Monday, September 3, 2012

Despite my early bedtime on Sunday, I almost missed my 6:30 alarm for my first real day of school, so I was still scoffing my Brown Rice Flakes and tossing a nigiri into my Doraemon lunchpail when Kenny pulled into my driveway to take me to my first day of actual classes at Oga Higashi JHS. And 10 hours later, I'm finally home, and ready to give some of my first impressions of the day:

The students' English level was lower than I'd hoped for, but much better than I'd feared-- their pronunciation is as dodgy as you'd expect1, and the fact that all students (including special ed and those who would classify as gifted in America) are streamlined into the same classes2 means that the overall pace of progress is unexpectedly slow, but in the main, the kids themselves are enthusiastic, diligent, and extraordinarily endearing. You can't help but want to bust your butt on their behalf.

I'd expected (and been trained for) a lot more lesson planning than took place-- we largely hashed out the day's plans with the teachers we'd be working with upon arrival-- 15 minutes before classes kicked off. Kenny maintained this was the exception rather than the rule, and that Itō- and Suzuki-sensei, our partners at Higashi Middle, were in fact more focused on pre-lesson prep than most!

Especially in the Oga area, where 2 middle school ALTs are spread unevenly between 4 middle schools, and students' time with us is brief, the ALT's role is seemingly less to introduce or review new material than to reinforce in a more Skinnerian sense-- to provide a visible reward for English study in an environment where the material is boring and difficult, progress is slow, and only a handful of other people within hundreds of miles speak anything other than Japanese. In practice, this means we're called upon to look friendly and interesting, clown around a bit, and play a lot of learning games, rather than “teach” per se-- although when the semester heats up I'm told that we'll be teaching a lot more “serious” lessons.3
Kenny took the lead for half of the morning's classes, then hung back a bit and allowed me and Stephanie to hash our way through ALTing in the last two of the day. From my TA ing experience at William and Mary (not to mention the TESOL class I took there and the various performances and public speeches I was made to do in my formative years) I'm not as uncomfortable in front of the blackboard as I could be in a worst-case scenario, but I'm certainly not as comfy as Kenny, whose blithe and quick-thinking personality (and seemingly bottomless reservoir of memorized learning-game activities) made him perfect for the improvisational settings we were thrown into. The guy is a natural clown, and he's got his classroom “persona” as a teacher all figured out. I was able to take a page from his book by spicing up an ultra-boring singalong to the Beatles' “Hello Goodbye” we were required to do by vigorously soloing the “WHY WHY WHY WHYWHY WHYYYYY DO YOU SAAAAY GOODBYE, GOODBYEEEEEEE?” bridge, eyes closed, back arched, knees bent, and sweat towel4 rolled into a microphone. It worked (three sleepy classes in a row about died of laughter, and perked up for the rest of the lesson) but I still feel a bit inconsistent and dorky rather than comfortable in my new persona as “David-sensei”5.

Last: Unsurprisingly, teaching is hard work. I had some forewarning of this and thought I'd adequately prepared myself for this factor, but after trying, with Kenny's help, to inspire some of the decidedly less-enthusiastic classes at Higashi, I felt like a wrung sponge by lunchtime. It only gets harder when you have to stay after school until 5:45 for not-mandatory-but-actually-understood-to-be-very-mandatory6 “volunteer” coaching for the municipal Speech Contest, in which we minutely picked through the pronunciation, gestures, and intonation of several of Higashi's better English students as they delivered various reading passages from their English textbooks, and self-written (though teacher-edited) 'personal essays' as oral addresses.

All in all, it looks like I'm off to a running start already.
1For students taught hitherto by second-language speakers of English, and living in a situation that isolates them from authentic speech in that language, I'd actually say they're doing pretty well. That being said, the sounds made by the letters L and R in all their positions, especially word-internal and terminal, consonant clusters without vowels intruding as they do in Japanese, the ð and Ɵ sounds, B, P, S, terminal T, W, and English's stupidly profligate number of vowels are giving all of 'em a load of trouble.
2Does wonders for the esprit de corps, of course.
3In both senses of that word. A well-known second- year reading is an ultra-depressing passage about a series of hideously botched wartime attempts at euthanizing the elephants in the Ueno Zoo, which leaves a nasty aftertaste of higaisha-ishiki in my mouth.
4Actually called a tenugui, “hand-wiper”. A necessary accoutrement of Japanese summer, carried by all, from construction workers to office ladies. I own three already and am already feeling the need for more. Wear it rolled up round your neck and tucked into the collar of your unbuttoned shirt. Wipe your brow and your bare arms from time to time. Use it to dry your hands when you hit the restroom. Quietly wonder to yourself whether the public service announcement poster on the wall across from the clock that says “Children learn best when the classroom temperature is 20 Celsius (68°For below” is supposed to be taken as a cruel joke when you're working in a school that has no AC on a humid day in the mid- 30s (90's °F).
5Ranzini-sensei is felt by all who surround me to be too difficult to pronounce. And anyway, ALTs are supposed to be less “formal” in their roles as teachers than are the local Japanese teachers of English. Stephanie and Kenny, whose last names are rife with nasty Anglo-Saxon consonant clumps, likewise go by first names. That office personnel at the BoE have also decided to call me “David-sensei” bothers me slightly, however, as it suggests that I'm not being 'properly' fit into the normal social hierarchy and instead am being categorized as a Droll Outsider. Ah well, I suppose it can't be helped. Kenny tells me that students in one class at Katanishi JHS prefer instead to call him “Mr. Kenny”, which seems somehow even weirder (if, weirdly, cuter).
6A common feature of all Japanese workplaces but especially so in the teaching field. I've lately been told by our bosses at the BoE that we've also got to work unpaid on Sunday this week, as “paperwork hasn't been filed properly by the school” to give us the compensatory time off we're contractually entitled to for attending an all-day school festival at Higashi. Since the “time off” in question would mean a taking day at home away from the Internet instead of getting my fix of delicious tubes at the Board Offices on the following Monday, this is, for now, not the end of the world. Indeed, it is probably the means by which this post was eventually uploaded, many days late.

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