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Friday, September 5, 2014

First Days

As a child the First Day of School always did a number on my nerves. All through elementary and middle school I would spend that first morning hanging my head in a toilet bowl. I didn't really have a reason to be anxious; I loved school. I never got bad grades, I had plenty of friends, and I was never bullied outside of standard teasing. Yet for some reason that first day always go to me. It was a ritual.

After moving to Japan I found that First Day Anxiety didn't disappear just because the student had become the teacher. During the past three years I've had 13 First Days and the anxiety still gets to me. Thankfully, I no longer spend the morning with my toilet, but I don't sleep and I go throughout the day light-headed thanks to an ever-racing heart.

Driving into the town
When I moved to Japan to teach English in public schools I had absolutely zero experience in teaching. Unless you count a very brief stint as a math tutor in high school as "teaching". I'd gotten my degree in International Affairs and made Japanese culture my main focus so. culturally speaking. I was pretty well prepared for my life abroad.

Honestly, the teaching isn't that difficult. I don't plan a curriculum nor do I hand out grades. My main role is to just play games and speak English with the students. I am a glorified clown that helps Japanese students get adjusted to the idea of "foreigners" in a very homogeneous society. I had less than a week of training before I was sent to my first small Japanese city that was nestled on the coast of Western Honshu; and a lot of that time wasn't even spent focusing on how to teach but rather how to live in Japan and company related information.

In that first city I had seven schools; five elementary and two junior high. That meant I had seven different First Days over the course of about a month. That first First Day, however, will always stick out in my mind for various reasons, both good and bad. But mainly good.

I was 22 years old, living on my own means for the first time. I'd just graduated from college four months prior so the "grown-up" life was still something I wasn't used to. My first school was small, The entire elementary school consisted of exactly twenty-five kids. The school itself was located high in the mountains of Yamaguchi Prefecture. As a girl who had lived her entire life up to that point in the flat-lands of Florida, the drive alone filled me with a since of awe and wonder and left me feeling very small.

After a fifteen minute drive up winding mountain roads the trees cleared and I found myself looking down on something that I had only seen in movies: rice fields nearing full bloom stretched out before me, dotted with houses covered in beautiful tiled roofs of royal blue and emerald green all split with tiny, one-lane roads. Any sense of anxiety I had was briefly forgotten because it was just really, really pretty.

New Years cards from the second grade class
The school itself had only three classes of students. There was a second grade class, a third and fourth grade class, and a fifth and sixth grade class. On each of my visits to the school I would see each one of them. Much to my surprise, the second grade teacher spoke English really well, which wasn't something I expected in a small mountain town. All of the teachers were extremely nice to me. At the time, my Japanese wasn't that great. I had studied it for two years in college, but my listening skills were seriously lacking. Yet, their kindness made it so I never felt alienated. There would be a cup of coffee siting on my desk in the morning, and they would always offer me fresh vegetables from the garden the school grew or fruit they had just picked from a tree outside.

My company had emailed me the lesson plans for my First Day a few days before, and I had spent a few hours at home the previous week preparing everything. I was to teach each class in ascending order, so the second graders were to be my first ever class in Japan.

The class consisted of five students; three boys and two girls. They sat in a tiny classroom, in a row of tiny desks, wearing tearing uniforms, and I had a tiny platform to stand on in front of the blackboard. There was a large TV in the corner next to a fish tank. The back wall of the classroom was lined with cubbies that hinted at a time when there were far more than twenty-five students enrolled at the school. Pictures hung over the cubbies pinned into a cork-board that stretched the length of the entire back wall. Every classroom I would teach in would have a similar appearance.

I gave a brief introduction of myself after the class began, thrown slightly off-balance by the standard way in which a Japanese class starts. One student calls for attention, informing the students of what class and/or period it is, then the student instructs the students to bow and give a greeting to the teacher. The string of fast-paced Japanese was nearly incomprehensible to me and it took me months to discern the meaning of it because I was too embarrassed to ask.

Once I'd finished my introduction I began the actual lesson. The students were enthusiastic and tried their best. There is one part, however, that I will always remember.

One of the boys had a bit of a problem. I assume he was given a lot of power at home and rarely heard the word "no". As the class progressed this boy slowly started moving his desk back towards the cubbies. He wanted nothing to do with English class. The homeroom teacher (HRT) handled it well. After he had gone back as far as he could she knelt beside him, whispering something I couldn't hear into his ear. Regardless of her efforts he just sat in the back glowering at me. It was a little unnerving.

Goodbye present from the second graders
My second class started in the same fashion as the first. This class was a bit larger at about twelve students, and each of the students were great. The entire lesson went over without a hitch. It wasn't until I had returned to the teachers' room to prepare for my final lesson of the day that I had learned that I'd actually done the lesson intended for the fifth and sixth graders. I don't believe anyone ever brought up the mistake to me or my company.

The fifth and sixth grade class was also great. Their HRT loved to teach them English and each student stood up and gave me an introduction of themselves. At the end of the day my anxiety had almost entirely disappeared and I realized that these lessons were quite low-pressure and even if I do mess up or have difficult students, as long as the students enjoyed my lessons no one seemed to care.

As far as First Days are concerned, I honestly couldn't ha
ve asked for much more. Event he little second grade boy who spent the entire first lesson trying to get as far away as possible from me would change over the course of the following seven months. When his class would come to get me from the teachers' room he went from standing silent against the back wall of the hallway to being the first to open the door and shout my name and would talk with me the entire walk to his classroom. During class he went from being dead silent to volunteering more than any of the other four students. Watching his attitude change over the months I taught him was probably the most impactful thing that has happened as I've been a teacher, for it showed me the influence my being in the classroom could have and the good things that I could bring to Japan.

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