What Teaching English in Japan was REALLY LikeOn February 11, 2020 by Raul Dinwiddie
I found this book at the back of my cupboard yesterday. It’s a book filled with goodbye messages from Japanese students I used to teach. I got this on my last week as English teacher. Now I don’t want to brag too much, but you’ll get a sense of what a great English teacher I was and the positive impact I had, just by reading out a few of these messages. We’ve got one here from Yuka who says: ‘Dear Chris, hello Chris,’ ‘Thank you so far 🙂 It was always fun’ Of course it was. ‘Watch for a body, it will become big!!!!’ ‘VIP de BIG’ [inhale] … What? This was written, what… four years ago, and I still don’t know what that means. I mean, to me ‘VIP de BIG’ sounds like a chronically overweight rapper. But perhaps it is alluding to the fact that at the time I was teaching, a lot of students and teachers were worried that I was putting on weight, just ’cause my diet was pretty awful. It does seem to be a recurring theme amongst a few of these messages… We’ve got one here from Karen who says: ‘Dear Chris,’ ‘Thank you for teaching English until now!!’ ‘It was fun to be able to club together.’ It’s important to point out for legal reasons: I didn’t go clubbing with underage students, she is just referring to the after school English club. And she continues, ‘Please be ‘stomach’ much more healthy in the future!!’ Please be stomach… much more healthy… in the future… Well, I did heed her words – I’m not yet entirely stomach. But, it’s just nice, y’know, reading through these… … heartwarming comments. It reminds me of a simpler time. A time when I used to teach English in a room to thousands of students. And today, given that I’ve discovered lots of stuff from my past, I thought I would discuss teaching English in Japan because it’s a popularly requested topic, and I’ve got a lot of stories and experience from my time, teaching with over 2000 hours of classroom experience, that I can draw upon. I’m not gonna hold back on my opinions today on the teaching methods, the teachers, the students, the environment – I’ll try and cover it all so you know what you’re getting into if you should follow a similar path. Now I’ll be open up-front about the fact that I didn’t come to Japan because I was excited about the prospect of teaching English. Like 80% of people, I came to teach English in Japan because I was excited about the prospect of living in Japan. In my rare defence, I did take a short course on teaching English as a foreign language at my university, and my degree was in business and English linguistics. So, y’know, I can speak really good at English words. … I- yeah, I know all the most best words that there… that there are– uhh, that there is. … This bunch of torn and tea-stained documents– why is there a tea stain on it!? This is my original JET application – my application for the Japan Exchange Teaching Program, which I also discovered at the back of my wardrobe. I didn’t even know I had this still! Now I know the criteria for getting on the JET Program or getting a job teaching English in Japan, I can see that my application has none of those things. I mean, it’s so bad that I even wrote about a holiday that I had in Dubai as an example of culture shock and how I’d be able to adapt to culture shock in Japan. ‘I was culture-shocked by Dubai because it was hot and there’s lots of sand.’ ‘And I hate sand.’ That’s not even culture! That’s just a geographical fact! And for the section on Japanese language ability, um… … … Yeah, it’s just blank. There’s nothing there. Nevertheless, with my wealth of cultural experiences, I got on the JET Program. I somehow passed the application process and I ended up with the role as an ALT – ‘Assistant Language Teacher’. And I got placed right here, in a beautiful, rural area, where absolutely nobody feels the need to know English. Now I’ve heard a lot of people criticize the JET Program over the years, because they say that that money invested in the foreign teacher could be spent on Japanese teachers – it could be spent elsewhere in better ways. But lord knows, they need more foreigners in rural Japan. I once dated a Japanese girl from that town, and when it came to meeting her mum, her mum had never met a white person before, despite being 50-something. So I met her, and she was actually so scared of me that she hid behind her daughter. She was scared as if I was some sort of rabid dog who would rip her arm off which, y’know… I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t– that’s not the sort of thing I would do. To be fair, I did think of going along with it and being like, ‘Oh yeah, pleased to meet you— RaARRggh’ But I didn’t do that. ‘Cause I’m not mental. The senior high school where I worked had about 1200 students. It was pretty big. And they were all aged 16-18. Within that school, there were about 12 English teachers, and 120 teachers in general. And I quickly found out when I arrived, that of the dozen teachers that I was gonna work with, only 8 of them actually spoke English. The others had somehow slipped the net. And I don’t mean they spoke English badly, I mean they just genuinely really struggled to communicate in English which was quite a surreal situation to be in. I never held it against them. They were all over 50 years old, and I suspect when they did apply to teach English the extent of the language test must have just been… ‘What is your favourite colour?’ Uhhhhhhh… red. [finger snap] You’re in! However, one of the things that I’d been taught during my long, tedious induction in Tokyo during the first week was that you should never correct a teacher in front of the classroom, lest you undermine them and make them look inferior in front of the class. So I spent my few first weeks conflicted, dying inside, because I wasn’t sure if stepping in and telling the teacher that they were wrong would destroy my fragile relationship with my colleagues early on, y’know, which is really important. So let’s do a 10-second pop quiz, and see what you would do. Choose your own adventure: A: Ignore the situation and carry on, or
B: Tell them it’s wrong and change it. Answer now. … Well done, the answer’s B. Because what’s the point of even being there if you’re gonna stand in the corner and do nothing? And y’know what, I found, by correcting them, it never burned any bridges and they were grateful for the input. [ding] The worst classes though weren’t with teachers that couldn’t speak English, they were the ones with teachers who just didn’t know how to use me in the classroom. And certainly, in my first year when I lacked confidence and I wasn’t very assertive, more times than not, I was used as a human tape recorder – standing in front of the class repeating an endless list of words, and then having students repeat them back out loud to practice their pronunciation. ‘Pheasant’ [crowd repeats]: Pheasant ‘Shrubbery’ [crowd repeats]: Shrubbery ‘Consequences’ [crowd repeats]: Consequences
[that one person]: arara… By the time I was done, I must’ve said every single word in the English language at least four times. If you’re already having a bad day, and you find yourself standing in front of a classroom, repeating words over and over, wondering why you spent £30,000 on a university degree, y’know, you do start to question if you’ve taken the right pathway in life. The only thing worse than being a human tape recorder was the actual tape recorder. Ohh, god. We had audio tapes from the ’90s, voiced by awkwardly enthusiastic, yet ultimately unskilled American voice actors. They didn’t speak like real American people. I’ve met an American person once, and it wasn’t like that. It was like aliens had crash-landed in a garden in Oregon, belonging to a couple who were arguing, and an alien looked through the window and tried to mimic what they were saying in slow motion. [imitation of the stiff, robotic, alien-like American voice actors]: ‘Hello Lucy. I am home.’ [door closes]
(using capitals here in an attempt to portray how each word sounds like their own sentence…) Lucy: ‘So Where Were You This Evening, John?’
(using capitals here in an attempt to portray how each word sounds like their own sentence…) John: ‘Well, Lucy, I Was Working At The Office Again.’ L: ‘I Saw The Messages On Your Cellphone, John.’ L: ‘I Know What You’ve Been Doing.’ J: ‘Well, gee golly gosh, Lucy. Get Off My Back.’ J: ‘We’re Not Going Over This Again.’ L: ‘I Have Had Enough Of Your Poor-Quality Attitude, John.’ L: ‘I am leaving you.’ [door shuts] Comprehensive question 1: Why was Lucy suspicious of John? Ugh, it was a fucking nightmare. By that point I was practically begging to be a human tape recorder again. There were the teaching materials themselves, which had been written by non-native English speakers and came packed full of fun spelling errors, where you had to decide on the spot whether you went along with it, or tried to correct in on the fly. Although, some of them were simply beyond repair, like: ‘Are you aware of your own defect?’!? [dunnnn] Although, to be fair, it is a great conversation starter for a first date. Once I had to read out a chapter from a textbook called ‘Soccer Balls to Afghanistan’, about how a Japanese school had hand-made 200 soccer balls to ship off to Afghan children during the conflict, which is brilliant, and noble, until I had to read out the phrase: ‘when we showed the children the balls, they gave us big smiles.’ ‘It was like a magic!’ Imagine reading that out in front of 40 teenagers, in a big, deep, booming voice, and then trying to maintain some degree of composure … which I simply didn’t do when I just laughed and looked like a sadistic bastard. Thankfully, though, after my first year, with a few hundred hours of classroom experience under my belt, I did become more proactive and assertive, and teachers became more confident leaving me in charge and letting me do my own thing. And that was really when I was in my element, because look: I made a magazine. ‘Spl… Splendid Magazine’. … Yeah. My unwavering hatred of Japanese English textbooks made me just throw them out the window. … Not literally, unfortunately. Though I should’ve done… But I started doing practical things – I started getting students using the English they’d learned to do things like: short films, doing sketches, or in this case, making a magazine. And this was great – students spent time researching a topic, then writing it out, adding some photos in, and there’s some good stuff in here! We’ve got Hayao Miyazaki… some handsome comedians… Oh yeah – McDonald’s! Now we’re talking. It did mean a lot of extra time and effort for me – I mean we did have to put this together – we binded it, we gave every student a copy, but it was worth it! The students enjoyed it, I had fun, and the teachers thought I was a genius for unleashing this groundbreaking concept – the concept of having fun in the classroom. Still, even if I was ‘VIP de BIG’, not all classes went smoothly. Like a gladiator charging into the arena, you always knew how things were gonna go the moment you set foot in the classroom. In about 70% of my classes, I was given a hero’s welcome – to rapturous cheers and applause. Genuinely, it was brilliant. I’d walk in, everyone erupted, and you just knew it was gonna be an amazing hour. The students saw my presence as an opportunity to break from the norm and do something that wasn’t just read out of a textbook. The other 30% of the classes were… not so good. I’d walk in, and feel like a convicted war criminal, because it’d just be silence and it’d be awkward, and you feel like: ‘fuck, what have I done?’ One problem you find in Japanese classrooms is: students are often reluctant to put their hands up. In the UK, if you take a class of 30 students and the teacher asks a question, you often get, y’know, 7 or 8 hands up. But in Japan, it was never more than two, in a room with 40 students. And it seems to be, in Japan, there’s this culture around not making mistakes – the idea of making a mistake is really bad, and that starts off early on, especially in the classroom. And one of my most awkward memories of this happened in my first few weeks of teaching, when I was doing a class on British desserts. Now, one of the things we’re encouraged to do as an English teacher is to introduce your culture into the classroom. In this case, British culture. And for this particular activity, I gave them a list of British desserts and the photos to go with them, and then they had to use their dictionaries to look up the words and try and work out which one went with which. Suffice to say, I made a spectacular blunder by adding ‘spotted dick’ into that list. [dunnn] Hilarity ensued.
[dunnn] And then after that activity, students had to memorise the words and then go up and spell it from memory on the chalkboard. But the hardest dessert to recall and spell on the board was the ice cream dessert ‘knickerbocker glory’, and to be fair, not even I really know how to spell that. But, the only boy in the class bold enough to write it was a really shy kid at the front of the room who kind of kept to himself – he didn’t talk to anyone, and for some reason he felt this, this was his moment. So he came up to the chalkboard and I said to him, ‘Right. The word is ‘knickerbocker glory’.’ And he picked up the piece of chalk, and he wrote on the board, and this is true: ‘Knicker Poker G’! Which, to me, sounds like a charismatic master of Texas holdem poker. And no sooner had he sat down that the class erupted into laughter – they found this hilarious as they could see that it was a spectacular error – they could see that he got it completely and utterly wrong. And I went along with it. I said, ‘Oh, it’s not ‘Knicker Poker G’, but that’d be a great name – that’d be a cool name.’ And amidst the laughter, all of a sudden there was a loud banging noise, and the guy had thrown his textbooks all over the room, he’d banged the fucking table, and he started kicking the desk – it was really awkward! And the whole room just went silent straight away. The teacher had to jump in and say ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry about this… Everybody, stop laughing’… But It made me realise why students often don’t try to make mistakes. Why stand out and get laughed at when you can just keep your head down and do nothing? Fortunately, that experience did happen early on, and for the next two years, whenever a student put their hand up or took a risk, regardless of whether they got the question right or not, I would encourage them or reward them – I’d give them a high five, I’d say well done – anything