Speech contest: In the teacher’s chair

Today I listened to 120 students recite a speech they each had written. It’s part of an English speech contest for all first and second year students, something which James, my predecessor started at my school. It takes a lot of work for the students and for the teachers. I‘m exhausted now, but have smile lines etched into my cheeks. I listened intently to every student, knowing that this communication is so important for building relationships with them. We aren’t able to communicate in Japanese or English well, but body language says the most important thing, “Hey, I’m listening and I want you to do your best”. 

The Journey of a Japanese-to-English Speech

 The process of writing the speech starts over the winter vacation, then goes one of two routes. Sometimes the student’s speech goes for a detour through Google translate and comes out in completely unfathomable English, so the said student is asked to write it again in Japanese. Back on the main route, it is then translated by a JTE and finally passed to me to check the English grammar! The student then receives the speech, which is now incomprehensible to them, so they write the katakana way of pronouncing every English word and come to me with their Japanese-English (e.g. I liku puraingu basuketo baru). Then, I go through each difficult word with them slowly and make sure they can say it. It’s a long process, but today it seemed worthwhile. 

The Speeches

The students, between 12 and 14 years old have the freedom to talk about any topic they like. I give them ideas, such as writing about their dream of what to be when they’re older, an experience or a story. Many first-year students translated the world ‘dream’, to mean their actual dreams, not their ambition, so those speeches are pretty entertaining!  There are of a range of topics:  

Some are trivial: Three reasons why I love omurice, Why I love frogs so much and If Doraemon came to my house.

Some are serious: Why English is important, Japan’s problem with wild animals, Japanese government (The first time I heard any Japanese person talk about politics, and it came from a 12 year old boy!)

Some are random: Kyoto vegetables, The day I got lost, When my swimming trunks came off. 

Some are shocking: When I swallowed a toothbrush in my sleep, Meeting a wild monkey, Falling off my bike when I was three.

Some are damn-right heart-wrenching: My dog heals my heart. One especially tear-jerking one was about a boy losing his pet chameleon “Rolly”, it went a little like this.

I had a pet chameleon. His name was Rolly because his tail was a spiral shape (with spiral gesture). I had him for seven years. I loved him very much. Then, one day he died. I was very sad. My parents were very sad. I will never forget Rolly. I have learned how important pets are. 

Home-room love

Apart from pets and dreams, many are about their friends. Junior high school students have a deep connection with their friends, especially their home-room classmates whom they spend all day with. They study in the same classroom all day, eat lunch together, clean their classroom together and play sport together, so no wonder they are close. Their home-room teacher mimics the job of a parent in the class and knows every detail of the student’s home and school life. The teacher has to visit a student’s home if they have misbehaved  or sometimes if they are ill. And everyday the students write a summary of their day for the home-room teacher to read the next morning. This close bond between the students’ and their home-room teacher makes some home-room classes feel like stepping into a family, especially for the first-grade students. 

An example of how close classmates here are, is when last week a Brazilian student left the school for the last time to return back to Brazil with her family. She had to make a speech to her home-room class and her and her friends were crying by the end of it. The atmosphere of sadness spread throughout the school and many people stood outside to wave her goodbye. Her chair now sits empty and, although she was not a particularly talkative student, it feels like someone is missing in the class.

From Roald Dahl’s wonderful book ‘Matilda’. Miss Honey, the sweetest teacher of all story tales.

What I’ve realised through having more of an active role with the students, is that I love my job. This hit me most when I was listening to two young-looking twelve-year olds practising their speeches, about how they love their pets. I realised that I am the one sitting in the teacher’s chair now and I’m the one helping students.

From childhood games…

My first class!

My first class!

When I was about seven, I taught my first lesson. Admittedly, my horde of cuddly toys made up the class, but each had a name, I’d register them and line them up on a rug in my bedroom or in the garden. With my dad, also of teacher-blood, I even made tiny books on our old Acorn computer for each student! Then, from primary school to university I’ve admired, looked-up to and respected teachers, many of them being very influential on me, shaping me into the person I am now. I’ve been fortunate enough to come into contact with some fantastic teachers, whom I’ll never forget. Like Mrs Hitchins who let us paint the walls of our ugly temporary classroom when I was 8, or Mr Judd who coached myself and my friends to be the best tag rugby team in the area when I was 10, or Mr Bailey who allowed me to join a hiking expedition on Dartmoor, even though he had doubts my legs were too short to manage the grassy terrain!

To having real students

Now I’m in that position and I need to live up to being called ‘sensei’. I’ve had big shoes to fill, as my predecessor James (a tall New Zealander into art, rugby and golf)  stayed five years at my school and was loved by students and teachers alike. I’m nothing like him, so I’ve just tried to be myself. Now, after two terms at the school I feel part of the community. The relationship building in the classroom pays off, when students shout ”Sophie” in a supermarket and come to say hello, or when an adorable first-year girl waves to me at the school gate, even though she is already late for school! Those moments make those smile wrinkles so worthwhile.

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