What I Love (and What I Loathe) at My Schools

When it comes to my schools, I’ve got certain obligations I love and some that I don’t. All too often I’ll find myself ecstatic about one aspect of my job, but in another feel almost sickened about what I have to do. Here are two of the things I love about my job and two things I utterly despise.

I Love Getting Creative

One of my JTEs came up and requested an English Board for Itako 2nd. I accepted the challenge because I’d heard that English Boards were fun to make. However, I had no earthly clue how to make one at first. I researched a little online and figured out the basic idea.

Places like Englipedia are great for start-up ideas like English Boards and English Clubs. Also, Englipedia has activities and lesson plans that go along with the textbooks, so it really helps to make an ALT’s life much easier for last minute lesson plans. I highly recommend the site for ALTs in Japan.

Next, for my English Board I made up rough drafts of different designs and started getting translations for the various topics I wanted. It ended up looking like this:

English Board

My students liked the comic and pretty much ignored the rest. Jerks.

My JTEs seemed to like it and I’ve been requested to make more. I’m going to try in the next year to make one for both schools (with basically the same stuff) every month. I was glad I was given an opportunity to do something a little more artistic. Hopefully, the opportunities will keep coming. Also, I hope that I will eventually stop using blue as my default background color.

For my next trick, I got asked to do a poster for the top ten students who did well on a cultural assignment. Basically, the 3rd Years had to write a small essay about Japanese culture. I picked out the ones who used the best English and made this one:

Neat Fact: Tabs in Japan are called "Pops"

The Top 10 have won a place in the hall!

Sidenote: I got a small cultural lesson with this poster. My JTE asked me to make “Pops” to go along with the poster. I responded with a confused, “Pops?” and he explained that it’s something that goes along the side, one word, and helps people understand things fast. I realized he was talking about Tabs or Labels. I told him, “Oh! You mean Tabs or Labels.” and now we know. And knowing is half the battle!

Anyway, I was surprised at how well my students did on their small essays. Not to mention their drawings were actually pretty good. And that brings me to the next thing I love.

My Students are Awesome!

My students are so creative, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. When I see drawings of girl’s underwear I’m not so thrilled, but some of my kids can make mangaka look like amateurs. I hope that my kids will be happy with what I’ve made. They seem to be happy with English.

Chairs in the Courtyard

I had nothing to do with this, I swear! They did it all on their own.

They love talking to me, even if we don’t understand anything that anyone is saying. I love that they try. I know there are students out there that will make life a living hell for their ALTs just because the ALTs are foreign. My kids won’t shut up about how “cute” I am, which in turn makes me blush, which in turn makes them giggle.

I often get “jokes” that I don’t understand, but they’re in English so apparently I’m supposed to understand. For example, I was walking along the 2nd Years hall at Hinode JHS and a group of boys asked me, “Jessica-sensei! What time is it?”

I smiled and said, “It’s 1:15.”

They laughed and said, “Ok, ok. I go to Mexico for fried potato. Ok?”

I shrugged, “Ok. Do you know how to get to Mexico?”

“No, no, no! Balls not for sale!”

I had no response for that other than suppressed laughter. Seriously, my kids can make my day bright even in the cold, rainy winter.

But there are some things that make my day turn into abysmal misfortunes.

Not a Fan of The School Lunch

I only actually like one school lunch and that’s curry and rice. The others are only tolerable at best. The problem is two fold: 1) the food is usually lukewarm and 2) it’s usually got tofu in it, and I hate tofu hardcore.

Here’s what a stereotypical Japanese JHS school lunch looks like:

Please, sir, may I have some more?

I never thought I’d look back to middle school and think, “You know what? School lunch was delicious. I should have savored that PB&J!”

Basically, you get a carton of milk, which is fine. Usually, there’s some rice or noodles or bread in the big portion of the tray. Then, there’s some kind of odd soup/stew thing that contains a whole bunch of veggies and meat that might be good for you in a parallel universe but the fact is they’ve been soaked in broth/grease so no, no they’re not. The meat portion contains fish the majority of the time, and usually it’s near flavorless or soaked in some kind of sauce/ jelly that looks…less than appetizing. The cold veggies off to the top left are alright, unless they’re full of pickles. I hate pickles, and for some reason, they’re in a lot of lunches here.

