Madison Huson is a 2017 English graduate from Southern Oregon University. She is in the JET program in in Miyoshi, Japan.
Ed Battistella: Tell us about the JET program you teach in? How did you find it? What was the application and training process like?
Madison Huson: I found this program while I was attending my local community college in California. I was always interested in other cultures and a majority of my free time was devoted to researching the best and easiest way I could go abroad after community college. I stumbled upon the website of the Japan and Exchange Program (JET). JET program participants are appointed an assistant teaching position in any of the 47 prefectures for a period of one to five years.
The application itself is a lengthy process. Applications open every year in October, are submitted in November, and the email notification for an interview comes in January (I received mine in January from the Portland consulate, but some consulates vary on the specific timeline). Interview results come in March or April. Great, you’ve been accepted! However, you still don’t know where you’ll be living, that comes between May and June. I was notified of my placement in Miyoshi-shi (city), Tokushima-ken (prefecture), Shikoku in May.
After all of that waiting, you are sent to Tokyo for a three day orientation. The consensus from all of the fellow Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) was that the seminars and the crash course approach to teaching English as a second language was not very helpful, but instead, it was the networking that was worthwhile. We were able to meet people from all 40 participating countries in the JET program. I met the only Danish participant from this year and met many people from Trinidad and Tobago. I was promised a spot on the bedroom floor of a woman from New Zealand if I ever wanted to visit the region in Japan that was about to become her new home.
EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad? You previously taught in Korea, right?
MH: Initially, I was not interested in teaching. I have known ever since I was an elementary school student that I would major in English in college, so the question I grew up hearing was: “Oh, so you are going to be an English teacher then?” I wanted so badly to prove to everyone that English majors can do so much more than be confined to the path of becoming a teacher. However, teaching English as a second language was the gateway to going abroad. My university, Southern Oregon University, had a two month summer program in South Korea. It was part English teaching and part study abroad. I taught a beginning and an advanced class for one month at the university. I was nineteen years old and I didn’t know anything about Korea or teaching. Luckily, the students were more concerned with going out for meals and drinks after class than they were with my teaching ability. After my experience there, however, I wanted to continue teaching abroad.
EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock teaching abroad?
MH: Most things I experience, I wouldn’t call a “shock.” Things just happen and I say “Huh, that is different.” Recently, I was at an enkai with the teachers at my school. An enkai is essentially an “eat and drink as much as you want” party with your coworkers. They are very common in Japan and usually, my school has them to welcome a new teacher or celebrate big events at the school. Various types of food are ordered and shared between everyone and the teachers usually tell me the names of the dish if they think I have never tried that specific thing before. This time, a small plate is set down in front of me by the server and I know I have never seen that food before. The teacher across from me says “That’s….. Shirako. Do you know what it is? Do you want to eat it?” Her tone was a bit hesitant and she doesn’t speak any English, so I thought I’d better Google shirako for curiosity sake. I found out that shirako is “milt,” or fish semen. I said, to myself, “Yeah, I’ll pass on that one.”
The only thing I can honestly call culture shock is how discipline is handled in Japan. It is not uncommon to hear teachers screaming at the top of their lungs at students. I was teaching a class for the 7th graders when a few boys decided to giggle and tease some of the girls when they stood up to share what they wrote. The teacher heard their laughter and immediately exploded. She threw all of the student’s belongings on the floor and got directly in his face to scream louder than I have ever heard a teacher yell before. I was asked to leave the classroom for the rest of the period. Another teacher heard the screaming and she very softly told me she was sorry for what happened. I had to rush to the bathroom because I couldn’t sit at my desk like nothing had happened. I was very shaken and in tears over the whole event. However, for the boys, that type of behavior is sadly fairly normal, so they didn’t even flinch or seem visibly shaken like I was.
EB: Had you studied Japanese and Korean before you travelled? Were you able to acquire the languages?
MH: When I went to Korea, I did not know any Korean. I had just finished one year of learning Japanese. I was only there for two months, so I mostly only learned how to say the basics: good morning, hello, please, thank you, and water.
