Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teaching In Japan, My Experience

I regularly get asked about teaching in Japan, so I thought it was about time I wrote a post about it. I won't really go too much into the wheres and hows as there is a fair bit of detailed information out there on that. Some helpful links to start with for that are;

Teaching In Japan

Japan Guide

Secrets On Teaching In Japan

I first came to Japan to teach in 1999. Actually, I first came to Japan in 1999. I had applied for a job from a newspaper advertisement in my local paper for a small conversation school. Before I knew it, I was on a plane heading for a country I knew not a lot about, could hardly speak the language and knew no-one there. Before I left people were telling me how brave I was, but it wasn't until I stepped on that plane that I felt the fear.

For the most part, I loved the teaching side of working in the conversation school. The school I worked in, as long as I used the text book for a large part of the lesson and followed some other curriculum, I had a lot of freedom. I taught students from two years old to those in their seventies. I taught group and company classes and private lessons.

In our school, unlike many others around, we were not only allowed, but actually encouraged to socialise with the students outside of class. I formed many friendships with my students and one of my first students remains one of my closest friends to this day.

Working in the conversation school was hard though. I worked six days a week, each day with a different schedule. Somedays, I would teach six classes (averaging an hour each) back-to-back, not finishing until 9.30pm by which time I was exhausted and starving. At different times of the year, on top of the schedule we were also obligated to work to teach "free lessons", sample lessons for potential students and that was unpaid on our day off. We only got paid for our classroom hours and not our lesson planning time. I was also expected to travel to different schools, sometime between lessons, that time wasn't paid for either. Personally, I found that job useful as an introduction to working in Japan, but wouldn't want to have done it for much more than the three years I was there.

Mind you, the different conversation schools can really vary in style and rules, so it's important that you find out their system before deciding whether to sign up with them or not.

My second job in Japan, the one that I'm in currently, is very different. I work in a private combined junior and senior high school. I found out about this job through word-of-mouth. The other teachers that started at the same time as me, applied for the position from a job advertisement on-line.

Unlike many of the public school jobs, I'm not an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). I have my own classes, plan my own lessons and create the tests. I work with three other native English-speaking teachers. I have to say, I love this job. I'm blessed to be at a high-level academic school, so the students are smart and for the most part, eager to learn. The students are mostly very friendly and will say hello when you see them outside of class, some will even call out "I love you!" In class, I find the junior high students very eager to answer questions, the older students sometimes more reluctant to do so. Right from the first class, we try to instill on the students that our lessons are not going to be like a normal Japanese class so this helps a lot.

Of course, like any job, there are good days, and bad days. The school has a very good reputation (to the point that when people find out I work at this school, they suddenly act like I'm someone important), but with that comes a rather rigid way of thinking and doing things and that can take a little getting used to.

In this job, I work from 8.15am to 5pm, Mondays to Fridays. Each day, I teach an average of three classes (65 minutes each) and the rest of the time is spent doing some marking, lesson planning and administration, with admittedly, a nice amount of free time. I get school holidays off, which amounts to quite a lot over the year.

Somethings are quite different in schools in Japan. For example;
  • At my school, the students are usually there from before 8.30am to 6pm. They have classes every second Saturday and often on holidays.
  • At Japanese schools, there isn't a cleaner. The students (and many of the teachers) clean the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and gardens. I believe this practice has roots in Buddhist teachings.
  • In Japanese schools, the students stay in their classroom and the teachers move around for lessons.
  • Most Japanese schools are very strict about hair colour. Students are not allowed to lighten or colour their hair.
  • One reason why the students are at school so late is because they often have "club activities". The clubs can be anything from sports teams (baseball, handball and soccer are very popular at my school and taken very seriously), to creative clubs (photography, art, brass band), to something more academic (like the astronomy and nature science clubs).
  • All of the students were slippers at school. When they arrive in the morning, they put their "outdoor shoes" into their shoe locker and change into regulation slippers. The teachers also wear "indoor shoes", but this can be anything from slippers to high heels (that's what I wear), just as long as they are deemed for in-school wear only.
  • Foreign teachers can only work at the school for a maximum of three years.
  • The Japanese school year starts in April and finishes in March.

Admittedly, jobs like mine are a lot harder to find and may not be offered to first-timers. I should mention that I have a Bachelor degree and post-graduate studies in Applied Linguistics, which I'm sure didn't hurt when applying for the position. I have also taught English to foreign students in a number of private schools in Australia.

My husband works in the public school system and also enjoys his job. It's quite different to mine. He is an ALT and works at three different junior high schools on a rotating schedule in the one city. He doesn't have the same planning to do, but also doesn't get to teach a class on his own often. Somedays, he feels a bit like a walking tape recorder and his schedule will differ each day. This is his first time to Japan and his first job teaching English. Had we decided to stay longer he may have been able to get a job at the school where I work now once I finished my three years.

