Hello Goodbye

You’ve finally arrived in Japan and got your dream teaching job, so what’s next? Well, better go to school. Duh. So what can be expected from your first day at a Japanese school? Personally I had no idea what it would be like. I can barely remember my own school days and I never considered what it was like from the teacher’s point of view. I’m not even sure if any of that would have helped me anyway as Japanese schools are, of course, different to those in other countries.

The first thing that should be burnt into a new routine is what to do when on arriving and departing from school. Namely, saying “Hello” and “Goodbye”. This may seem trivial, maybe you’re even thinking “Ha, I do that naturally!” But here it’ll need to be kicked up a notch.

When walking into the Teachers’ Room every morning it’s good to ring out a solid

Ohayoo Gozaimas!

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this means “Good Morning!” and if it were written correctly in romaji it would look like this: Ohayou Gozaimasu but the final u is silent and the “you” part is not the same as [I love] “you”. It’s actually an extended o sound.

After saying this upon your initial entrance to the Teachers’ Room it’s polite to say it to each and every teacher encountered from there on in. I tend to go Ohayoo-ing my way through the faculty right up until about noon. After then I tend to switch to the classic

Konnichiwa

Easy right? When leaving it gets a little trickier. What I always say (which I have since learned is pretty much the politest way to leave) is

Osakini Shitsreishimas

This translates to something like “I’m sorry to be leaving before you.” and should be said to as many co-workers as possible on the way to the exit. A nice bow here and there won’t go amiss either.

These are just a couple of phrases that I use every day, for more detail (and a better pronunciation guide) please check elsewhere on-line or, hey, ask a Japanese person for some advice!

Twiddle Thumbs. Pick Nose. Repeat.

The Japanese are legendary workaholics. It’s a classic stereotype that’s based in some truth. One reason for this because of a culture of working hard. Everyone around you will be busy-ing away (or trying to make it look like they are) and it’s likely that some of them may look down on someone who isn’t doing the same. So once the day’s duties have been finished don’t sit at your desk and flick through the latest Shonen Jump or secretly Alt-Tab your way about Facebook. Do some work. Plan your next lesson or mark some worksheets or, if you have nothing school-related to do, study Japanese. The thing is, if someone is doing something at work that they shouldn’t be, it’s unlikely that they’ll hear about it directly. In Japanese society people generally shy away from confrontation. It’s far more likely for grievances to be sent off to a higher power, leading to harsher retributions (such as fewer invites to social events) further down the line.

Never leave home without ’em.

As with any job there are certain items that are useful to have around. And I just so happen to have a handy, dandy list ready to inform and enlighten.

  • Shoes. You know, the things that go over your socks. You’ve likely seen some as you’ve left the house or wish you’d had some when you were running across broken glass whilst fighting terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza. Either way, they certainly have their uses. In Japan it is incredibly common to take your outdoor shoes off before entering places. This is most strictly enforced in people’s homes but you’ll also come across other places such as Clinics where they do it as well. This is also true in schools. Everyone wears a set of indoor shoes whilst in the school building. They don’t have to be mega-smart but similarly they shouldn’t have pictures of skulls along the laces. I recommend trying to find a balance between comfort and smartliness.
  • Handkerchief. I always thought the idea of sneezing into something and carrying it around in your pocket was gross. But it’s become one of those things I always have on me. In Japan they don’t sneeze into handkerchiefs, they’re used more like tiny towels (in fact some people just use tiny towels!) to dry oneself off. This is particularly important in schools because they don’t (usually) provide towels or hand-dryers in the toilets.
  • Mug. Caffeine is your friend. A nice hot drink once in a while is the only way to stay afloat at times and no one wants to go pouring the water directly into their tea-bag-stuffed mouth, right?
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste. Not only is teeth brushing a considerate and healthy thing to be doing, it’s also something that all of the kids are trained to do regularly in Elementary School. I’ve been to some schools where all the kids brush their teeth together along with a tune.
  • Lunch. If you go to Elementary or Junior High then you should be able to partake of the school lunch, in which case you’ll need to bring money to pay for it. It’s pretty cheap and deliberately well balanced. A usual school lunch is made up of: a bowl of soup, rice, a carton of milk, a main dish (a piece of fish or some meat thing), a vegetable something, and perhaps a small desert. Personally I love school lunch here, I think they’re really tasty and such a stark contrast to the pizza and chips that were served up at my childhood schools. However, be aware that surprises can happen. School lunches can contain some of those unusual foods that you may have read about. Things such as shishamo and natto have been known to crop up. A friend of mine even said he was once served Whale meat! If you’re at High School however, you will have to bring your own packed lunch. I know it can be a bit of a pain to prepare a packed lunch, but if you make an effort you will most likely get some nice comments from other teachers and it can make for a nice conversation starter. All of last year I interacted with this one teacher solely about our lunch boxes! Nearly every day! And it never grew old …
My bento box for my first day at a japanese school
My bento box (lunch box) with separate containers for soup, rice and … miscellaneous.

Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your first day at a Japanese school.

There’s no way to predict how students will react to presence of a new foreign teacher. I’ve seen everything from surprise to joy to extreme giddiness right the way to disinterest, shyness and even down-right obnoxiousness. This can be an indication of students’ levels. For example, a struggling student won’t be too fond of a new face trying to show them how “fun” English can be. The reaction might also stem from their previous foreign teacher or even from their current or former Japanese teacher. If one or more of them was not encouraging or supportive in the right way then a student may feel disconnected with the learning environment. I think it’s important to be aware of the different factors that can affect a student’s demeanour and to try not to hold it against them.

A final factor to consider on the first day at your new job is the level of your language ability. For Elementary School it’s best to expect no one to speak any English. At least nothing beyond the Elementary syllabus. This can make for a tricky experience at times but never fear! In my experience Elementary teachers are some of the sweetest, kindest people around and believe me, they know a thing or two about patience and persistence. For High School there should be no worries about the need to use Japanese except when it comes to making friends with anyone outside of the English teachers. In fact, if you work at an academic High School it’s really your English level you should be concerned with as you will probably be faced with some tricky questions about grammar and such things. Now, that’s scary.

Of course, this is all based on my experiences so please don’t take it as gospel. If there’s anything you’re unsure of then it’s really the job of your employer to clarify. If they’re not being very helpful then there are plently of people online who are ready and willing to help out. Have a quick google or even search for a Facebook group of teachers in your area. You never know, they might be waiting for you to contact them.

Have you had your first day at school yet? How did it go? Is there anything you wish you’d done or brought? Please add your own input in the comments section.

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