By 7:00 am on a school day I’ve pretty much showered, dressed and had a small breakfast. It’s about that time I put on a podcast of CBC’s, World at Six and step out onto my small balcony with a coffee. Shortly thereafter I see the first of the students bicycling past the building on their way to school (my school; Daiichi). When I arrive at Daiichi, also by bicycle, about 45 minutes later, there are dozens of students on the playing field playing the sport of the “Club” to which they belong. Most Clubs are of an athletic nature, baseball, volleyball, tennis etc., but there also clubs associated with various hobbies and arts. Membership in a club is compulsory and activities are scheduled both before and after school hours.
Although the first class doesn’t start until 8:50 am, I like to be at my desk well before 8:00. I take off my shoes at the entrance of the school, put on my “indoor” shoes and go to class. Most teachers are already at their desks by the time I arrive. By the time they finish supervising after-school club activities, it may well be after 7:00 pm by the time they get home. Upon entering the office in the morning I address the staff saying “Ohayo ga zai masu” (good morning) and bow. They reply in unison and also bow. I get a coffee, sit down and check my schedule of classes for the day.
There are six 50 minute classes per day plus a lunch break. On any day I have between three and five classes. There are three grades in Junior High and the age of the students is generally between about 12 an 14. There are also much smaller special needs classes that now have no more than three students.
Special Needs is my favorite class. We have a very talented artist who is autistic and popular with pretty much everyone in the school. Last week we took these large, zucchini-shaped gourd-like plants, cut them into sections and boiled them in a very large pot. I had no idea what they were but it seemed pretty clear they were gross and clearly inedible. It was only after we’d cooked them, drained them in cold water and scraped out the flesh and seeds that I realized what they were. Loofahs! Once dried, identical to the ones you might buy in a bath shop. Apparently the flesh of the plant also has astringent cleaning properties.
The English teachers I work with are smart, articulate, and damned good at their profession. Except for the fact that, regardless of how well you know a learned language, you will never fully grasp the nuances of pronunciation, cadence and things like the use of idioms and metaphors as well as a native-born English speaker; they would not need ALTs at all. They are certainly aware of this and, to a certain extent, are no doubt thinking, “This is MY class. What do I really need this gai-jin for?” The answer is simple: They need the ALT to be totally engaged in speaking to the class: That is really what it is all about. If you can stand in front of 30 kids, sing dumb songs and clearly articulate in English at the level the students are comfortable with, you will be ok. It is NOT a job for shy people. It is also very gratifying in the middle of a class to glance at the teacher and get that nod that says, “Yes, we are both on the same page here – you are doing ok”. (that happened to me on Friday and it was a very welcome validation).
Class begins with everyone standing to attention. The students bow (rei) and the teachers return the bow. I do a “warm up” asking the students how they are, what the weather is like, the date and the time. I then distribute a short English-learning game quiz that I’ve prepared that might focus on pronouns for example. I’ll read English from the lesson book and then assist the sensei (teacher) for the remainder of the class. It gets easier with each passing day but, I don’t mind admitting, it was pretty intimidating at first.
Lunches are big, nutritious and varied. On any given day we might have fish, chicken, soup or beef as an entree with a side dish of salad, dessert and a small bottle of milk. Everyone in the school gets a lunch and Wednesday is my designated day to “clean up” for the office staff afterwards.
Clean up? At 3:30 pm, after the last class, I stand in front of the computer classroom (my designated clean-up area), as the students line up in rows in front of me. A student says rei (bow), we bow and then clean the room. Kids with a damp cloths squat low, lean forward with the cloth on the floor and run from one end of the room to the other, thus cleaning the floor. Other kids sweep and wipe down the desks. As I am the only Sensei in the room, the mood is pretty casual and the is a lot of kidding around. It was in the clean-up that I initially established a rapport with some of the students.
Before leaving sometime after 4:00 pm, I stand, bow and apologize for leaving early. The teachers bow and thank me for my effort. I am almost always the first to leave.
Obviously much more goes on but that is a “bare bones” account of my working day. With that “framework” in place, I’ll try to be a little more casual and anecdotal in my next post