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.

Enkai etiquette: what NOT to do at a Japanese work party

Never wear jeans to an enkai, nor turn up late, nor cross your legs (if you’re a girl). I did all of these things with typical gaijin etiquette and spent the first thirty minutes with red cheeks from embarrassment! Thankfully by the time the first kanpai was cheered, I’d regained my normal complexion and decided to enjoy the night as much as I could. Time to start pouring the beer!

An enkai is a Japanese work party, generally involving a lot of drinking, eating and for a unknowing foreigner, embarrassment. It’s the time when office crushes are revealed, secrets are shed and the boss gets thrown up in the air (yes, that literally happened!).

I’d been to a couple of enkais before but each has been an informal occasion in an izakaya (Japanese restaurant) where we all sat round tables and shared platters of sashimi, metre long plates of sushi and other delicious Japanese dishes. Therefore I was looking forward to my third enkai as a chance to try out my improved Japanese, as well as to eat my fill of my favourite Japanese food. However this particular enkai was the retirement party of the kocho-sensei (principle), so little did I know, it was a lot more formal than I anticipated. From 6000 yen (around £40), I should’ve guessed it would be a formal affair but my supervisor had failed to mention the work dress code. Unlike other teachers did, I went home after work and changed into my smart-looking, going-out jeans, and started walking to the restaurant. 

That was infact my second error, walking to the restuarant, not getting a lift. It was a little further than I thought and the minutes flew by. I managed to beat the estimated walking time of Google Maps by a third, but when I arrivied at the building I thought it was in, it turned out to be an empty ramen restaurant. The chef and waiter looked at me with surprise when I checked if they knew the whereabouts of my school’s enkai taking place that night, well actually in five minutes time! The helpful waiter quickly called some places and found out it was just around the corner. I thanked him profusely, trying to indicate I’d manage to get there alone, but still he insisted on walking me to the door of a very posh, traditional restaurant where kimono-clad women were waiting at the door. Being escorted to the restaurant by a man wearing a dirty black apron is not the entrance I was going for.

And now for the biggest faux pas of the evening, being late. I’d been told it started at 6.30pm and I tried to get there on time, but the location error had put me behind so I reached the enkai just as it was starting at exactly 6.30pm. I mean I arrived just as my kocho-sensei was being clapped into the room. People kept clapping as I tried to hide my reddened face behind the nearest door in the room. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my allocated seating position and the vice-principle said ”Let’s wait until Sophie-san sits down, before I start”. I nearly died inside. All I could think of were my teachers tutting inside at the foreigner who has got everything wrong.

As I dared to look up and around the room, I realised that everyone else was wearing their smartest work suits. This was a completely different event as what I’d expected. It was in a large tatami room and the fifty or so teachers each had their own table with the first dishes of food laid out on it. Everyone was sitting on their knees, with their heels curled in behind them. I copied them, trying to score some cultural etiquette points, as the koto-sensei (vice-principle) made the first speech. Ten minutes in and I’d lost all sensation in my legs. By this point I’d forgotten about my earlier embarrassment and was just focusing on how to ignore the aching pain in my legs. I could see other teachers struggling too, and when my supervisor slid her legs to one side, I followed her. What made it worst is not understanding anything which is being said, so I had no distractions to take my mind off my dead legs. All I could think of, was if I’d turned my phone to silent. I was imagining what would happen if my ringtone went off as my kocho-sensei was summing up his forty years working in schools and everyone was looking more and more moved by his speech. If that happened, I was thinking I was sure to lose my job, almost certain. But my bag was out of reach so all I could do is wish that my friends wouldn’t call me at this time. A phone did go off, but thankfully it was not mine. Phew, I’m not going to be fired.

After twenty-five minutes of idly nodding and laughing to the speeches when everyone else did, I manoeuvred my numb legs into a crossed position, only to have a teacher laugh at me! What now?, I thought. Apparently only men should cross their legs. It was at this point, I questioned how much fun this evening was going to be.

Yet the teachers near me made me feel relaxed by pouring me beer and not mentioning my jeans, my lateness or my cross-legged position. I knew that the etiquette at enkais is never to let anyone pour their own drink, so I made sure to get that right at least!

My most enjoyable conversation of the night was with janitor and the Portuguese translator. The slightly orange-haired janitor came over to our tables and poured us some beer. We then proceeded in a mishmash of English and Japanese with the Portuguese translator trying her best to translate between the two! The janitor is the kind of man who laughs at everything, so he was rolling around at the bad Japanese I was coming out with! Mmmh, my evening of impressing teachers with my Japanese wasn’t going so well. Nor were my favourite dishes being served. Instead I was slurping up vinegary seaweed soup, munching on whole tiny squid and other dubious dishes.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

The courses were interrupted by more speeches, present giving and a slideshow of present and past students thanking the principle. I couldn’t help but notice how the traditional gender roles were playing out. The young female teachers had been given many of the tasks of giving speeches and presenting the gifts to the principle. One of my JTEs didn’t have time to eat her food as she was so busy pouring beer for other teachers! These feelings of sexism may have been enhanced as my legs were still in a punishing position, whilst the male teachers sat comfortably cross-legged!

The evening ended in everyone standing in a circle to sing a slightly modified version of the school song. I hummed along merrily, watching the drunk teachers swaying to the tune. Then everyone stopped and looked around, it was time for banzai! In unison, everyone shouted ‘banzai’ three times and raised their hands to the sky, as a way to wish good health and fortune to the principle. It was followed by all the men rushing to pick the 60 year old man up and throwing him in the air three times! I really hoped he hadn’t eaten or drank too much at this point! 

This however was just the start of more raucous behaviour to come. The nijikai (after party) was a nomikai (drink all you want) at a local karaoke joint. This is where everyone really lets their hair down! Yet at this point I’d had enough of laughing at jokes I didn’t understand, trying my best to speak Japanese and eating strange food. So I went home to join my friends who I could communicate with.

But all is not lost, I’ll be more prepared for my next enkai and most definitely ask about the dress code!