It’s finally happening. You pushed through the rigorous application process, sweated through the interviews, and finally have your acceptance letter. Your dream of teaching English in Japan has become a reality!
What you expect: Classrooms filled with studious children, enthusiasm for English, tag team efforts with Japanese teachers, effective curriculum from your amazing brain, and a job well done each day.
What you find upon arrival: Classrooms filled with the screams of not learning, little interest in English, Japanese teachers with their own agenda, and gangs of yankis (bad kids) roaming the halls, telling you to shine (die) every chance they get.
Congratulations! You got placed in a troubled school.
And so did I. Unlike my peers who had great stories about their students’ enthusiasm for life and learning, I had stories about broken windows and broken dreams. When I told people in my town where I worked, they usually said zannen (too bad). In my school, there were 900 students, 24 homerooms, and only five of those homerooms were dependably well-behaved.
There are three ways to go when you experience culture shock this severe.
- You can become bitter and hate Japan.
- You can pretend nothing is happening and Japan is still perfect.
- You can deal with your experiences and grow.
Sadly, I saw option 1 and 2 happen a lot, and they usually happened when the person did nothing. Option 3 is the hardest and is only achieved when you start viewing your bad situation as an opportunity for personal growth.
Easier said than done, right? Incredibly right. Below I will elaborate on 5 practical tips you can use in your tough situation. I admit I am not an expert in Japanese relations or classroom teachonomics, so please compare what I say here with the advice of other people in these situations
But to my credit, I was placed in the biggest school in my town, which also happened to be the most horrible (what luck!). And to speak of the psychological effects, I spoke no Japanese in the beginning and had just come from my first experience in Japan as a teaching intern at Kasukabe Kyoei, which is a high level school filled with well-behaved geniuses.
All that to say, I returned to the U.S. feeling comfortable with my infamous school and loving Japan less as a magic lollipop kingdom and more like an old friend. I hope the tips I used will help you accomplish the same.
1. Re-Define Your Goals
As a brand new ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) I had a few simple objectives: to have meaningful interactions with my students, make them all English experts, and teach them about the wide, wide world (specifically America). Realistically, this is impossible even at a good school. The advantage of a troubled school is that it will crush these dreams for you early on, like so much egg salad sandwich under foot. This is a good thing. You get the opportunity to realistically redefine your goals.
After fruitlessly pursuing my goal of “real teaching” for several months, I learned an important lesson. You can’t teach if it’s not a learning environment. And my school was not that. It’s hard to keep children’s attention when a student is riding his bike on the roof (even I wanted to see that).
The change came when I asked each individual teacher what they needed me to do. I was trying to be a one size fits all ALT for each class and that didn’t work with 24 wildly different homerooms. The Japanese teachers who were my partners knew these classes better than I did, so I became what they needed for each class. This didn’t solve everything. Some teachers wanted me to do virtually nothing, which was not what I wanted. But other teachers wanted me to do puppet shows and make PowerPoint presentations featuring Mega Man. I focused my efforts on them.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I felt better when I was useful. For one teacher, I was literally a bodyguard, batting down papers thrown at her and escorting students back to their seats. It was exhausting, but felt good protecting a sweet old lady from maniacs.
The point is, give yourself a role regarding each teacher and name it, like a job title (For Matsuda-sensei, I am pronunciation manager; for Katayama-sensei, I am a bouncer, etc.). Even if you don’t like the particular role, it will feel better knowing you are being a useful part of the team and give you attainable, satisfying goals.
2. Draw Out Your Good Students
I had two first impressions of my school:
- My school was insane.
- All my students were bad.
The first impression remained largely true, but the second was not. In my first week I met four exceptional students, one who is currently attending Waseda University! They were my saving grace, but if I was going to survive, I needed to find more of them.
If I had to guess, I would say my school consisted of 100 yankis, 600 neutral students, and 200 good students (and about three sociopaths). But even with only 100 bad influences, it was enough to keep the insanity percolator at full boil.
But the fact remained, there were 200 good students in there somewhere. Drawing them out was the challenge. Calling on good students or talking to them outside of class worked only sometimes. I eventually noticed they could write English very well, but rarely spoke it and loved passing notes to each other.
Enter: Michael’s Mailbox System. I constructed a large cardboard mailbox and explained the system to each homeroom. The response was overwhelming. I began corresponding with at least 30-40 of the suspected 200 good students and that was enough for me. It gave me at least a few kids in each homeroom I could focus my attention on. This may be seen as playing favorites, but I saw it more as putting my efforts to good use.
Other ideas might be to join a club (good kids open up when not in a classroom environment) or start an English club (you’ll attract the kids who care enough to learn English in their free time).
3. Build Your Personal Confidence
I was pretty nervous about teaching from the get-go. To make matters worse, after my self-introduction speech to the students (during which I mumbled Japanese words I had yet to learn the meaning of) I fell off the stage.
I slipped off the top step and slid down the stairs to the gym floor in front of 1,000 people. That was my school’s first impression of me.
Thankfully, a few days before that, I was sitting at an izakaya with a fellow ALT teacher who was giving me advice. The main thing I remembered her telling me was “freak out the squares.” Basically, fight loud and crazy with loud and crazy.
