Tag Archives: teaching

Reason # 818 that I could not hack it as a Japanese student

When I was in high school I was, among other things, on the field hockey team, in school plays, on the arts council, and on the Schoolreach team. (I have no shame about my nerdiness.  Schoolreach was fun!) It was all a part of getting a well-rounded educational experience. I fully believed that a broad range of extracurricular activities would help me get into my choice of university. (Side note: Who is telling kids this? Is it actually true?  I don’t recall seeing “Check here if you were a mathlete” on any of my undergrad applications.)

When I tried to explain to my students this range of activities I was met with blank stares. I finally showed them my yearbook and pointed to pictures off all the different teams. Only then did they understand that I belonged to multiple teams or clubs.  That would be almost unthinkable here. This is one of the biggest differences in Japanese and Canadian high schools.

Club activities in Japan are serious and require a level of commitment that I think few North American teenagers could muster. Every student– with very few exceptions– joins one club and they commit to that one club for their three years of senior high school.  Some clubs meet only a few times a month.  For example, the cooking, photography, and computer clubs at my school meet weekly.  Others meet daily — Monday through Saturday and occasionally on Sundays.  The most intense club activities tend to be athletic teams who shoulder high expectations. In my school the soccer team and the canoe club are both held to very high standards and the members practice daily. Nothing stops practices; students come to school year round to meet with their clubs.

During the off-season the athletic teams work out together to stay in shape for the next season.  When the weather is bad they exercise and run laps indoors.  More than once I have heard the rumble of the baseball team rounding the corner and have had to dash into a classroom to avoid reenacting the stampede scene from the Lion King.

The commitment to their club activities means that Japanese students create strong and intense social networks.  My first and second year students often write essays about the people they admire most, the senpai from their club activities. The younger students look up to the third years and the third years take great pride in showing leadership in their club activities. This structure promotes a sense of responsibility that I am not sure existed at my high school.  While the clubs do have staff advisors, it is common for meetings or practices to be run entirely by the students, usually the third years.  Even in situations requiring first aid it is normally the team manager, a student, who rushes to aid a fallen teammate.

Of course there are downsides to this approach to club activities. The obvious pitfall is that, unlike in North America, the Japanese system does not afford students many opportunities to try new things through club activities.  It also seems that Japanese club activities put an enormous amount of pressure on students; they have class all day, spend several hours after school with their clubs, and return home to (maybe) finish their homework before going to bed and doing it all again the next day.  This pressure absolutely existed when I was in high school, but I would argue that the long term commitment to club activities in Japan heightens the pressure.  Students here do not always have the option of passing on this year’s soccer season if they feel their marks are suffering.  They just need to find more hours in the day for studying.  Sleep? Who needs it?

Ultimately, the Japanese approach to club activities reflects and reinforces the Japanese value that group needs ought to come before individual needs. It gives students a chance to participate in hierarchies like those they will face in the workplace.  It gives students a chance to practice leadership and role modeling.  Within the realm of Japanese society, all of this is completely normal and positive. But yikes, as an outsider peering in, it is intense.




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Where’s Dustin Hoffman when you need him?

*note: as I write this I have been awake for three solid hours, which means that I am probably about 45 minutes from passing out again. So if this post is a tad garbled, I apologize.  

On Monday morning I woke up feeling pretty aweful, but I was convinced that I was just being a baby so I hauled myself out of bed and to the train station.  Before I got on the train I bought a face mask because, hey, when In Rome …

I'm not posting this picture for pity. I'm posting it for the benefit of those who will enjoy mocking me. You're welcome.

When I got to school my mask drew more attention than I thought it would. Or perhaps I was acting a bit loopier than normal.  For whatever reason, I was very suddenly the talk of the room. I was Pippa Middleton.  Or, perhaps more accurately, that monkey from Outbreak.

All of the English teachers approached me individually to ask me if I was ok and to tell me to go home, but I was pretty intent on no taking holiday leave (which is normally the default in Japan, even if you are sick.)

Eventually one of the teachers took me down to the nurse’s office, where we discovered that I had an alarmingly high fever. The nurse called the doctor’s office immediately and I was taken in for an exam.  It turns out that I wasn’t really being a baby. I have Influenza.  This was actually good news for me because having a “brand name” illness mean that my school had to give me sick leave (since I am not allowed to get anywhere near the school while I am still contagious.)

My point (that I think I am failing to make) is that my coworkers have taken such incredibly good care of me.  Between the nurse — who gave me a hot water bottle and a cool compress to comfort me–  and the teachers who moved around their schedules to get me to the doctor, I could not have asked for better help.  The last two nights teachers have even come to my door to deliver  bags full of groceries and to check up on me.

I feel like I won the lottery in terms of school placements. This week, despite the cabin fever (and the actual fever) I am so happy that I have decided to sign on for a second year in Japan.

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February 8, 2012 · 7:47 pm

Today’s moment of Zen

Brought to you by a student’s essay about saving the environment:

If you threw trust in the river, the river is dirty.

Something to think about.

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What would Yoda say?

A tray with a prepared bowl of matcha (Japanes...

