Tag Archives: teaching

Saigo no saigo: My very last class

It was unreal. That glowing JET experience that they splash across the brochures and the websites — I lived it, for 50 minutes. My last class at junior high was one of the few times the students were so engaged, having so much fun, experimenting with their English. (Lately, among the first-year boys, this involves some variation of “You are beautiful.”)

I’ve been doing a Jeopardy-style quiz game in every class for the last 3 weeks, and it’s met with pretty good results, but nothing like the room full of screaming, laughing 12-year-olds, every hand in the air, that I experienced today. When I walked into the classroom, I was met with enthusiastic applause. When I announced that we were playing a game, applause. When I announced the name of the game (they have never heard the word “Jeopardy” in their lives) — applause.

After the game, I showed a PowerPoint that first covered my experiences around the prefecture and then introduced LA, loosely my home city. Questions abounded. These included the standard “How old are you?” ( I guess they’ve forgotten that every single class asked this 4 months ago at the start of term), and when I told them that tomorrow happens to be my birthday, there was yet another enthusiastic outburst, followed by a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

I made a short speech at the end of class thanking the class for a good year. They told me for the thousandth time that I am very cute and “You are Great Teacher” (they know that moniker from this manga/anime), which made me a little teary-eyed, causing shouts of “Oh, sensei! Namida [tears]!” and “Don’t cry!”

God, who’s been on my mind a lot as I struggle to deal with the grief of leaving, was with me today, coursing through the kids of grade 1, class 2 and leaving me with this unexpected feeling not of sadness but of peace — a washed-cleanness like that of the hot blue sky outside. The formidable energy of 36 teens focused, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, on my lesson — there’s nothing quite like it.


Ritualized graduation misery

I expect I’ll always remember March 2013 as one of the saddest times in my life. It’s been a tough week and it will only get worse until the term ends on the 22nd.

With graduation coming up in less than two weeks at all of my schools, classes are drawing to a close and the end-of-year finality is heavy in the air. Yesterday I was invited to a shaonshiki at one of my visiting elementary schools, which is a thank-you ceremony that the graduating students put on for the teachers and staff. I have two more of these to get through (one for each of my schools), not to mention graduation as my third-year junior high students move on to high school, but I’m choosing to write this post before any of those other events. I suspect I’ll be so rubbed raw emotionally over the next two weeks that I’d be dripping all over the keyboard…

What makes shaonshiki so unbearably poignant, I think, is a combination of two potent factors. First, as a teacher, I feel the unavoidable sadness of sending off students with whom I’ve spent hours of classes and exchanged countless greetings and banter; students with whom I’ve shared the desperate frustration of trying to cross the language barrier. (In my *last ever* class with the junior high third-years today, I felt that helpless frustration for the billionth time as a student eagerly asked me a question in Japanese which I couldn’t understand. I thought, maybe by the grace of God I can give this student the small gift of a successful exchange before I say goodbye forever – but no such luck.)

Wrapped up in this teacherly pain is a parental concern for the kids, which leads me to the second stab of shaonshiki: I realize with surprise that maybe the hallmark intense groupism of Japan has rubbed off on me. As I watch my students, thanking the teachers and staff with stiff formality but full of emotion, I find myself feeling everything on their behalf.

These young teenagers fight through tears as they prepare to leave the group of peers and adults that’s been their community for six formative years. Nobody in the class of twenty-six is immune. Not Oyama, who was Mr. Personality all year, loud and confident and always joking; not Mori, who was sweetly silly, constantly smiling, and whose favorite pastime in English class was saying his own full name with an exaggerated American accent. Those students who are dry-eyed still can’t hide their set mouths, tight lips, drawn faces.

And I want so badly to be a grown-up for them: to smile at them, tell them it will be okay, tell them that about a decade ago I was in their shoes, young and scared and uncertain about the future. But my throat is painfully tight as I see in my class of young, bubbly sixth graders the misery that comes with ending a chapter in their lives.

Also, it’s simply not true that I was in their shoes when I was that age. Thinking back on my own commencement ceremonies at elementary and middle school, I remember being a few things – relieved to be done with that level of school; excited to move on; happy and proud to be celebrating with my family and school community. I definitely wasn’t sad. And that’s only natural: in American society, school was nowhere near as big a part of my life as it is for these Japanese kids.

As all ALTs in Japan come to understand, teachers and students have a much closer relationship here than in the United States. And with Japanese adults working famously long hours, plus school and club activities in the evenings and on weekends, many of my students have probably spent more time with the teachers and staff than with their parents.

Somehow the fact that I’ll see these students in less than a month, when they enter my junior high school, doesn’t console me as much as I would expect. Again, I feel that my whole pattern of thinking and feeling has been impacted by this culture, and I can’t escape the collective sadness that this room full of students, teachers, staff and parents seems to feel as one.

All I can ask for during this trying month is to be as strong as these students are forced to be: to face the future with their grace, their maturity, and their bravery. I can be thankful, too, that my job is something I care enough about to shed tears over.

Sometimes, the tough nuts do crack

Last term I taught the same four classes of 6th graders every Friday at my weekly visiting school, and many of you know that I was saddened to learn that I wouldn’t be teaching them this term. Luckily, the 5th graders that I’m working with now are adorably enthusiastic. 🙂

This week, however, the 5th graders are on a ski trip, so the other JTE, who’s now working with 6th grade, asked me to come in just for today. I got to see the 6th graders for the first time since early December, and it was a shock to see how they’ve changed. Maybe the class psychology has shifted now that it’s their last term at elementary school, or maybe simply having a new JTE has changed the way they behave in English class (even though the same homeroom teacher is still ostensibly in charge of discipline. Keyword, ostensibly…).

The most surprising change was in fourth period. This class was always the most stressful part of my Fridays last term: there were 4 boys in particular who were unruly and disruptive, and the homeroom teacher was explosive and borderline abusive, in my opinion. So I was apprehensive as they filed in today.

Not only was the class pretty well-behaved, 2 of the 4 boys in particular seemed to have transformed! Last term, they had chatted with each other and the other 2 boys, wandered around the classroom and often didn’t participate in activities (indeed, actively sabotaged them on occasion!). Today, by contrast, both of them seemed really engaged and focused.

One of them — let’s call him Okada-san — especially stuck out to me. He knew all the answers, participated enthusiastically in the games, and had this big smile on his face the whole period. I had always known that he was sharp (the disruptive kids are often the ones who are best at English and consequently bored out of their skulls) but it was still so inspiring to see the change that this 12-year-old kid had undertaken in less than 2 months.

Of course I felt a little sad that all this had taken place after I left — could I have done something differently to make it happen sooner? was there a way I could have better gotten through to the disruptive boys? — but still, it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. And I’m more optimistic than before about seeing how these kids will have grown up when they enter my middle school as first years in April.