The trials and tribulations of teaching English in Japan pt.2

When I first started working for this company I was told that they hired teachers for Elementary, Junior High and High Schools and was asked which I preferred. I’d told them anything but an Elementary school was ok. I’d had my fill of  toddlers and pre-teen kids during my tenure at Nova. So, naturally when I received my first assignment it was to cover not 1 not 2 but 5 elementary schools. Temporarily, they’d said, until there was an opening at a high school. My commute to these schools was a hell of a daily hike (2 trains and a bus) but I did it for a few months. Little did I know those rich spoiled brats I taught at Nova were atypical. The kids at my schools were so much fun that time just flew by and the best part: my work day would end sometimes as early as 12 noon…

Can’t beat that with a baseball bat.

When the High School opening came along I almost turned it down just to keep those lovely hours with the charming kids at the elementary schools. But the high school was 2 stations from my house and that pretty much mitigated any time disparities. I could sleep an extra hour every morning and, with my sleep schedule (I write best at night and often do so until the wee hours,) an hour is worth its weight in Bluefin tuna.

This High School was GREAT!

I thought.

It wasn’t an international school; it was a public school, but there were many exchange students there from all over Asia, and most were English-speaking.  And, there were many returnees and very high level Japanese English students. English class was held completely in English. I assigned and  corrected essays written by students from Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, as well as Japan. The students didn’t even wear uniforms. They could dress however they liked, as could the teachers. And, the icing on this cake was I was invited to play basketball with the basketball club twice a week and we’d have actual full-on games!

The head of the Foreign Languages Department (They actually taught French, German and Chinese as well at this school) was a woman I will call Ono-Sensei (not her real name.) She was also an English teacher. She was sweet! She sat beside me and every day we shared a rapport I have seldom experienced in Japan. We loved films, especially those by Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers. She could even appreciate Charlie Kaufman. We REALLY hit it off.

I thought.

I helped her plan lessons and together we executed the syllabus she had put together long before I had joined the staff. It was an agenda she’d created with the ALT before me, some bloke from England. The agenda actually included a trip to England with the students to spend some time in a High School somewhere north of Manchester. I wouldn’t be joining the class (phew!) because I had come there after the deadline for down payments. But, Ono couldn’t stop talking about how much she was looking forward to getting back to Jolly ole’ England. She’d apparently done a home-stay there when she was a young woman, some 30 years ago, and the impression was a lasting one, molding her into the professional she is now. However, despite having been exposed to English as a career for over 30 years, her English still was only at a level where she could communicate and be understood, nowhere in the vicinity of fluent and heavily accented with Japanese.

“That’s nice,” I’d find myself saying constantly. “Oh, you went to the Isle of Wight? Wow. That’s nice.” Her accent wasn’t British but she swore it was and I didn’t argue. (“Oh I can hear it a little…wait…yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear it.”)

Anyway, this went on for a few months. Then one day while we were teaching a class, and she was using me as a human CD Player (Just listen carefully to Loco-Sensei’s reading of the passage) we had an incident.  One of the students, a Japanese one, a Returnee who had lived in England with her parents and had recently returned to Japan, asked me could I repeat a word because she couldn’t quite catch it.

“Sure, which word?”

“I don’t know. Actually there were a few words I couldn’t catch,” she said in Japanese to Ono-sensei.

Ono-sensei responded to the student and to the other students, in Japanese, “Loco-sensei’s accent is a little strange and not standard. He’s American and from New York so those of you accustomed to the proper English spoken by the previous ALT will have to endure. So sorry.”

She said this with smiles and nods to her students and me. I wasn’t nodding with her but she probably thought it was because I couldn’t understand a word she was saying as opposed to my catching every other word and not appreciating what I heard at all. At the time, my speaking level of Japanese was very low and since I never had to use it at the school- because enough people spoke English- it wasn’t likely to improve while I was working there. So Ono assumed I didn’t understand Japanese at all.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, in front of the class, in English. Ono looked at my face, searching for the smile I usually wore effortlessly, the one that wasn’t there anymore. It had been replaced by dismay and a little shock. Maybe even a little of my temper spiked to the surface. Her unprofessionalism was off the charts in my book. “Did you say my English was not as good as the previous ALT’s? Maybe I misunderstood you…”

I hoped.

“Well, it’s your accent, the students are having trouble with…I’m so sorry!”

She was turning a deep shade of red at being busted and I had to remember that I was not the boss in this room so I quickly tried to cease  hostilities and return to my role of underling.

