Surviving the Inaka: Teaching in a Countryside Classroom
By Alex Sturmey
Teaching in rural schools is certainly different to what I was expecting but it’s not impossible to survive. Though your experience will be different to that of teachers in the city, all it really takes is some adjusting of your lesson plans and understanding how to deal with students who have grown up in the inaka. Knowing some of the following information will hopefully help you on your way to making whatever small impact you can.
Embrace your own novelty
ALTs that are stationed in the inaka are very often the first contact these students will make with someone from another country and culture.
I didn’t think much of this at first, but it became apparent when a Swedish friend told me that he held a flag of his home country up and, once the usual list of guesses were exhausted; America, China, The Principality of Sealand and Tatooine, one child at the back stood up and shouted “ISIS!”. I don’t know if he knows something we don’t but maybe someone should go check on Sweden.
You’ll be asked if you eat rice where you’re from, or if cherry blossoms bloom there. I was able to avoid the usual question of if I could use chopsticks though, as my poor display of finger acrobatics one lunchtime solved any mystery where they were concerned.
As one of few foreigners, you’re able to play on the notion of the celebrity status. Not only will you stand out, you’ll be instantly liked by the students. Use this to let them learn who you are. Bring “realia” from your home country; pictures, souvenirs, tickets, funny gifts – anything that brings you and your life to light.
Make English fun
Prepare yourself for a very blurred line between teacher and student. I found myself being an entertainer/friend first, and a teacher second to a lot of my students in the countryside.
Students in the inaka are a lot more easily entertained. Games that I was able to play in the countryside to a standing ovation, seven Oscars and a high-five from Obama would only received a muttering of agreements in Tokyo. The students were always happy to take a break from the monotony of normal lessons.
Finding ways to utilize and take advantage of how interested and excitable the students are is a great tactic. Stickers will have them mesmerized for hours. Simple games like Simon Says and Charades will trick them into speaking English without knowing it. Showing movies you like or using YouTube is a type of education that they will not expect or even view as “learning”. Getting them to talk about their own experience and open up as individuals will build their confidence and trust.
Adjust your level
Although not necessarily a bad point (although it did seem like one at first), the general level of English for your students in the inaka will be quite low. You may find that to survive teaching within the inaka, you’ll have to drop your English level and slowly build the student’s ability up.
The biggest challenge I faced was trying to get my students to understand why they should learn English beyond it simply being an annoying stage of the high school entrance exams.
When I asked a student why he didn’t like English, he said he saw no point in studying it as he was just going to work on his family’s farm or in a local factory. Many students simply wanted to stay within the community.
This was often compounded by there not being many foreigners around for them to actually speak English with. I told that same student that I was a living example of why it was wrong, but he was quick to retort, “Yeah, but I want a cool foreigner.” I’ve never been able to recover.
To survive, you’ll have to create ways for them to understand why they should learn English. A good way is to design activities that are somehow relevant and practical to student’s everyday lives. Using pop culture, for example, or teaching technical/agricultural vocabulary can work.
Understand student’s behaviour
Working in the countryside, I found that I had a lot of “yanki” (roughly translated as “delinquent”, usually youth) students. This wasn’t to say that I had a negative experience with them. In fact, I found myself able to talk with them more since they were less inhibited. If they were walking around between classes, they would come and talk with me since I worked in a spare classroom.
When working in Tokyo, I asked what one of the bad students had done. I was regaled with a story about how he had shouted loudly in class, and walked around. I had to sit down to compose myself.
In the inaka on a daily basis, kids were skipping classes, running on the roof of the school, punching walls and more. Finding ways to entertain and appropriately direct the energy of these students is paramount. Make the kids walk around or throw and catch stuff, or ask teachers if you can take them outside. There are tons of easy games where you can get students to use both their physical and mental capacity.
Learn to cope with a lack of resources
In addition, something I quickly realized was, compared to big cities, there was a distinct lack of resources for me to use. At times, it felt like my school’s greatest leap into technology was the wheel and electric lights. I found that games that required little to no resources, like Row & Across or 4 Corners were great ways to not only teach English but to also play off the energy that inaka kids have.
Support students outside of class
Beyond this, you may find that the link between community and school to be very close, with your students partaking in a lot of events around the area. A great way for your students to enjoy English and to help with your own survival at the same time is to find ways to support them during these events: for example, not giving homework around practice time, teaching specific English phrases they can use and even taking part in the events with them. Spending time with students outside of class enables them to trust you and to see that you, too, are making an effort to be involved in the school and students’ lives.
This is Part 4 of Alex’s six-part “Surviving the Inaka” series. To read more:
- Part 1: Dealing with foreigner celebrity status
- Part 2: Learning Japanese
- Part 3: Making your own fun
- Part 4: Teaching in a countryside classroom
- Part 5: The best and worst things about living in rural Japan
- Part 6: Leaving the countryside for the city
Do you live in the inaka and recognize some of these experiences? Got a question for Alex or want him to cover something he hasn’t yet? Let us know in the comments!