Category Archives: Japan

The super awesome things I’m doing and seeing in Japan!

Teaching in Japan – Teacher Transfers

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I’ve been asked by a few people what the differences are between the education system and teaching in Japan versus the United States. This will be the first post of a possible few to talk about those differences. Clearly I am not an expert on either system, but I have worked in both and feel that I can at the very least comment.

Today’s topic is the Japanese system of transferring teachers. Since coming here, I’ve been shocked to discover that once teachers pass certification tests and become full-fledged teachers that they belong to the board of education they tested with. This means that they are guaranteed a job within the prefecture that they certify with. It’s kind of similar to the way some school districts in the States handle alternative teacher certification programs. Once you are accepted, it sort of guarantees a job. Again it depends on the district and the teachers themselves plus of course openings.

After a teacher passes, they are sent out to a school for what you could call a probationary period of a few years. Then the younger teachers will be transferred at some point. No one has exactly told me how many years this might be. I think it depends on your own personal accomplishments and the preference of the school, but you will be transferred at some point.

Here is where things get a little tricky. This process of transferring doesn’t end at some designated point of years or experience, or at least I’ve yet to discover one. For example, six of the twelve teachers in the English department at my current school have been transferred to other schools or programs for the coming school year. Some of these teachers are a good ten to fifteen years older than me and have been teaching for a long time.

To my knowledge, the teachers have no control over where they might be sent. A teacher may spend a few years at a school like mine, internationally minded with fantastic students, only to be sent to a reform or an industrial school or even a school with severe behavioral problems. The teachers go where the board of education wants them or in some cases where they think they will be the most useful. The teachers don’t really have a choice.

I can already hear you wondering about the problem of a teacher’s current living situation. Yeah, they don’t really take that into account either. They might send you anywhere within the prefecture (state for those of you who don’t know). This leads some teachers to only see their families on the weekends, or to need two apartments.

I will say that, while my own personal experiences lead me to dislike this system, I can definitely see the benefits. It does cut out the idea that a better teacher deserves better behaved students. It also spreads the talent around. The best teachers aren’t just reserved for the top schools. They are spread out through every type of school in the area. Students of all ability levels get to benefit from teachers who are passionate and motivated. In the States, we tend to have a problem with good teachers only going to good schools.

Students of all ability and motivation levels deserve good teachers. We often tend to forget that students are a result of their situations and not always of conscious choice. Giving them teachers who are able to perhaps pull them out of a slump is a great idea. It also strengthens the teachers by putting them into situations they might not consciously have chosen to face. Being in a difficult classroom can be just as much of a learning experience as being in a good one. Being in a difficult classroom can make you grateful when you do have the opportunity to be in a better classroom with more motivated students. Believe it or not, there are some teachers out there who take for granted how willing and motivated their students are because they’ve never struggled with difficult children. I kind of feel sorry for them for that because they don’t always appreciate what’s in front of them. Those are just my thoughts though.

Hopefully I’ve managed to focus on both sides of this. I’m afraid this came off a bit on the negative side. The system is what it is. I’m honestly just trying to report what I know or have heard because this is something I’d never heard of before coming here and working here. If you have questions, feel free to ask, and I will do my best to answer. Comments and more thorough perspectives are also always welcome.

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Poking wool with needles is fun!

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Japan is a very crafty place to be. People love to make all kinds of things from jewelry to food shaped like other kinds of food. Yes I will do a post about this.

Unfortunately, this means that I have discovered a new possible obsession. Felting. No not the fabric felt. I’m not sewing felt together, or even gluing it together. I’m actually taking pieces of raw wool, stabbing them with a needle, and turning them into shapes. Adorable shapes!

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On a whim Saturday, I purchased this kit. Yes, that’s corgi. I know, it’s cute right? I’d seen it before, but wasn’t really sure what you did with it.

