Many people often ask me what the most difficult part of teaching in Japan was. The JET Program had a mandatory, two day orientation to teach us about the long, English teaching road ahead. They rattled on and on about isolation, language barriers, and cultural clashes.
Yet they forgot the most important thing of all:
Actually instructing us on how to teach English.
The most difficult part of JET for me was standing in front of 40 middle school students and
entertaining educating them for one hour. I was a journalism and Japanese major–I knew absolutely nothing about education.
I’ll never forget my first day of class. I walked in, smiled, spoke very slow English and introduced myself. I put up laminated photos of Utah. I showed them a map of the United States and pointed to my home state. I said we would do a quiz game about my self introduction.
“Ok, so where am I from?”
The whole class was silent. No one raised their hand. My palms started to sweat and my heart raced. I didn’t know what to do. The Japanese teacher instructing alongside me was also a 22-year-old fresh graduate, and we were like deer in headlights. Our faces paled, the students lost their concentration, and we scrambled to keep them from talking with one another.
Later I learned a. Japanese students cannot comprehend even the most basic English and b. they do not raise their hands and answer questions like in the U.S., even if called upon.
Those first few months, going up to teach felt like a march up to the firing squad.
Sure, culture shock was hard. Loneliness, isolation–it was tough. But damn, teaching stressed me out. My teaching days usually involved English curriculum from a rigid Japanese textbook written post WWII in a classroom where I had to obey Japanese instructors who forbade me from speaking Japanese. It was tough to both pull off a successful English class while keeping the attention of my students.
But during the holidays, I took full control. We played Halloween English games the last week of October, Thanksgiving trivia in November, and my personal favorite–Christmas lessons in December.
I’ll never forget my first Christmas lesson in Japan.
After pleading with the principal and the Japanese English teachers, my middle school finally allowed me to give candy to students at the end of my Christmas lesson.
“On one condition,” Sato-Sensei, the 45-year-old Japanese head English teacher, said as he eyed me with a cold stare.
I gulped. “Yes? What condition?”
“You have to do my Christmas lesson exactly the way I want it.”
I sighed a breath of relief, since that’s exactly what I do anyway, “of course Sato-Sensei. What do you want to teach?”
“I thought we could listen to ‘All I Want For Christmas’ by Mariah Carey and the students can do an exercise where they fill in the blanks for the lyrics.”
Thank god, I thought in my head–that’s the easiest lesson ever! I don’t even have to talk!
“Sure thing Sato-sensei, let me get the fill-in-the-blank worksheet ready.”
Donning my Santa hat and wearing my famous red coat, I marched into my first class with a Santa bag full of candy in one hand and a stack of worksheets in the other.
I opened the classroom door to my female students shouting “メアリー先生、可愛い！！” (Mary-sensei, you’re so cute!! Kawaii!) and my male students cheering, “それはチョコなの！？やった！！！” (Is that candy!? YES!!!)
I smiled and waved to my students, but turned a suspicious eye to Sato-Sensei sitting at the front with a guitar slung over his shoulder.
“Pass out the worksheets, Mary-sensei” he said to me with a smile. “And make sure to keep one for yourself.”
I already knew something was wrong. Sato-sensei never smiled. Ever.
“Today class, we have a very special surprise for you,” Sato-sensei explained to the students in Japanese. “Mary has two presents for you… one is candy, obviously, but the other one is a surprise.”
Oh god. He slung his guitar to performance position and started to strum a few chords.
“You know the song ‘All I Want For Christmas,’ right Mary-sensei?” Sato-sensei whispered to me.
“Um,” I gulped. “Yes. I know it, but…”
“Great,” he smiled again. Two smiles in a day. This was looking bad.
“Class,” Sato-sensei announced in Japanese. “Mary-sensei is going to sing a Mariah Carey Christmas song for you!”
The classroom erupted in gasps and the famous Japanese noise of, EHHHHH!!! へええええええ！！！！
I was right there with them. I took a step back in disbelief and looked to Sato-sensei in hope that he would say, ‘just kidding’ and play the stereo already. Instead, he just kept on smiling.
My students looked up to me with a twinkle in their eyes. Everyone’s concentration was on me. I felt my heart pounding, my palms sweating, my mind racing. Although I wanted to run out of the classroom crying like a talent-show gone wrong, I knew I couldn’t let my students down. I couldn’t ruin Christmas for my beloved Japanese kids!
I smiled, stepped up to the front of the classroom with a confident hand on my hip, looked back to Sato-Sensei and said: “Ready when you are.”
And holy shit people, I sang ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ acoustic on the fly to a room of 14-year-olds. I even did cheesy gestures and pointed to a few shy boys during the ‘you’ parts at the end of the chorus.
After I finished the song, there was a haunting silence. Followed by applause.
“I didn’t know you could sing like that, Mary-sensei!”
“Sugoi (amazing), Mary-sensei!”
“Can we get candy now?”
I looked back to Sato-sensei and he met my gaze with a smile. This time, it wasn’t mischievous. It was a warm.
“Wasn’t Mary-sensei great everyone!?” Sato-sensei announced. “And so you can finish your fill-in-the-blank worksheet, she’s going to sing five more times!”
This time, I gave him the stare of death. He laughed.
“Just kidding! We’ll have the real Mariah sing to you,” he continued to laugh as he prepped the stereo. I tried my best to hide a scowl.
I sang Mariah Carey five more times to the other classes. All of them enjoyed it, and I’m sure none of them have forgotten their crazy foreign teacher who sang Mariah Carey on that snowy Christmas week.
At my elementary schools I played Christmas games with the little ones, donned my red hat and coat, and gave out candy at the end of my lessons (with cheers of joy from my little ones). In fact, they were so happy they all stampeded me with hugs at the end of class. As they tackled me to the ground in a hug and cried, “we’re going to tickle Mary-Santa-Sensei to death!” I could only think:
I love these kids. I love this town. And I love Christmas.
My time as an English teacher in Japan was almost ten years ago, but I still often think back to those strange, yet memorable holidays I spent in middle-of-nowhere Japan.
Much like last year, I’m spending Christmas with my small family of four in Utah. Although it may seem ‘boring’ compared to my holidays spent abroad, it feels good to curl up in a blanket, drink tea, watch the news with my parents and simply relax (and recover from water poisoning… oh god, it hurts so bad).
From the Ruby Ronin… Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!