“Oh, kochira koso, it’s my fault…” I said. “I’ll try to speak more standard English if you like.” Then, I started choking on those words and sarcastically added, “I’ve watched a lot of Monty Python and listened to a lot of Beatles songs in my days. I’m sure I can can tidy up my pronunciation for you guys.”

She was still in shock at my having comprehended what she’d said, knowing good and damn well she shouldn’t have said anything even vaguely like she’d said. But, I’d let it go and did my rendition of  “My fair Loco.” The students enjoyed my Eliza Doolittle gutter cockney accent as well as my Hugh Grant Queen’s English impersonation which I used for the remainder of the lessons. I patted myself on the back for skillfully cleaning up the tension with humor.

I thought.

Later in the office she apologized profusely. Even Moshi Wake Gozaimasen-ing (strongest I’m sorry) me. Of course, I accepted it.

“I’m sorry I got upset, ” I said.

“Oh no, no it’s all my fault!”

“But, I think more people in the world are exposed to the accents used in America than in England, either through music, film, television, books or magazines, so if any English is the standard it’s probably spoken in America. You don’t think so?

“You’re right, I think.”

“Not that I agree that there is a standard English, but I think there was a time when the Queen’s English was considered the standard. I think today, however, that’s just not…realistic.”

“Ummmm” she replied, nodding, and from that day until the end of the year, our relationship had one added element: mutual respect.

I thought.

That is, until I heard the result of the questionnaire about ALT quality sent to Japanese teachers to fill out and return to my company. Mine stated that one of the teachers at the school, no names of course, felt that I was not a good fit for their school. That I did not live up to the standard of English excellence the school had built its reputation on and that person was afraid I would tarnish it somehow. I was not welcomed to return there the following semester.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when this information was forwarded to me from my company. They’d put it to me as gently as possible, as to spare my ego and added that “sometimes these things happen without the ALT having a clue what was going to go down. That’s how it is here. We’ll find you another spot, don’t worry. You’re still in good standing with us.”

And that’s how I came to be at my current Junior High School, sitting before Yoshida -sensei, deciding how to put what I wanted to say to her. I had learned a very valuable lesson with Ono-sensei. How shall I apply what I’d learned then now?

I wondered.

“Yes, what would you like to talk about, Loco-sensei?” she asked, her smile shaking in her face.


to be continued…



16 Responses to “The trials and tribulations of teaching English in Japan pt.2”

  1. 1 Joe
    February 1, 2010 at 11:00 am

    The empire shall rise again!

    • February 1, 2010 at 11:17 am

      Unless you mean the Chinese hehe

  2. February 1, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Interesting problems you highlighted here Loco. The first being that Ono-sensei was an inveterate snob. Clearly she had some romanticized view of England dating back to the time she was there scratching the surface. And it was unprofessional to allow that view to shape her approach to teaching.
    But also, aside from the rudeness to you, she also did her students a massive disservice. How demotivating must it be for a student when your teacher prepares you for a task by making it out to be really difficult! And that kind of barrier will stay with a lot of the kids.
    Also, and it pains me as an Englishman to admit it, she’s clearly backing the wrong horse. Any time one of those kids goes out and uses English for international communication, it’s going to be either with a native speaker who’s far more likely to be American than any other nationality, or with a non-native speaker who’s far more likely to have been exposed to American English and culture than to British or any other.
    A lot of adult English learners seem to have odd notions about which version of English is ‘easier to learn’, or is ‘better’. And they can probably be traced back to classrooms like Ono-sensei’s. When I interview a new student who says they’ve come to me because they “want to learn British English”, I’m immediately wary, because they usually have no clear conception of what that expectation means. (You mean you want to learn oddities of vocabulary that most of the English-speaking world doesn’t use or understand? You mean you want to develop a ‘British accent’, which you expect me to magically facilitate in one hour a week, and undo the years of katakana damage done to your English accent? Or do you mean something else you can’t quite put your finger on?)
    That wasn’t meant to turn into a rant. Apologies, but I’m pressing Submit anyway!

    • February 1, 2010 at 11:16 am

      That’s the way to rant Overoften. Feel free to get yours anytime. You’ve earned it with intelligent, thoughtful and insightful comments like yours always are!
      thanks for the shout!

  3. February 1, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Urge to strangle JT rising!

    Just kidding, sorry to hear about that experience. I’m looking forward to the next in this series.

    • February 1, 2010 at 11:18 am

      Chris D, I know how you feel, trust!

  4. February 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I had a bit of a wry laugh at this – you experienced the reverse of what I was getting at a school I worked at in Seoul. As an Aussie with a fairly neutral accent (I’ve had Brits ask me what part of England I’m from on more than one occasion), I was being asked to speak to my students with more of an American twang!

