Japan, Teaching English in Japan

Teaching English Is No Joke

Photo: Sad Clown Doll

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.

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6 thoughts on “Teaching English Is No Joke

  1. I don’t understand why those parents are in the classroom at all? I’m sure the policies and procedures are completely different than in NYC public schools, but the teachers here in NY barely tolerate the occasional parent drop in for two seconds to give the teacher specific directions with his or her child.
    Seems like your job is also to discipline the parents! Good luck

  2. I wish those rules applied to schools here but they don’t! It’s really one of the major downsides to working for a language school…it’s ultimately a business, which means they make decisions based on money, not on what’s best for a class or for a teacher. It makes sense and I don’t really blame them…but it just means that they won’t do anything to risk losing a studentt…and that means talking to the parents. I’ve already asked if I can have the parents sit outside the room…but they said no.


  3. Sounds like the parents don’t really care about their children learning English, or they don’t realize that they’re sabotaging the process- or they have lots of money to waste on being entertained by their little ones tormenting you. After being exposed to the tremendous weight public schools are now putting into standardized testing, it’s hard not to think of most teaching facilities these days as businesses, sadly.

  4. Hi, I just found your blog randomly, and I guess I just wanted to tell you that I also teach ESL to children and I have experienced the same things. the only difference is that I teach in the Czech Republic. Everyday I feel like a side show and my parent “helpers” normally don’t do anything to help when my students are out of controll either. I also have children slapping my butt, pulling my hair, throwing things accross the room, hitting each other, etc…. I guess it’s nice knowing that other people who teach child ESL feel the same way I do.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Wow, perhaps it’s international problem then? That’s interesting…I know that ‘permissive parenting’ is a problem in the States too. Parents spoil their children and are afraid to discipline them. I guess it’s happening every where. Maybe it’s because over-worked parents these days just don’t have the time? I don’t know.

  6. I’m afraid it is the wonderfully useless world of teaching English to children.

    The game starts when the parents pay their first installment. Consciously or not, the children pick up on the fact that their parents are paying you. In their eyes you are no different than Ronald McDonald, and in some countries may even seem rather similar. You’re being paid to entertain and in many cases babysit while they do a bit of shopping.

    The crux is, it is a great way to pay your way through living abroad, be it in Japan, Spain or Russia.

    Should we let the cat out of the bag that they are wasting their money? It may not be up to us, apparently researchers in Germany are cottoning on the sham and the gig may be up sooner than we think.

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