5 Tips for Starting at a New Japanese School
By Mark Guthrie
Starting a new job can be overwhelming, particularly in a new school with hundreds of new faces scattered around a labyrinthine building undergoing earthquake-proofing refurbishments. But remember, as strange as it all seems to you, to your students you are equally peculiar, and probably unapproachable. Of course you will get a few calls of ‘kawaii’ and some of the more confident ones will offer high fives, but to the majority of your new pupils you will be quite terrifying.
Say ‘hi’ to the kids
So say hello. And not just once to the odd kid who catches your eye, but to everyone, over and over again as you wander the halls. You may feel a bit silly and repetitious, but feeling foolish is far better than spending the next year having children avoid your unfriendly gaze.
Don’t criticise your school’s practices
For newcomers with preconceptions of Japan being a land of technological marvel with robots tending to your every need, entering a public school can be something of a shock. Blackboards and chalk dust come as standard, students’ desks sit in rows reminiscent of the 1950s and a ‘chalk and talk’ attitude from many of the older teachers is the norm. And while you may be full of great ideas of how to revolutionise your classroom, these ideas should be introduced with positivity.
Denigrating the school for its lack of Western-style Smartboards, bemoaning the paucity of PC access compared to your home, or wisecracking that ‘Montessori is not a pasta dish you know’ will not be taken appreciatively.
You are their teacher and not their friend.
As a new teacher there is a temptation to ingratiate your way into your students’ good books by being their mate, being the cool teacher. But don’t do it. Firstly, you should cast your mind back to your own school days. Do you remember the supply teacher who would swan into the classroom, fresh from uni with a Hoxton haircut? You thought he was a tool, didn’t you? Well, you don’t want to be that guy.
Secondly, and more seriously, the quickest way to get on the side of the students is to pander to the cool kids. Well, as soon as you do that, you will be ostracizing the kids on the outskirts of the social strata, and in a school system where bullying is rife you could be complicit in heaping scorn on those kids for whom school is already a harsh environment. So friendly, yes. Friends, no.
Try to speak Japanese with your colleagues.
Imagine the scene. A new member of staff walks into your office and mumbles something completely incomprehensible in a strange language, smiles and sits down. Does this endear her to you? Does this make you want to rush over and form a firm friendship? Does it generate an immediate sense of camaraderie in the workplace? Or does it make you want to avoid her like a particularly virulent strain of bird flu? You know the answer.
So, even if your grasp of Japanese is as firm as a jellyfish’s handshake, cobble together a few words and introduce yourself properly. It may not be perfect, but it will be appreciated, and will get you off on the right foot. Speaking of which…
Don’t wear Crocs.
If you are new to Japan, this will be your first experience of changing your shoes in the workplace, and you may be at a loss as to what is considered appropriate footwear in and around school. As such, you may be seduced into following your Japanese colleagues into donning Crocs. And while they are a particularly comfortable foot adornment, especially for a profession in which you spend the vast majority of your time standing, please, please don’t do it.
Crocs are an abomination to the fashion world and just because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t mean that you should follow suit. Remember, you are in a school now, and following the crowd into peer pressure is not big, it isn’t clever, and it’s certainly very, very ugly.