Schools Postcard from Japan

Serenity in Japan. Photo: supplied

Wodonga Middle Years College teacher Michelle Butters is trying to implement a student cleaning policy at her school since an eye-opening trip to Japan.

There were many things I was expecting when I signed up for a union trip to Japan. Meeting other AEU members, sightseeing, experiencing a very different culture and, most importantly, awesome Japanese food.

I got all that. I also got soaked to the bone on a bus tour to a historic temple to see a giant Buddha, holed up in a hotel room while a typhoon headed for the town, and delivered a speech to a room full of Japanese union officials armed only with my basic Japanese vocabulary. It was a full-on 10 days.

During last year’s September school holidays, a group of 14 educators and three union officials took part in the AEU’s annual exchange to Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan. This was the 21st such exchange, with Japanese teachers from Shizuoka also coming to Australia each year, allowing mutual insight into two very different systems of education and encouraging a valuable relationship to grow between the Shizuoka Teachers Union and AEU Victoria.

Students work together to sweep and mop all rooms and corridors, tidy the staff rooms, take out the rubbish and recycling, and even clean the bathrooms – all without argument!

When we arrived at Hamamatsu, we were met at the station by our Japanese hosts – members of the Shizuoka Teachers Union, who welcomed us into their homes and families for the too-short stay. Spending three days as part of a Japanese family, going to work with them in a Shizuoka school and seeing life in Japan in an authentic way was the most valuable and unique experience.

I stayed with the Yokoyama family in Hamamatsu. My hosts, Kazumi and Katsu, live in a traditional Japanese house with their two sons, who enjoyed practicing their English with me, showing me around their town and beating me on the Nintendo.

Kazumi’s mother also lived in the area and came over to help teach me how to cook Hamamatsu’s most famous dish: gyoza. Learning how to make steamed dumplings was a highlight of the trip – one I’ve unsuccessfully tried replicating back home.

I don’t think I was quite prepared for how different life at a Japanese school would be. Classrooms were packed with around 40 students per class, who would leave home at 7am and get home after 8pm. Expectations were extraordinarily high, for students and teachers alike.

Michelle was surprised by the amount of students packed into Japanese classrooms. Photo: supplied

I attended Aritama Elementary school with Kazumi and got to teach in her Grade 4 class. Being back in a primary school proved very different to my middle school teaching life in Australia. All primary students in Japan learn English, but I was still glad to have a student in the class who had grown up in America, as he acted as a mini-translator for me for the day.

Using my own basic Japanese, we stumbled through the language barrier and I was even able to answer a few questions and play some games with the students about life in Australia. I also got to experience the elementary school lunch policy, which sees all students given a hot lunch, followed by a ‘cleaning period’ in which students work together to sweep and mop all rooms and corridors, tidy the staff rooms, take out the rubbish and recycling, and even clean the bathrooms – all without argument!

Before I left the school, I gave each student a taste of Vegemite and a small koala pin, and they all wrote a message on a card, thanking me for spending time with them.

We arrived in Shizuoka city on the day a typhoon was set to hit, leading to the eerie site of a Japanese railway station completely shut down, with several bullet trains sitting idle. In the shadow of that storm, we attended a conference with the Shizuoka Teachers Union where we met more educators and discussed the challenges of teaching in each of our countries. It seems many of the challenges around teaching remain the same no matter where you live.

For me, the trip was an amazing and inspiring experience. Over two weeks, we saw some of the most interesting parts of Japan, from the modernity of Tokyo to the historic Kyoto to Nara, where we visited temples and shrines, and explored the Arashiyama bamboo forest.

Along the way, some members caught up with friends from previous visits and Japanese guests they have hosted in Australia. It was great to see how those connections endure. Building friendships with fellow teachers and connecting with new and old friends is what makes this such a special and unique tour.

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