Adam and I had a few minutes to kill inside the train station on Saturday. We wandered up and stumbled onto a great little sewing shop. Inside was a row of these kits, which I’d seen before. Thankfully I have a husband that understands that sometimes you just need to spent five whole dollars on something silly.

Since I still wasn’t sure what to do with the thing I decided to do some research on what these felting projects were. Below is a video of my next project. I say next because I watched the video and then discovered that the store I normally go to has it in stock. Yay! If you’re still curious, and who wouldn’t be these are fascinating to watch, just hop over to youtube and do a quick search for needle felting.

It sounds bizarre, but all needle felting is, is taking raw wool, pinching it into something close to the desired shape, and then stabbing it a couple hundred times. The specially designed needle pulls the fibers together and pulls them tight. You’d be surprised how well the shapes hold up.

This is a picture of the needles you can use. You can use either one needle at a time,

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or you can use one of these guys. It lets you use multiple needles at once so the fibers will felt faster.

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This is my first project. It’s a corgi! Yes, it’s a bit oblong and strange, but come on it’s my first project.

Here’s to a new crafting obsession!

Nine random things I miss

 

It’s been a lovely holiday break, but it’s time to get down to writing in this New Year. Last year was all about getting to Japan. I’ve done that, so it only makes sense that this year should be about writing.

I think I’d like to start off this year’s blog posts by talking about some things I’ve learned to miss in the short time I’ve been in a foreign country. Before you all get mad at me, I’m not going to include things like my family and my dog. Obviously, I miss both of those things. This is a list for the things you don’t realize that you’ll miss. Obviously my list is different from other peoples. I did plenty of research before coming here, but you can never find everything. So, without anymore explaining, here we go. In ranking order…..

 

  1. Soup Stock

This is one I didn’t expect to miss. Actually I didn’t ever think I’d be in a place that I couldn’t find this, but here I am.

You know whole section of the soup aisle dedicated to all manner of broths and stocks. It has beef broth, chicken broth, chicken broth with half the salt, organic broths, stocks with vegetables added, stocks made just from vegetables, and many other varieties I don’t care to bore you with. That doesn’t exist here, and I didn’t realize how many recipes I regularly made required that most essential item until I get it any more.

Thankfully you can get a chicken bouillon substitute, so I can still make pot pies and the like. Beef broth, on the other hand, is still something I simply cannot get. I’ve looked in several specialty stores. Not a single bouillon cube has presented itself to me.

God I’d kill for some poutine right now, but you know what you need to make poutine gravy? Do you? Beef broth!

  1. Buffalo Wings

I blame my husband for missing this food at all, but I do. You can get chicken wings here. They’re delicious. They’re equally as delicious as many things I’ve ever eaten, but most places make the same sort of wings.

Maybe it’s not fair to say I miss wings so much as I miss the sauce. I miss walking into a Buffalo Wild Wings (yes, lame, I know) and choosing from a list of twenty or more different sauces. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

  1. Un-throttled phone service

Yeah this is totally a first world problem. I’m aware of that. I’m aware of the fact that I was spoiled with my fancy unlimited un-throttled data, but I miss it. Here you get to choose how long your high speed data lasts. I have 5g, which doesn’t last long. For those first glorious gigs the speed is blazing and amazing. After you get through that, it’s not so bad. As you use it, and the gigs start piling it gets slower and slower and slower until you’re lucky to load a webpage at all let alone in a timely fashion. Yes, I’m lame for complaining about this.

  1. The Library

I am a professed book worm. Everyone who knows me even a little knows that. One of my greatest simple pleasures is wandering aimlessly among the stacks. I love the smell and even the look of all those books waiting for me to read them. This isn’t quite so awesome when you can’t read all of the books your wandering through.

  1. Food Variety

I love Japanese food of just about every kind, but there is a certain amount of sameness that’s unfortunately prevalent. All of the food is very good, but it’s unfortunately varied. One nice thing about being in the States is that if you want Irish-Mexican fusion in a gastro-pub you can find it. That is in some ways one of its downfalls but whatever. Growing up being able to just go find anything has definitely spoiled me.