    If schools feel the need to be specific about accents or British/American spelling and grammar, surely it would make sense to advertise the positions (either to dispatchers or direct ads) as such…? Having said that, I’ve spent enough time in that neck of the woods to know that what I consider ‘sense’ is a fair departure from their definition…

    P.S. I’ve been reading your blog for a fair while now – your writing’s really engaging. I feel like I should have commented earlier, but I try not to post unless I have something to say, y’know?

    • February 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

      Thanks Laura, and better late than never ne (-;
      Feel free to give me a shout anytime.
      I’ve actually heard from other colleagues who’ve had similar experiences as yours. Yeah you never know what you’re gonna get over here in Asia

  5. February 1, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    So you are an Ex-NOVA teacher. I thought as much. Currently I am one of the brave souls working to change the NOVA business model with a sub-company to G-com. NOVA is a lot different compared to the old days(not that I am the expert considering I came in after the whole NOVA mess went down).

    I have never worked as an ALT but I know a lot of people who do. Could you tell me how much flexibility you are given with lesson planning? Are you told to stick to a textbook or can you use a book as more of a guide?

    • February 2, 2010 at 9:42 am

      Hey Freedom! Thanks for the shout ! Yep, ex Nova and got the wounds to prove it LOL
      Flexibility as an ALT varies from assignment to assignment, school to school. I’ve been fortunate. The only guidelines I have for preparing lessons is to keep it simple and use the grammar point. The textbook in JH Public Schools is for shit. If I had to use it for lessons or even as a guide I would probably lose my mind…again LOL
      Hope I helped you. Thanks again!

  6. February 2, 2010 at 9:04 am

    Interesting post Loco. Being from the U.K, I am naturally going to be biased towards English accents, just as you prefer American accents. Indeed, when I was reading your post, I was agreeing with what Ono-sensei said. U.K English *is* the correct English. After all, English originated in Britain and was taken over to America. Yada yada.

    Actually, if we were talking about the origins of the language, we would have to conclude that we owe everything to the original German invaders of Britain.

    I’ve also heard conflicting stories about which form of English is easiest to learn. Some swear by British, some by American. It is also going to depend on past influences and cultural likes and dislikes subject to the individual, as well as the sort of image they wish to project. Like it or not, there are clear stereotypes attached to both accents, both good and bad. Clearly Ono-sensei enjoyed her time in the U.K, and if she wants U.K English in the classroom, so much the better for her. But she should have made that clear when looking for a replacement teacher and certainly shouldn’t have crushed your ego in front of the class. Very rude and unprofessional 😦

    I think that when it all boils down to it, most of us want to protect and cherish our roots. If I was told to speak in the ‘correct’ American accent (due its being far more permeated into the world than U.K English), I would blow a fuse myself. Indeed, when translating documents here in Japan, I use U.K English for everything that doesn’t stipulate American English as a requirement. You might also be interested to know that both U.K English and American English are accepted variations of the language for academic essays and journals, so clearly this is not a debate that will end any time soon, if ever.

    I say we should just stick to what we know and nurture that rather than trying to correct each other. Luckily, you have the upper hand, as the majority of Japanese students I’ve met have American English, so it’s an uphill battle for me if they express the desire to learn U.K English…

    • February 2, 2010 at 9:29 am

      Hey Mike! Thanks for the shout! Yeah, British English may be the correct English but what troubled me the most was that she was making a judgment about which is superior and inferior, concluding that my English was inferior as opposed to just different. I wouldn’t agree that British English is superior. But, she may have also picked up on my New York / Brooklyn accent (which I think I’ve lost but not completely and I consciously refrain from using in the classroom) which is admittedly not standard. Anyway, thanks so much for the thoughtful commentary and please feel free to let loose any time.

  7. 13 Mr. Chi Town
    February 6, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Dude! I would have been hot! Like one of those Tom and Jerry cartoons. The bottom line is respect and a minimum amount of courtesy. Thats why I am often wary of these fake smiles on this rock.Many

    The funny thing is the passive aggressive stance. Many JTE men/women are weak in this regard too. Too timid to confront you like a man, have a pow wow at the pub,etc. But when this sort of BS starts messing with the green in my wallet,I get hot. I look at it as not having anything to do with your accent per se, it just some folks being cute,rude,seeking a power play,living in fantasyland and looking at you not as a person but a “service” like in Hot Pepper magazine that they can complain about.Sometimes I get Japanese people asking me how to find some kind of foreign friends. But,then they pull out a notepad with a list of “requirements”.It sounds like they are shopping for a flat or a product(not a “friend”). Paris Hilton in disguise?

    Anyway keep pressing on!

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