High school allergy

Orly Mercado

Posted on July 21, 2007

It was an urgent telephone call. A dear friend and fellow professor who opened doors for me here in Japan wanted to know if I could help her find an English teacher for a private junior and senior high school. The previous teacher, a foreigner, suddenly quit. There was still a month and a half left in the current semester. Actually, she had volunteered to teach some of the subjects and wanted to know if I was interested in handling the others. I said no. I had never taught high school students. Neither had I taught English as a subject.

In the end I relented. If the schedule could be worked around my current teaching load in the college, it would be fine. How difficult could that be, I thought to myself. My father was a high school teacher. Maybe it was in my genes to do this job. Anyway, it might turn out to be a learning experience. It did.

My students were both in the junior high (middle school) as well as senior high school levels. I had students as young as twelve. The older ones were in their late teens. I struggled with the younger ones, who knew very little English to begin with. But it was not this that bothered me. It was the seeming inflexibility of the educational system. For me there was too much focus on passing written examinations and not enough opportunity to help students learn how to think independently.

To be fair, this is a country where over ninety five percent of the population is literate. In spite of some slight decline in recent years, Japanese students are still world leaders in achievements in mathematics. I have found most of my students to be driven, although more inclined to rote memorization. As far as English is concerned, I think there is too much emphasis on grammar. It may have taken away the fun in learning a second language. Now I am beginning to understand why my students in college communicate verbally with difficulty, in spite of years of English.

What I found impressive was the detailed discussions of the results of the final tests we gave. Those who failed were individually evaluated. Inputs especially from the homeroom teachers, who double as counselors, even delved on the emotional and personal problems of the students. At first I found it a bit curious. But then again, in Japan, there is such a phenomenon called “school allergy.” These are mostly emotional problems causing medical symptoms that are given as excuses for absences. Japan has been dealing with problems of school bullying, student anxiety over examinations, and strict administrators and teachers for sometime now.

I remember my father, and how patient and dedicated he was to his job. In the end, for me, it was tough. But at least I did not develop “school allergy” during my stint as a high school teacher.

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