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Last Friday my school held its culture festival.  In the morning the brass band held a concert and then we had free time to wander and see the works of the art, calligraphy, and photography clubs.  I was so impressed by the talent that my students have.  My school is pretty well known for its athletics, so I was (unjustly) shocked to see how gifted some of the students are in the arts. The highlight for me, however, was the tea ceremony.

The previous day I was marking in the staff room when heard (just barely) someone approach me and stand quietly beside me.  I looked up and saw one of my students, the president of the Tea Ceremony Club, almost quivering in fear.  I smiled, said hello and I think she nearly died.  Somehow she managed to form words and ask if I would like to buy a ticket to the Tea Ceremony. Of course I said yes, partly with sincere interest and partly with concern that if I refused then the student might quit school and never speak English again.

After I bought my ticket I tried to remember all of the etiquette of tea ceremony that I had learned before coming to Japan.  Unfortunately, moving to Japan has meant learning a lot of etiquette and language that I use in daily life and apparently those things have pushed “tea ceremony etiquette” to the back of my brain.  I had every intention of researching the topic before the ceremony, but — as they always do — things got busy.  Before I knew it, I was in the tea ceremony room, sitting in seiza, with no clue what to do next. I had been reassured by another teacher that foreigners are only expected to enjoy themselves and that nobody would be offended if I did not know all of the manners.  Still, I did not want to the the awkward gaijin who ruins the Tea Ceremony Club’s hard work.

I quickly calmed down when I saw that the boys in the room clearly either did not know, or did not care about the manners of tea ceremony.  Well, either that, or the manners of tea ceremony involve using your eating utensils as lightsabers.  I suppose that is possible; Japan is nothing if not a mix of the ancient and modern.

The ceremony was lovely.  Matcha (powdered green tea) and wagashi (Japanese sweets) are acquired tastes, but I really enjoy the idea behind tea ceremony. I like the quiet appreciation of the here and now associated with the traditional ceremony. However, I think that I might need to study tea ceremony in a different venue, away from aspiring Luke Skywalkers, in order to gain a more authentic experience in the future.


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Have you flashed anyone today?

Ah, the opening ceremony….

The Japanese hold opening ceremonies much the same way that Canadians throw around apologies. They happen all the time, regardless of whether or not they are actually required.  Some are elaborate and a bit over the top, the way you would apologise for kicking someone’s baby; some are quick and nonchalant, the way you would apologise for bumping someone’s elbow in a crowded subway.  The ceremony is something that is completely natural in Japan but can feel  a bit awkward for those of us who are new to the custom. But you get used to it. I’ve been in Japan for just 6 weeks and I’ve witnessed or participated in more opening ceremonies then I can count.

I made it through the opening ceremony at my school without any major embarrassments. I mean, I didn’t set myself on fire or anything.  That’s not to say there were no, ahem, incidents.

I had to make a self introduction speech to the students and staff. It was entirely in Japanese and it was very simple. Basically I said: Hello everyone and nice to meet you all.  My name is Meagan Connor but please call me Meagan.  I am from Kingston, Canada.  Canada is famous for Anne of Green Gables. Maybe you know her?  My hobby is photography.  My Japanese is not very good but I am studying to learn. Let’s have fun in class together! Please look favourably upon me. (Ok, that last bit is from a Japanese phrase that’s really hard to translate but you say when you meet new people.)

The speech was short and simple, but there were enough vocabulary words that I felt I had plenty of opportunities to screw it up and deeply offend someone.  I was pretty nervous.  Anyhow, one of the teachers gave me a schedule for the assembly and told me step-by-step what would be happening and when I would be speaking.  It was a very kind gesture and I was so grateful for his help.

When we got to the gym for the assembly I took off my shoes and was going to go barefoot, since that’s what all the other teachers were doing and I had confirmed the day before that would be ok.  However, upon seeing my sock feet one of the teachers hustled over to me to give me a pair of slippers. These are the one-size-fits all slippers that are all over Japan for situations when you don’t have your own indoor (or, in this case, gym) shoes.  Most westerners complain that they are too small. Yeah, well, I bet those people can also reach the top shelves in their kitchens. Show offs.

I shuffled into the gym in my oversized slippers and I followed another teacher to the front, where I was instructed to sit in the lone chair in front of the stage. So I sat, while everyone else in the room stood.  Eventually someone started speaking into a microphone and then the room fell completely silent.  It stayed silent for a few seconds before another teacher whispered “Meagan, now.” I slowly shuffled up the stairs, being careful no to fling my slipper into the audience.  I walked up to the podium and started speaking into the microphone. I have to tell you, I killed the first few lines of my speech. I completely rocked it. I had confidence, style, and perfect pronunciation.  I didn’t even need to look at my paper, which was good. If I had been looking at my paper, I might not have noticed the strange looks on everyone’s faces.  Or the teacher who was rushing up to the stage with a modest, but undeniably horrified look on her face.

Oh. No. What have I done? What did I say? Is my zipper undone? No, I’m wearing a skirt. IS MY SKIRT TUCKED INTO MY UNDERWEAR?  Panic.  How do I check if my skirt is tucked into my underwear without drawing further attention to myself. 

