Life as an English teacher in Japan

 

More than fourteen hours after boarding in Houston, Abraham Garcia stepped off the plane at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. His legs itched from disuse, and he desperately wished he had remembered to pack a neck pillow. Trapped in a wave of exhaustion, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, shuffling off the plane in a single-file line of people.

“Konnichiwa.” A pretty Japanese flight attendant said “hello” through her white facemask. “Welcome to Tokyo.”

Suddenly the reality of the moment hit him, and he smiled, revitalized.

“Konnichiwa,” said Abraham in return. Standing up a bit straighter, he glanced around him. Swarms of people buzzed, all hurriedly moving in short, quick steps toward their respective destinations.

After months of planning, interviews, and paperwork, he was finally ready to start teaching English to Japanese students in Fukushima, Japan. “I only knew a few [Japanese] words going over there,” says Abraham humbly, “but I was excited to learn and excited to teach them what I could.”

Interac Co., the program through which Abraham was hired to teach English, is based on a model of language learning through immersion. The company hires intelligent, adventurous, driven native-level English speakers from around the world to move to Japan under yearlong contracts. Most ALTs, or assistant learning teachers, stay with Interac for one or two years.

Interac’s primary requirements of teachers include native-level proficiency in English, at least a bachelor’s degree, and good character references. Teachers are held in high esteem in Japan, so to live up to the prestige of the profession, ALTs must conduct themselves professionally in all aspects of behavior and dress. Abraham had recently graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in government and fit the bill perfectly.

While in Japan, Abraham was responsible for teaching English to classes of elementary students in first through fifth grade. “Classes focused on repetition, and the lessons were all pretty much games,” says Abraham. “We used balls, flashcards, and TVs and showed them how to play traditional games that I remembered playing as a kid—Red Rover, Heads-up 7-up, Hot Potato, Red Light/Green Light, and Pictionary with the chalk board.” His students adored him.

In addition to teaching elementary students, Abraham and Chris Saunders, a fellow Interac ALT, hosted an evening community program to teach English to adults.

One main difference between teaching children and teaching adults was that “the elementary students wanted us to use Japanese to talk to them, and the adults wanted us to use English,” says Abraham, who relied more on conversations than games to teach his adult students English. Often, classes consisted of role-playing activities in which Abraham and Chris would come up with a scenario and then give their students examples of what to say in that situation. “We also taught, or purported to teach, differences in spelling and meaning” between homonyms, he says, “for example, their, there, and they’re.”

Though the community program lasted only for a few months, “several of the participants wanted it to continue, so we’d meet for social events like karaoke where they’d be able to use their English but also have fun.” Soon, he became friends with the students in his adult class, attending festivals, ski trips, and dinners with them.

Eventually, Abraham realized that the program had been flipped on its head. “I was learning Japanese using immersion—the same concept that we were using to teach students,” says Abraham. “You hear a word often enough, and those are the ones you pick up first”—for example, gaijin (the Japanese word for “foreigner”; pronounced GUY-jin) and sensei (the Japanese word for “teacher”; pronounced SEN-say). “Quite often I’d hear someone say Abe-sensei,” he says, “and know they were talking about me, but I wouldn’t know exactly what they were saying.”

The longer Abraham lived in Japan, the more he found himself wanting to dig deeper into Japanese language and culture. “Learning things like how to eat and what to do in a specific context is much easier when you have a vocabulary to back it up. Plus, I just wanted to know what people were saying about me!” he jokes.

Anytime he wasn’t in the classroom or in the teacher’s lounge, Abraham made an effort to study the language using a series of MP3s he’d downloaded from the Internet. Given the self-immersion, the help of his newfound friends, and the language-learning software, he was ordering food, asking for directions, and carrying on simple conversations in Japanese with his new friends and colleagues.

“The year I was living in Japan would probably be equivalent to taking at least three or four years of Japanese at a university level,” he says.

Today, Abraham continues to keep in touch with the friends he made during his year abroad in Japan, swapping birthday wishes on Facebook and occasionally talking on Skype.

The program was “nice to do in-between careers,” says Abraham, who is now pursuing a degree in law at the South Texas College of Law. “I had a great time and definitely plan to go back and visit.”


For more information on the Interac Co. program, visit www.interacnetwork.com.

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