Coming to Japan was different because by the time I arrived here, I had taken two years of college level Japanese, but had a year gap between graduating and arriving here. I definitely lost a majority of my vocabulary and realized I had never had a natural conversation in Japanese until I was in an izakaya in Tokyo and a full table of drunk salarymen started a conversation with my friends and I. After living here for a month, I felt like I was rapidly improving. I am still better at listening than speaking, but I can usually convey what I mean. These days, I’ll have a conversation with someone and only realize later that it went as smoothly as it did.
EB: What was the experience of managing a class like?
MH: On the JET Program, I am an Assistant Language Teacher, so I am always accompanied by a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) in class. I have three JTE’s that I teach with. As far as lesson planning, it varies between JTE. For the 3rd year students (freshman), I plan and teach the entire 50 minute lesson with the teacher there to provide translation help. For the 2nd year (8th grade) classes, I help with the normal classroom routine of singing a song and doing a word test, and then I am responsible for a 25 minute activity. For the 1st year classes (7th grade), I only plan lessons when the teacher asks me to prepare something specific, otherwise I just participate in her lesson.
EB: What has been the most fun?
MH: The best part about this entire experience is interacting with the students. When I first arrived, they were very shy and scared to talk to me. I began very enthusiastically waving at every student until slowly, they all started waving back. Now, I even have what I call “waving wars” with students in which both of us try to out wave the other, always very enthusiastically and with smiles. I also roam around through the halls during lunch time and talk to as many students as I can. This is my favorite time all day.
Recently, I have started playing sports with the students during lunch. I convinced a group of girls to let me teach them to play soccer and they told me that there are no junior high girls soccer teams in all of Tokushima prefecture. After playing a small game, lunch was ending and they decided we should race back into school. After our race, we were changing back into our indoor shoes and one of the girls said “We thought you were a very beautiful girl before, but now you’re cool!” I jumped on the chance to express to them that girls can be beautiful AND cool. Girls can play soccer. Girls can do anything. I got a big, enthusiastic “thank you” and a wave goodbye as they ran back to class. I am grateful for my chance to expose these students to not only native English and American culture, but hopefully act as a role model for these young girls in a society that is far too concerned with beauty standards and gender roles.
EB: Is there anything you wish you had known or known more about before you started?
I did extensive research on teaching abroad and this program in particular, so I don’t feel there is anything that made me say “I wish I had known that before now.” I also exist in an almost constant state of confusion anyway because I am surrounded by a language I am not fluent in and certain cultural differences in the workplace are difficult.
EB: How has the experience of teaching abroad influenced your career plans?
MH: I definitely want to become a teacher when I return home. Teaching abroad hasn’t influenced my teaching plans, rather it has influenced how I plan to teach. Teaching abroad is both extremely rewarding and challenging. Being a teacher at a school where every single student is Japanese and they share the same culture made me realize how important it is for students in the U.S to acknowledge their everyday opportunities at school to learn about other cultures.
Students at schools in rural areas have to actively seek out cultural exchange, or in the case of my job, they have it come to their school. I have made a point of teaching the students about “American culture” and what that means to me. To me, the “American culture” I can identify with is exclusively West Coast based. I taught an entire lesson on Hispanic Heritage Month and explained all of the ways that my life in California was shaped by being surrounded by Mexican culture. I told them that California, and many of our cities names, comes from Spanish. I asked the students if they thought anything in Japan came from a Hispanic or Latin language. Most of them said no, so I showed them a list of words that originated from Portuguese and some of their desserts that came from Spain and Mexico. I ended the lesson by playing some music in Spanish and I heard them humming the songs in the halls for the rest of the day. This lesson, almost entirely about Spanish, remains my best received lesson as an English teacher at this school.
Being in a school environment that has little opportunity to be exposed to various cultures during the school day has made me believe it is very important that my future students in the U.S realize their chance to learn about many cultures from their classmates. My hope is to teach tolerance and empathy along with the normal school subjects.
EB: Any suggestions for others?
MH: Do your research on finding a teaching program that sounds right for you, in any country. Say yes to things you would never do in your home country. Saying yes has gotten me to eat fantastic meals at hidden places, go to a weekly karate class, practice Japanese archery with my students, and many more things. My last piece of advice is that it is perfectly acceptable to commit to teaching abroad for a short time. The JET program is up to five years, but you can spend an incredible, life changing year teaching English in Japan and when the year is up, you will go home. Do not be fooled by those who say you won’t get the full experience in one year because you are the person who decides how you will spend your time in your new home.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.