Visiting School Tuesdays

Imagine a school where all teachers and students know each other by name, everyone eats together and everyone helps to clean the school.  To me this sounds like an idyllic school; almost too good to be real.  But every Tuesday I go to my ‘visiting school’, Tanaguchi Elementary and Junior High School and it is exactly like that.

After a 15 minute drive uphill, through bamboo forests and winding roads, I arrive in the village of Tanaguchi.  The small clusters of houses are set against a mountain, aptly named ‘Mount Happy’.  Tanaguchi only has a population of about 350 people, two-thirds of them elderly and work in the fields around the village.  There are only 32 students in total, and that’s from age 5 to age 15.  There is also a kindergarten attached to the school where around 12 tiny tots run about, collect chestnuts and play in the school gym.  There are no more than ten teachers, one friendly janitor and an equally smiley cook.

I arrive to the sight of the elementary students, dressed in white caps and with laden rucksacks walking together to school.  The sound of the bells on their bags means you can hear the children coming and going to school but is meant to keep bears away!  The houses and school are so near the edge of the dense forest that many children have seen wild monkeys, but no one I know has seen a bear.  I wave and shout Ohayo gozaimasu the customary good morning greeting, and they wave back excitedly.  They change their shoes, take off their caps and run all the way to their classrooms on the second and third floors.  Instead of the busyness of my main school where I arrive to a pile of marking on my desk and have to catch teachers before they scoot off to fulfil another one of their many duties, arriving at this school feels like joining in a family outing. There is the smell of freshly brewed coffee, teachers are checking the news online and chatting like friends.  No one is stressed or overworked at this school.

My first lesson is with three boys aged ten.  They are typically cheeky and love the fact that they can speak in Japanese and I can’t understand them!  We learn the alphabet, colours, animals and simple phrases through songs, games and, well… more games!  It’s fun and surprisingly challenging as they have so little English to understand me.  My Japanese is slowly improving but I often rely on their  teacher to translate if I’m stuck.

My next lessons are with the Junior High School English teacher, Mr Yamada.  He is tall, with a full head of hair, even though he is in his early fifties and likes to spend his days off reading books in the prefecture library.  Every week he asks me to come up with a game for each of my three classes, all with just 3, 4 or 5 bright but quiet students in them.  My job is to bring the fun into learning English, so instead of repeating and copying from books, I make up a game or presentation which fits what they have been learning during the week.  Having such a small class means that I can be adventurous in what the students can do and can help them if they are struggling.  We’ve played ‘Guess Who’, done a ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ quiz show and other games where students must think of the top of their head and not looking at the books.  I certainly enjoy the games, as does Mr Yamada, who often joins in to make up the numbers.  Today we played Pictionary in all three lessons and he loved it!

After a full morning of lessons, it’s finally lunch time and my belly is always rumbling.  The twelve students in the Junior High School take it in turn to serve up the food which has been cooked by the friendly cook down the corridor.  The students, their home room teachers, and I all sit on a table made from the students single desks and we say Itadakimasu before we eat.  The food is unsurprising; always rice, a thin broth with vegetables and tofu in it and a stir-fry type dish with a couple of slithers of meat.  The food is replenishing but not exactly exciting.  It is followed with a full-fat bottle of milk which every student in Japan has to drink.  I’m getting use to the milk and think of it more like dessert than a drink.  What I can’t get use to is how quickly they eat!  This ten to fifteen minute slot in the day is not meant for friendly small talk but instead students listen to the school radio where there is an elementary and junior high school student reading out the lunch menu and making a joke or two.  Still I have to make a concerted effort not to make conversation as I am always the last to finish anyway!

Then, what was a surprise to me was that the students and teachers spend the next five minutes cleaning their teeth!  They stand around chatting with a toothbrush in their mouth or some even get out a book whilst brushing their teeth!  This is good to see, as I’ve noticed that the majority of kids teeth here are off-coloured and full of fillings.  One reason for this may be the sugar which is put in some of the toothpaste, but more probably it is the lack of fluoride in the water. Yet five minutes of brushing seems a little too much!

After the five minute timer is up, all students in the school rush to the gym, and the havoc begins!  There are five year olds on unicycles, Frisbees flying and basketballs being dunked. In the madness there are tiny kindergarten kids literally ‘hooped’ together with a hola-hoop, or clinging like limpets to teachers!  For twenty minutes the kids go wild and I hardly recognise the quiet, subdued students from my class.

Then, it is cleaning time.  Everyone, including the head teacher, has an allocated space to clean and spends fifteen minutes sweeping, wiping and dusting the whole school until it is immaculate. The floor sparkle so much that I wouldn’t object to eating my lunch of it!  I am allocated to the Language Lab which I’m meant to hoover, but there is literally not a speck of dust in sight and after five minutes hovering, I skive off this duty and go back to planning my next activity.  I once read a student’s work which said ‘I like cleaning the school as it makes my heart clean’.  That sentiment stuck with me as I think there is some truth in it, as the students calm down as it is done in silence, they can feel proud about their small task and feel that everyone is working towards the same goal.  Yet fifteen minutes a day for this activity again seems unnecessarily long!

So the afternoon I have to relax, to make posters and to plan lessons. I reflect on my surroundings  From the Language Lab window I can see egrets in rice fields, the odd person working on their allotment and thick, dark forest.  There is no sounds apart from the 11am and the 5am village bells which call out to people working outside to come back for lunch, and to return for the evening.  The school has no bells which is a nice change from the hourly chimes which ring out the busy and hectic schedule of my main school.

I join the 1st and 2nd years in their table tennis club, where I am always beaten, for an hour and then I leave with the 5 o’clock village bells.  The downhill drive home is much faster than the uphill one and I’m soon at my apartment feeling like I’ve got the best job in the world.

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!