On my blogroll there are many other people who live in Japan, but not all of them talk about teaching here. Some good ones that do are;

Present Simple writes some hilarious accounts of teaching her university students.

The Monster Flower sometimes talks about teaching private students.

If you have an interest in Japan and Japanese culture, teaching is something that I would recommend, even if teaching isn't your be-all-and-end-all. I have used my time to build a business that I will take back to Australia as well as creative inspiration and travel time. My husband has spent some of his free time learning a martial art, Iaido, that would have been difficult to do in Australia. It is no longer a place that you come to make lots of money, those days are over.

So that's all that I can think about writing for now. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask. I'd also love to hear other people's experiences of teaching here, either in the comments or as a blog post that I can add as a link to this.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to Study Japanese

Got some spare time over summer holidays? Need to brush up on your Japanese? Well here's a unique way. Personally I love the advice they give you in this video, "It's no use trying to understand their meanings, you just have to memorise them."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Seeing a Doctor in Japan

In Japan, you don't make an appointment with a doctor. Instead, you turn up during opening hours and wait. On a good day in a small clinic, the wait may be ten to fifteen minutes. On a not so good one, it can be hours.

Today, I went to see a specialist in Tokyo. While it was only a 15 minute consultation, it became a three day trip. There was a particular doctor I really wanted to see. The hospital where she works opens at six am. The doctors don't start seeing patients at six am, that happens at nine. At six am, the line up begins. A bit like camping out for a new iphone or concert tickets.

Being too early in the morning to leave from Nagoya on the day, I came to Tokyo a day early. Not wanting to check out of the hotel in the early hours of the morning, I stayed an extra night. That's how one short doctor's visit became a three day trip.

As I was already here yesterday, I did a trial run at the hospital. I made sure I knew exactly where it was, how to get there and what to do once I was there in the morning. For about ten minutes due to a small language misunderstanding on my part, I was told that I couldn't come when I had planned. I tried really hard to hold back tears until it was sorted out. At the trial run, I was told that I could wait until eight am to come, but luckily I went at seven instead, as I got ahead on the queue. By the time the doctors began at nine, the ticket machine counted over 120 patients.

With that many patients, their system really does need to be highly organised, to the point that you feel like you're on a conveyor belt. The process today was this;
  • Got a patient number from the ticket machine.
  • Lined up to get a new patients forms.
  • Filled in the forms and handed them in.
  • Waited in a big waiting room to be given my hospital card.
  • Got my hospital card and was sent to the second floor.
  • Waited in a another big waiting room until my number was called.
  • Waited in a smaller waiting room until my number was called again.
  • Saw the doctor for about 15 minutes, which by Japanese standards is very generous.
  • Was sent back to wait in the big waiting room.
  • Was shown to another small waiting room.
  • Had another quick test.
  • Went to a different big waiting room until my number came up on the board.
  • When my number came up, paid at an automatic payment machine, much like one you'd find at a car park.
  • Went back to the big waiting room for my number to flash on another screen.
  • When my number came up again, went to a window where I was given my prescription.

Was in at seven, out by ten. Had a lovely understanding doctor who was most helpful. Not too bad.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Guess Who Was Interviewed By The Japan Times...


You can read the interview here.

Mmm.. now I really feel like I should do some blogging.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Found today on the back of a packet of self-sealing cellophane bags;

"When those where the tip becomes pointed are inserted being to be a possibility of tearing note."

Can anyone explain?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Japanese Sights

What I saw while riding to school this morning.

A Buddhist priest dressed in all his finery, probably on his way to perform a ceremony, riding a scooter with a wooden box placed on his lap.

You've gotta love some of the things you see in Japan.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Why I Like Fridays but not Mondays

This week in the high school class, the topic is giving advice. Part of the lesson is a game. There are twenty different problems and the students have to come to me in groups and perform little dialogues explaining the problem and giving a solution. For each dialogue I give them points. For a basic performance and advice, they get a single point. If they've gone the extra mile, they get two. What I don't tell them is that if there is blatant, unabashed sucking up, they get three points.

Generally, at some point in the game, one team will refer to me as being really nice or beautiful. I surprise them with the extra point. Usually word gets around pretty quickly and the sucking up becomes a whole new element to the game.

Friday's classes cracked me up. They found more and more creative ways of sucking up in the responses. Some of the dialogues went like this;

"I'm always tired when I'm at school." "Oh, you shouldn't be. When you come to school, you can see beautiful Melanie and you will get lots of energy."

"I don't know what to buy my (girlfriend/boyfriend) for Valentine's Day." "Oh, don't worry about buying them a present, you should buy one for beautiful Melanie."

"I don't understand my English teacher." "Oh, if Melanie is your teacher, it shouldn't be a problem, her voice is very nice. If Sam is your teacher, then you should go and talk to Melanie."

