Children in Japan attend elementary school from the age of six to twelve, passing through six year groups. Although at Nichuu I act as classroom assistant, at my three elementary schools I am required to design and lead forty-five minute lessons. The preparation can be fairly arduous, and my first weekend in Kitakata was spent buried by materials, desperately trying to work out what I needed to do, reducing my floor to a complete shambles.
Thankfully, practice makes peaceful, and lesson planning is not the protracted heart attack it once was, although my notes still look a bit of a mess:
第一小学校 Kitakata First Elementary School, ‘Isshou’
Isshou is a comparatively large school, with both the fifth and sixth years divided into three classes of roughly thirty students each. There was a period of time during which I very much hated Isshou and referred to it in my lesson plans as ‘Hell.’ This was in the aftermath of a disastrously over-complicated activity I had devised to teach directions (left, right, &c.). Most of the students reacted with apathy, but a few were outright bitchy. Two girls in particular gave me looks of poison. When I saw them later on in the day they were wearing swimsuits and invited me to go swimming with them. Giving it little thought at the time, I told them I’d love to swim but couldn’t. On reflection, however, I felt sure they were entertaining fantasies of drowning me.
My first day at Isshou involved a rather stressful lunch period. It can sometimes be a bit of a long wait to be escorted from the teachers’ room by a member or two of the class I’m scheduled to eat with, but on this day I was still sat at my desk twenty-five minutes into the lunch break, when my stomach started to audibly complain. After a tentative enquiry, the teachers present assured me I would be collected. Time continued to tick by until finally one teacher went to check the situation for me. They reappeared saying that I’d just been remembered.
At last I was escorted to eat with a class of third years (nine to ten years old) in a large circle formed by their tiny desks. I had managed a few mouthfuls of egg salad and some small talk with the kids on either side of me when the teacher turned on the TV. It struck me as odd that in a culture that values mealtime quite highly, children would be encouraged to watch telly while eating. The screen displayed nothing but a vacant table and chair, before some of the school’s students appeared and I realised it was live. I was told I should give a self-introduction, though was left unsure as to exactly where and to whom I would deliver it. I was still extremely hungry and knew from my timetable that only ten minutes of lunch remained.
One boy was charged with guiding me to wherever I needed to be, although he got us a little lost on the way. I was delivered to the room from which the announcements were being broadcast, which was attached to a smaller room for the control equipment. There was only one teacher while everyone else was under twelve years old. It felt like Lord of the Flies, with less jungle and more wires. We waited for a group of students to finish their talk, illustrated with an oversized hand-drawn poster held by six people, before I was sat down at the desk, facing the camera like a newscaster. I was so hungry. I gave my awkward bilingual address, all the while distracted by the reflection of my own awkward face. It was over soon enough and I was taken back to the classroom where I urgently rammed the rest of my food in my face before lunch could be called to a finish. Everyone around me, however, continued to consume their meal in a leisurely fashion and showed no concern about the imminent end of mealtime. I made an enquiry as to when the next class would begin and was told two o’clock; an hour and five minutes away. My timetable had not included the post-lunch playtime and cleaning, and I had paid little attention to the times listed in the afternoon. I needn’t have risked indigestion.
The kids I ate lunch with were, like all the younger classes, freaking adorable. There was one girl in particular who knew a surprising amount of English. She was very pretty, had a big gap which a front tooth would one day replace, and said to me, verbatim; “Jennie-teacher you are beautiful!” So she was an instant favourite.
Thankfully over the months I have found the school to be much more agreeable, and even enjoy it now. Most of the teachers are lovely, the fifth years are amazing if loud, and I seem to have somehow won the sixth years over. I believe, though, that there were some problems among the sixth years which I have only been partial witness to. On that eventful first day, as I arrived to teach 6-3, I saw their homeroom teacher, Hosoya-sensei, lecturing a small group of students just outside the classroom. I went in and started the class with Hosoya-sensei there, but he soon vanished, returning only five minutes before the close. As per my contract, I am not supposed to teach without the presence of another teacher, so I was quick to log a complaint with Communicat before it became a habit. I wouldn’t have minded too much if the behaviour of the class had been better, but they were quite rowdy and disinterested, and it was a struggle to keep them engaged. Hosoya-sensei has since remained in the class with me, and while not a notably warm individual, does make some effort to get the kids to take an interest. The class remained, however, not particularly pleasant to teach; as a whole they seemed to become increasingly subdued, making the atmosphere stale and uncomfortable. Moreover, a few of the girls wore unaltering expressions of silent devastation, as if they had just been informed their entire families had perished in a fire. After a number of weeks, I noticed one of the stone-faced girls had been translocated to another class, and since then everyone seems to be generally happier, particularly her. My best deduction is that there were issues of bullying which the school, to their credit, seem to have addressed. However, as I teach there no more than once a week, this could all be pure conjecture.
