It probably won't happen often, but eventually you'll need to talk to a teacher who is out on the athletic field and your outdoor shoes will be at the other end of the building. Japanese schools don't have cafeterias and students eat in their homerooms. Junk food is not allowed at school, not even juice. This didn't stop my rowdy students from munching kombini snacks out of their backpacks, so don't be too surprised if you see this rule broken from time to time. The no junk food rule extends to teachers while students are in the building.
This is the same line of thinking that keeps AC off in the teacher's room during summer. It can be frustrating if you come from a culture where teachers enjoy privileges students don't. Even if you don't understand the reasoning, try to accept it as one of those things that just is the way it is and sneak matcha kit kats from your desk when no one is looking.
Japanese schools don't have janitors. Instead they set aside time for students to clean the building. It's the Pikmin approach to cleanliness. While the thoroughness of the cleaning depends on the individual student, it can't be denied that the practice in itself is a good bonding experience that most likely teaches responsibility.
English heads for elementary school in 2020 but hurdles abound
Plus, the school usually plays wacky music around this time, which is a nice mood change. You may or may not be asked or expected to participate in cleaning time, but give it a try anyway. It's one of those things that makes you feel better despite not wanting to do it. Not to mention, cleaning time gives you a nice break from the teacher persona and lets you have a little more fun with your students. A good slogan for Japanese schools would be "Come for the compulsory education, stay for the club activities. Long after school ends, clubs continue for kids to run, play, build, compete, and do anything but study.
The school becomes a different place after classes end. And staying to experience it is worth your time. You don't have to try out for these clubs and they aren't about competing or beating other teams. They're more for self-improvement and togetherness. Thus, you joining a club shouldn't be because you're an expert who will help the team, but rather because your participation in a team will help you build skills and relationships. If you do choose to join a club, however, be clear about how many times you intend to visit.
If you visit once, it will be assumed you're in it for good. That means every day after school and some weekends. It's okay to visit once a week, or however you choose. Just be clear with the teacher of the club and the club members that you'll be committing a predetermined amount of time. Japanese schools have two main festivals a year: Sports Day and the Culture Festival. There may be more but these are the two you'll most likely encounter. Not much besides some days off work, organizing events, and participating in them.
Festivals are a welcome break from the teaching routine. Plus there's usually enkai after! This has nothing to do with students and everything to do with you.
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Enkai are arguably one of the greatest benefits of being a teacher and you'll want to go to as many as possible. Eating, drinking, and karaoke. Enkai are essential morale boosting and bond forming experiences for teachers. If you're feeling disconnected at your school, go to an enkai. It won't fix all your problems, but it'll certainly help a lot. At the very least you'll get some great food and drink. If there are many in a row, it can be tempting to start ducking out.
If you really can't afford it, by all means decline. But the JET salary is rather generous, and the money you save won't be worth the experiences you'll miss out on. Enkai are exclusive to those in a particular company, restricting even spouses of coworkers. If you're invited to an enkai, you are part of a group and the more group stuff you do, the easier it is to function in that group. Who doesn't like a good ceremony?
Japan certainly doesn't not love them a whole damn lot. There are usually ceremonies at the open and close of each trimester.
Early Life Lessons
But none are more grandiose than the big two: Older students will help younger students find their classrooms where they meet their homeroom teacher and classmates. Parents congregate in the gym where the students eventually come back to join them. Then the ceremonies begin: Parents usually eat up the entire day snapping pictures and fixing hairs. Though probably dryer than ceremonies in western countries, the opening ceremony is not unlike mandatory school gatherings elsewhere, and this similarity is interesting to note for the visiting ALT.
Again, there will be the school song, the national anthem, other songs, and lots of speeches. Of course, students will get up to receive their diplomas and a good deal of crying will ensue in various pockets of the gymnasium. This is probably the best ceremony because emotions are high, making it less dry and more meaningful. For opening and closing ceremonies during the school year, it means sitting through speeches in the gymnasium. For opening and graduation ceremonies, it means experiencing a very important cultural part of Japanese life. Yes, it's still speeches and songs but they're speeches and songs that mean a lot to the people involved.
As a side note, pay attention to homeroom teachers sitting near you or try to sit as far away from them as you can. During certain parts of ceremonies, homeroom teachers may sit and stand over and over, which might fake you out prompting you to stand when you're not supposed to. When it comes to the music of the ceremony, try and learn your school song. Every school in Japan has a song.
It's fun to sing along with the teachers and students and gives a greater sense of belonging if you take the effort to learn it. My school was pretty difficult to integrate into and I found learning the school song a pretty helpful step towards feeling more motivated in my job. There are usually large restrooms on each floor in varying degrees of modernity. Floor toilets are most common, though the teacher's bathroom may feature a western style toilet. If you need to go while teaching on the third floor, far from the teachers' bathroom, it may mean toiletting with students.
Floor toilets may seem intimidating or weird at first, but the position it forces you to be in is actually more natural for the human body than sitting upright. Japanese schools don't usually have AC, though there are pushes here and there to have it added. There may be heating and cooling units in the teachers' room, but this doesn't make it a comfort sanctuary. If your school does have AC, it can't be used until after the students leave, as teachers are expected to endure the same conditions students do.
If your students are gone and it's June 29th, you're still out of luck. This has everything to do with the " cool biz " campaign started in to reduce the amount of electricity used in Japan during the summer. The upside is every day in summer is casual Friday! Schools may or may not have heat. If they do, it will be in the form of kerosene heaters in each classroom, which requires the opening of windows to keep everyone from suffocating on fumes.
This may seem counterintuitive, but keeping the windows open has a second purpose: There's a lot of pros and cons to this open window winter practice, but it's common throughout East Asia so it's not likely to change any time soon. This may mean a lot or very little depending on how you personally deal with hot and cold. Chances are you handle one of these well and the other not so much.
Coping with the heat means casual but not too casual wear every day of the week. It's actually a nice break from the otherwise formal atmosphere. The whole school takes on a relaxed feel. The second upside is taking part in Japan's heat-enduring culture. It may feel terrible at first, but you won't be the only one. It sucks to be hot when everyone else is comfy in their Escalades. But it's strangely refreshing when everyone is enduring the heat together.
Japanese Schools vs American Schools
Coping with the cold means dressing in layers. I personally hate cold so the first month of winter with open windows was torture. But once I learned to layer from top to bottom thermal shirts and leggings , winter actually became pretty nice. There's also a cold enduring culture in Japan as well, which will bond you to your students and coworkers. Schools in Japan tend not to have much built in tech for the classroom, though some prefectures are experimenting with mixed results.
The teachers' room should have one or two computers, some printers, copiers, and fax machines. But that will likely be the extent of your school's futuristic powers. The only tech in the Japanese classroom is the kind you bring with you. Despite everything I just wrote, I will contradict it by saying that my school, while being severely inaka and low performing, had computers and projectors in every classroom.
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