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.