My glorious hiney slide in front of the 1,000 people was immediately followed by my first lesson ever. Talk about nerve racking. I was only three words into it when a student yelled an obscenity at me and the class fell into uproarious laughter. This was it, I had to freak out the squares. And freak out I did. “My name is…MICHAEL!” I yelled, clicking to my first slide, thankfully a wacky picture of me. The class reacted to my energy. I had them. I was all big noises and big movements. I felt small, but I acted big. When a kid yelled out of turn, I made him my ally in craziness. All in all, it was a fantastic first class.
Granted, this technique did not always work, but it worked surprisingly well most of the time. Recently I found out the reason why.
In a 2012 TED talk, Amy Cuddy exposes a simple truth: our stress and confidence hormones inform how we act, but acting confident reverses the process and informs our chemicals. I didn’t feel powerful, but I acted it and eventually became it (boosting my testosterone and lowering my cortisol). Doing this over long periods actually changes your behavior and your success rate. It’s not “fake it till you make it”, but rather “fake it till you become it”. Amy Cuddy explains it much better than I can.
I now consider being trapped in that crazy school to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. Because I took that first shaky step of power that day, I spent two years becoming a better presenter, which still serves me today.
4. Find Compassion For The Yankis
Yankis were the bane of my existence for a good long while. I mentioned them earlier, but allow me to elaborate here: they are the punks of Japan. Tall orange hair, baggy clothes, and an attitude. They always struck me as silly and never physically dangerous, but they were emotionally degrading and obnoxious. They interrupted my classes, yelled obscenities at me, and wouldn’t leave! They didn’t attend class, yet stayed in the school. That still boggles my mind. If you’re going to skip class, go to the mall! In a nutshell, they were the bad kids.
I hate to admit this, but for a time, I hated the yankis. They targeted me for ridicule, which I deflected but ultimately internalized. My turning point came when I began reflecting on problem students I went to school with and what (probably) made them act out. I didn’t know a lot of details about the yankis, but over time it became apparent that these renegade miscreants didn’t have much to look forward to. Their loud shows of bravado were mostly covers for what they did or didn’t have going for them outside of school.
This made them seem a lot less threatening and a lot more pathetic. And I mean that to say, it gave me sympathy for them.
Sadly, I never found a solution to the yanki’s behavior problems. If 65 teachers couldn’t keep a lid on the situation, it’s unlikely I could have. However, my perspective shift gave me more compassion for them. If they were harassing a student or teacher, I would do my best to stop it. But when they weren’t behaving badly, I didn’t treat them any differently than the other students and I even tried talking to them. It worked a few times. While most remained hostile and insane fools, I found a few good-natured yankis that, for whatever reason, just had no drive to succeed. I still think of them from time to time and hope they have found good things.
5. Understand And Make Peace With The Japanese Way Of Doing School
This goal was the hardest for me to achieve. After my first year, I had formed my conclusion about the Japanese school system: it was wrong and bad and awful! And it didn’t work. And also I hated it. Furthermore, I had the answers to fix all of their problems. But for all my “genius” fixes, I was powerless to change the system.
My anger at the school system had a threefold balm:
- Many of my creative heroes are products of the Japanese school system, as well as some very wonderful Japanese people who have become my friends. So something was working somehow.
- The system needed change before I got there, but it wasn’t going to change just because I showed up with my ideas. Even if the schools decide to change based on ideas from Western schools, Japan has to come to that realization and change in its own way.
- I didn’t attend a bad school in the U.S. but maybe some things that worked for me in my good school were not working for other kids in bad schools. Maybe some changes need to be enacted in my own country’s school system.
Frankly, these epiphanies came to me and took hold very slowly. You will have to wrestle with your grievances against Japanese school yourself and take time to make peace with them. No matter the conclusion you come to, however, you will become a more well-rounded person for spending the emotional energy to deal with these objections.
Here are few exercises you can do to help you wrestle:
- Write down the things you don’t like about the Japanese way of doing school. Acknowledge that these objections are not frivolous. They are your convictions and they matter! Put them away somewhere (a book, a drawer) as an act of setting these grievances aside. You are not destroying or dismissing these feelings you have. That’s why you are keeping them. But you are putting them away in favor of accepting the system for what it is, so your grievances won’t get in the way of your greater mission as an ambassador.
- Read some articles about problems in your own country’s school system. How many were in your blind spot? How many of the problems in Japanese schools may be blindspots to Japanese people?
- Read Koichi’s article on the school system! It outlines what the Japanese way of school is trying to achieve. It helps to know how the system is supposed to work, even if it’s not working in your school.
In The End…
Let me add as I close, that even though my school was crazy and disturbing, I did not feel I was in any physical danger. The tips I outlined are not meant to help you accept or ignore a dangerous situation. If you feel you might be in danger of any physical harm, and this goes for any time in your life, get help or get out of there!
This batch of advice is just to get you started. Read other articles and forum posts by people in these situations. Even if you implement my suggestions, it will take a lot of patience, practice, and soul searching before you figure out what works best for you and your circumstances. You will still have bad days (those never went away for me) but you will deal with them and learn from them much more effectively.
In the end, if you can avoid denial and bitterness, you will find yourself to be a stronger and more holistic person than when you started. It sounds weird to say, but I’m glad I was placed in my insane school. It forced me into situations that built my self-confidence and life skills, as well as brought me face to face with a not-so-easy side of Japan. I was made to wrestle with things that made Japan seem less magical and more like a country filled with human beings. And that is what you will want at the end of your time teaching English, to know that you lived and experienced real Japan.