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Expanding Horizons

April 3rd, 2013 No comments

The long month of endless goodbyes is finally over, and the month of abundant hellos has begun. I introduced myself to all three of my new schools yesterday, and thereby quadrupled the number of Japanese schools I’ve ever set foot in.

A woman named Takahashi from the Interac Chiba office picked me up at 9:30 yesterday morning and drove me to the schools. The first school was an elementary school about 10 km away. This school is the reason I really need a car—it’s practically over a mountain. It’ll probably take me about 45 minutes to bike there, and I’ll be drenched in sweat by the end.

The Japanese word for elementary school is shogakkou (‘sho’ [小] meaning ‘small’ and ‘gakkou’ [学校] meaning ‘school’), so I’ll refer to this one as “M-sho”. M-sho is extremely tiny, with only about 20 students per grade. That means it’ll not only be the smallest school I’ve taught at, but the smallest classroom size as well. It should be interesting.

When we arrived, Takahashi-san was more nervous than I was. I’d only done this once before but at this point I’m fairly confident in my ability to make a good impression on people. I was more curious than anything else—this being only the second Japanese school I’d ever been to.

We were greeted by the principal and vice principal when we arrived and taken to the meeting room. Takahashi-san made her formal greeting, then I was asked to come to the teacher’s room and introduce myself to the faculty—only about fifteen people. Takahashi-san had asked me to prepare a self-introduction, but she hadn’t expected me to memorize an entire miniature speech in Japanese.

“People of M-sho, konnichiwa. I’m Kyle. I’m from New York state, America. I’m 29 years old. From 2008 to 2011 I taught adults in Germany. I came to Japan in August of 2011. Until now, I’ve been working at Togane Chugakkou. I love teaching kids. I’m looking forward to working with the faculty of M-sho. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

After my epic mega-speech at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony, this was a piece of cake for me, but it was enough to serve the purpose. The faculty gave me a round of applause and complimented me on my Japanese. The principal told Takahashi-san he was very impressed, and the vice principal gave me a “good job!” in English.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Takahashi-san and the two top administrators went over a bunch of details of the contract. They asked me if I wanted to order school lunch, and they said they’d like me to eat lunch with the students on days when I’m there—something I’d never been asked to do at Togane Chu but which I’m rather looking forward to.

A little cultural tid-bit: coffee was poured for me and Takahashi-san, and the principal kept gesturing to it with a “douzo” (a word for offering something). I don’t drink coffee because caffeine doesn’t agree with me at all, but I remembered from all the way back in Narita training that you’re not supposed to drink the first time you’re offered something anyway. Japanese people typically wait until the second or third time it’s offered. I was able to hold out until about the fifth time, at which point I figured I might now be appearing ungrateful so I took a symbolic sip.

On the way out, I asked Takahashi-san to find out if there was somewhere I could change into my suit when I arrive, as if I do end up having to bike there I’m going to be sweating like a pig by the time I arrive. She explained my concern and they told me I can have a locker.

When we left, the entire faculty came out of the teacher’s room to see us off. It seems like that’s going to be a really warm and friendly work environment.

I’ll only be working there Wednesday mornings, and the other elementary school on Friday mornings. My main school will be K-chu, the junior high school, which was our next stop.

Our appointment there was for 11:00 but we arrived at 10:40. It’s Japanese custom to be early, but apparently it’s also bad form to be too early, so we sat in the car for fifteen minutes and had a nice chat. Takahashi-san is incredibly nice, and I found her nervousness rather charming. When we noticed someone up in the teacher’s room looking into the car, she took out her bag and pretended to be sorting through things, lest she give them the impression we were just sitting there.

When the time came, we headed up the stairs to the main entrance of the building. K-chu is a much newer school than Togane Chu, and looks almost like a nice hotel from the outside, with balconies outside every classroom. The inside looks much more clean and modern as well.

The first person to greet us when we arrived was S-sensei, my old vice principal. I joked with him that it was “long time no see”, and he brought us into his office. It felt very strange to be in this unfamiliar building but have that very familiar face there the whole time. I could almost imagine the rest of the old Togane Chu faculty just beyond the door as well.

This time, there was no introduction in front of everyone. Only two women came to the room to go over details with Takahashi-san, and she asked me to give my speech to them. S-sensei said, “again?” and told them how I’d also made speeches in Japanese at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony and enkai, so it was no surprise to him that I had yet another one.

