“You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!”

Oddly enough, I used to be one of the people who thought that teaching wasn’t a challenging profession. Believe me, I know better now.

The Reading Zone

I’m sure this post will make some people mad, but I had strong feelings about assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta’s op-ed published by The New York Times today.  I don’t agree with most of what he said, but this part struck a chord with me:

In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)

There are brilliant people out there…

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Learning to Shake with the Quakes

Early this morning, I woke up to my apartment shaking a little bit. I didn’t bother to get up for this one. I was comfy in my nice warm bed and it was way-too-early-something a.m. I rolled over as something clinked and fell somewhere in my kitchen. I made a grumbling noise as I pulled the blankets over my head to go back to sleep.

I started drifting off, feeling the earthquake kind of rocking me back to sleep. Strangely, I thought to myself, “This one is actually kind of enjoyable.”

Now that I’m awake I felt a bit puzzled over that reaction. Two years have passed since the big 3/11 earthquake here in Japan. Still, I get people asking me how safe I feel in Japan with all the earthquakes. The answer is actually a little complicated. I’ve come a long way from my first encounter with earthquakes about a year and a half ago. The first big one I ever encountered I was staying with my predecessor, Lauren. We were roomies for a couple of weeks before she headed back to the good ol’ USA.

Maybe the third or fourth night I woke up to the entire apartment swaying and rocking. The dangling light fixture in our room violently swayed back and forth. Stuff on the desk fell off. Lauren told me to just hand on, this one wasn’t so bad. I remembered thinking, “What the #$%@ does BAD feel like?” My mind couldn’t help but recall the news footage from the big earthquake that only happened few months before I arrived. I shuddered a little at the thought, but suppressed the fear.

Steadily, the earth settled down. The swaying stopped. Lauren got up and I followed her outside. Neighbors across the way were outside. Lauren and I said we were okay and we asked if they were, too. When we were sure everyone was alright, we headed back inside. Lauren smiled at me as we climbed back into bed (well, futon for me), “Congratulations! You just experienced your first earthquake!”

I laughed at that and we talked a bit. It took me awhile to settle down from the excitement, but I went back to sleep a little while later with no problems. I wasn’t afraid of another 3/11. I knew that the odds of another one happening in my lifetime were slim, not to mention that most of the injuries and deaths occurred due to the tsunami that followed the earthquake and not the quake itself. Also, I suppose it helped that I loved Japan more than enough to put up with a few odd quirks. Kentucky has tornadoes. Japan has earthquakes. I could deal.

My first “bad” earthquake happened in September of 2011. I can recall this day with clarity because there was double the trouble. A huge typhoon came bashing its way over Itako. The winds were so damn strong I thought they were going to break my kitchen window. On top of that, my phone’s earthquake alarm went off. I shouted at it, “Really?!” just before the biggest shift happened under my feet. The electricity flickered on and off a couple of times before it went out completely. I stumbled my way into a doorway and held onto the frame for dear life. For all of maybe a minute, my apartment shook so hard from the wind and the quake that I seriously wondered if it would break. Luckily, it passed without any harm done, but the electricity was off for most of the night. Dark and stormy, indeed.

And with that, I discovered what “bad” meant. I was oddly thankful for the rather early terrifying experience. I followed the wise advise from the senior members of our JET collective in Ibaraki and made myself an emergency kit. Water, food bars, copies of passport, and much more got put into a backpack that I put away in my closet. It’s still there, waiting to be used, even though I’ve totally stolen some of those bars for breakfast every so often. I adopted the stance that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear of the next “big one” but I’d be prepared for one just in case.

Since then, I didn’t really consider most of the others that shortly followed to be nearly as awful. I didn’t even blink an eye when the small tremors come and go in a matter of seconds. More than once, I slept right through a medium level quake, only to discover from my co-workers in the morning. Oops! For quite some time, I got into this false sense of security.

My complacency ended when another “bad” one happened. In January of 2012, I was working out with my friend Ai at the gym. We were on the exercise bikes, talking about this and that and the other. Suddenly, everything abruptly shifted so hard I stumbled off my bike. The gym is located under Kashima Soccer Stadium, so I felt tons of concrete and steel jerking back and forth right above my head and wondered for a brief, horror filled moment if it could come down on top of me.  Of course, it didn’t, and steadily everything settled right back down. Ai and I checked each other out and everyone around us went into a flurry of checking their phones and the news for reports. Gym attendants came in to tell everyone the gym was closing up just in case of aftershocks.

When big ones hit usually all the people in my area will feel it as well. I’ve called people to check on them and used Facebook to message some people when I can’t get a hold of them. I’ve now made it a regular habit to post a quick status update about the earthquake after it happens so everyone knows I’m alive. I stay on top of the news and ask people what’s up right after it happens. Since I was doing it anyway, I went ahead and volunteered to be a block member for my area. That basically means that I keep track of the JET ALTs in my little southern block of Ibaraki. It’s all of four people and myself, so the job is far from daunting.

In the end, I suppose the best answer I can give to how I feel about earthquakes is that I’m staying on alert all the time in the back of my mind.  I don’t think about it consciously, but I’m as prepared for one as I’m going to be. With some experience under my belt, I take each quake as it comes and react as is necessary. As I mentioned before, the the small bits of fear I feel are kind of thrilling for me. And I got to admit, getting rocked to sleep by mother nature was freaking awesome.

NPR: Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning

by Alix Spiegel

November 12, 2012 3:29 AM
Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province, in 2010.












Chinese school children during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province, in 2010.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.

“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

“They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”

Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.