  1. Christmas…

Well ok, technically Christmas still happens here. After some thought though, I’ve decided that Christmas in Japan is a bit like St. Patrick’s day in America. It’s an excuse to play around with a culture that you like, but which ultimately is borrowed and have some fun.

I think it’s great that Christmas cheer and spirit is being spread around, but being here and seeing how it’s celebrated has lead me to reexamine exactly what the Christmas holiday is. In short, it’s our equivalent of the Japanese New Year which is a time to go home and spend time with family. That unfortunately means that Christmas has become our New Year for the Japanese people. You know, that holiday where you go out and party?

This sort of Christmas celebration rings very hollow especially since Christmas Eve is the focus of all the craziness and not Christmas day. On Christmas morning, when Adam and I ventured out, nearly every single Christmas decoration had been replaced by those for the New Year. The only remaining decorations were those still in the process of being taken down. That was weird.

  1. Cheap Beer (That won’t give you a headache that can slay a walrus)

For some reason I cannot begin to understand most likely having to do with food standards laws and the price of importing resources, beer is not cheap. What’s more amazing is that everyone seems to drink a lot of it.

A cheap beer here is generally around 350 yen ($3.50). The places that sell beer for those prices aren’t plentiful and they usually only exist for people just wanting to drink a lot of cheap beer. Not my kind of thing really. Generally most other places start their beer prices somewhere around 550 yen and go from there. That means that a cheap beer is usually around five bucks if not more. Better quality beer generally starts somewhere around the 1000 yen ($10) range and goes from there. If you’re going into an import bar, the prices can really get prohibitive.

The strange twist ending in all of this is that alcohol is strangely cheap. Good whiskies and scotch sell here for nearly half the price I’m used to seeing in the States. People drink that here, sure, but overwhelmingly people drink beer high prices and all.

  1. Well insulated spaces

This thin directly contributes to number one. Most buildings in Japan are built of concrete. It’s cheap and easy to replace or rebuild. In a culture that has as many earthquakes as it does, it makes sense. It is not, however, a good way to make warm buildings. Add single paned windows, sliding doors, and wooden floors into the mix and what you have, my friends, is an ice box.

My apartment has a great heater. Unfortunately, running it can be a bit of a drain on the electricity bill, and, due to the lack of insulation, it only takes about forty five minutes for the temperature to drop ten or more degrees.

The cold cave effect is wonderful in the hot months though so there’s that at least.

  1. Being Warm

Yes, living in Texas for the last five years has ruined me a bit for cold weather, but I grew up a hardy northern girl. We don’t get cold like other girls. At least, that’s I though until I moved to Japan.

Normally winter is a mad dash, in warm clothing, between one nicely warmed space to another. The only real time that you have to really deal with the cold is getting in or out of your car or if you have to do something outside for longer than five minutes.

In Japan, there is very much a heat it only if you are using it mentality. You know what, that makes perfect sense. Save energy only heat the spaces you use. That’s a great mentality except that every conceivable space in between is the same temperature as, or sometimes actually is, the outdoors.

Most days you will see me, every student, and every teacher shuffling very quickly to their destination in search of heat. I often feel like a bug hunkered down, running for the warmth to survive. It’s not pleasant.

I wish that I could have had my camera

So as the title suggests, there are no pictures accompanying this post, but I had to write it down anyway.

It should surprise no one that I had a fire drill today. I work at a school. As far as things go, even in a foreign country, that goes as common sense. It makes far more sense since I live in emergency conscious Japan. Listening to emergency alarms in another language is sort of nerve wracking. You get used to it, and maybe that’s another post for another day. Incidentally the word for fire, as in dear God there is a fire, is Kajida.

