By Anne E. Hendler
It is 5 a.m. She wakes up and springs out of bed. The sun is up, too, and the day is bright. Mornings are free for leisurely breakfasts, bicycling or hiking, keeping up with social media, or other projects that might come up. Today she has promised to answer the 19 student letters that arrived from Korea by post last month. The task takes the whole morning, interspersed with coffee breaks, social media breaks, and general breaks. Memories of a day in the life of an English conversation school teacher in Korea surface and she indulges them briefly before putting them away. Her new life as an English conversation school (eikaiwa) teacher in Japan is not so intense.
Letters finished, it’s time to get ready for the main part of the day. She has dressed carefully in loose pants and a super-mario alphabet t-shirt. She makes sure her monster-shaped pencil case is in her bag. Now she checks on the small things: wallet, keys, phone, earbuds, watch, bracelet. Ready. If she leaves now, she has 30 minutes before she has to be at work. Enough time to ride the pretty way. Leaving her apartment, she carries her bicycle down the stairs.
She arrives at school at eleven. She leaves her shoes at the door and enters the cool, air-conditioned school in her bare feet. The toddler class is just letting out, so she dumps her bag and goes in to play with them for a few minutes. It’s a good way to start the day. Once they’ve gone, she starts her task for the morning: cutting out ice cream scoops and cones for the kids to color and build during their craft this afternoon. There are even cherries and whipped cream that is rather unfortunately-shaped. Her lesson planning is finished. Entering her classroom, all she needs to do is set up the activities. She counts her flashcards and checks that they are in the order she wants, making sure one or two are upside down or backwards.
It’s 2:00 now and the classroom assistant has arrived. Together they run through the schedule, noting any special circumstances. Since today is a craft day, that demands extra work on both their parts. They role play how the craft will go.
Now the students are arriving for the first class. They play for a few minutes until the “official” start time. There are five kids. They are mostly three and four years old. Today’s class starts with a “Hello” song. Then they all sit in a circle on a carpet. “What’s your name?” she asks around the circle. Today they all answer confidently and only two need help. She shows them flashcards as a quick review, and three of them are very confident about all the words. She makes a mental note that the two who are not also didn’t want to say their names. Then she introduces the craft. The school has no tables or chairs, so the students grab a couple benches that line the edge of the room and make a table. She hands the craft part of the class over to the assistant and sets up another part of the classroom for one-on-one. She calls students over one at a time to check whether they have learned the theme of the semester. This semester it is body parts, and one by one the kids point to their bellies, stomp their feet, count their fingers…. By the time she’s checked with all five kids, they’ve also built their ice cream cones sky-high, and no one has touched the unfortunately-shaped whipped cream. Two kids didn’t quite finish their craft. Yep, the same two.
Outside, the assistant talks to the parents about their kids’ progress. The next class starts in ten minutes, so the teacher is inside hiding small flashcards and starting the music for the song she wants to teach today. There are six kids in the next class. They are six and seven years old. She greets them at the door and explains the activity to them before turning them loose to find the hidden flashcards. Then they count to make sure they have them all (Oh no! One is missing! Did you check your pockets? No, no, not my pocket! Ahhhhhhhhhh! Tackled by six six-year-olds!). She follows up the game with the new song and returns to the flashcards. The flashcards are the words for their new unit. They go through them with games and she checks that they can identify the pictures and words. That makes it easier to focus on individual sounds. Today they focus on ‘P’. They practice writing, and she makes a note of which kids are left-handed. Sky writing and tracing helps her show these kids how to form the letters. Now it’s time to chant, and then it’s time for a story before the kids go home. 50 minutes go fast, but the next class starts in 10, so she wraps it up.
This class has five sixth-graders, and they are a very different group from the previous classes. They start the class seated on the carpet in a circle. Everyone contributes something to the beginning of the class: a short sentence about whatever is new in their lives. K had a swimming tournament last week. M went to an onsen (a Japanese hot spring) with her friends. They spend ten minutes talking like this, and then it is time for more structured activities. They review question words — something they’ve been struggling with for several weeks now — and play a game she learned from observing a teacher at another school. They practice reading and Y reads his story to the class. They turn to their worksheet and start the last activity. The students have to complete it for homework because their hour is up. The next class starts in ten minutes.
The last class is the most challenging. There are three girls – two are 10 and one is 11 – and they are silent. Today is fun, though. She starts in the circle, exchanging greetings and explaining the day’s schedule to them. They are very attentive and nod in agreement. The class alternates between group work and independent work, and she notices they are a lot louder when the other girls aren’t listening. The rest of the group activities are ones they are all confident with – like reading aloud and question-and-answer drills – and by the end of the class, they are all smiles. All three stay later to play with each other.
It’s almost 8 p.m. and only M’s mom hasn’t arrived yet. She reads together with M while they wait. It’s dark, so she walks her to the door and watches them drive away. Then she vacuums the classroom and goes through the class files for the day, transferring her mental notes onto physical paper and adding notes of which activities went well or need more practice. She’s the last to go, so she closes up the school and rides her bike home. There’s just enough time before bed to study Japanese and have dinner. Tomorrow is another day.