It’s a small difference in approach that Stigler believes has some very big implications.


Stigler is not the first psychologist to notice the difference in how East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.

For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess, and she responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown-ups?

Child: I know … talk about books.

Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.

Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence is believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

But in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, but not who they are, what they’re born with,” she says.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

And Stigler feels in the real world it is easy to see the consequences of these different interpretations of struggle.

“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

Not East Versus West

This is not to imply that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle — or anything else — is better than the Western way, or vice versa. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerns tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science. Li says that educators from Asian countries have their own set of worries.

” ‘Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.’ You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern, a lot,” she notes.

So, is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of another culture if they see that culture producing better results?

Both Stigler and Li think that changing culture is hard, but that it’s possible to think differently in ways that can help. “Could we change our views of learning and place more emphasis on struggle?” Stigler asks. “Yeah.”

For example, Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

But we can, Stigler says.

In the meantime, he and the other psychologists doing this work say there are more differences to map — differences that allow both cultures to more clearly see who they are.

When Living Abroad, Fear is Part of the Thrill

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked by people back in the good ol’ USA,  “Aren’t you scared to live all by yourself in a foreign country?” Usually, the last bit implies that I might as well be willingly trying to drive myself straight into hell itself. Who would want to leave the comforts of home to go off to some unknown part of the world and live there? Not to mention, it’s dangerous to go alone! The awfulness of it all, oh the horror!

Sakura in Shibuya Park in Spring

The horror!

A follow up to the frequently asked question is this statement, “Wow, you are so brave!” Brave? Hardly. I scream like a little girl when I feel like I’m in peril. I’m not proud of this fact, but it’s true. I don’t do stoic or composed very well. I won’t lie, on the plane ride over to Japan for the first time a year and half ago, I clutched the arm rests so hard on take off I indented the headphone plug’s shape into my palm. Also, I kept whispering to myself over and over again, “Statistics, statistics, statistics!” while praying I didn’t end up living out the opening scene from Final Destination.

Also, I moved to Japan. While it’s not a crime free country, my little sleepy town of Itako doesn’t do big time illegal activity (except for the whole Pachinko thing, but that’s not a big deal). Everybody here is kind, polite, and generally just awesome small town folk who want to just chill.

Still, a little bit of fear here and there makes the experience fun for me. I kind of like being scared, of not knowing what’s coming around the corner. It gives me a small thrill to know that there’s a small chance of danger, that I could run smack dab into a situation I’m not prepared to handle.

Oddly enough, I find it even more thrilling when I hit those moments and come out the other side winded from the experience but still intact. It’s just like the thrill of riding on a roller coaster and getting off all wobbly knees and smiles. I survived! Heck yes! Fist pump and get back in line. That’s why I got back on a stupid 14 hour plane ride to go back home for Christmas. In case you hadn’t gathered, I hate flying.

I suppose living abroad trills me for the same reason that I love horror movies. I go in knowing that there’s a distinct possibility I will end up with my heart pounding and screaming from fright. I love them so much that when I took off some time last year to go home I hit up the Scarefest Convention in Lexington, KY.

Jonathan Breck

Jeepers, creepers! Where’d you get those peepers?

In Japan, I can get those same sort of feelings when I venture to certain cafes and nightclubs in Tokyo.  I once went into a dingy hole in the ground type club thinking, “This probably isn’t a good idea. This is how horror movies start.” To be fair, I didn’t go alone, I brought my friend Candice with me. Turned out to be a pretty awesome place. I ended up having a dance off with a guy named John and spending two hours down there shaking my groove thing.

I will admit there are times where I’ve been a little in over my head. I once ran off to Tokyo without my cell phone. I needed my phone because I was meeting up with a group of friends to go to Gunma. Of course, I didn’t realize that I’d forgotten my cell until I arrived in Tokyo without it. While kicking myself for my mistake, I attempted to find the group in a vast station without them. I failed.

Luckily, I used my head to figure out a way to get ahead of the group on their train line for a later, not to mention quite lucky, rendezvous. Even though I managed to find them, I could’ve very well ended up walking through miles of snow trying to find them if I had arrived up at Gunma alone.

We totally ended up doing the whole walking through winter’s wrath thing as a group a mere two days later, but that’s beside the point.

We were not prepared.

Trekking down a mountain during a white out blizzard is as fun as it sounds, as in not.

Alternatively, there’s the more mundane issues I face, such as bus schedules I can’t read and I’ve got to get to an ALT meeting in less than freaking ten minutes so screw it I’m just going to take a taxi this time. I also encounter people who startle me with words I can’t understand but I know somehow they’re important. More than once, I’ve come face to face with a Japanese person behind a counter at some cafe or a store clerk. I may ask simple question in Japanese such as, “Do you have (insert item here)?” The response I get ranges from short and concise to so complicated I can’t even, wait, what? I can’t follow, speak slower please! Gah! It’s like playing communication roulette. I end up sticking it out and eventually figuring out what they said, more or less, but I end up getting slight headache from the strain.

Still, I’m glad I have every single one of these memories, that I got on those roller coaster rides and lived those horror movie moments. I don’t know how to explain this to people without sounding utterly insane. “Yes, it’s scary, and I like it!” just doesn’t generally give the impression of sound mind. However, it’s true, and I don’t know how to convey that rush to people who’ve never experienced it. The best equivalents I can give also probably don’t sound like much fun to people who hate roller coasters, horror movies and/or traveling.When I share my stories, home bodies usually only hear noise coming from me, not anything that sounds like fun. To me, though, it’s great, and I’m excited for the next thrill.