Anyway. They sounded the fire alarm, which, after the initial alarm tones, pretty much sounds the same as it does in America minus the ear splitting tone that could wake the dead. The students shuffled down as many as five flights of stairs in a calm herd. Unlike what I’m used to, no one expects absolute silence.

We all shuffled out the back door out onto the athletics field. That’s when I realized that things were just a bit different. See, in Japan, it isn’t just the school that runs the drills, it’s the actual fire department. Across the field, standing resolutely, was a man in uniform blue holding a stop watch. We were being timed, so students and teachers sprinted the last few feet across the yard. Everyone fell into places with their classes or the other faculty.

I found a few people that I work with regularly to stand with because I knew we were going to be waiting and wanted to talk. Then I turned around.

Three faces were peering out of one of the windows on the fifth floor of the building. Since all of my teaching experience has so far been in American, my first reaction was crap those kids are messing this up for everyone. Nope. Dead Wrong.

Those three students were right where they were supposed to be. As if on cue, a single firetruck drove up the hill and around the outside of the field. It backed in. One of the firefighters jumped out so that he could watch and wave the driver into place. Then in practiced formation everyone else jumped out of the truck. In about two seconds, they had the braces dug into the ground and one guy had jumped into a control seat tucked onto the back of the truck. He turned on the lift while two other firefighters climbed into the bucket, which the first firefighter and turned open for them from the control seat.

I think you see where this is going. They raised the ladder and “rescued” the students from the fifth floor window. Now before you go all, how dare they endanger their students by pulling them from a window, think about it. Should an actual emergency really be the first time a student actually has to do something like get into a fire ladder bucket? I’m not really sure it should be.

To that aim, the last part of the drill involved two members of the faculty and two members of the student body having to put out a “fire” with some of the extinguishers kept in the building. Don’t worry. The “fire” was actually a red rubber cone. Frankly ending my day watching two third year boys scream fire and attack a cone was pretty hilarious. So was watching one of the teachers accidentally shoot the other with the extinguisher. Extremely practical, yes, but also very fun.

Keeping work spaces warm in Japan

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This week it finally got to the point of being pretty cold. This is the point where all my family and friends in Michigan will start complaining that it’s a lot colder back home. Yes I know. Yes it is.

The difference, however, is that while it is quite a bit colder in Michigan and other places in the United States you people have the luxury of insulation and central heating. In Japan, this is a very uncommon occurrence. Only places like the Northern tip of Honshu (that’s the main island) and the northern island of Hokkaido seem to have it. This is mostly because the climate is much more similar to the good old frozen north I grew up with. Further south in the country, it doesn’t matter if the building you’re talking about is an apartment, school, or possibly even an office building. There is little to no insulation. The walls are more than likely concrete. The windows are single paned, plentiful, and often open (even in the bathrooms). Many schools are made up of two larger buildings connected by corridors. These corridors are generally completely open to the elements.

So, by now I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not sitting here in four layers of clothing, and I’m not. This lovely contraption is my space heater.

As you can see, it hooks into the gas line building into the wall. When you come in in the morning you turn on the gas (don’t forget to turn it off before you go).

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Then there are two knobs. Once you turn them past a certain point, a sparker clicks and sets the gas alight. After that, you have to turn past just a little bit. There’s one more click, and if you do it right when you release it the flame stays on. Yes, that’s right. I heat my workroom at school with an open flame, all be it a controlled one. My favorite part about the whole open flame thing is that everyone seems to just leave them on while they are away at class even if there isn’t anyone else in the room. I personally turn mine off. I don’t want to be that foreigner that burned the school down.

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There are two ceramic panels that suck up the heat and radiate glorious warmth into the room. Of course making your room nice and toasty makes it just that much more difficult to go back outside. I’ve learned to look forward to teaching class on the fifth floor. It’s usually pretty warm up there since, you know, heat rises and stuff. Also the first floor faculty bathroom is now my bathroom of choice because of the heated toilet seat. Yes, that’s another topic I’ll discuss later.

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