught over 300 students, twenty-minutes at a time, met them, taught them, then said goodbye forever. I tried to convey that I was happy to see them and glad that I had a whole year together with them, trying to express the same sort of message I did in my farewell speech to the Togane Chu students but now instead of waiting until the end of the year to let them know I appreciate them (even if they are rather quiet). I didn’t have O-sensei to help me translate so it was a struggle. Luckily the 5th-grade teacher was able to tell what I was getting at and helped me explain, and those kids at least got and appreciated my message and were perhaps a little warmer today because of it. But the 6th grade teacher was just confused and the whole thing fell flat. I tried one more time with a 1st-grade junior high class this afternoon and the benefit of practice helped me get my first points across but not the important stuff about appreciating the chance to get to know them. Of course I got no help from W-sensei (she seemed perplexed by the whole thing) but I think maybe a few students might have gotten some sense of what I was getting at. Still, the rest of the lesson was cold and almost completely devoid of excitement and a part of me couldn’t help but think that next school year can’t come fast enough.

It was quite an experience yesterday. To meet 300 people in batches of 35-70 each for just 20 minutes at a time, then say goodbye forever. Somehow it was enough that I know I’ll always remember some of them. I wonder if any of them will remember me.

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