"I want to go to Tokyo University." "I think you should study very hard and when you study, think of Melanie's beautiful face. Then when you're doing the exam, think of her beautiful face again and it will give you power and you will pass the exam."

One that caught them out though was this;

"Every time I eat curry, I get a stomachache." "Oh, you should eat Melanie's curry because it is delicious and then you won't get a stomachache."

They didn't get the extra point as I explained that I don't cook. My husband does the cooking. This was met with shock. One girl churned over this news for about five minutes and then came and asked me "Do you really not cook? Does your husband really do the cooking?" "Yes" I told her. "So he cooks, and you watch TV?" Not wanting to get into the whole dynamics of our marriage, I simply said "Yes." She stared at me in disbelief, then simply shook her head and walked away. Another boy, at the end of class came up to me concerned, "I think you should cook", he told me.

One team worked their way around this problem though and came up with;

"My mum won't make me lunch and I can't cook." "Well, you should go to Melanie's house and have her husband make you a delicious lunch."

So that was Friday. Pure joy, so much fun.

Come to Monday. Same game, same lesson.

Not only did I get almost no suck-ups, but in the warm up exercise, I jokingly said to a student "I want a new husband. What should I do?"

The advice? "I think you should diet."

No wonder I don't like Mondays.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Tanabata Memories

Today, July 7th is called Tanabata, the Star Festival, in Japan. It is believed to be the only night of the year that two lovers Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altiar) can meet. For the rest of the year, they are separated by a river made of stars, the Milky Way.

Once again borrowing from Wikipedia, one of the stories goes like this;

"A young farmer named Mikeran discovered on his farm a robe which, unbeknownst to him, belonged to a goddess named Tanabata. Soon after, Tanabata visited Mikeran and asked if he had found it. He lied and told the goddess that he hadn't but would help with her search. Eventually the pair fell in love, were wed and had many children. However, one day Tanabata noticed a piece of cloth which had once belonged to her robe on the roof of Mikeran's hut. His lie discovered, Tanabata agreed to forgive him on the condition that he weave a thousand pairs of straw shoes, but until that time, she would leave him. Mikeran was unable to weave the shoes in his lifetime and thus never met Tanabata again. However, it is said that the pair meet once a year when the stars Altair and Vega intersect."

To celebrate the festival, many Japanese write their wishes on coloured strips of paper and hang them on branches of bamboo. It looks a bit like a summer Christmas tree.

This year, I haven't been to any of the Tanabata festivals, and in fact my town actually celebrates in on August 8th. I find it interesting that the Girl's Festival is on the 3/3, the Boy's on the 5/5, Tanabata on the 7/7 and in my town the 8/8. Does anyone know why?

Many years ago, I went to the Tanabata festival in Ichinomiya City with a couple of friends, a fellow Aussie girl and a Japanese guy. Through the covered streets of the shopping mall, brightly coloured streamers fluttered in the summer breeze. People were dressed in summer yukata kimonos and there were lots of yummy festival food stalls to enjoy. There were also many gangs, rival gangs at that.

These weren't scary yakuza gangs, but rather younger guys, yakuza wanna-be or yakuza in training. Whatever their future may have held, I found them funny and cute. They were all dressed up in their matching uniforms of sorts and just hanging out. I wanted a photo of them and so not even considering there could be anything to fear, just went up to take some photos. My fellow Aussie came and joined me. Our Japanese friend froze in terror. He told us later that he was scared for our safety, but running through his head was "if anything happens, do I try to save the girls, or do I make a run for it?". He never did tell us if he decided which was the best option.

The gang leader however, was more than happy to pose with us and I have a great shot of his friendly grin and "peace" sign.

The police however, did not find the gangs so cute. There were many of them there on the night, decked out in full riot gear. If I was on the streets of Melbourne or LA, I would have been terrified. But instead, I found the short, slim policemen kinda cute, a bit like little boys pretending to be big scary men. The police decided it was time to move the gangs on, but the gangs didn't want to move. In their bullet proof vests, face shields down and batons striking on shields they held in front of their chests, they formed a strong line and slowly moved forward.

Again, much to our Japanese friend's distress, my Aussie friend and I thought it was a perfect photo opportunity. Somewhere (sadly I think it's back in Australia) I have this fabulous shot of her doing a very happy, cutesy pose in front of the line of riot police and one officer screaming in her ear "Abunai!" (it's dangerous).

I know I should remember the stories and traditions of Tanabata, but for me, it will forever be the image of my friend's cheeky grin in the face of "danger".

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Summer arrived and hit us hard last week. Until then, days were a bit steamy, a bit rainy, but on Thursday the mercury and humidity jumped and looks like it's ready to stay.

