Friday, January 11, 2013

becoming a "sensei"

A couple of months ago, I took on a new (very part-time) job teaching a beginner’s English class. For the past six months or so I have been doing a bit of one-on-one English tutoring with adults, and I assumed this would be more of the same, if in a slightly larger-group setting. To the interview, I brought with me a copy of my resume and some sample lesson plans I had worked up for other students. The man interviewing me looked over these papers seriously, and then told me they were very impressive looking, but that he couldn’t actually read English with enough fluency to understand anything I had written. Nevertheless, he offered me the job – I think based merely on the fact that I had thought to bring those papers with me at all. As the interview was winding down, he finally found fit to mention that, oh yeah, I wouldn’t be teaching adults at all – he was actually organizing a class for young kids, somewhere between the ages of 4-10.

And that’s the story of how I became an early childhood educator. (I know that, strictly speaking, 4-10 extends outside the early-childhood range, but when you’re working on foreign language skills with young kids, I think it makes the kids feel and act even younger.) I tried to explain to the organizer (the father of one of my students) that my experience with kids in this age group was limited to babysitting, being an aunt, and having siblings, and certainly did not extend to teaching of any kind. He was unconcerned, though, and so I am making it up as I go (and doing some online research on the side).

I teach two forty-minute classes every Tuesday evening, each with two students. My students (Yoshikage, Miu, Hayate and Ayuna) are adorable, but there is a lot lost in translation. We sing songs, read books, do crafts, and practice vocabulary. We count, talk about the days of the week and the months of the year, and I ask them about that day’s weather – although, this time of the year, the answer is always “cloudy,” so I think that’s the only weather term they’ll really learn. I can tell that Japanese students are trained to do a lot of repeating, as they readily understand when they’re supposed to repeat things after me. But sometimes I’m not at all sure that they understand what I’m trying to communicate - especially when I am reading to them. I read mostly for language exposure instead of content, since there are very few books in the library out here with the correct sort of vocabulary; most of them are way too wordy, and so the kids pay attention but don’t know what they’re paying attention to.

Of course, I do speak a bit of Japanese, and that sometimes helps me to transmit certain ideas or to understand their very basic questions. I don’t speak enough to know if, when they’re laughing together in class, they’re being funny or mean. But still, we stumble along together, looking for enough common understanding to learn and have fun at the same time. I think it’s going relatively well. I just hope they’re actually learning something. 

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