I’m not exactly sure whether the women were JTEs or just faculty members. One of them, I was later told, is the teacher in charge of the ALT so I assume she’s an English teacher, but she didn’t speak any English to me so I’m not sure. It’s entirely possible she’s an English teacher who doesn’t speak English—those are apparently quite common in Japan, and the fact that Togane Chu’s English teachers all spoke great English might have been a rare case. Certainly when it comes to the elementary schools I shouldn’t expect anyone to speak English, so that will be interesting, but hopefully at least one person at my main school will speak enough to help me out when I’ve got questions. (Though if not, being forced to speak a lot more Japanese is actually a good thing).

The one question I had at this meeting was regarding my after-school activities: playing games with students and running the “Kyle-store”. I’d told Takahashi-san about it before and she explained it to the teachers there. I’d brought some Kyle-dollars to show them, and my self-made deck of cards. Luckily, S-sensei was already well familiar with the idea and it was agreed I’d be able to do this “when circumstances allow”.

Once that meeting was over they brought us into the teacher’s room where I got my first look at where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year. It looks just like the teacher’s room at Togane Chu but half the size and more modern. My desk is in the back corner facing the window, and looks like a nice spot. The teacher across and one seat to the left of me is the head English teacher. I met him and exchanged the standard Japanese greetings, but he didn’t speak English to me either. He’s the only person I met yesterday that I know for sure I’ll be doing lessons with, and he seemed like a nice, good-humored guy.

After that, we had just one more school to visit. This elementary school, H-sho, is only a five-minute drive from K-chu and it’s where I’ll be spending my Friday mornings. The faculty waved to us from the teacher’s room as we were entering, and we were greeted very warmly at the door by the “headmaster” (not sure if that’s the same thing as a “principal”) and the teacher in charge of the ALT. They spoke a few words of English but they’re clearly far from fluent.

We were taken to the teacher’s room and seated in some comfortable chairs there. When Takahashi-san told them I had a speech prepared, they actually stood us up and interrupted everyone in the midst of their work, telling them the new ALT would like to introduce himself. I went through the speech again, this time in front of an audience of about 25. The reception was overwhelmingly positive this time as well, and I was complimented heartily by the headmaster.

The rest of the little meeting went just like the others, and I found out I’ll be eating lunch with students here too. The headmaster said they have the best school lunch in Japan, and while I’ve heard every school makes the same boast, they said at their school it’s actually a lunch menu you can choose from, which sounds awesome. I won’t have to pick around the beef and pork at this school!

But the most excellent surprise of the day came when one of the teachers came up to introduce herself to me and told me who she was. K-sensei is the mother of one of my students from Togane Chu.], but not just any student—my favorite student! I could hardly believe it. Of all 600 students (800 if you count last year’s graduates), I’ll actually be working with the mother of the one I liked the most!

She and the two men we’d had the meeting with saw us to the exit and wished us a good day. I’ve been invited to that school’s opening ceremony for new teachers on Friday, which I fully intend to go to even though it’s outside the contract.

I only might not be able to attend if I pass the driving test tomorrow and have to get a car on Friday, though I can probably do both things in one day. (But it’s far more likely I’ll fail the test again anyway.)

So now I’ve seen the schools I’ll be working at this year, and I’m extremely pleased that they all seem so pleasant. Ironically, the one school where I received the least warm greeting is the school I’ll be spending most of my time, but we’ll see how it goes once I’ve given my self-introduction to the whole school.

In any case, I know I made a very good impression on everyone I had a chance to, which was the main purpose of the day. But I think the person I made the best impression on overall was Takahashi-san. She was extremely grateful to me for memorizing that speech, as it made her and Interac look good as well. She found it wonderful that I actually like to stay after school and communicate with students, as most ALTs just want to go home right away. And when we were getting close to my apartment I pulled down my window to call a Togane Chu student passing by on her bike by name, and Takahashi-san found out I’d learned all 600 of my student’s names. Before she dropped me off she told me I should be a real full-time teacher, not an ALT.

I’ve been imagining going back to America and teaching there at some point, but who knows? Maybe I’ll just stay in Japan and become a real teacher here. I doubt it, but it definitely does have a place on my list of possible futures.