It sucks sometimes when I get a lunch and basically it’s half tofu and half pickles. I have to force myself to eat, and it feels like a battle with my taste buds. On top of that, if I’m supposed to eat with the kids I have to shovel down all of my food so that they will eat, too. If I don’t eat, they tend not to eat either. All the while I’m smiling and pretending to have a good time, while internally I’m grossed out and praying nothing goes horribly awry later.

You see, my stomach gets pissed off every so often from one lunch or another, too. I don’t have the heart to tell my school that I play lunch roulette and that maybe one out of four lunches will make me sick. I’ll never know which ones will cause the problem, so I can’t prevent it unless I don’t eat the school lunch period. However, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I suffer in silence on this one.

However, for the last one, I’m pretty sure everyone over here knows how I feel.

I will Always and Forever Hate the F#@*ing Textbooks

I have the oh-so “wonderful” textbooks called New Horizon.

It's ALL WRONG!

The three reasons I could never be a full time English teacher in Japan.

My JTEs are awesome people. They work hard and Lord knows they’re trying their best with what they’ve got, but the curriculum they’re forced to teach is just atrocious. These textbooks are essentially used all too often as a JTE’s English Bible. They teach in order exactly what the textbook says to teach in this order. If they don’t, then the kids could fail a portion of the test because the tests reflect the textbooks, and it ends up being one vicious cycle.

There’s some bad English in these textbooks. For example, in the 1st Year book we get a skit with Kevin and Sakura talking about the weather. Kevin says, “How’s the weather?” and then Sakura says, “It’s cloudy. But OK.” No, Sakura, that’s bad. Say, “It’s cloudy, but that’s OK.” or “It’s cloudy, but it’s OK.” However, it’s something kind of small and I can just forgive it and move on.

Then, I have to watch as the student’s write down the sentences directly from the book over and over and over again. The book is littered with bad grammar, awkward sentence structures, and etc. I watch in horror sometimes when I see something blatantly wrong get taught and then gets repeatedly written down. Once or twice I’ve tried to tell a teacher how wrong something is, but I usually just get kind of patronizingly told that it’s fine.

On top of that, the students learn little to nothing about any English speaking countries or cultures. Every so often I’ll get something mentioned in class about living in America and what we do, but the textbooks (the Bibles as you will recall) take place in motherf@#!ing Japan. I end up saying idiotic stuff like, “I have natto for breakfast.” and “My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.” (I was told for this one that shrine is too difficulte for JHS students) and read stories about Japanese singers. The stories usually involve a Japanese cultural lesson in English,or make it so the ALT feels like a horrid person for being American.

For example, “A Mother’s Lullaby” is a story about how a tree recalls how the U.S. attacked Hiroshima and a little girl sings a lullaby to a little boy as he dies in her arms. She dies too, of course, and the ruins of Hiroshima are shown in all their glory. Meanwhile, an American ALT is standing at the front, reciting this story and feeling awkward. Some ALTs can get through it just fine, others request that they not be there for the lesson entirely, and then there’s people like me who just survive the experience.

Essentially, the textbooks themselves are designed to make kids learn English but essentially just keep learning about Japan from a limited Japanese perspective. We don’t talk about Pearl Harbor when we have to do “A Mother’s Lullaby” or the Nanking Massacre. We just get the A-bomb drop and nothing else.

When I studied French in middle school, German in high school, and then German again in college, I was learning the language and culture all in one. I learned about French artists, different parts of France, what a German breakfast looks like, how German and French students go to school, and never once did I see anything to do with America. When I was in my foreign language classes, I watched foreign language movies and had to do small reports about the movies in that language.

I do the best when I can, but trying to fight against the system does no good. I’ve just had to learn to force myself to not go crazy about it and just do my job. Still, a lesson from the textbook can make me feel utterly useless, enraged, and sickened all at once.

In the end, the good does outweigh the bad. As I said before, my kids are great and my JTEs and other co-workers are hard workers. I love getting out of bed in the morning and going to work, which I don’t think everybody can say. I want to keep doing this for another two years, and hopefully become a better teacher as time goes on.

