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Be a Teacher and an Ally in your English Classes in Japan

Students worried about being judged, bullied or rejected miss out on countless educational opportunities. As a teacher, you have the power to minimize that fear. Here are some key tips to create a safe space in class.

By 5 min read

Kids yelled anti-gay slurs at me in the hallway, pushed me, mocked me, stole from my locker and excluded me. I was bullied for being queer. Teachers were sympathetic but rarely stopped bullying unless it happened in front of them.

And that was all before high school.

So, when I finally got there, I was exhausted. I remember vividly the pivotal moment when my high school English teacher showed us her “safe space” magnet and announced that she accepted all students, regardless of race, sexuality or gender. She was the first teacher to accept me and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Thanks to her, I could ignore the bullies. I knew someone had my back.

When I came to instruct as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in a Japanese high school (ages 15-18), I wanted to offer that same support. And yet, I soon became silent about being gay, afraid to stand out too much. Before long, I was confronted with subtle jokes about queer people and felt distanced from my students and colleagues. Where had I gone wrong?

Since then, I’ve developed strategies to show my students that I am in their corner. By clearly and simply explaining my role as an ally, calling out potential bullying and keeping discussions diverse, I reach out to students afraid to be in the minority.

Say it out loud

Minority students most often include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) kids, as well as those with one or no Japanese parents, the former otherwise known simply as hafu (“half”). If you support these kids, you need to tell them, like my teacher told me. I like to begin any new term with a set of “class expectations” and an opportunity for students to create “ALT expectations” that I also have to follow, such as “smile more” or “never wear your glasses” (my personal favorite).

Choosing the right words is important. I like to stick to something like, “Respect your classmates.” I follow this with a short speech: “Anyone is welcome in my classroom. If you are Japanese or non-Japanese, Korean, Chinese, gay or lesbian or transgender — you are safe. All of you.”

Other teachers may not be 100 percent comfortable with my outspoken inclusion, but Japanese school administrations are gradually becoming more accepting. I personally have never had conflict result from this activity. Moreover, foreign language classrooms need to be safe and comfortable so students are more open to speaking without fear. By making this statement as the leader of your class, you are working to set kids at ease so they can better learn. In most cases, if you don’t say it, no one will.

By clearly and simply explaining my role as an ally, calling out potential bullying and keeping discussions diverse, I reach out to students afraid to be in the minority.

Nip bullying in the bud

This is tricky, especially if you aren’t fluent in Japanese. Ijime, or bullying, can be difficult to spot. It might be a joke, like when a group of boys single out someone and tease him for “liking boys.” The student in question will vigorously deny the allegations and everyone will laugh, but this joke can silence and oppress nearby listeners. If you laugh along — however nervously — you are enabling bullying. Do not be a bystander. Affirm that: “It’s OK to be gay.” The bullies might be taken off guard, they might even laugh more. But you have shown your discomfort and sometimes that is enough.

Other students may unknowingly use hate speech. However benign it may seem, I respond by teaching students why hate speech is bad. I get personal with them — I tell them how hate speech has been used against me as a teenager. I describe the pain it has caused so many people.

Another GaijinPot writer, Liam Carrigan, describes bullying in Japan. While he makes a good point that ALTs can only do so much, it is also important to remember that just saying something — calling out the bullying or explaining why it could be hurtful — is better than nothing. The goal is not only to stop the intimidation, but to remind the victims that someone is on their side and empower bystanders to speak up the next time you, as a teacher, are not there.

Discuss all kinds of people

Beyond just LGBT folk, I like to raise discussions challenging what many students may consider “normal” in order to reach out to my “half” students as well. Teach your students about Japanese gender roles versus the roles you may be familiar with in your country. Talk about immigration, women’s rights, laws and even racial issues.

Challenge your students to think about what it even means to be Japanese. My favorite activity is to slap a picture of Ariana Miyamoto, Miss Japan 2015, on the board and ask students what language they think she speaks or where she was born. Ariana, like many Japanese, is African American Japanese. If you want to learn more about multi-ethnic identity in Japan, check out GaijinPot editor Victoria Vlisides’ article on diversity in the Japan. Safe spaces are not just for LGBT people — they are for everybody.

The outcome

While it has not always been easy or obvious, I do feel that myself and a group of amazing teachers here have been able to make a small difference in the lives of some of our students. One student came to me “just to practice English” and ended up confiding in me about his struggles with his parents about his lack of desire to marry a woman. I was honored to hear his story. Other students have come out during class as bisexual, to which I give an enthusiastic thumbs up. My hafu students are thriving, some of the most talented kids in my class. And, finally, many of my students have discussed their desire to make Japan a more inclusive place. I expect nothing less from them, to be honest. We all have a responsibility to make schools a little safer for the next generation.

For more tips on being an ally and creating safe spaces in the classroom, visit mypeer.org  and tolerance.org, and please share your own methods and stories in the comments.

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