Teach Enrich Empower
From London to Wakayama
My name's Maria, but my new name to strangers is “gaikokujin”. This is the polite way to say “gaijin”, which means 'alien' or 'foreigner'. I work in Wakayama, Japan.
I started my TEFL adventure with an adventurous coworker and a handful of strangers in Russell St, London, at The TEFL Academy training seminar. Despite the variety of ages, backgrounds and nationalities present, we bonded quickly over that intense 10-hour weekend of training. When we were asked to share our future plans with each other, I had little more to contribute than “um maybe go to France? Or maybe Japan? Um…” I had no fixed plans, just a strong desire to get that TEFL qualification and change my life. That chilly and rainy February weekend did just that, and would change my life in ways I could never have foreseen.
Before I started teaching English, I worked in the Royal National Theatre in London. Leaving the comfort and security of that job for the uncertainty and occasional chaos of teaching children was the best decision I’ve ever made. Before I started, I wasn’t even sure I liked children very much! I’ve learnt so much and have come to appreciate their good humour and complete honesty.
Working with kids is one of the best aspects of my new job. I teach a wide age range of kids, as young as three years old and as old as fifteen. I work at four different schools for a week each, so I only see each of my students once a month. Most of them have never spoken to a Westerner before, as I teach in small-town Japan. The younger kids love to touch my hair. “Fuwafuwa!” is a wonderful onomatopoiec word which is pronounced “fwah-fwah” and means “fluffy”. I hear “fuwafuwa” a lot about my curly hair. Japanese kids can be really shy about their English ability so it’s essential to build their confidence before you can make any headway in teaching them. We play a lot of games in our lessons to break the ice and make them laugh (a tip I learned at The TEFL Academy!) and I never miss an opportunity to make myself look silly, to get them to relax with their sporadic visiting sensei.
“Working with kids is one of the best aspects of my new job”
I love teaching, and even on difficult days I feel more satisfied at work than ever before. Kids have every excuse to be grumpy here: Japanese teenagers do so many extra-curricular activities to improve their education and career prospects that they often come into my evening classes half-asleep. Babies usually spend all their time with their parents, so not only am I the first gaikokujin they’ve seen, I’m sometimes the first non-relative that they have been left alone with. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt is not to label kids too fast. My worst student is a toddler with two very young sisters who receive most of Mum’s attention, and who never sees his hard-working dad. He is a hellraiser, impossible to teach, but he’s learned to say “I love you” in English because it’s all he really wants to do. At the end of each lesson, he hugs me so hard it hurts. My best student is a smart, polite ten-year-old – and an absolute pain to teach when he’s clowning for the benefit of his mates!
Witnessing the evolution of young people like this is one of the job’s greatest gifts. They remind me that change is always possible, in the unlikeliest places. My one piece of advice? Stay as adaptable and open as the people you teach. Be willing to evolve with them.
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