My early days in Japan with the JET Program were full of cultural misunderstandings. I brought with me a lot of assumptions about how schools should work and how students should learn that simply did not mesh with the Japanese teachers’ views. I had to unlearn a lot of things and be willing to understand how education operated in a new cultural context. It was a powerful opportunity for me to learn how to collaborate with people with very different approaches to teaching.
In one incident early in my first year, I had planned an activity for a group of elementary students involving blending letters and sounds together to form words. The teacher informed me that this was not possible because “elementary students cannot read in English yet.” Everything in Japan seemed so rigid to me; every student had to follow the prescribed curriculum, and could not go beyond what that curriculum mandated. “But they can do it!” I insisted, and audibly sighed. I think somewhere in me, some of the old “savior teacher” mentality surfaced, and I wanted desperately to prove that the students were being subjected to low expectations that I could overcome with a lesson that was above grade level. I ended up doing a modified version of the lesson, and although the students did do well and I still believe that Japanese elementary students are capable of writing in English, my rudeness was unmerited and was detrimental to my ability to collaborate. I made a promise to myself to behave differently with the teachers I worked with from that point on.
After becoming better at accepting the elements of Japanese education that did not perfectly conform to my worldview, I ended up finding a lot of things that I liked. One thing, although minor, that made an impression on me was the fact that kids were allowed to play sports where they could get hurt without the threat of an impending lawsuit. If I student got hurt on the playground, they usually walked it off and got back to their games. Elementary and junior high school students participated in an athletic feat called “kumitaiso,” or “class gymnastics.” Students made a variety of human pyramids and other formations.
Today for my Japanese culture lesson with a 2nd/3rd grade combo class back in Chula Vista, I thought it would be great to teach the students some basic kumitaiso formations. Knowing that the bigger pyramids would never be allowed in an American school, I decided to have them do a simple formation where one student sits on their hands and knees and another student stands on their back with their arms outstretched. For small and light children, there is very little chance of injury. Nevertheless, no sooner had we started practicing than a playground supervisor came to me to let me know that what we were doing was unsafe and that we would have to stop. I caught myself in an audible sigh, just like the one I had let out in Japan two years earlier. Because I KNEW that the activity was safe. Just like the first time, I still hold my initial assumption to be correct. And just like the first time, all I accomplished was to be rude.
I apologized to the supervisor later in the day. It’s easy to talk about being willing to collaborate and accept alternate points of view, but harder to put it into practice. I can disagree with someone while acknowledging that they are still thinking within a framework that has logic. Good collaboration with anyone, whether it be another teacher or the school support staff, demands it.