The other sixth year teachers are Ito-sensei and Higuchi-sensei. Ito-sensei until recently taught in Thailand, and is extremely well travelled. As a corollary his English is proficient, and he clearly encourages his class to have a love of it, so his lessons are pretty fun. Higuchi-sensei is a very sweet woman who smiles a lot. I worry, however, that I may have impaired my relationship with her after I lost my temper at a girl in her class. This girl, sat centre front, kept laughing in an extremely distracting way while I was teaching. I have a strong feeling she was reacting to whispers from the insolent boy next to her, but as he was wearing a facemask I was unable to incriminate him. At first I ignored it, then I innocently enquired if she was okay, then I made her drill the word ‘fifth’ in front of everyone because she wasn’t joining in, then finally I just stopped and berated her in my crappy Japanese, demanding to know what was so funny. Only then did she desist. My intense and protracted anger eventually simmered down to guilt, especially the following week when Ito-sensei mentioned in passing that I had gotten angry, so Higuchi-sensei had evidently spoken about it. As she is such a nice lady, she hasn’t treated me any the worse for it, and I hope to repair any damage by delivering good lessons for her class, and being generally less irritable.
The fifth years, contrariwise, are incredible. They are the sweetest, most engaged, and loudest children one could hope for. They have a great time in my lessons, and consequently so do I. If anything, they are too enthusiastic, as keeping them in check requires shouting oneself hoarse. Their teachers, Watanabe-sensei, Kasama-sensei and Kasaka-sensei, are all fantastic, particularly Kasaka-sensei who the children love and respect greatly. They call him ‘Octopus Teacher,’ a running gag that Kasaka-sensei himself encourages, because he can pull a face like a cartoon octopus.
The fifth year textbook includes a lesson in which the students are required to guess the word ‘globe.’ I’m not sure why, as none of them know it, but their attempts are impressive. In Isshou’s 5-1 class, a girl offered up “map ball,” which was, quite frankly, pure genius. A lively round of similar guesses followed, culminating in one boy shouting ‘HAIII!’ to get my attention over the din.
“Yes?” I acknowledged.
“GALAXY SPACE BALLS!” he hollered.
Whether or not Kasaka-sensei understood the testicle reference, I don’t know, but we both fell apart laughing.
The principle is also great, and will stand at the front of school in the mornings, high-fiving the kids as they arrive. He spoke to me for quite a while one day, and I was pretty chuffed with how much I understood. He chuckled at himself and said he couldn’t speak English, though I pointed out that this was fine as he was in Japan.
While I have grown to be much fonder of this school, there was one particular morning when my dread of going in was so acute, I stood in the car park for a while peering into the tall circular cage of the school’s clinically white rabbits and co-habiting chicken to achieve some tranquillity. The lessons went fine, but the day completely turned around when I spent lunch with a class of second years. The teacher was lovely and encouraged the kids to ask me questions and introduce themselves. Afterwards I played with the students in the space outside their classroom, with increasing numbers of them hanging off my arms. I loved it. I was already on a happiness rush from the adrenaline of playing tag and spinning in circles, when a young and beautiful trainee teacher who had also eaten with this class handed me an A4 sheet of paper covered in signatures and drawings from the students. In the centre was ‘Dear Ms Jennie, please come again!’ In that moment I could have wept with joy. After this, I helped the class with their scheduled cleaning time. This instance is unlikely to ever be displaced as the best lunchtime of my life.
On another lunch break I was with a class of third years, sat next to a girl who was adorable but spoke only softly and rapidly. I didn’t catch a single word, but thankfully she didn’t appear to be asking me anything and so didn’t require a response. As cute as she was, it was a little frustrating to be used as a sounding board for her incomprehensible stream of consciousness. At yet another lunch with the younger kids, the students got caught up in asking me the English for various Japanese words (if anyone wants to study cultural borrowing or the spread of ideas, observe a room full of children). The punch line was that they kept unwittingly asking about words that had been directly taken from English and thus required no translation, like ‘lion’ and ‘ice cream.’