So about “Genki…”

When I first arrived in Japan, I was told that being genki is a sign of a good teacher. Having no clue what that entailed, I asked an English teacher at an International Association Festival and he rolled his eyes and said, “It means they want the happy foreigner to always be happy.” His face showed anything but enthusiasm at the thought.

Nowadays, I can usually tell if a foreigner has lived in Japan for over a while if I say the word “genki” and their face gets this constipated look of suppressed disgust. The American man I met all those months ago was the first person to show me that face.  The thing is, “genki” does not just mean “energy, happiness, full of life.” Genki is also a way of life.

The American man went on to explain that in Japan it’s considered good manners to be genki. Worrying other people about your problems is seen as kind of a selfish thing to do. Instead, one should always think of others. Therefore, stay genki and smiling and happy looking so that you appear fine. If you’re in real danger, of course, seek help. However, if you’re tired or feeling burned out, you’re not supposed to show it.

In a vain attempt to try and explain the genki lifestyle, it’s kind of like pretending you’re happy when you’re not. If you’re having a bad day, don’t let people see it, especially at work. Most people in America who are over the age of twenty one and have held a job might say, “Oh, well that’s just being professional. The whole world doesn’t have to know you’re having a bad day. Just do your job and go home.” Well, alright, but here’s the thing. Imagine it’s not just for the boss. Imagine having to wear your masking smile that’s for your boss around all the co-workers, staff, your acquaintances, anybody who makes you angry ever, and possibly even your own good friends. This is an oversimplification, and I apologize that I can’t think of a good way to explain it better.

Some foreigners have issues with the genki lifestyle. For me, it’s hard to do something that kind of feels like lying all the time. I have been taught since I was a kid that it’s not only a good thing to express your emotions but that it’s also honesty. I know that logically I wouldn’t tell the whole world my business, but at the same time if I’m not feeling so good I don’t have to smile and laugh.

I got a small lecture from one of my JTEs when I was suffering from an illness one month. She essentially said that people were worried and maybe I should try to “not worry them.” I wanted to yell, “Well excuse me for being sick!”  But I shoved down that anger and just kept listening. I learned that the teachers and the students were upset that I wasn’t happy. They were thinking the worst case scenarios, and so that’s why she was asking for me to try being genki.

The problem is I’m not really a genki person. I’m just not built that way. I’m made to chill. Chill people don’t smile and talk and be all energized when there’s nothing to smile or talk or be energized about, you know? Still, I decided that since I’m in Japan, I might as well give it a try. Maybe there was some hidden genki in me I just didn’t know about yet?

Also, I didn’t want to worry anybody, so I did it. I made myself genki for the students and tried my best to be genki around teachers. It was exhausting, but for the rest of that month, I pretended my life was full of sunshine and daises. When I moved over to the other school, I tried on this genki thing and found myself breaking a little bit under the strain.

The thing is I have also gotten advice from other more experienced ALTs and English teachers to be careful about genki. I remember the American man in particular warned me, “They will try their best to make you as un-American as possible. Don’t let them do that. The genki thing is Japanese culture. Stay true to your American self.” At the time I thought he was just paranoid and full of bitterness, but now that I got into that situation, I could start to see his point.

After about a month into The Genki Experiment, I was in class and walking around students’ desks. I was smiling, but inside I was cursing up a storm. About five or six students didn’t bring their notebooks to class, and when I tried to ask about why, they just waved their hands and said, “Eigo wakaranai (I don’t understand English).” The notebook thing didn’t really get to me. Instead, it was the blatant rudeness that just made me kind of pissed. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that really I’m lucky to have students that weren’t rebellious and mean monsters like I’d heard about at other schools.

But the genki got to me. I stomped up to the front of the class, replaced my smile with a deep frown, placed myself in front of the board with my arms crossed and possibly fire shooting out of my eyes. My JTE looked at me funny since I’d never done something like this before. I said with a very calm voice, “Six students do not have their notebooks today.” Slowly, I informed them, “I am very disappointed.” My JTE gasped dramatically and translated for me.

