Conformity, silence, and fallen dreams: my journey as an ESL teacher in Japan
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Translation: hammer the nail that sticks out.
Old Japanese proverb.
As I come to the end of my time teaching in Japan, I have started to reflect on what I have learned about teaching and about myself as an individual. My time in Japan has been both a harsh reality-check in many ways. It prompted some quite deep introspection around why I chose to become a teacher in the first place. It also led me to ask myself (for the first time): why does it matter so much for me to change the world?
I was thrust into the unforgiving Japanese education system in May 2019 when I moved to the small and unknown Nagoya, named Japan's "most boring city" (Japan Times). A quick Google Image search will throw cherry blossom and a generic-looking Japanese castle at you, the likes of which can be found in any Japanese city. It was a far cry from from the bustling cosmopolitan Shanghai, where I was encouraged to be a dynamic and engaging teacher in a deskless classroom. So far, I had managed to keep away from the rigorous and conformist style of Far East education...
I came to Japan bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, looking for an escape from my old company's robotic approach to children's education. I wanted to be somewhere that treated children as people to nurture rather than as 'products'. I believed I had found such a place when I came to Japan. It was an eikawa, which means an English conversation school that opens in the evenings. I loved the idea of joining a small school of fewer than ten staff because I thought it meant I could really 'make a difference'. Finally, somewhere I could push myself and be ambitious! I was full of hope, having been told that Japan was "the best country in the world", a plentiful land of manga and cosplay that celebrated difference and eccentricity.
When I arrived at my new school, I fell in love with the decoration and the immediate friendliness of all the staff. The fact that there was no student work on the walls, or that they all looked miserable in the group photos on display, didn't ring alarm bells at the time. It took me weeks of pushing my piece of paper into a Clocking in Machine to realise that the school was stuck in the 1980s. I was met with sight word drills, group repetition, textbooks from twenty years ago, monthly spelling tests, and reading aloud from a textbook as 'speaking practice'. Gone was Shanghai's Apple TV, replaced by a dirty whiteboard with erasers that were never clean. My tiny iPad was so old it kept shutting down apps at random points throughout the lesson. Where was the technologically advanced Japan that I had been told of? What was this unintentional retro vibe? Why was everyone paying in cash and using fax machines and flip phones? Was everyone just a massive hipster?
Thrown in at the deep end with no training other than a dead-eyed man from Texas scowling through my lessons, I started my new job with very little idea of what was expected. Before my soulless predecessor left, he gave me a list of "Basic Questions" for each textbook level as a guide for conversation practice. Each one would produce a fairly uniform response in the child:
How are you? / I'm fine.
What school do you go to? / I go to Higashiyama Elementary School.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? / I have one little brother.
What school subject do you like? / I like history.
Although set questions do teach sentence structure well, it leaves students totally stumped in actual conversation. Questions as simple as Are you sleepy? or What did you eat for lunch today? or What school clubs do you do? (the words lunch and club are used frequently in everyday Japanese) would bamboozle my students and stun them into silence. I was shocked at the low level of my students, many of whom were unable to perform tasks at the same level as their much more junior Chinese counterparts. When a few of my students dropped out without reason, I raised my concerns with the other staff. "It's normal", they responded. And nothing more was said on the matter.
I was confused - surely this couldn't be the experience of Japanese schooling as a whole? Unfortunately so. I asked my students about their daytime school and was met with horror stories of chalkboards, rote memorisation, lecture-style classes, absent teachers, and sleeping going unnoticed (the Japanese even have a word, inemuri, for "sleeping on duty"). Japanese students also have mandatory extracurricular activities. As such, they have virtually no time that isn't planned or somehow controlled by an adult. Conformity was clearly valued above all else.
Some of my elementary students even told me that their schools forbade them to meet up with each other outside of school without the presence of an adult. No wonder they all looked at me sullenly when I asked "tell me something good that happened today". I suppose it is therefore unsurprising that their life dreams did not stretch beyond "be rich", "be an office worker", or follow in their parents' footsteps. It seemed that the modest eikawa where I worked was probably the highlight of their week.
Nevertheless, I felt something had to be done to make their English experience more fulfilling and engaging. I wanted to collaborate with my colleagues and get everyone working together on fixing the system. Back at my old company in China, it was regular practice to ask to observe other teachers' lessons. It was one of my favourite ways of picking up new games and behaviour management strategies. Something that was also strongly encouraged in Shanghai was communication between Chinese nationals and foreign teachers. I assumed that my new company in Japan would have a similar outlook.
However, even after I got my boss' permission, my Japanese colleagues still wouldn't let me sit in on their lessons. There was always some excuse: this week they have a test; this week they're working from last week's worksheet and the lesson won't make sense; this week is just revision. Disappointed but not put off, I decided to do what I could with small glances into their classrooms during my toilet breaks. I saw that their lessons consisted of reading from the teacher manual while students sat at the desks, making no eye contact.
I also realised, after a few chats at reception, that the lesson style had been created to fit the (A2 / B1) English level of my Japanese colleagues. I began to notice just how big the gap was during teacher meetings as we constantly switched back and forth between English and Japanese. Along with deviations and tangents, this meant that meetings would often go on for over two and a half hours.
