In 2008, I was an interning primary school teacher at a nominally bilingual private school in the quiet Ojin Town neighbourhood of Tokushima City, in Tokushima Prefecture, on the charming, picturesque, friendly island of Shikoku, in the fine country of Japan.
Now that I am back in Canada, I am finding that it is not as easy to process my experience as I had supposed. Perhaps all my grey matter has leaked into my hair. A lot of people say that the first year of teaching is the toughest. I have to agree. It takes time to learn how to think in three dimensions and how to anticipate challenges and setbacks before they happen. It takes experience to become efficient and effective. I’ve never been to teacher’s school, but having learned on the firing line that was my job, I feel that, say, a two-year post-degree education programme is at the same time far too long and far too short.
As I begin to write this report on a Sunday night, it is the start of a whole new workweek in Japan. At 7:34am Monday morning the trains and streets are busy, and the people are going back to their jobs – including my old job. As I type through the top of the hour, my former co-workers are standing up and dronely reciting “I will work selflessly in my life for others. Others’ lives are affected by the way I conduct my life. The light that I seek is found not around me, but within myself. Only after we have found the light inside ourselves, can we accept it from others.”
Though I am safe in Canada, though, my job is not yet finished. As part of my agreement with my university, I am to leave some sort of legacy, such as the essay you are now reading. If you are embarking upon my internship or a similar venture elsewhere, perhaps you will find this useful. I had a wearisome experience complicated by politics and my naïveté and inexperience. I should also say that this was a year that I do not wish to repeat, even knowing what I know now. However, this fact alone should not be a catalyst for your decision, one way or the other.
So here’s the hypothetical deal: You’re in Japan, you’re on a contract, they paid for your airfare, and if you leave you’ll not only be liable for that but you’ll also be putting your coworkers in the lurch for as long as it takes for your employer to lure a replacement. Running out like a thief in the night isn’t really an option – the question there would be how much kerosene you would like to go with your bridge. Here are some things that helped me survive and sometimes thrive.
1. Foreign coworkers. Considering that we were just random people thrown together, we got along remarkably well. I didn’t always agree with them, but the perspectives that they brought to bear both on the job and to the city and country were invaluable. Sometimes I didn’t want to do the things they wanted to do, but we did enough things together to make ourselves feel like a family of sorts. We stuck together – and yes, we were stuck together.
I can honestly say that there is no way I would have even considered staying for the year were it not for the care and support of my foreign coworkers. Even a simple statement like, “You can do anything for a year,” worked wonders. While we may not exchange wedding invitations, we will always be close in a way that transcends ordinary friendships. We all pulled together, and we survived.
2. Pre-existing connections. I think it’s fair to say that you will have a different experience in Japan if you have connections made here that have a place over there. One of my coworkers had a very good friend whom she met in Canada, and there were lots of comings and goings on that front – such that she felt completely welcome in Japan in a way that your employer alone can’t, and probably shouldn’t hope to express. I had a connection as well, and it was nice to know that someone in Japan cared about how I was doing. There were a few times when that was all I had.
3. Staying connected. In this Internet Age, there’s no need to speak of how, the only question is how much. It can be a double-edged sword; if you’re spending all your free time checking up on your hometown friends on Facebook, that’s time that you’re not experiencing Japan. Still, keeping in touch with your mates once in a while helps you keep a certain kind of perspective.
4. Getting out. Get out a lot. Try to go out even when you don’t feel like it. I also recommend organizing (and <ahem> budgeting for – see #9) trips when you happen to have a free long weekend – Japan has a lifetime’s worth of things to see and do. Shikoku has more than its share of pretty, quiet places, and it is also the home of the fascinating 88 Temple Pilgrimage. I made it to 54 out of the 88, thanks to weekend trips, side trips, and long bicycle journeys. In general, having something to think about besides work makes life a lot easier.
5. Learn Japanese. I actually didn’t do very well on this objective. In the beginning, we had a coworker of Japanese background who’d been learning the language for years and was also a gifted teacher – he was able to teach us from our perspective, and use his experience of having to learn the nuts and bolts (as many second-language speakers know things explicitly that native speakers know innately) to our benefit. He took a job at another school in another town, though, and then we had to go to city lessons on our own. While it was good that the city offered lessons, they seemed to target Chinese visiting workers more effectively than alcoholic Canadians. Like many teachers before me, I’m sad to say that I gave up on them.