After class, I fully expected to get another lecture. I was not genki. I was the opposite of genki. I was a dragon lady for a moment there. I braced myself as my JTE came over to talk to me.

To my amazement, she said, “Thank you so much! I think students needed to hear that.”

Say wha-?

Turns out that my non-genki self was just the thing she needed from me. I felt kind of thrown off kilter at that point.

I decided to try and figure out what exactly I was going to do about this genki business. Did I really want to put on a mask every single day? What was the line between professionalism and genki? Where did the responsibility to myself end and the responsibilities to others start? I did not like looking at the murky grey areas of multicultural living and wondering what made me American or Japanese.

In the end, I made my decision over coffee. I was in the teachers’ break area when a teacher came up to me with a small smile and asked me, “Genki desu ka (How are you)?” I looked at him for a moment before replying with a small smile, “Genki desu (I’m fine), but I’m tired and busy.”

“Oh!” He smiled back, “Me too!” And then we spent about ten minutes bitching about everything we had to get done before the end of the day.

I finally just came to the decision that genki wasn’t really for me. At the same time, I was going to do my own version of genki for my students. Basically, it involves appearing energized and getting all fired up for them. Yet, in the teachers’ room, I would be work with an expression that conveyed how I felt, and if they were worried, well they’d just have to deal. I think most people are actually happy to see me back to the older model. I think I was freaking out a couple of the other teachers who knew me better, anyway.

I’m not going to bash the genki lifestyle, though. If anything, I admire anyone with the ability to do it. I cannot muster enough energy to keep something like that up all the time. To the people who can not only do that but also make it an art art form, I tip my hat to you. It’s simply a cultural difference, and I accept that it’s one I simply can’t assimilate into my identity. To each their own.

It’s all good 🙂

My Daily Routine…and Something about Bob

People have asked me what I do during the day, so I’ll talk a little bit about that. It’s pretty simple. I arrive at 8:15 at my school and work until 4:00 in the afternoon. When I arrive I say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” My teachers will either say, “Ohayo gozaimasu!” back or “Good morning!”

I can have two to five class periods per day. During free periods, I try to work on worksheets, projects, Japanese (reading and writing), and I won’t lie sometimes I just go onto Facebook. Sometimes I eat with the students for lunch and speak in English to them. Other times, especially lately, I eat with the teachers and try out both my Japanese and English skills.

My kids are great. I’ve got a couple of punks that are too cool for school, but that’s normal I think. Some kids are also really shy, but I’ll keep trying to get them to talk. They love to tell me about what they like and don’t like. The boys are hilarious. They’re not looking at my eyes, if you catch my drift, but they’re talking to me in English so it’s all good.

My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.

The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.

The bane of my existence

The bane of my existence

I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.

“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”

First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?

“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”

Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.

“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”

GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.

Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there. I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.

Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.

There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.

I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.

For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.

Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.

Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.

I love how people have gotten attached to Bob. It seems like everyone wants to know how he’s doing. “Wait, what about Bob? Your pet spider? How is he?” Seriously, guys? Bob? I go to Japan and you want to hear about a spider? Fine. I’ll talk a little bit about Bob again.

Well, he’s decided that the porch is his area and, by God, he will attempt to cover as much of it with his web as possible. I have arguments with him about it. The argument goes like so: I open my front door in the morning. I see Bob’s web in my way to the stairs. I glare at Bob. I get a big stick and destroy his web. Bob shimmies up onto the porch overhang and glares at me for destroying his fine work. I go off to teach.

When I get home at around 4:10, I look up to see if Bob is there. If I have to destroy his web again, I do. If not, I just say, “Hey, Bob.” and go into my apartment. I’ve been told it’s highly likely that Bob will disappear when the winter chill finally comes to stay. Apparently, yama onigumo like to go into trees because the trees can help keep them warm somehow (I’m assuming they nestle into the bark like I do with my kotatsu).

I have to wonder if Bob will go or not. The jerk seems determined to keep his spot. He even did an epic fight out with a few other spiders gettin’ in on his turf. He didn’t like that very much and put a stop to it.

Well, until it’s officially winter, I suppose our battle for the porch will continue.

TTYL!