Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand my role my as an English teacher in Japan. What exactly do parents expect from me? I thought my job was to depart knowledge. I speak English. I will therefore teach your children to do the same.
But now I’m beginning to think that I got it all wrong. My job is to entertain. I’m a funny looking foreigner. I will entertain your children with my funny foreign songs and games.
Most days I feel like a birthday party clown. I’m getting paid to make children laugh. At me. Only I don’t wear a painted face or a colorful wig; all I have is my freckled face and yellow curly hair. But that, apparently, is enough. I walk into a daycare center and babies burst into hysterical, frightened tears. Children frequently slap my butt while I’m writing on the board or pull on my hair while I’m reading a story. A couple of my three-year-old students get immense enjoyment out of playing with my feet. A few times a lesson, one of the aids will have to wrench a squirming toddler away from my toes, from where he’s busily outlining the shape of my toenails with his fingers.
I am a clown. And a babysitter. And a human tissue. (Yes, please wipe your boogers on me. I don’t mind at all. Thanks a bunch).
But most of all, I’m incredibly frustrated.
I spend an enormous amount of time and mental energy creating thoughtful, engaging lesson plans, only to have the parents sit in the back of the room and noisily talk through my entire lesson, or worse, laugh when their child is disruptive or disrespectful.
Oh, isn’t he just too cute? Throwing a cockroach at the teacher! Oh look, he’s hiding under the table now! How darling! Let’s sit and stare as the Sensei gets stuck under the table crawling after him.
At one school I teach at, in the middle of a field in a small town two hours outside of Tokyo (yes I commute that far) there are more parents in the room than there are students. The little one- roomed school house is usually packed with chatty moms who each week, unabashedly watch as their little devil spawn of a child repeatedly pushes the CD player off of the table, or rips up my flashcards or tries to tear the wiring out of the copy machine.
Yes, that has all happened.
I’ve tried positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and a whole psychology book of techniques but nothing curbs the children’s bad behavior for long…and that’s because the mom’s can’t or just don’t want to help.
On some level, I get it. I do. In Japan, discipline is entirely the teacher’s responsibility. The parent will never step in and help, even if the child is horribly misbehaving, because that would be encroaching on the teacher’s territory.
I’ve had a child slap me. Hard. And the parent just sat there. At first, I was shocked. This inaction went against every stereotype of Japanese parents I’d had before coming to Japan. I’d thought them to be rigid and strict. I couldn’t believe they would sit silently by as their child struck an adult. A teacher at that. Why didn’t they yell? Scold? Say something, anything? Did their silence mean they saw this as acceptable behavior?
Believe it or not, I’m okay with this. I don’t mind disciplining their children for them, although it can be tough disciplining three-year-olds in a language they don’t understand. But I’m up for the challenge. And believe me, it’s a challenge. Imagine yourself at the age of three. Would you have paid much heed to a clown yelling at you in gibberish? And I don’t really blame the children for treating me like a punching bag. They’re just curious. They’re testing me. To their four-year-old brains, I’m as foreign as a martian. I think a lot of their behavior is just experimental. I’m like an exotic pet. If I pinch her will it hurt her? Does she have a bellybutton like I do?
I know not to take it personally.
What I do take personally though, and what bothers me the most, is when the parents continually treat my lessons like it’s some big joke. A theatrical performance. It’s degrading. And insulting. If you don’t want to scold your child, fine. I will. But please, don’t stand in my way of doing so! Don’t they see that when they laugh at their child when he snaps my pencil in half or spits on my puppet that a part of me dies on the inside? I searched through several dollars stores, spent my own hard-earned money to buy that toy basketball that their devil-incarnate has just gleefully chucked out the window. And all the mom can do is giggle nervously?
As Nicole Ritchie once said: “I’m not an animal at the zoo.”
Yes, I’m worse. I’m an English teacher.