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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Teaching English in Japan: a midyear’s experience

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Features

Every year, Brandeis Admissions staff offers a group of incoming students the chance to join the Brandeis community in the spring semester, when there is more available campus housing and classroom space. These students, called midyears, often spend their fall semester participating in internships, taking classes at other universities, or traveling abroad. With their available semester, midyear students are therefore granted the opportunity to gain memorable real life experiences before even coming to Brandeis.

When Esther Brandon ’12 was accepted as a midyear student in 2008, she decided to utilize her available fall semester to teach English in Japan. Now in her senior year, Brandon is able to look back and see how her experience in Japan contributed to her success at Brandeis.

Brandon’s family had been hosting Japanese foreign exchange students since she was four years old. The Futakamis, who had sent their three children to stay at the Brandon home in the past, invited Brandon to stay with them in return in Japan. Utilizing her opportunity as a midyear, Brandon set off to Mishima, Shizuoka, knowing at most 20 phrases in Japanese.

The Futakami’s father was a child psychologist who specialized in eating disorders brought on by stress. Due to his career-related connections with several schools in the local area, he helped Brandon find teaching positions at Kannami Elementary School, Kannami Junior High School and Nirayama High School. Along with teaching several classes on her own, Brandon additionally assisted teachers from the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.

Soon Brandon was preparing classroom activities and workshops, grading tests and teaching Japanese students about her own experiences in the United States. In order to give the students a taste of American life, Brandon even cooked American dishes for the students on Thanksgiving and brought in birthday cake on her birthday. Thus, along with teaching the Japanese students English, Brandon was helping them learn about American culture as a whole.

Brandon also immersed herself in learning about Japanese culture through extracurricular activities such as the Tea Ceremony Club. In contrast to American schools, where students are encouraged to join a variety of clubs, Japanese students will only join one or two and attend that club every afternoon. During the entirety of the Tea Ceremony, Brandon was required to sit with her knees on the floor.

“It taught me that in American culture we’re very fast paced. I would often get very impatient, especially when my legs would fall asleep,” she joked. “Everyone would laugh when I would fall over. It was a very good bonding moment for the group to laugh over the American falling over because she can’t sit still for one hour.”

Despite these fun and embarrassing moments, Brandon grew deeply concerned by the high level of stress each of her students was under. Each school had a ranking system, in which every assignment the students handed in would directly affect their rank. In Brandon’s opinion, her students were obsessed with their rank and took their success very personally.

“I had a student come to me in tears, apologizing that she only got a 97 on my exam when hers was the highest grade in the class. She said she was sorry for disappointing me for not getting 100. If I came home to my mom with a 97, she would put it on the fridge,” Brandon explained.

While Brandon admired how the ranking system enabled the students to be more disciplined, she was still alarmed by how much stress it caused them. The competitive atmosphere often resulted in breaches of friendships. She also quickly noticed a large amount of bullying around the older male students, which she attributed to displaced tension as a result of the immense level of stress.

Upon arriving at Brandeis, Brandon felt more appreciative of the university’s relatively relaxed atmosphere. While she felt more motivated after seeing how self-disciplined her students had been, Brandon additionally felt more grateful over how supportive her parents are of her. As Brandon explained, many of her students would be petrified to go home to their parents if she received a B on an assignment.

Brandon was also thankful she had received this opportunity to take time off from her studies to see how other people learn, feeling that it in turn helped her discover more about her own learning style.

“It was a really unique experience going from the student role in high school to teaching. Understanding how other students can learn a complicated language such as English helped me realize how I learn things myself and it helped me become more productive in my studies at Brandeis,” Brandon explained.

Through teaching the students English, the students in turn taught Brandon about Japanese language and popular culture. Ironically, the fact that her students had taught her Japanese was a hindrance once Brandon started taking the language at Brandeis. As Brandon explained, her students had taught her a slang style of speaking that only peers could use with one another. Thus she would often accidentally embarrass herself by speaking impolitely and improperly to her Brandeis professor.

Now into her senior year, Brandon’s Brandeis experience has been reflective of the values she learned during her semester in Japan. She chose to major in Anthropology and International Global Studies, which both echo her interests in world-wide culture. Furthermore, she became the coordinator for Brandeis’ Student Peace Alliance. The Peace Alliance is currently working on reducing gang violence in Massachusetts and around the country, which correlates with the bullying Brandon had seen in Japan. She had witnessed how students who don’t have an outlet for their emotions or difficulties tend to resort to violence.

Brandon’s experience teaching English in Japan was certainly rewarding. On one hand, she was able to observe the impact she had made on individual students through motivating them and helping them learn a new language. She was also able to help teach students how to refocus their stress in a more productive manner. On the other hand, Brandon’s experience in Japan also helped her develop an independence which would enable her success at Brandeis.

“It gave me the confidence to know that I can succeed in unforeseen circumstances,” Brandon explained. “If I don’t know what’s going on in a class, that’s nothing compared to being lost in a country where I don’t know the language.”

Midyear students do not have to begin their education until January. Many of them still choose to embark on experiences, however, that in one or another still provide them with an education.

Like Brandon, they can choose to travel abroad and teach others. Others may find internships or volunteer. As Brandon emphasizes, each of their choices became valuable real life experiences that bonded them together as a midyear class.