I hate the heat. Probably as much as I hate the cold, but I really do hate the heat. I cope with it in Brisbane as there always seems to be a green shady place to escape to, but not in this concrete jungle. Instead, I run for the shopping centres with their heavenly air conditioning.

To help me survive this season, yesterday I bought a kakigori (snow cone/ shaved ice) machine. There are many to choose from, most with characters. I went for a traditional looking one, one that I can easily take when I move back to Australia next year.

We christened it today.

Ice cubes go in the top and are then pushed down close to the blade. The wheel at the end is easy to use and it's so much fun watching all the shiny flakes of ice land in the bowl in the bottom.

Mmmm... just look at all those yummy artificial colourings! I bought strawberry, melon and lemon flavourings.

I had to be a kid and go for the trifecta of flavours. What a perfect way to cool down.

A Good Teaching Week

I love those weeks when the lessons just go off. One of those magical weeks when the kids are enthusiastic and eagerly speaking English, can't wait to be given the chance in fact. Sounds unbelievable doesn't it?

One thing I love about teaching my Junior High class is that they're easy to trick. In our subject, the kids are graded each lesson, but we also have a "bonus points" system, often for volunteering answers in class. This week (our teaching week began on Thursday and will finish the coming Wednesday), one of the things I'm teaching them is different hobbies and the basic sentence "My hobbies are ...... and ......" After going through the new vocabulary and grammar points, I have all the kids stand up. I tell them that we're going to have a "bonus points chance."

They love a "bonus points chance", sometimes I've asked them if they like a chance or a game, and they've always opted for the bonus points. Gotta love these kids! For the bonus point they need to produce the new sentence with two of their hobbies. Hands are instantly raised, kids are jumping up and down just waiting to be picked. Sometimes I tell them that I'll pick the person with the best smile. There is a sudden flash of pearly whites which always makes me laugh.

What no-one has seemed to notice, or maybe care, is that in the end, I let each kid answer. Each and every one of them gets a point. Admittedly, it isn't always the way in the bonus points chance sessions, gotta keep them on their toes.

At the end of this current lesson plan there are a few minutes left at the end of class. Rather than letting them all go early, I have the whole class stand up, but don't tell them what we're doing. I ask how to spell a word from that day's vocabulary. We have lots of little spelling bees, so that's not out of the ordinary. They first kid picked will spell the word. Usually, at this point they get to sit down. Instead, I wave good bye to them and say "Very good, see you next week." The realisation that they get to leave earlier than everyone is magic. Suddenly, everyone wants to spell a word.

The high school lesson plan was written by my co-worker, Sam. It's a really fun game. We call it "Teach Me Japanese".

They are put into teams and given a list of Japanese words. Many are unique to the culture so don't have a direct translation. The teams will work out how to explain the word in English, then one member will come and explain it to me. I've told them that if their description is basic, but good enough for me to understand, they get one point. If it's really good with lots of detail, or funny or with good gestures, they get two points. The next time another member from the team must explain a word. I don't care about their grammar, they can use what ever means possible to get the meaning across.

It's great they're lined up, can't wait to speak English to the teacher. They forget to worry about making mistakes, about being shy, they just want to get that point.

For the second part of the games, the teams are given one word each and fifteen minutes to prepare a description they they will then have to perform in front of class. They are told they'll get one point for each piece of information they come up with and extra points for anything funny or for gestures. Again, the shyness melts away, which anyone who teaches Japanese high school kids will know, is a breakthrough.

I've had kids miming ninja actions and learnt that ninja did not in fact wear black, but rather very dark blue. I've had then pretending to have a picnic under the cherry blossoms and tell me that at "hanami" people don't really go to see the flowers, they go to get drunk. Other groups have had cool boys hike up their pants so they sit up as high as possible to pretend to be "Otaku" and draw fabulous animation characters on the board. One group have explained the radio exercise programs and led the class through a session of the movements. One girl did the funniest imitation of a kabuki actor, a boy pretended to be a very traditional Japanese woman and showed the class the proper bow. They've done all of this while speaking English in front of the class.

I laugh, the kids laugh. It's a great time. It's one of those weeks that is great to be a teacher.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Ten Days

Ten days until summer holidays begin, which means;

Ten more days of teaching on a construction site with the sound of jack hammers and drills to scream over in class.
Ten more days of teaching in a dungeon of a classroom with peeling paint and curtains the colour of body odour.
Ten more days of having to make my lunch before work every morning.
Ten more days left in this old dusty staff room.

When we come back from summer holidays, a new school building will be finished, with our new classroom, new staffroom and we'll finally have a staff cafeteria back!

Just ten more days.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Sounds like "cancer", which is unfortunate because doctors use it a lot. It directly translates to an "investigation" or "inspection", so they use it for any type of tests.

Still knowing that, each time my doctor says it, I jump.

Interveiwed, me *blush blush*

If you're interested, you can read it over at jDonuts.