Teaching English in Japan

Teacher Barbie

I tend to treat my private lessons with my Japanese teacher like therapy sessions. I’ll tell her about how one of my students is abusing me. I’ll show her the bite marks and the bruises and share horror stories involving chalk dust thrown in my eyes and markers hurled at my head.

And then I’ll tell her about the mothers and my how my hatred for them borders on an irrational, unhealthy obsession.

You see, these mother’s and I are at war.It’s total full blown psychological warfare. For their part, they loudly chat through my lessons to the point where I can’t hear myself speak, or they laugh when their little darlings kick me in the shins. Or they’ll stare at me with unnerving intensity, like I’m their childhood Barbie come to life, as I warble out the Old McDonald Song, pig snorts and all. I’ll in turn curse them out in my head and complain about them to anyone who will listen and bitch about them in this blog.

These mind games are exhausting though and it’s a losing battle.Yesterday I found myself wishing I could call a truce. I wish I had a magical remote control where I could just press a button and have everything I said be instantaneously dubbed in Japanese.Because if only we spoke the same language, I would sit them all down on the floor and over tea, have a group therapy session. A little heart-to-heart. And this is what I would tell them:

“I respect your desire to raise your children as if they are feral dogs instead of human beings and I admire your remarkable ability to stay calm while your children hit and scream and break the copy machine in a fit of rage. However, your children belong in a zoo and not in a classroom and I would appreciate it if you would keep them in a cage at home from now. Domo arigato gozaimasu.”

Okay, scratch that. I’d probably say something to the effect of:

“I don’t mind that you are sitting in my lesson. Even though your child is ten years old and is perfectly capable of spending an hour out of your sight, I don’t mind. Really. But please refrain from translating everything I say into Japanese. I know that you want to show off to the other mothers that you can understand English, but well, actually you don’t. You often translate things incorrectly and it just makes my job harder. Plus your child doesn’t need a translator. He’s smart. Give him 20 seconds and he’ll figure out why I’m handing him an eraser and pantomiming erasing the board.Trust me.”

My God, how I would have loved to shout all of this at them yesterday.Magical remote control or not, it would have felt so good.

But of course, I didn’t. I smiled, I bowed. I said nothing. As soon as the class was over, I stomped off to the vending machine, grabbed a hot can of overly- sweetened crap coffee and marched up the hill to the forest behind the school. Then I yelled at and repeatedly kicked a bamboo tree until the sole of shoe ripped open.

I’m not normally an angry person.I don’t know why these mother’s continually get under my skin and I’ve tried talking to the owner of the school about it. She was sympathetic but said that she couldn’t talk to the mothers because that would be rude and wasn’t the Japanese Way. The Japanese Way is, apparently, to send a vaguely worded letter about the benefits of discipline in child-rearing.

My Japanese tutor says mothers like these are unfortunately becoming rather common place in Japan. They even have a term for it, “Monster Mothers.” Apparently, these Monster Mother’s have seen how children in the West live happy, carefree childhoods and want to create that for their own children. They know that school, the childrens’ future careers and the pressures from the strict and rigid Japanese society will eventually beat some discipline into them. So in the meantime, they let them have as much fun as possible while they still can. They have a point. I’ve noticed that Japanese children undergo a personality transformation around seven or eight years old. They go from wild and out of control hellions to sullen, soft-spoken, timid sheep. It’s sad.

But even though I can sympathize with these mothers’ situations, their behavior and the fact that I’m helpless to do anything about it makes me want to tear my hair out in frustration.

I’ve asked other ESL teachers for some words of wisdom. They all have similar complaints. But the best advice they could give me was to “not to care so much” and hit the bar a lot after work.


Here’s What Teacher Barbie Looks Like on the Weekends…

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8 thoughts on “Teacher Barbie

  1. Sometimes it can suck to teach kids in Japan! I taught a horrible class of 5 year olds in which one little girl, Kana, would get out of control, then bring the rest of the class down with her. Luckily the manager of the school, who was Japanese, would come stand in the doorway and give the kids a look and they would behave while she was standing there in the doorwary, once she left though the class was shot to hell. They wouldn’t obey me for the world but she could silence them with one look…I still don’t get it.
    Anyways who knows what goes on in the mind of the kids you teach and their parents, but props for being enthusiastic every week! Not many people could teach kids week after week who were out of control, along with enduring snickering parents!