Naturally I’m glad that my feelings toward this school have changed dramatically, and I seem to have garnered a much better relationship with the students. The girl who so long ago invited me to go swimming, probably at my own peril, now seems to adore me; something I cannot understand but do not dare question. It is probably worth bearing at the forefront of one’s mind that the process of growing up involves not only an increase in skills and knowledge, but a refinement of emotions, and thus changes in attitude that would appear practically bipolar in an adult are merely part of the daily tide for those who are experiencing life’s tumultuous waters for the first time. This insight, I’m sure, is banally obvious for those who have raised or worked with children, though I guess the realisation is a part of my own adultward journey.
上三宮小学校 Kamisanmiya Elementary School
Kamisanmiya is a small school surrounded by farmland about fifteen minutes’ drive from the centre of Kitakata. As I pulled into the school grounds on my first day, two little girls saw me behind the wheel, looked excited, and chased my car for a few seconds.
Comparing the populations of Isshou and Kamisanmiya is borderline comical. At Isshou there are roughly ninety students in each year group. Meanwhile Kamisanmiya’s fifth year has twelve kids, and the sixth year has eight. This naturally changes the dynamics of the lessons considerably, and as a teacher you can cover much more ground with so few students.
In her handover notes, my predecessor described the students of Kamisanmiya as ‘awesome,’ saying that they try extremely hard at English. I have found this to be partially true. With six girls and two boys, the sixth year as a whole is quiet and studious, and consequently the students do well at English. Their teacher, Katou-sensei, appears to be an intelligent man, and often spends my lessons flipping through an English dictionary, seeming to study along with the children. He looks to be in his sixties, and while he doesn’t smile often I began to suspect that he was actually quite gentle beneath the authoritarian countenance. I thus resolved to speak to him more, and offer to assist with any questions he might have regarding the English language. Before I could put this plan into effect, however, my opinion towards him took a serious knock. The students were learning how to tell the time in English, and one of the book activities involved listening to a time, then drawing the hands of a clock in the appropriate position. One of the audio files chimed, “It’s 10:45.” Naturally, the children would then draw the shorter hand pointing at ten, and the longer hand reaching towards nine. On a real clock, of course, the shorter hand would in fact rest closer to eleven, with only fifteen minutes until the hour struck. Katou-sensei approached a group of three girls and one boy, and explained the aforementioned positioning to the boy. Raising his head, he then commented “The girls don’t have to do it because it’s difficult.”
Even the girls themselves looked unimpressed, though like myself said nothing. I was busy replaying the cerebral soundbite, checking my Japanese in the hope that I had misunderstood and he hadn’t just been a complete twat. Sadly there was no mistake made, I understood every word.
Thankfully the sixth year students themselves are sweet. Because I started partway through the year, I continued a lesson that my predecessor had begun, and unknowingly conducted an activity which they’d already completed. Rather than highlight my error, the kids tried to hide the fact they knew the answers, even attempting to erase the markings in their books without my noticing. I was quite touched by their kindness, even if it was borne of embarrassment.
The fifth years, however, are a different beast altogether. And I mean beast. With a gender ratio of ten boys to two girls, the difference in behaviour is startling. I am quite the opponent of gender stereotype and assumption, but it would seem that the importance of male kudos means that the majority of the boys are little shits. When boys start misbehaving in other schools, I have found that speaking Japanese, being nonchalant, reciprocating ridicule, or all of the above, is pretty effective in getting them to show some respect towards me. With Kamisanmiya, none of these have proved successful. Their homeroom teacher, although a nice woman, does very little to control them, and I’m not sure whether it’s because she is ignorant of the extent of their disrespect, or if she cannot find the energy to tackle it.
I have gotten genuinely quite upset with the maliciousness of the fifth years, as they don’t even attempt to conceal their sniggers at my expense. One day they asked if I knew about ‘American oranges,’ and I was pretty sure the conversation was about my breasts. In a lesson with the grammar point ‘What do you want?’ one boy said clearly ‘What fuck do you want?’ I don’t consider myself to be easily shocked, and I doubt he even knew the phrase was grammatically legitimate, but I was still appalled. Their behaviour didn’t even improve when their Principle, a position that usually elicits a lot of respect, covered for their homeroom teacher.
While the boys are a total nightmare, the girls are actually quite lovely. One in particular is great at English and tries hard, which entails swimming against the frustrating tide of her arrogant classmates. Ideally I need to create lesson plans that keep the boys entertained with movement and competition, while allowing the girls to shine and gain a sense of achievement. As yet I have not figured out how to do this.
