How to sum up three years in Japan? I have written extensively about my time teaching English in Japan here so please visit that blog to read more. I was a participant on the JET (Japan Exchange Teaching) Programme, working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in elementary and junior high schools. Initially, I went there on a 12 month contract, which I subsequently renewed and ended up staying for three years, from 1999 until 2002.
In brief, the job involved team-teaching English lessons with Japanese members of staff and participating in school life. Typically, this meant teaching for two or three periods a day, eating school lunch with students, lesson planning in the staff room, and helping out during school activities such as cleaning time, meetings, and special events like sports day, culture day, and school trips.
For the first two years, I lived in a small seaside town and worked in four different schools each week; one junior high school, one elementary school, and two small hybrid elementary-junior high schools in rural areas outside the town. For my final year, I moved to a mountainous area near a ski resort and taught in just one junior high school, although I also had about twelve elementary schools that I had to visit once a term.
The JET Programme was a wonderful opportunity, but it wasn’t always easy; I got homesick sometimes, learning Japanese was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and I experienced all the various cycles of culture shock. However, the highs were amazing; going to Australia with a group of my students on their home-stay programme, spending the day skiing with one of my schools, helping to devise the English curriculum for an elementary school, teaching students about British culture, having snowball fights with students, spending a summer in Hokkaido learning Japanese, getting to know the teachers and staff at my schools, learning about and experiencing Japanese culture, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Sapporo, presenting seminars at JET conferences, and learning to navigate the Japanese education system. As I said in one of my farewell speeches at school, my job was to teach English to the students, but really, they taught me more than I could ever have taught them. What I learned from this experience: working in a different culture is challenging, but flexibility and adaptability make everything easier.
Oh, and while I was there, I met my wife…