My Struggles and Experiences as an English Tutor to Japanese Students
In this piece, I will solely talk about my personal experiences and the challenges I’ve faced as an English teacher for Japanese students. There is a good chance I might be saying inappropriate, offensive or insensitive things so my apologies in advance. It’s not my intention to embarrass, disparage or talk bad about someone or of any culture. My story neither reflect all teachers’ perspectives in general. They are purely my own and I take responsibility of it. If I misunderstood or misinterpreted anything or anyone, I stand corrected.
So, I have been an online English teacher for almost 8 years now. I’ve worked in the same company the whole time.
The first time I set foot on this company, I have immediately felt the difference in culture. My previous job was with an Australian company and dealt with various nationalities in one office. Suffice to say, I was used to a dynamic culture, let’s say, the Western style.
The first wave of shock came when I was asked to take off my shoes and change into house slippers. I was wearing my best suit that day, with matching shoes that took me a while to choose. Yeah, that was unique.
Then the interview was quick and easy. That’s what I thought. My journey started when I was asked to do a mock class with one of the Japanese staff.
I am an English major, earned my degree with flying colors and served as Editor-in-chief in the university publication for two years. I started writing articles as early as third grade in elementary. I taught English in a high school for a year during internship. I was regarded “an asset” in the academic community as told by the evaluators during my final demonstration. I know my English. I was confident.
Or so I thought.
It’s true that my English level is good; great if I repeat what other people told me, but I wasn’t as great in the mock class.
I messed up. I was terrible.
It’s true that I’ve worked with various nationalities before but none was Japanese. Prior to my employment here, I had no relevant experience to Japanese culture. Suffice to say my only exposure was anime and variety shows. I had no idea and I must admit, I didn’t bother research on it. I’d say, I was culture-shocked.
Here are some of the challenges I have encountered during the journey.
Some topics of conversation may touch specific traditions and cultural practices.
I have to at least know the national holidays, traditional food, etc. It’s nice to share these things but it has to be two-way. I don’t want my students to think I was ignorant and uninterested. But I can’t bore them with stories of my culture that they know nothing about either.
When I found out that my daughter’s birthday was actually on Hina Matsuri, I was extremely delighted. But some students were confused when I told them we don’t have White Day and Valentine’s Day is particularly for romantic partners and most of the time, ladies only receive the presents, not so for guys.
What’s acceptable in my culture may not be acceptable to another and vice versa.
Here, we can freely talk about violence. We like the gory stuff. But not so during the class. On the other hand, the students can easily talk about topics such as politics and religion, but not so much in here. So we have to make each conversation pleasant and comfortable to each other.
I can clearly remember when I was warned for telling a racist comment. I felt sorry but at the same time, I felt bad because that story was from another colleague and her student was totally fine with it. Lesson learned, each student is different from one another.
Some English can be understood inside Japan but not so much outside.
In every non-English speaking countries, we adopt the language in various ways. We sometimes come up with terms that we can understood internally, but other cultures can’t.
In the Philippines, we say ‘eat-all-you-can’ and we perfectly understand the meaning. But when heard by native speakers, they’ll probably raise an eyebrow
But during the class, I was once asked to have more ‘tension’ in the class. I was totally confused. I thought they were telling me to be more emotionally strained. It turned out, they meant ‘energy’ or be more energetic. And that mugcup rendered me speechless.
Most students don’t show their real abilities until several classes later.
It was a constant struggle gauging student’s level during the first few lessons. Many students tend to be timid and barely talks. We have to make them talk and share more. It’s true that most students do much better in writing and doing objective exercises, but too shy to do casual talks.
I had this particular student who constantly took my lessons and I didn’t know why since we barely make extra exchanges except stick to the textbook and do the activities. Then one day, we accidentally talked about baseball. He became unstoppable since then. He updated me with the current standing of teams. He introduced Tigers, Dragons, Carps, Giants, etc. To this day, I still know their ranking.
Sad thing is, he reminds me the fact that I am getting older. He was a kid and now a teenager. Time flies!
I had a hard time adjusting my level of teaching due to the wide spectrum of learners.
I used to teach high school students. And in our country, English is used as a medium instruction. Also, the western culture is ubiquitous; from music to movies and dramas. We hear and use English on daily basis, so it’s safe to say that it’s much easier for me to teach on a more advanced method even on lower levels. I can use more difficult vocabularies and talk faster.
So yes, during the first few lessons, I received feedbacks such as talking too fast, using too difficult words, being too technical. I explained too much theories. I should let students practice more sentences rather than explaining grammatically.
In addition, it was quite hard to switch techniques. One lesson, I was talking with an adult with high intermediate level then the next, i had to use flashcards and sing children’s song. I’m a terrible singer by the way. But I am pretty good dissecting current event issues and events.
I can’t forget the time when I mistakenly asked an adult student if he wishes to sing the Hello Song with me.
I can’t speak Japanese.
Although not encouraged, it is sometimes a necessity to be able to speak words and phrases to aid the discussion. It is particularly useful for beginners and kids. With a head as hard as a rock like mine, it was a challenge of high level. It was hard for me to learn, retain and recall new vocabularies. I had to keep a copy nearby and I make students laugh with my terrible pronunciation. It is still a problem of mine up to this day.
I caused a student to have a fit of laughter when I incorrectly translated a word. I was mortified when I noticed why. It was one of those classic blunders of mine.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a walk in the park for me. I had met people of different ages, levels and backgrounds. How was it?
I learned probably more than they learned from me. I definitely know more about Japanese culture by now, except my vocabulary bank is still abysmal, practically empty. This experience made me realize how inadequate I was. It was a humbling experience. I still have a lot to learn.
But more than just language exchange, I learned about people, I heard stories, I’ve seen emotions. And all of those are real. I’ve formed an attachment to each and everyone I have talked to and shared more than just a piece of myself. I have opened the book of my life and they added some pages to it. In fact, it continues to accumulate stories and fragments from every 25 minutes I share with my students.
But all things, good or bad, come to an end. It is really sad when students take their last lesson. But it is not particularly heartbreaking. To see their progress and to know that they are about to go and start a new journey makes me proud.
When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming an educator. But when I saw the terrible plight of teachers in my country, I changed my mind. I didn’t want to be part of the poor system. But as an online tutor, it ignited my passion to share my knowledge and my love to the language. This is the closest to my dream I’ve ever achieved.