Letter from Japan #7


“You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.”
~ Robert Heinlein

Dear Bob,

You asked me to go into more detail about the teaching side of things.

As I’ve already alluded to, this is not a typical teaching experience. I’ve never had one like it anyway. What you’d think might be the closest thing is actually the furthest; teaching at a private school in Korea was so regimented that there wasn’t room for much outside the box (but when there was, I went hard!). Two weeks of training and two more shadowing the former teacher gave me my parameters, and a CCTV-monitored classroom with constant feedback and evaluations, plus the “Best Teacher” awards and the ubiquitous no news/good news let me know when I was staying somewhere in them. A pre-packaged guided curriculum that the kids reviewed (and also had in Korean) before class meant the kids too knew what to expect. There was a no-Korean rule in the classroom that the students always followed, homework the students always did, and general air of motivation. And for some reason, I got way more attached. I loved those kids.


Fig A. Happy Kid, Korea

So, my job was very satisfying, but only in that way when you know you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Certainly effortless. I went above and beyond in any way I could, like making videos like this and of the debates I had with my older classes where I had the most freedom. Those were the best of times.

Here it is the opposite in all of the above ways. As the resident foreigner, my job is to expose them to native English and give them a chance to talk to me (they have their lessons upstairs). To show them a fun time, basically, while slipping in grammar points along the way. Problem is, they are not very motivated and their level is quite low. I only have them once a week for a short time, during which I must inspire them by saying and doing the thing that elicits the most response.

I think of myself more as a game designer than a teacher. I try not to do the same thing thrice, so I am forever trying to devise fun new ways to pull English out of them. There are a ton of resources on the internet for this, but most suggest activities either too advanced for their level or not fun enough for their age. So it’s a lot of trial and error.

There is no typical day of the week, but it averages out to something like this:

2:00 – 3:00:  A private class with an advanced adult student. These are called “conversation “ classes and are supposed to be what it sounds like, but they are often so anxious that they don’t think to ask me questions or go into much detail, so for the shier ones we may do a role-playing activity or have them translate a Japanese storybook or board game to me, or even just more formal lessons if that’s what they would prefer. I just ask them what they want.

3:00 – 4:00:  Kids, a.k.a the bane of my existence. A group of 5-8 age 3-5 year olds. I have realized in my 7 months here I will never feel successful in these classes. I’m not even sure it’s possible. It’s mainly about having them exposed to English and tricking them into saying English via games, which I have to change every few minutes due to their incredibly short attention spans. Maybe I’ll sing a song, maybe I’ll be a puppet, maybe I’ll disassociate from my body as everything crumbles into chaos while parents look on through the window.

4:00 -5:00 Juniors, a group of 5-8, 6-8 year olds. They can’t read or speak a sentence but they understand enough to enjoy a variety of group games, which I can explain using Google Translate. Here I can reliably stick to a theme without things going off the rails. Maybe I’ll play Simon Says, maybe we’re practice a very basic conversation script, maybe I’ll read a book and ask leading questions, maybe I’ll sing and reenact “On Top of Spaghetti”, or sing and get them to reenact “The Ants go Marching”, the two best kids songs ever!


5:00 – 5:45: Elementary, group of 4-5. Here we move from the big playing room to the small sitting room with the one big desk, which this age prefers to use as a chair and who am I to stop them if they are doing the thing. Here I might do a game where they hold a picture or word up and the other students have to make them guess what it is, simple card or board games, 20 questions, or make fortune tellers.


Valentines Day cards for mom

7:00 -7:30 Jr. High, a group of 4-5. Here I start enjoying things more. I might do 2 Truths 1 Lie (tell 2 things that are true and 1 a lie about yourself or your weekend and everyone guesses the lie), “would you rather” questions, riddles, or a communal story.

7:30 – 8:00 Jr High or High School class .

8:30 – 9:00 High School. Here we can just shoot the shit, teach expressions like “shoot the shit” or how to swear correctly, maybe show them a cool website or YouTube channel, and try to talk about the deeper things in life. I do love this age.

IMG_20170703_144953_413 (1).jpg

Joahri’s Window with my emotionally intelligent high school boys

9:00 – 10:00 Late high school/University age small conversation class. In addition to the above, with the longer time we might have a debate, I might give them an untranslatable Japanese word and have them try to explain it to me, or play party games I learned in improv or from Whose Line is it Anyway? Very fun!

My enjoyment of the classes tend to increase with age (which is positively correlated with their desire to be there, so maybe that’s more it). My favourite class is the 1 hour conversation with three old wise ladies, and my least favourite class is the 30 minute baby class with their mothers.

I don’t feel like I’m running out of ideas just yet, but to be honest I don’t feel like I have attained (or am gonna) job satisfaction like this, which is weird because it seems like an ideal situation for me and by all accounts should be more satisfying than teaching in Korea. I wonder if my needs have changed or something about the total freedom of the job doesn’t cover anyone’s basic needs for work satisfaction. I wonder, for jobs like this with a general outcome that can be achieved so many ways, what is the ideal compromise of freedom & limits for everyone to thrive.