6. Smile. At my workplace, there was a dearth of warm, sincere smiles. There were some, but there could have been many more, and I should have endeavoured to let a smile be my umbrella more often. It’s a cheap coping mechanism, but it often works wonders. It’s also good to bear in mind that no matter what may go wrong (say, with a class), it’s really not so serious – there’ll be a chance to try again. If you’re being condemned, do what you can and wait it out – they’ll find bigger fish to fry.
7. Be Confident or Feign Confidence. Just because your employer hired you as an intern does not mean that they want to be reminded of it, especially if they’re letting the parents assume that you’re all accredited instructors in your home countries. Any appeals to your inexperience when under pressure will backfire tremendously. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re in a similar situation, act as if you do know. If there’s anything seriously amiss, they won’t hesitate to correct you. If it’s something minor, well, it’s minor – best to live with a small mistake than a major blow-out.
8. Listen more than you talk. You have an opinion, and it is important. Unfortunately, you’re swimming upstream even at the best of times. In this context, not only are you probably young, but you’re not even from the country. Your opinions are informed differently. Bear this in mind when you do speak up.
9. Budget. You’re working a job and your pay might be pitiful and you can’t leave. Fight back by budgeting! Japan is actually a very easy country to budget in, as the economy is cash-based and the ATMs have limited hours. I withdrew about 60% of my net pay from the ATM each payday (before 6pm; after that they charge!) and used that for my expenses for the month (save rent, which was deducted directly from my pay prior to its deposit). Surplus monies at the next payday, if any, went into a “travel fund” (ie: an envelope in one of my drawers). When you can actually see the notes coming out of your wallet, and know how much hard work is behind them, you spend less!
10. The kids. Establishing an atmosphere of mutual respect with your students can be an ace-in-the-hole. There were days when the only thing that made me get out of bed was the fact that I wanted to be there for them. On a more practical level, if the kids like you, the parents like you, and that’s one of the royal roads to job security in a private school! (I ruffled enough feathers through my, er, exuberant innovations in the art of office survival as to virtually guarantee an intracontractual departure had things been otherwise.) My “tactic,” if you could call it that, was teaching the children as I would have liked to have been taught. I strived to meet that goal as best I could – of course, sometimes I would fall short and at the same time gain a better appreciation of the realities (especially time and resource constraints) that might have held my own teachers back.
Incidentally, giving in – not that I’m advocating as blunt or obtuse a strategy as “never giving in” – is not a way to earn respect. It’s a slippery slope, and you could give in to the point where the class becomes utterly pointless and you still wouldn’t have any cachet. Fear, though, works – until your back is turned, that is. And, I’m almost sorry to say it, but as a foreign teacher you’re more or less a toothless tiger anyway.
Therefore, I recommend a humanistic approach. Have a bit of fun. Be fair but firm. If they ask why, tell them why. You’d be surprised how much they understand, even in this second-language situation.
Children, although they are only just learning the tactics, politics, and subterfuge that are the province of adults, have an uncanny ability to see through hypocrisy and deceit. Their views and reactions and behaviours have taught me a lot about life. And yet for their undeniable virtues, there are times you just wish they’d smarten up and bring their books and do their homework.
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As these things usually go, your mileage will vary. Being open to new experiences, patient, and being able to change into a fully-aware cybernetic super-sensei are plusses. While we’re at it, having one of those little fish that you can put in your ear to translate everything would be cool, too. But in all seriousness, if you chose to teach at this school or another school in Japan, or any school anywhere, you’ll be amazed by what you learn. Even if you have a trying, difficult, thorny experience, you’ll be richer for it. You’ll be able to take the experience and apply it to your life back home, or you may even decide to become a lifelong gaijin. I apologize for having to use so many platitudes, but almost everything you need to make the best of a trying situation is present in our vernacular, and the rest, for the most part, is up to you. Good luck!