The disillusionment was hitting hard. The last time I had been intellectually challenged was during finals in 2018 at Oxford. I had so much pent-up energy that was simply going to waste. I'd never learned how to 'relax' in life, and my university experience had only made that worse. I soon started to spiral. I wrote a book's worth of depressive poetry (also on this blog) and started lying in bed well into the late mornings, unable to move. I realised I needed help. I started seeing a therapist and I decided to channel my energy into making small, productive changes at work. I still couldn't shake my deep-set desire to 'make a difference' some way or another.
Returning to the issues at school, I saw that what I had identified ran much more deeply than I had anticipated. I had to see whether my boss would be open to making changes in the first place. This meant I had to do my bit to learn more about Japanese work culture. I asked my Japanese language teacher to inform me on customs such as bowing, greetings, and forms of address. I practiced weaving honorifications into my language when speaking to my boss and my students' parents.
I set up a meeting with my boss and expressed clearly that I wanted to help her grow her business, bring in more clients, and modernise processes. I told her I was prepared to work lots of free hours in order to achieve this. She seemed happy, and it looked as though things were starting to get better.
I started working on a promotional video for the company, I filmed classes, took pictures, made posters, started up a school newsletter, and even introduced the company's first standardised level check for new students coming in. I also started experimenting with new activities and games in my lessons. I saw my students shift from robotically churning out "I don't know" and "nothing" to actually thinking for themselves. I asked my boss to observe some of my lessons in the hope that she would see why my students were improving at a faster rate than in other classes and why they were always so excited to see me. I felt I was doing all the right things, but that there was still a long way to go. Students were still dropping out of the school without giving a reason, and nobody wanted to ask: why?
I decided it was time to introduce an anonymous online parent survey. Before I arrived, nothing at the school was done online - no company email, no newsletter, no parent updates, no schedule. I created a survey with my boss and we sent it out with the first newsletter. We received 98 responses, which was amazing given that we only have 250 students, many of whom are siblings. It was clear that the parents wanted their voices to be heard. And the responses were less than favourable. Unfortunately, this meant that the survey was discarded and nothing was done. I suggested setting up parent-teacher conferences or 'open evenings' as they had done in my former company, but my boss said it "isn't very Japanese". As I would soon learn, this was a phrase I would be forced to familiarise myself with.
One month later, I clashed with a Japanese colleague over an issue of changing a piece of homework. I argued that the phrases (roll the dice, move your marker, and other boardgames-related phrases) were outdated and not useful. I suggested a revision of phonics e.g. magic E and consonant blends, which my students still struggled with due to their Japanese accents. I showed her a worksheet I had just created and intended on giving my students. My colleague said "Mmm" (which has potentially infinite meanings in Japan). Five minutes later, she was talking to my boss, clearly very upset, and I was being publicly reprimanded for disobeying the chain of command. Another cultural blunder on my part.
Jacques was incredibly supportive through this. As a halfie i.e. half Japanese, half foreigner, he also has to play the game of tiptoeing around cultural practices. He knew full well just how exhausting it all is.
I spoke to my therapist about it and she told me the culturally appropriate action to take would be to make edible treats (not the weed kind, though that would have been funny) for my colleague and boss. They were received with explosive renditions of "Arigato gozaimasu!!!" and big hugs. The air was cleared a little, and things felt less tense in the office. I felt I was ready to make my next big move, stepping into a more senior role (ah, how I laugh in hindsight!)
I spoke casually to my boss about the workshops and panel discussions I led at university when I was in charge of a feminist debate club. She seemed impressed, so I said I would love to set up staff workshops at the school. All teachers would be able to share teacher techniques and discuss how best to deliver 'trial lessons' for new students. My boss smiled, but the idea was soon forgotten. I had naively assumed that my experience teaching in six different countries would give me some kind of backing; unfortunately, as far as Japan was concerned, I was a newbie.
In October, after a number of further suggestions had been conveniently forgotten, I set up a 1:1 meeting with my boss. I asked her a question that changed everything: "What were you looking for in a teacher when you hired me?" The response was overwhelmingly heartbreaking. She told me she wanted someone who could fit in well with the team, who would conform to the 'Japanese way' of communicating, who would smile and listen and not challenge her. Teaching technique was secondary to all of this. Ultimately, she wanted silence.
I could feel myself spiralling again. It felt as though everything I had been working for was for nothing. I had failed to free my students from a system that was stunting their hopes and dreams. After I left the school, they would simply return to silence and conformity. There was nothing I could do. I was the nail that stuck out, and everybody around me was trying their best to hammer me down. I had dreamed too big, idealised too much, and this was the price.
I began counting down the days to each therapy appointment. Besides Jacques and my online Masters in Education, therapy was the only good thing in my life. Eventually I emerged from the hole, and I felt as though a weight had been lifted from me. I knew what I had to do: hand in my 3 months notice. It was difficult, but walking out of the meeting I had never felt freer.
Now that I am preparing to start training with Teach First in the UK, I am reminded every day that I made the right decision. Teach First appears to be everything that Japan is not: progressive, innovative, welcoming of change, celebrating diversity, and caring about students as individuals.
I still have a way to go until I figure out a way of effectively winning people over without making them my enemy. But I'm hopeful about my next place of work.