Before I went to Japan to teach English, I had quite a large number of people tell me the same thing.
“Ohhh,” they’d say knowingly. “Those students over there are SO GOOD.”
It was almost like a compliment. Or a congratulations – like I had won the education lottery or something.
I guess in comparison to our own school systems, Japanese students seem to be ideal. They’re quiet, attentive and obedient and they don’t talk back to you like the self-entitled brats in Western school systems.
Or so people think.
I myself believed this as well. That’s why it came as a bit of a shock when I was designated to teach at Daikyuu Junior High – one of the ‘roughest’ schools in Yatsushiro.
“Ohhh,” people in my city would say, almost apologetically, when I told them where I was scheduled to teach. “You’re at THAT school.”
It didn’t take me long to figure out why people had this opinion. Daikyuu, it seemed, was full of problem students. A group of girls once went on a rampage in the school – tearing down bulletin boards, spraying the fire extinguisher, shattering a window and denting a teacher’s car by kicking it.
With things like these happening during my first year as an ALT, I became aware of two facts:
1) Japanese students are definitely not as perfect as the world seems to believe.
2) Just because a student is ‘shitty’ does not mean they aren’t intelligent or talented or hilarious. Most of my favorite students were actually ‘shitty students’.
So how were these students dealt with? Detention, it seemed, was not a thing in Japan. In fact, discipline in general seemed very strange to me. Depending on the teacher, punishment could either be obscenely lax or uncomfortably intense.
I remember witnessing this firsthand one frigid winter day. As the temperature outside fell, so too did the attitudes of the majority of the students inside Daikyuu. Japanese schools are usually not insulated and it’s often as cold inside as it is outside.
My coworker Matsuda Sensei and I had been practicing a dialogue in class and one male student in particular was having none of it. Normally he was a very bright kid who was great at English, but this particular day just did not seem to be going well for him.
His day got even worse when he back-talked the teacher during class.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” Matsuda Sensei exploded without warning. “GET OVER HERE.”
He approached the boy in a flash, seized his arm and pulled the student violently out of his chair. He then promptly dragged him out of the classroom.
As the sliding door slammed shut, I was left staring at the rest of the class in an incredibly awkward silence. Some students threw each other cautious, amused glances and snickered.
“Er…let’s er…repeat this dialogue…” I said, awkwardly trying to continue the lesson.
Nobody was listening.
“Do you have any pets?”
I was met with silence. Thirty five sets of eyes all focused intently on the hallway.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Matsuura Sensei yelled – the thin walls providing little insulation from the sound. An angry, mumbled reply followed.
“Er…everyone? Let’s try to focus…” I pleaded helplessly. “Yes. I have some hamsters…”
“DON’T BE SUCH A SHITTY KID! YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT!” This time the yelling was accompanied by a heavy thud.
“GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER!”
“…Oh really? I…I love hamsters…” I continued in vain.
Shortly after my lonely monologue, the door slid open noisily and the boy re-entered the classroom and took his seat. I could see that his eyes were puffy and red and he was rubbing the top of his head gingerly. He looked miserable.
“Sorry,” Matsuda Sensei said casually as he slid the door closed. His face was dour and his eyes still shone with anger. “Now let’s repeat this dialogue.”
Even though some students had troubled home lives that made them act out, the ‘bad’ students at Daikyuu were still hilarious and full of personality.
They often took advantage of my enigmatic status of ALT. After all, I was still kind of a teacher but…I didn’t really discipline anyone so…I was kind of cool?
“IAN SENSEI,” a third year student (one of my favorites) said to me once. “I HAVE ZA SUMOLL PENNUS ZIS SCHOOL!”
“I’m sorry, what?” I said with a surprised laugh. The small group of boys that had cornered me in the hallway with him giggled mischievously.
“ME, I, ME” he repeated with a macho jerk of his thumb toward his chest. “I HAVE ZA SUMOLL PENNUS ZIS SCHOOL!”
“Ohhh I see,” I replied. “Really?”
“OH, YES.” he said as his friends around him dissolved into laughter. “BERYY BERYY ZA SUMOLL.”
“Do you mean to say,” I began, “That you have the smallest penis in this school?”
He blinked, confusion registering on his pimpled adolescent face. His friends stared at me in bewildered silence.
“It’s actually ‘pee-nis’,” I continued. “In English, we don’t say ‘pennus’. Nobody would understand you if you said that.”
“Oh…oh yes,” he replied, obviously surprised that I was indulging him.
“I have…” he thought for a minute “…za small…”
“…est” I interjected helpfully. “the smallest”
“There you go!” I said reassuringly. “Good job! Just remember….smallest, okay?”
He nodded, still baffled that I had not scolded him. “Okay. Sankyuu!”
The debate over whether or not I was being a bad ALT can be had, but I don’t regret correcting him. I figure that if a student is going to say something like that, they might as well say it properly. That way, they can get the reaction that they want rather than a confused stare.
Perhaps another reason that I helped him out was because, as a student, I was the same way. I would frustrate my Spanish teacher countless times by saying any number of random phrases. The smart ass, chatty kid who would constantly be thinking of anything else during class – that was me. I find it extremely interesting that even in a culture as different as Japan’s, I was able to find students who reminded me of myself when I was the same age.
I would often catch myself observing my classes during team-teaching lessons. I saw notes being passed, secret conversations being had, doodles being doodled, and kids staring out the window, pining for freedom.
A few times, my gaze would fall on students having discussions during class. They would catch my eye, immediately stop talking and turn back to their work. I realized that I must have looked like a stern teacher…but in reality I was just watching.
I think it’s a very surreal experience that few people get to have – observing students in front of them who acted just the way that they did in school.
I found that, in my time teaching Japanese students, they are not as different and perfect as people seem to believe. Children and adolescents, I learned, are the same everywhere. We may grow up in different places with different social structures, but we all have traits and characteristics that we share. Traits and characteristics that make us inherently human. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to come to this realization and I hope that more people can.