It was the beginning of spring and I was going insane.
The weather had given way from a miserably cold winter to brisk mornings and gorgeous sun-filled afternoons. Outside, cherry blossom trees everywhere were in full bloom – their gorgeous pink displays lifting my spirits immeasurably.
As I zipped down the bike path that led to my school I was greeted with more smiles and ‘ohayou gozaimasu’s from obaachans than I had been in months. The hordes of biking students on their way to school also seemed much happier. They laughed and even greeted me in English as they passed; a stark contrast to the winter in which we would both pass each other in frigid silence – cursing the weather and how difficult it made riding a bike.
It seemed that everyone in my city had collectively awoken from a grumpy winter hibernation. Like a caterpillar breaking out of its cocoon to reveal a smiling, colorful butterfly, spring had arrived and the ice from everyone’s psyche had melted.
In Japan, the start of the school year happens in April. Students are mixed into new homeroom classes, able to choose what extracurricular activities they want to partake in, and former 6th graders don their spiffy new uniforms and prepare to venture forth into the intimidating world of Japanese junior high school. Because of this, the atmosphere at most schools is always abuzz with nervous, excited energy.
During this time, students are not the only ones who experience change. Every year, a good portion of the faculty and staff are moved around as well. This can be as minimal as moving a fifth grade teacher to sixth grade or as drastic as removing them from the school altogether. Nobody is exempt from this shuffle – principals and vice-principals included.
In my schools, about twenty teachers (give or take) were sent to different schools every new year. Sometimes they are sent to different schools in the city and sometimes they are sent to other parts of the prefecture (often with minimal time to prepare).
The reasoning behind this is baffling to me as an American; I can remember going back to see my second grade teacher when I was graduating sixth grade. She was still there, and hadn’t changed a bit. This rarely happens in Japan, however.
I’m unclear as to exactly what the motive is for scrambling everything but I’ve heard it has something to do with keeping teachers and staff from stagnating in their current positions. Whatever the reason, it’s always a stressful time of year for everyone involved.
For ALTs, it can be extremely stressful and a bit like playing Russian Roulette…but that’s a discussion for another time.
With all of this excitement and change in the air, however, ALTs are usually forgotten amongst the hustle and bustle. At least I was at my school.
During Spring Break, I came to work in the morning, sat at my desk and would literally do nothing all day. This torture was further compounded by the fact that I asked my supervisors, other teachers, and even the office staff if I could help with anything. I was politely told that no, they did not need any help but they appreciated my asking.
As such, I often tried to plan lessons but ultimately always ended up staring out the window of the staffroom and lamenting my boredom.
After the first few days of this cruel and unusual punishment, I could no longer take it. I would get up and walk around the school without any purpose or notice to anyone. The students, who were sometimes there for their club activities (yes, even during Spring Break!) were reluctant to talk to me. I realized how strange I must have looked, wandering the halls like some kind of foreign curly-haired specter.
Before long, I decided to do something. I had an English Board that I would meticulously decorate and update all the time. I would discuss American culture, holidays and the top songs on iTunes for the month. I would print out eye-catching pictures and write easy-to-understand descriptions for my students to read. It was largely ignored by both faculty and students alike.
Undeterred by the general lack of interest, I came up with a great idea. Since Easter was around the corner, I decided to get creative. I was going to do an Easter Egg Hunt.
Having wandered my school for a few days, I began to think of places I could hide my Easter Eggs. I began to come up with easy-to-understand English clues and, I soon had quite a list. The clues ranged in difficulty so that first years who may not have had great English ability had a chance to compete as well.
I procured several sheets of colorful construction paper from the office ladies (‘No we still don’t need help with anything but thanks for asking again…’) and cut out several ovals of varying sizes and colors. I numbered each from one to twenty four and labelled them simply ‘EASTER EGG!’.
My clues were transferred to a sheet of paper and included things like: “This is what you use if there is a fire.”, “This is where you learn to sing and play music.”, and “You go here when you feel sick.”.
Soon I was traversing the hallways excitedly, no longer plodding about like a zombie. Colorful eggs in one hand a tape dispenser in the other, I gleefully flitted from place to place hiding my eggs like a strange Easter bunny.
Soon, the semester started and I, with my eggs all cleverly hidden could not wait.
During the end of the opening assembly the next day, the vice principal asked if any of the teachers had any announcements. Everyone was a bit shocked when my hand shot up from where the teachers were sitting.