  2. I have a Kana who’s a trouble-maker as well!

    That’s interesting that the “teacher look” your manager gave the kids actually worked. Maybe it’s because I’m foreign, but it never seems to scare the kids. In fact, when I stop the class and glare at them, they usually just react in confusion. I don’t think that they even understand that I’m angry…Must be a cultural difference in facial expressions or something.

    Were you ever able to successfully discipline them? Did you find any tricks that worked for you?

    Yeah, the parents…they are definitely a challenge. I’d love to be able to read their minds. It’s not knowing what they’re thinking that is the worst!

  3. “…said that she couldn’t talk to the mothers because that would be rude and wasn’t the Japanese Way.”

    Rude? So letting your kids act like animals isn’t rude? Japanese culture has no lack of hypocrisy. I’ve heard quite a bit about this problem. A lot of Asian cultures treat their little kids as “little emperors”.

    I also don’t by that theory that you should let your kid run wild to let him “enjoy his freedom” while he’s free. You can enjoy your childhood and still have discipline.

    My parents never hesitated to smack me when I got out of line and the result was I was still a happy kid and I felt protected by them–I just had to be good or I suffered the consequences.

    Kids actually LOVE to be disciplined by their parents, even if they throw a fit over it. That feeling of parental authority makes them feel protected and secure. I think people who are lax parents shouldn’t be parents because their kids grow up to be sub-par humans.

  4. Sadly, no form of discipline that I ever used on the kids worked as well as when the manager would come into the class. One method that I used that worked the best was when I would stop talking and sit in silence staring at the wall until they realized that something was wrong, then they’d quiet down for at least a little while. If you teach kids that are 7 and up a good form of discipline is the point system. You divide the class into teams at the beginning of class and everytime a student is bad you take away a point from whichever team they’re on. That can sometimes work pretty well with the older kids. Good luck!! Good luck with the mothers as well, too bad you can’t banish them from the class, haha.

  5. Just sort of a thought from my readings (and not first-hand experince) on Japan… Many mothers in Japan only have the “mother” role, and nothing else. They may even see their husbands and family only rarely. For some women, raising their children is all they have, and doing it well is imperative. They may not have anything else to do besides come to watch their children learn from you. Also, sons especially tend to get leniency during their younger years and this whole “running wild” business.

    I also agree with the school manager that any confrontation about this, no matter how well-worded, would be considered rude. What we in America consider open and honest communication is unspeakable in Japanese culture. There’s so much circumnavigation in Japanese society that I really wonder if I would ever be able to deal with it at all! I’m very frank!

    I wish I could offer you some advice based on experience, but all I can give is the whole blah blah blah anthropology blah blah blah highly-coded society talk. I’m very impressed that you can put up with this. Maybe if you choose to see it as an amusing show it would make it easier? After all, they’re paying to be there, so what they get out of it is wholly up to the child and parent.

  6. Thanks guys, for the thoughtful responses! I’ve been really, really busy trying to find a new job this past week…So I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    Vin – I completely agree! Children need discipline! That’s why I have such a hard time because I’m not allowed to discipline them and even if I was, if the parents aren’t doing it at home, what difference would it make? It’s frustrating…especially since I just can’t get over that image I always had of the stereotypical “well-behaved, polite Japanese child”. The reality is so different! Although, not their fault.

    Sarah – I actually do the point system as well. It works to a point…(ha ha) until they lose all of their points and they realize that my threats of “calling their parents” or of them “getting in trouble” lacked any merit and were just empty threats. Were you allowed to put your students in time-out or anything? Call their parents? Kick them out?

    Bo- Are you an anthropology major? Do you have any books you’d suggest I read on the subject of Japanese culture? I just read “Kata: How to Understand and Deal with Japanese People” and didn’t like it much. It was more of a general introduction and didn’t give me enough specific examples. Didn’t go into enough detail.

    It’s true, honest communication doesn’t exist! I hate hate hate hate hate hate that more than anything. I’m completely about being honest…with myself, with others. And I value that in other people too. Here, it’s considered rude! It’s tough.

    Catherine – I don’t know how much it’s female teachers in general…or just me! It could be something that I’m doing unconciously that’s causing problems. Some cultural misunderstanding. It’s really hard to say. : (

  7. You might be interested in a book called “Japanese Etiquette and Ethics in Business” by Boye De Mente. It’s a little dated (and much of it, of course, is about business), but I think a lot of the cultural observations are timeless.

    Another fascinating book is “Permitted and Prohibited Desires” by Anne Allison.

    I’m afraid neither of these books will offer any valuable tips on disciplining unruly Japanese children or parents, but they will offer a lot of insight in to their culture.

    Good luck!

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