Saturday, April 28, 2007


Today there was no earthquake, but there was an earthquake-equivalent. I walked into my first, one-student class, and he was not there. His bag was, though.

I guessed (correctly, it turned out) that he had gone to the lavatory, so I sat down and unpacked the Scrabble and another activity I'd brought with me. He had demonstrated some enthusiasm for Scrabble last week (i.e. he sort of nodded when I asked if he liked it), and I had decided to give him the choice to play it again if he wanted to. I still don't know whether this class will be continued or not. I have some ideas of what to do if it is continued, but next week Friday is a public holiday, so I figured that if I was going to start 'proper' teaching, I'd make a fresh start after that when (I hope) I'll know what is happening.

The official class rolls arrived in my mailbox at the university this morning, and there is definitely only the one student registered in this class. The boss told me that generally what happens is that the university contacts the student to find out whether there is a class they can join at a different time, and if there isn't, the class continues. I THINK this means the class will continue, since the other repeater class for his faculty on that day has nobody registered, last I heard. But there may be classes on other days. I didn't have time to check.

After a few minutes the student walked into the room, and I greeted him cheerfully, as I always do.

"Hello!" I said. "How are you today?"

That was when the earthquake-equivalent happened. He looked directly at me, smiled shyly, and stammered,

"Ha, aha, I'm fine, thank you."

I didn't make a run for the stairs, or react (externally) in any way abnormally, but it was a near thing. That was the first time he has answered my greeting, the first time he has looked directly at me aside from a frightened glance on the first day, and the first time he has smiled. And it happened all at once!

He has a lovely smile. He only used it once again during the lesson, but he did look directly at me occasionally after that when I spoke, and I got a few more monosyllabic replies than usual as I was chatting during the game. I asked him if he had felt the earthquake yesterday (he hadn't) and we discussed (or I discussed) what we would do if there was one during our class, and I managed to elicit from him that he remembered the big one here (he was 8, and that made me feel old) and that his house was half destroyed but nobody in his family was hurt. Although I did most of the talking it WAS a conversation, of sorts, at least far more so than last week or the week before. He chose to play Scrabble again, and that helped. It took the focus off him. He did not sweat or shake this week. He frowned at his tiles a lot, but that's normal. So did I, as I tried to avoid putting my Z on a triple letter score or something similarly tactless.

I also had a pack of cards in my bag, and to end the class I showed him my one magic trick, which made his mouth drop open before he barked a little almost-laugh. He then showed me his one card trick, and did it REALLY WELL, and my response made him smile for the second time. Then he showed me how he did it, which he shouldn't have, so I showed him how I did mine, which I also shouldn't have. But first I made him promise not to tell anybody. He seemed to think that was an odd thing to have to promise. I expect it was, really, as I don't think he has any friends to tell.

But I hope one day he makes some friends, and can show his new trick, and will remember that he isn't allowed to explain the trick because he promised his favourite (only) English teacher that it would remain a mystery to everybody except me and him.

I'm feeling a lot more positive now about the prospect of this class possibly continuing. A little feedback is a wonderful thing (especially when it is so unexpected), and I'm already working on the next step in my dastardly plan to turn my little wannabe-dropout into an ENGLISH SPEAKING wannabe-dropout.

In my class of third year students, I had several new students AGAIN (when will they finish shopping around so I can start on something like an actual syllabus?) so I got them practicing conversations, and after that we did a quiz. The quiz was one I found floating around in my bag (there's a lot of rubbish in there, but some useful stuff as well), and is a general knowledge quiz I've used before a lot, partly because it's always so successful (the students love it, for reasons I can never quite understand, given how bad they are at it and how much they mock each other for their wrong answers) and partly because the answers are always so entertaining.

Today's most entertaining answer was the one to the question:

"Who was the leader of Russia during the Second World War?"

The group that got that question huddled together for a while and came to a decision. Then they turned to me and answered, confidently,


(I got to feel old and surprised a LOT today.)

In my last, very large class, I have discovered that the levels are wildly mixed. They shouldn't be, as the students were supposed to have a level check at the beginning of semester, which usually works quite well. I suspect that a few of the students somehow missed the level check and just got dumped in my class. It is supposed to be a low-level class, but some can speak quite well and others can barely understand anything. The book is low level, which will bore the higher level students, I thought, so I decided to focus a lot of pronunciation, which benefits everyone.

In pursuit of this plan, after we did the (very easy) first unit in the textbook today I taught the class how to say the. That was pretty funny, because they thought I was mad. You could see it on their faces when I wrote the on the board and told them what we were going to do. But once they'd done my little repeat-after-me exercise and said the three sentences;

Cat eats mouse.
The cat eats the mouse,

The cat has eaten the mouse,

and used the same three beats (with me hitting time on the podium) to say them, the higher level students were sitting up in their chairs with surprised expressions and paying attention. You could see them suddenly realizing that English had a different rhythm from Japanese. (English is stress-based; Japanese is syllable-based, broadly speaking.) They tend to pronounce the as a clear and separate word, and it sounds wrong.

Then I taught them the children's chant:

Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?

I wrote it on the board first, and some of them read it aloud as I was writing.

"Who - took - the - cookie - from - the - cookie - jar?" they said, and frowned. Why was I writing something so silly?