Finally, after the longest and most panic-stricken interior monolog  ever, my co-teacher  made it up to the stage.  “Meagan, first the principal will speak. Then it will be your turn. Please sit in that chair on the stage and wait.”  Oh. Well, that’s embarrassing,

I sat in the chair as the principal spoke and a calm washed over me.  That had been bad, but could have been so much worse.  When the principal finished he gestured for me to come up to the podium. I gave my speech, somewhat less enthusiastically the second time, but I made it through without flashing anyone. Which, I decided later, is a mark of success in its own right.

I have been teaching now for two full weeks. I’m still getting used to team-teaching and it takes me hours to mark essays that should probably take me minutes. But I have yet to flash any students. Or co-workers, for that matter. Success!

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Halloween is a scary time

Last Thursday and Friday we celebrated Halloween at my school. Halloween is not a common holiday in Korea. Kids know what it is because of Western media and they learn about it in school, but they don’t trick-or-treat or celebrate Halloween outside of English class. This means that Korean children and North American children have very different perceptions of the holiday.

When I was a kid there was always a build up to Halloween. It involved making Halloween crafts in school, agonizing over what the perfect costume would be, trying to convince my parents that we needed WAY more halloween candy than we really did, and picking out the perfect pumpkin.  By the time October 31st finally arrived, the Halloween energy in the air was almost palpable. Sure, Halloween was about candy, but it was also about trick-or-treating: the one night of the year when kids are given the freedom to run around  the neighborhood after dark, in crazy costumes, with their friends,  on a school night. Candy is a very important part of Halloween – perhaps even the most important part for a lot of kids- but in North America it is not the only part.

In Korea, however, where trick-or-treating does not exist, Halloween ought to be renamed  END OF OCTOBER CANDY DAY!!!!!  In caps, with five exclamation marks.

On Thursday I had a three-hour period with three first graders (two boys and a girl.) This class is a long one on regular days, since three hours is a long time for beginners in a second language, especially for first-grade boys. This week, however, we didn’t even have the structure of regular classes; it was Halloween day.   Since there are only three kids in the class and they are very low-level, we were not participating in the spelling bee-type activity that the rest of the classes were doing. Instead, I had  planned several Halloween-themed activities.  Throughout the class I gave candy as rewards, but before I handed out the candy I made the kids go outside, knock on the door and say “Trick or treat!”  They got the hang of it pretty quickly.  Pavlov would have been proud.

There was one big rule though: No eating candy until the end of class. I’m no dummy; I wasn’t about to feed sugar to children and then try to contain them in a classroom.

An artist's interpretation of two Thursday students, titled "Cute Kids, Right?"

The grand finale of Thursday’s class  was a pinata. I originally was going to make a pumpkin pinata, but I was unable to find orange poster paint. Instead, I wrapped the pinata in toilet paper, glued on a mouth and some googly eyes, and called it a mummy’s head. After I explained the concept of a pinata and the rules, I turned around to grab the plastic baseball bat the kids would be using to hit the pinata. In the split second that I had my back turned, I heard the very distinct crinkling of a candy wrapper. I whipped around to see one of the boys looking at me sheepishly. He had the same expression as my dog when I catch her steeling a loaf of bread off the counter.  I didn’t want to be Teacher McGrumpypants at the end of an otherwise  well-behaved party, so instead of punishing the student I allowed the other students to eat one piece of candy also.

You know how in monster movies after the monster has its first taste of blood it will stop at nothing to get more blood? Well, that’s what this was like, only instead of blood, these little monsters were after sugar.  All that stood between them and another hit of sugar were a few layers of paper mache and some googly eyes.

Unfortunately for the three little monsters, the mummy was difficult to kill. For some reason, rather than cracking, the paper mache just became more and more pliable with every hit. Eventually, the pinata fell off  its string and lost all of its tissue, eyes, and mouth. All that remained was a bare and dented mummy head rolling around on the floor. The children took turns chasing the mummy’s head around the class, beating it mercilessly. I have never seen such looks of crazed determination in my life.  See for yourself:

Image captured using technology borrowed from NASA, because Earth cameras cannot record HCW (Halloween-Child-Wavelengths.)

In the end, I grabbed the mummy’s head and put him out of his misery by stabbing him with a pair of scissors.  I let the kids tear him open and as soon as they had their bags of candy in hand they collapsed into their chairs, exhausted from a hard fifteen minutes of mummy-slaying.

Looking back on the event, I think that I succeeded in introducing the kids to Halloween. I mean Halloween is about running around, being something you’re not for a short period, having fun with your friends, and sometimes things get a bit scary.  These kids ran around as Mummy-hunters, had a ton of fun, and scared their teacher. So, mission accomplished, right?

Happy Halloween!


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Unsolicited Advice

How NOT to charm your teacher:

  • Immediately scream “AHHHHHHHHH!  Teacher, your hair looks CRAZY today!” when I enter the room.
  • Decide that English class is the perfect time to hone your throat singing skills.

How TO charm your teacher:

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