I went to my first day of school anticipating the total excitement that would inherently ripple in supernatural waves around my arrival. The kids would all be so enthralled at the sight of me that I’d need only to look their way to suffuse them with motivation. The teachers would be so pleased at my arrival that they’d undoubtedly insist on taking me out to a dinner reception and provide blessed relief for my bank account. I would bask in unadulterated adulation. You can guess where things went from there.
First up: grade ones who’ve never seen English before thrown in with grade twos who’ve studied it for a year, and me with a plan I’d just barely finished cobbling together since I’d only found out an hour before that the Japanese school year starts in April, not September, so my plans to do a casual review using the last ALT’s material went straight into the toilet.
I walked in to find about fifteen children staring at me from a semicircle of chairs in the middle of the room. I had about a million things I wasn’t sure about, but the teacher just introduced me to the class as Mike from Canada—pretty much killing my first idea of spending a minute doing a self-introduction—effectively said, “Okay, they’re all yours,” and stepped safely into the background.
Desperately trying to think of what I should say first, I stared at the kids like a rabbit in front of a freight train and tried to figure out how on earth I was supposed to start this whole teaching thing.
My lesson plan went roughly as follows:
1) Introduction game
2) Talk about Canada
However, once inside the classroom, it’s very often necessary to alter one’s ideas to adapt to the students’ abilities and inclinations. On Monday morning, the modified plan looked something like this:
1) Introduction game
2) Implement the Armageddon
3) Talk about Canada
7) Crawl into a hole and die
I wrote the following entry in my journal when I got home:
April 8th (Mon) 3:25 pm
I have just discovered that I am a very bad elementary school teacher. But I finished after three classes, which was less than half a Blight day, so it was really weird. I didn’t have a chance to fix anything in the afternoon. I also didn’t have a chance to fuck up any more, so I guess it’s a blessing and a curse. Then they just told me to go home at the end of the day. I was nearly crying as I left. I totally didn’t deserve any of the kindness they were showing me and by the end of the day I had a feeling they were all barely concealing their disappointment with me.
My games were too hard or finished in seconds. My attempt at the colour song flopped. My third lesson was taken over by the cool teacher (Soccer Sensei), partly I suspect out of self-preservation. I’m actually glad they didn’t take me out. I would have felt like a murderer amid his victim’s families.
Lunch was very filling, though.
When I’d asked if they were sure there was nothing else I could do, the one teacher with reasonable English had said, “Maybe next week you’ll be more relaxed. Please go home.”
The next morning I woke up scared.
The fact that I successfully re-used some of my plans at the junior high on Tuesday gave me an idea of just how horribly inappropriate they’d been for the elementary school level on Monday.
I worked fairly well with the two English teachers at the junior high, but the high-level teacher was rather amusing: he ran his classes sort of like an English-only military academy. When he entered the classroom, he clasped his hands behind his back and threw out his chest, saying with no intonation whatsoever:
“Now. Let’s begin, today’s English class. Good morning, everyone.”
“Good morning, Mr. Kurtz,” the students intoned in the drawn-out semi-unison of the scholastically bored. “And Mike.”
“How are you, today.”
I was starting to think I’d walked into a meeting for the terminally depressed—and they’d all forgotten their lithium.
“I’m fine,” they droned. “How are you.”
“I am fine. Now, let’s enjoy, English.”
I had to hold onto a desk to keep myself from falling over laughing. He does that every class.
But all in all, it was a moderate success in that it wasn’t a gigantic exploding ball of failure. It got me thinking that I might at least be able to survive one day a week.
The vice principal of the mountaintop elementary school picked me up near my apartment on Wednesday morning. Both the prior ALTs had listed this as their favourite school due it its small size and family-like atmosphere, but I just worried that it would leave me no place to hide. I’d woken up sweating again.
They had a welcoming ceremony for me—the only one I would receive from any of my schools—and it was there that I learned the greatest game in the world. It’s called Mai-Keru-Pon.
In Japan, paper-rock-scissors is called “jan-ken-pon,” and kids use it to make decisions of all kinds, even resolving multi-person matches in a way that I’m still not entirely clear on.
Now, in Mai-Keru-Pon (“Michael-pon”), everyone lines up at the back of the room and plays paper-rock-scissors with me. If they win, they take two steps forward. A tie is one step forward. If they lose, they stand still. The object is to get to Maikeru-san and shake his hand.
My god, this game was good.
After watching the kids recoil in fear and confusion as I’d rushed up and tried to get them to shake my hand on Monday, here they were competing with one another to see who could get to me first. It was unbelievable.
I was determined not to shatter their expectations. I totally abandoned any thoughts of the super-energy that had frightened the children on Monday, and things went reasonably well. At the end of the day, rather than breaking out the pitchforks and torches and chasing me back down the mountain, the vice principal asked in neighbourly fashion if there was anything I needed for my apartment. I told him I needed tableware and cooking implements since I was still eating bento from Circle-K every night.
Despite the fact that I’d awakened terrified again on Thursday, things just seemed to keep getting better. By the time I got to my grade four lesson in the afternoon, I had it down cold. The transition from one activity to the next was seamless. The kids were totally comfortable asking me questions as we huddled around my map of Canada, and they got a huge kick out of it when I inadvertently used magnets with their names on them to hold up the animal pictures I’d made the night before.
Afterwards, the fourth-year teacher came into the staff room and exclaimed, “The students all loved it! From now on, we’ll use Mike’s lessons!”
No, wait. Let’s try that again.
I’d gone from “Maybe next time you’ll be more relaxed—please go home” on Monday to “From now on we’ll use Mike’s lessons” on Thursday. If you’d plotted my learning curve, it would have been a line straight up.
And the sixth graders were playing Mai-Keru-Pon all day.
I started to wonder if it would end up that my Monday school would want to crucify me while my Thursday school wanted to beatify me. I could screw up my plans on Monday, then gradually perfect them at each successive school throughout the week.
So I woke up Friday morning figuring I could just coast through the day with my brilliant game plan. But when I looked at the old ALT’s notes, I discovered with a jolt that my last school had nearly forty students in every class. My largest class up to that point had been seventeen; all my activities required lines at the back and little circles huddled around me. Fear returned.
When I walked into a veritable sea of grade fives in my first lesson, I realized with horror that there was no possible way I could line them all up at the back for Mai-Keru-Pon. But I did something ingenious: I divided the class in half and had them play from two opposite walls. And as I deked between kids in the middle of the room to reach the outstretched hands of students calling out from the walls, I realized that it worked even better than the original. I left the lesson so excited I could barely breathe.
I did, however, also have my first injury that day: one of the fourth graders got a little crushed as everyone slammed together to touch the penguin on the back wall. I was worried when he went to cry behind the teacher’s desk, but he came back out when the game ended and had a million questions about me and my home country, so I guess he was okay.
Suffice to say, it was becoming clear that my “Nobody died” mantra didn’t work any more. Instead, every lesson concluded with the unspoken question, “Were the students happy?” Of course, it meant I was much more likely to fail, but given that my goal was supposed to be “Zest for life,” I thought I had my priorities in the right order.
The problem was, it meant that I came home on Friday afternoon already stressed out about what I was going to do on Monday morning.