We’ve all heard the saying “those who can’t, teach”. It’s a cynical phrase suggesting that people who are unencumbered by the requisite talent to be successful in their chosen sphere must accept their limitations and resign themselves to passing on their acquired knowledge to those who possess ‘the right stuff’.
This is not a point of view commonly held here in Japan. In Japan it is understood that teaching is a vocation. Teachers have an elevated position in the community, a status that is reflected in their honorific title ‘sensei’, a title also shared by doctors, lawyers and politicians. But, like Spiderman with a red pen, with great respect comes great responsibility. Teachers are someone to look up to, someone to emulate, role models for the children in their charge, and are thus expected to behave as such both in and outside of school.
Teachers have an elevated position in the community, a status that is reflected in their honorific title ‘sensei’
This, it should go without saying, includes those of you who work in schools around the country. In fact, as an ALT (or similar) your responsibility is even greater for, not only are you a teacher, but as the school’s ‘token gaijin’ you are a representative of the rest of the world. How you act has wide reaching ramifications on how your students behave and how they see the world. Keep this in mind when you are out and about.
On yer bike son!
Japan is a nation of cyclists, with approximately 57% of the nation riding the 72 million bikes on the road, yet at times it seems that nobody has a clue as to how to use them properly. It may surprise you to learn that bicycles are classified as light vehicles, on a par with motor scooters, and the traffic laws that are applicable to them reflect this.
You can be fined for, amongst other offences: cycling whilst using a mobile phone, umbrella or MP3 player; cycling two abreast; riding with more than one person; even riding on the pavement/sidewalk, unless signposted otherwise is breaking the law. Learn and stick to the rules, encouraging your students to do likewise. You could even try organising a cycling proficiency class at your school.
The long and empty road
Have you ever been on an empty street, no cars on the road, yet still waited for the little green man to signal you over to the other side? If the answer is ‘no’ then you’re probably not Japanese. While people will think nothing of cycling into traffic on a busy one-way street, jaywalking is a big no-no here, and it should be for you too.
You may think ‘what’s the harm in me crossing when there’s nothing coming?’ and you might be right. However, you could be setting a bad example for any watching pupils. ‘If gaijin Sensei can do it, why can’t I?’ may be the last thought that goes through your student’s head. Before a car does.
Don’t be a butt-head
Yes, we all know it’s a disgusting habit, but if the pile of butts behind the sports hall of my high school are anything to go by, teachers are not immune to the lure of tobacco. If you are one of the 20 million smokers in Japan, take care where you go for that crafty smoke. At high school, you may even see the Japanese teachers puffing away at the school gates, but is that the example you want to set your kids? As a foreigner, there is a good chance that the kids already think of you as pretty kakoii, do you want them to think that smoking is part of your cool mystique? You’re not The Marlboro Man, and even of you were, look what happened to him.
Working hard or hardly working?
It’s not just amongst your pupils that you need to be on your best behaviour, but also with your co-workers. Historically, gaijin English teachers have had something of a bad rep and some of the Japanese teaching staff, the older ones particularly, may see you as little more than a chancer getting handsomely paid for merely speaking your mother tongue.
Twiddling your thumbs in the staffroom and flicking through Facebook between lessons isn’t helping that preconception. Yes, you may have plenty of time between classes, but use it industriously. Study your Japanese vocabulary, write a blog, offer to help other teachers, do what you can to change that old perception.
Iki! Iki! Iki! Iki… oooh, feeling icky.
If you like a drink, the chances are that at school you will not be alone. However, coming into school with a stinking hangover and bragging about how many chu-hai’s you hammered the previous night will do nothing for your standing in the school.
Those aforementioned preconceptions of foreign English teachers include a Dionysian desire for the bottle, and while tales of debauchery to make Keith Moon blush may endear you to your younger colleagues, the school principal may not be so impressed. They may also be less inclined to believe any genuine sickness claims you might have are anything other than bottle-induced bedriddence.
The hills have eyes. As does everything else.
When those Cambridge Chimes ring out signalling the end of the schooling day, you may start thinking about letting your guard down, but communities can be small and the way you act when you are out-and-about can easily get back to your pupils. This is particularly true if you live in a rural area where a foreigner may stick out like a large, non-Japanese thumb, so try to act in a way that is befitting of your station.
Having local kids following you around during your nightly jog may be frustrating, but telling them to ‘bugger off!’ will not only be understood, it will define how they and their friends see you and other gaijin in future. Even something as seemingly innocuous as walking home from the supermarket with a bottle of wine may, as happened to a friend of mine, result in you arriving in class the next day to find a boozy caricature of yourself daubed on the blackboard. It’s not easy to command respect of kids who think you are less linguist and more piss artist.
Of course everyone makes mistakes, and we cannot all live like saints. However, if indiscretions can be seen as the exception rather than the rule this can not only ensure that your local community sees you and future foreigners in a positive light, more importantly you can be a positive English-speaking role model for your students which, at the end of the day, is why you are here.