Thankfully not everything in this school is bad. The teachers are nice, save the King of Misogyny, and many moons ago I was called ‘bijin’ (literally ‘beautiful person’) by two teachers independently on the same day. The second had said: “The kids must be embarrassed around you because you’re a bijin.” Even if we were liberal enough to take the second clause as true, I thought, it doesn’t make them fucking behave. Of course, I was still happy to receive the compliment.
The younger students, in years one through four, are fantastic. When I teach them on occasion they are so enthusiastic and adorable that I have a great time. One boy in the fourth year is short for his age, overweight, energetic, slightly cross-eyed behind his glasses, and has a mildly forced confidence. I loved him instantly. In one lesson, while I reset a game, he got up and did a little dance in the interlude to entertain his classmates. On my first lunch time at Kamisanmiya I played tag, some sort of zombie game, and another game the object of which I could not understand. One very kind, petit girl was patiently explaining the rules to me, and insisting on how easy it was, but I was hopelessly lost. Meanwhile I was sorely tempted to have a go on the school yard playing apparatus, but thought questions might be asked if a grown white woman in business attire was seen atop a children’s climbing frame. However, I decided I could get away with a few spins on the lower bars.
松山小学校 Matsuyama Elementary School
One day Nakano-sensei asked which of the elementary schools is my favourite, and it’s possible that I answered a little too quickly with “Matsuyama.”
The school is smaller than Isshou but bigger than Kamisanmiya. One might call it ‘just right.’ The fifth and sixth years are divided into two classes of about twenty students each. On occasion I teach whole year groups together, which can be exhausting; not because of poor behaviour, but due to the sheer volume of bodies who need to be shouted over. At the end of one such lesson, a homeroom teacher gave a five minute lecture on the importance of listening. I couldn’t help feeling it would have been more useful while the class was still in progress.
On my first morning at Matsuyama I spoke to the principle for quite a while, and I was impressed at his knowledge of UK history, as he referenced the Celts and Saxons. Unfortunately, it’s hard enough to give a potted account of British heritage in English; in Japanese I fail entirely. At this time, the school had recently acquired some tiny baby bunnies, though despite my invariable, if untruthful, response of ‘rabbits’ whenever I am asked about my favourite animal, I have yet to receive an offer to pet them.
My first day at Matsuyama was at the end of an exhausting week, but I came away elated. The children are energetic, engaged and lovely, and all the teachers are caring and friendly. Sadly, in playing Fruitsbasket in a sixth year lesson (a game which involves a lot of running about), two boys collided so violently that the taller one came away with a nosebleed. At lunch time I was asked to play with some of the younger kids and, despite my previous reticence at Kamisanmiya, climbed to the top of the monkey bars.
One lunchtime in September, I was eating with some first years, in complete silence. Prior elementary school lunches had been rather noisy, so this felt a little uncomfortable. It transpired that the teacher was just giving me a chance to eat, before the kids were permitted to fire questions at me. I was later sat in the teachers’ room when some of the girls turned up at my desk eager to interview me further. It was particularly flattering when, despite having run out of questions completely, they desperately tried to think of more. One girl asked me something that necessitated the consultation of my dictionary, and upon discovering that she was asking whether I preferred addition or subtraction, I realised they were truly scraping the bottom of the barrel. I decided to steer us toward playground games, and they taught me an enjoyable clapping game with rock-paper-scissors imbedded in it. They complimented my side-plait, and consequently I braided each of their hair. Unfortunately the last girl had a short and slippery bob which I could not wield, and I was left feeling guilty for copping out with a small plait at her temple.
When I first started teaching, there was an old man with an extremely raspy voice sat opposite my desk. Just before the summer holidays I mentioned that I wanted to buy a bike, and he seemed to offered me his. I gave him my email address, but never heard back. When I returned after two months he was gone and another old man, who looks quite dejected most of the time, was in his place. This man, I came to realise, is the groundskeeper, and spends a lot of time playing on his phone. I have no idea what happened to the previous guy, and somehow I dare not ask.
The teachers are the loveliest people, and during the scorching summer months, the tall scheduler kindly provided a steady supply of cold drinks. I also came to my desk one day to find two apples with a note that, if translated literally, says “Jennifer-sensei, always thank you.” The best English approximation I can conceive is ‘Keep up the good work.’ Either way, it made me very happy.
Above are three drawings that elementary school children handed to me as a gift after class. I sincerely hope they are not portrait studies.