Then I called for silence, and they went quiet. (This class is obedient, bless their cotton socks. I don't know how I'd cope if they weren't.) I faced them, frowned ferociously, and then suddenly started chanting accusingly, hitting the podium and clapping rhythmically,

"WHO took the COOkie from the COOkie JAR?"

That made a few jaws drop.

I did the whole thing. Then I got them to repeat it after me, only slower.

After a couple of times (when they had finished laughing) I pointed out what they were having to do to the to make it fit the chant. The higher level students sat up straight again when they realized. I made them all repeat a few other nouns after me, with a very unstressed the and a daDA rhythm.

The STUdent.
"The BOOK.
The BAG.
The TEAcher!

Then we did The COOkie jar chant again, all hitting the desks and clapping in time, and I sped them up faster and faster until they reached critical speed and classroom collapse. When forty-four students collapse, it's messy, hilarious, and very, very loud.

But it was, I felt, a perfect and happy note to finish the day on.


kenju said...

I think by the end of the term, this student will be smiling at you and speaking very well indeed!

Nils said...

I agree... you sound like a fun teacher to have (=

BTW, how did you get into teaching in Japan? I heard of a thing called JET at an event a few weeks ago, did you use that? If so, how was your experience? Just asking because I'm kinda interested in Japanese (and Japan) and like English, so I'm looking at that as a job possibility (;

Badaunt said...

Kenju: I wouldn't go QUITE so far, but I do hope that he is at least a bit less frightened of people! And with enough English to see him through the other courses he will have to take.

Nils: I came here for six months, met The Man, and ended up staying. Getting into teaching at that time was easy - you walked into a conversation school for an interview and the first question they asked was when you could start. I had no qualifications, and the pay was pretty good. (These days it isn't very good, although it's still pretty easy to get in if you don't mind going the conversation school route.)

I got qualified as I went along, and ended up studying for an MA while I was working, which is doable but not much fun. University teaching came later. It is much harder to get into these days than it used to be, but even then I got in because I was lucky - someone recommended me and the university was desperate. Once you have one job it's possible to get more, but these days the full-time jobs for foreigners are mostly term limited, which is no good for me, since I'm staying and do not want to be jobless at the end of three years. (One reason I stick to part-time.) If you want a career, I do not recommend it - being good at your job does not win you promotion or appreciation (except from students), and over time your pay is more likely to go down than up these days. There is almost no legal protection or security for part-timers, and even less for foreigners.

The JET thing could be worth doing, but again it's temporary. Most people treat it as a first step in a career that will end up elsewhere.

This sounds a bit grim, I know, but to be perfectly honest if I'd known what it really meant for long term prospects when I decided to stay, I probably wouldn't have. Fortunately I'm not a very ambitious person!

Nils said...

First of all, thanks for the answer (=

That actually sounds kinda like what I was thinking of... I don't really fancy a career in teaching (I'm good at school, but I don't consider myself a good teacher... then again, other people do...), I was thinking of it more as a way to get used to the language and the people, and to get money.

Plus, no offense, but teachers, at least in Germany, don't have the reputation they deserve (they oftentimes do things that good parents should do at home, and then people blame them for not magically making their kid smarter as well as well-behaved... plus people say "what are they complaining about? look at how many holidays they have! they get money for not working 3 months of the year, so they can't complain"), and that would be frustrating for me.

Eventually what I'd like to do is something computer related, be it game design or just programming.

One more question: What are the regulations for foreigners there? i.e. do you need a visa, greencard etc.?

Badaunt said...

You definitely need a working visa, but I'm not sure about the regulations regarding coming here on a tourist visa and then switching. You might have to leave the country again when you apply for the change. (I'm not up to speed on this, though - it's possible the Korea run has become history. Having a Japanese spouse makes things easy for me, and I don't need to think about it!) Most western foreigners who come here for a short time work as language teachers as some sort, but to be sponsored as an English teacher I think you have to be a 'native speaker,' which means (or used to mean, at least) that you have to have had eight years of education in an English speaking country. It doesn't matter how good your English is if you don't have that. (I know this because a Turkish friend came up against this requirement - she had an M.A. from an English university, but that didn't count because it was only 2 years. But that was a few years ago - it might have changed.)

Another way to do it is a cultural visa, which allows you to work a limited number of hours while you study. For that you need sponsership from a Japanese language school or other Japanese 'cultural' education organisation.

Or, of course, you could try to get into the JET program ( For a feeling of what the JET program is like, you could check out the Big Daikon bulletin board ( (and have fun sifting through the banter).

Nils said...

Wow, again, huge thanks for you very detailed answer (=
I spent some time checking out the JET page and Big Daikon, and I noticed that a lot of the people on that forum seem to not really see it as a job o_0
Also, the JET page says that not all countries are eligible for an ALT position, but doesn't says which ones are or are not...
Oh and I think it's strange that the page doesn't list any level of Japanese as a requirement...

Again, thanks for answering a total stranger's questions in such detail, and have a nice day!

Badaunt said...

I just found another JET page, here:

- which gives the eligible countries, under 'aspiring JETs' - 'participant countries.' Maybe you can find more useful information there ...

Pearl said...

That does sound like a gratifying day between that smile out silent lad and eureka over rhythms. That should boost orbit for a while.

Lia said...

Awesome lessons. Can I be in your class, even though I speak English already? Maybe I'd learn some Japanese, which would be pretty cool.