Aa~h, the hustle and bustle of preparing for graduation. Another year, gone. Like every school in Japan, I sit here at my desk and watch the other teachers clean, organize, and sort out their remaining business before leaving for new beginnings. Some will retire, some will depart for a fresh school, and some will go home to start a family. While I appreciate Japan’s fight against stagnancy, I can’t help but feel a little sad. It would be a great opportunity to create a closely knitted school body. But I digress. While I have some time and am feeling particularly pensive, allow me to reflect on the closing school year.
Though my memory is foggy, I remember the start of my 2nd year at this school was rushed and intense. It was also the first time I would be entering the lion’s den that is elementary school. All too soon I was making lessons and freshening up my stash of games
and flash cards. Over time, all of the ideas I had to integrate English further into the lives of my students disintegrated. As much as I would like to believe I can still accomplish what I would like to do, I must be realistic.
The Japanese education system is changing. While a Japanese citizen might refute what I observe, I will tell you that the current system is meant to cram as much as possible into a small amount of time. Grades and scores before high school are not highly regarded and thus, students are allowed to skate by without a proper foundation. Japan lives and breathes exams. Chapter exams, semester exams, final exams, proficiency exams, entrance exams, driving tests (and yearly re-tests if you’re a foreigner), certifications, licenses…! I know some of these are necessary, but MY GOD. Can’t they just go off the good faith of a well-placed recommendation anymore?
Students in Japan are experiencing the push to learn English sooner. It’s becoming a compulsory subject starting from 5th and 6th grades. Elementary school teachers are not equipped with the required knowledge to lecture on grammar and vocabulary. Textbooks are helping though, allowing the Japanese teachers to speak in Japanese while giving the English speaking job to the ALT (i.e. me!). Still, much of the English instruction is falling to many ALTs and it’s incredibly daunting. This article and this article from Japan Times provides a good commentary on the situation.
Despite my school year having been squished with preparation, my time was not ill-spent. I made connections with my elementary school children through playing and drawing. Whenever I walked into a classroom, I would hear a bunch of voices asking and demanding me to draw this and that. I was not left in the dust, however. Many of the younger kids would draw things for me on scrap pieces of paper. I wonder if my happy befuddlement was how my dad felt whenever I’d give him artwork out of the blue.
I should take a moment to reminisce on what I can remember. All of them start with One day…
- I was at the drug store vending machine buying bottles of Coca-Cola for some thirsty JHS kids when a young boy ran up to me to say hello. I recognized him as one of mine.
- When I was in the dollar store looking at yarn, a little girl called out to me. We had a small conversation in English and Japanese. It’s funny, though. If I’m seen outside of the classroom still in work clothes, my identity is still confusing to most folks.
- I was riding my bike home late one evening and a JHS girl noticed me and said, “Let’s ride home together!”
- Another female student, this one having already graduated and entered high school, saw me walking to the 7-11 and said, “Hey, Ashley! I have a part-time job here at this restaurant. Please come and see me sometime!” This was in Japanese and broken English, of course.
The best memory I have from this year is when a 5th grader told her class during presentations I was her hero. How amazing is that?! I always told myself as a kind of mantra that if I could touch at least one person during my stint as a teacher (heck, during my life even), I could die happy. I truly believe that we take a little of something from the people we meet in our lives.