Last week it was the first day of school! Only this time around, I’m a teacher, not a student.
My “First Day”
I went in on Wednesday expecting my first real day of work. While I have thoroughly enjoyed having all of this time off, I was really excited to start working. With nothing but free time, I felt a little aimless, and was burning through cash at an alarming rate. I was ready to get in a routine, and was excited to actually meet my coworkers and find out what my work situation would be like! So I dressed up nicely, put on my pantyhose and my suit jacket, even though it’s a million degrees out, and showed up bright and early. I was eagerly expecting a full day of work, training, and information. And…. it turned out to be such a non-day it’s not even funny.
I arrived with my co-JET, and we finally met our official supervisor. He showed us our lockers and shoe cubbies, and took us to the teacher’s room. Japanese schools work opposite of schools in the US – the students stay in one classroom, and the teachers move around from room to room. The teacher’s room is a shared workspace where every teacher has a desk. The principal got everyone’s attention, and quickly introduced us to the group in Japanese. Then we were shown to our desks. …And that was literally it. It took all of 45 minutes, and then they told us we could go home. My supervisor was asking me questions like, “So what classes will you teach?” and, “What will your schedule be?” And I’m thinking, “Wait, is that a trick question? Aren’t you supposed to be telling me that?” Because up to this point, I had been given about zero information on any of that.
It’s somewhat astonishing to me how, in a culture that is so orderly and organized, just how much of a mess it has been getting everything set up at my school. I’m still filling out essential paperwork for taxes and insurance, and I’ve been here almost a month and a half. At all of my jobs in the US, this important HR and administrative stuff was taken care of in the first week. But these details, very important to my employment, are still being figured out. And I’ve still been given only very brief and limited information about my work duties. I left work feeling somewhat deflated, and mostly just confused. Thankfully I was able to laugh with my co-JET about the absurdity of it all. The best we could do was hope for better tomorrow.
My First Day, Take 2
Thursday was my actual first day of work. Nobody had told me what time to get there, they just said, “around this time,” so I showed up on the earlier side, trying to make a good impression… and walked in right in the middle of the morning meeting, interrupting the principal. So with that great start to the day, I sat awkwardly at my desk for half an hour, not really sure what to do, until it was time for the opening ceremony.
Opening ceremonies are a big deal at Japanese schools, and occur at the start of every term. The ceremony was held in one of my school’s many gyms, with a small stage set up in front. All 500 girls sat in neat rows on the floor. It was crazy how uniform they all looked – all Japanese, all with black hair, all in matching uniforms. There are only two girls in the whole school who look different – one girl who grew up in the US, and one Australian exchange student. So I must have looked pretty exotic to them. A couple of the girls audibly gasped when I walked in.
The ceremony began with all the teachers and students singing the school song. Then the principal gave a long speech, and then a teacher gave another. It was all in Japanese and I couldn’t follow a word. Then some of the sports clubs came up on stage and said some more things I couldn’t understand. Then I was called up on stage, along with my co-JET and the exchange student. It was our turn to give speeches! The exchange student gave hers in Japanese, and my co-JET and I were allowed to give ours in English, thank god. My speech went very well. I wasn’t nervous because I knew most of the students (and teachers, for that matter) couldn’t understand me anyway.
After the ceremony, we went back up to the teacher’s room, and I met the other American ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) who I will be working closely with. He’s great, and was finally able to give me some concrete information about my job. I’ll be teaching Junior High School (7-9th grade) English Conversation Skills classes. In addition to that, I will run the International Club, and help with other random activities. Unlike most JETs, I will not be working with a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), I will be teaching all of my classes with the other ALT. This means that together we will be leading, and need to plan the curriculum for all of our classes. This is not a normal situation for a JET by any means, and it has me freaking out a little. Beyond the short sessions at Tokyo Orientation, I don’t have any formal teaching training. And these sessions didn’t even cover curriculum planning, because this is not normally a JET’s responsibility.
So with my head buzzing, trying to digest this info, I spent the rest of the day working on my self-introduction lesson. My work computer is in Japanese, which made for slow going. Even something as simple as copy and paste felt like rocket science. And just as I was finishing up, my computer froze and Microsoft Word crashed. I couldn’t understand the prompts, probably clicked the wrong button, and all my work was deleted. Yay!
My First Day Teaching
Friday was my first day teaching! It went well, all in all.
My first lesson was with the third years, and I was shocked. It was absolute chaos. The girls talked and yelled throughout the entire class. One girl sat in another girls lap, and another girl walked around for most of the period. One girl was passed out cold on her desk, and the rest of them giggled and gossiped the whole time. My co-teacher did hardly anything to try to calm them down, and following his lead, I didn’t either. And I’m quickly finding out that at my school, this is the norm. My mind was blown. In 50 short minutes, these girls shattered every stereotype I had in my head about polite, well-behaved Japanese students.
So I did my best to give my lesson, talking over the girls. The classrooms at my school are not equipped with any technology, literally only blackboards and chalk, so I gave my self-intro by holding up pictures I’d printed out. A few minutes in, I realized I was talking too fast, and the girls couldn’t understand me. The focus at my school is on sports, not academics, which means that the English ability level is very low. Speaking in full sentences is way too much for them, and I’m going to have to adjust. My second lesson, with the first-years, was better. It was a small class, and they were (mostly) quiet and listened, but I’m pretty sure most of what I was saying went over their heads. The girls are really cute, and still look like little kids.
I actually felt pretty confident about my lessons, despite the chaos in the classroom. I’m not at all nervous in front of the class like I thought I might be. I’m just going to have to get used to working with the low English ability level, and get creative with ideas about how to engage the girls and manage the classroom. I’m both nervous and excited that I basically get complete freedom with lesson planning. It’s great that I’m able to get creative and do what I like, but it’s also extremely daunting that along with my co-teacher, I have to plan the entirety of all of our classes.
At this point, I was feeling a bit like, “this is not what I signed up for.” JET drills in to your head before you arrive that, “Every Situation is Different. ESID. ESID.” ESID the answer to any pre-departure question you could ask, it’s in all the literature, it’s everywhere. So I was fully expecting my situation might be, you know, different. But I’m just realizing how absolutely every single aspect of my situation – being placed in Tokyo, having to find an apartment by myself, being placed in a private school, not working with a JTE, lesson-planning and leading entire classes by myself – is different. None of this is the “normal” JET situation, and none of this is what I was expecting. And I’m not complaining, or saying any of this is necessarily bad. There are definite perks to my situation, and I genuinely do think I can make it work and have a great experience. As I’m writing this now, I’ve been teaching for a week and a half, and I’m already feeling better about it. So I’m all I’m saying is that, in the game of JET Program placements, I was dealt a wildcard. A really wildcard.