“Er…yes, Ian Sensei, douzo…” he said as I padded across the slick wood floors of the gym in my socks.
“Hello!” I said grabbing the mic and walking in front of eight hundred confused junior high schoolers. “In the United States, Easter is a big celebration in April.”
As I was explaining, my supervisor translated what I was saying.
“We do something called an Easter Egg Hunt!” I continued. “People hide colorful, hard-boiled eggs and children have to find them.”
“I thought that we could have our very own Easter Egg Hunt here!” I went on. The audience murmured excitedly as I told them how I had hidden 24 ‘eggs’ around the school.
“Read the clues on my English board and when you find an egg,” I said. “Bring it to me in the staffroom and I will give you a special prize!”
At the mention of ‘special prize’, the students broke into an excited clamor. What was this? Something fun being done at school? Was I going to give them money?
I thanked them, ended my speech and then sat back down as the crowd continued to buzz. The other teachers gave me confused stares and but I saw some grins among them.
An hour or two after the assembly had ended, a student opened the staffroom door and announced that he was there to see me. This hardly ever happened. Several teachers cocked their heads in confusion and watched as the boy approached me with an egg.
“Awesome!” I exclaimed as he handed me the red oval of construction paper. “Great job! Where was it?”
“Umm, under the bench,” he told me. It was the first clue that I had listed on my sheet: ‘Look under the bench in front of this English Board’
“Ah,” I said. “Super easy, right?” He nodded in response. He was a fairly high level student.
I had him write his name on the egg and then exchanged it for a pack of candy (Skittles) and a pencil. It may not seem like much, but in Japan, giving candy to students is sort of a no-no. I had neglected to tell any of the teachers this, because I knew I would be met with opposition.
Word got out that Ian Sensei was handing out candy and within a day, many of my students had turned in to mini-Sherlocks. I would see them roaming the school during lunch or looking behind pictures in the hallway on their way to their next class.
“IAN SENSEI HINT PLEASE!” they would shout to me if they saw me. I would just give them a grin and a shrug, thereby stressing them out more.
During lunch, I would hang out at my English Board. I stapled the eggs that had been found to the board and crossed the number off of the hint list. If any students came by, I would help them with any hints that they were struggling with. It was great to see the spark of understanding in their eye before they dashed off down the stairs.
Some of the more challenging eggs were found quicker than I had expected. I had hidden them in clever places: under keyboards, behind paintings, in an English book in the library, taped to a fire extinguisher, folded into a metronome in the music room etc. I had also hidden one in each homeroom – taped behind the blackboard, tucked into a mounted fan, posted on a class bulletin board.
Within three days, over half of the eggs had been found. I felt a bit like WIlly Wonka with his golden tickets.
Eventually the furor over Easter died down and the students returned to walking mindlessly through the hallways. I think that the grand total for ‘found’ eggs was about seventeen or eighteen – not too shabby.
As the school year continued to pick up, the excitement and energy faded away and everyone fell in to a routine. April came and went and I eventually had to pull off the Easter Eggs and make way for the next English board topic.
For many ALTs, this time of year is mind-numbingly tedious and unbearably slow. I was proud of myself for finding a fun way to beat the boredom, involve my students and introduce a (heavily edited) aspect of American culture all in one fun activity. I felt accomplished and it was a great way to start my final school year on JET.
For any current or future ALTs reading this, sometimes the hardest part about teaching English in Japan is not doing anything at all. I definitely know the feeling of being ignored, overlooked and left to basically sit at a desk all day. It’s challenging to not give up and fall in to the ‘well FINE, I won’t do anything then!’ mentality. I myself am guilty of doing it many a day.
I think that during times like this, though, it can be invaluable to try and channel creativity in to something that can benefit your school and your students. Plus, it shows your colleagues that you really aren’t just an expensive office ornament.
In my experience from being an ALT, one has to be proactive and brave enough to just do something. If you ask if you can do something, most times you will be met with a teeth sucking noise (‘tsssss, chotto….’) and reluctance to try something new. But I’ve found if you just do something, you will often bypass all the beaurocratic fluff and bullshit.
The reason I wrote this was just because I was feeling nostalgic and Easter is coming up. I hope I’ve been able to entertain and inspire with this story. If you have any questions or comments, feedback is greatly appreciated! Let me know in the comments!