to show that to try and fail is an important part of language learning. I wanted them to adopt a risk-taking mentality. Y’know, the sort of risk-taking mentality you’d expect from someone like Knicker Poker G. As you could probably imagine, I wasn’t overly serious, and I didn’t want students to feel intimidated when coming over to me and just chatting with me in the corridor. I didn’t want a repeat of my ex-girlfriend’s mum by all accounts. And because they were senior students on the brink of making big life decisions, I loved chatting to them about their dreams and aspirations in life. I remember one time we did a lesson on life goals, and as an initial example I talked about how when I was a kid – when I was your age, I wanted to be James Bond. But unfortunately, for various reasons, that… that didn’t work out. And, the class genuinely felt sorry for me, that I had not been able to fulfil my dream of becoming a fictional character. Nevertheless, the next day, I went to the staffroom, and I went to my desk and I found this on it: It’s a poster for the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’. There’s a little note on it that says: ‘Dear Chris,’ ‘I think you can still make it. Don’t give up your dream, not to regret.’ ‘From Bondgirl.’ How amazing is that? I mean, this alone just shows you how awesome the students are. And you know what, everyday I look at this poster on the wall, and I know, if I believe in it hard enough, my dream of becoming James Bond still won’t come true. Objectively speaking, was I a good English teacher? ‘Course I fucking was, I made a magazine, didn’t I? No, in my first year, I was awful. I lacked experience, I lacked confidence, and I spent far too much time sitting in the staffroom at my desk with my head down. But, by my second year, I could just walk into a classroom at a moment’s notice and conjure up a lesson plan out of thin air. I knew dozens of students on a first-name basis and I got on really well with all the teachers. All in all, I really did love the job by my second year. And the teachers did a fantastic job of making you feel way more important than you actually were. I remember in my second year, I had to go and get the contract for my new year from the intimidating, but undeniably suave school principal. And he handed me the contract – the paper contract – like this: as if he were bestowing me with a legendary sword of some sort, and he looked at me, and he said in perfect English, for the first time I’d heard it, he said: ‘We need your help, again.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ And I took the paper, and it was spectacularly theatrical. I felt like a samurai who had just liberated a town from ruthless bandits. It’s still the closest I’ve come to having my last samurai moment. So, unsurprisingly, I signed up for a third year after that. But, unfortunately, by that point the school principal had left, and we had a new school principal who wasn’t quite as dramatic. And he handed me the paper and he said: ‘Go and teach English.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, alright then…’ Suffice to say, I didn’t sign up for a fourth year. But, fundamentally, by that point I’d done everything I could, and I no longer felt like I was pushing myself or challenging myself anymore. And a lot of my favourite students had graduated and moved on, and I felt like it was time for me to move on as well. If you do ever teach in Japan, though, do hold on to, y’know, things like this. Because reading over comments, like the ones in this book, did take me back to a time in my life that brought me a lot more joy than I ever realised, spending my time alongside fantastic teachers and students who made everyday worth going into work. I can’t say whether or not I had any real impact as a teacher, but I’d like to think for the 2000 or so hours that I stood there in front of the students in the classroom, I at least made their time studying the English language just that little bit more bearable. If I could go back in time to 2011 and meet my past self writing this JET application form in the university dorm, will I tell him to go through with it? Absolutely. I would tell him it’s gonna be worth every minute of it. I would tell him it’s gonna change him for the better. And perhaps, above all, I would tell him not to put his fucking cup of tea on the application form. ‘Cause that’s… that’s an absolute disgrace, isn’t it? So those are just a few stories from my three years as a teacher. I will be talking about more experiences in the future, but if you do have any comments or questions about teaching in Japan, fire away in the comments below, and I’ll try and answer as many as I can. And finally, for more extra behind-the-scenes content, check out the Abroad in Japan patreon page. But for now guys, as always, many thanks for watching – I’ll see you next time.