With all due respect

28th March 2014 at 00:00

As a newcomer to the international school system, every lesson is as much of a learning curve for me as it is for my students. I teach a mix of Japanese and Korean English speakers, as well as a few children of Western expats, at a school in Japan. To the best of my knowledge, none of my charges has had an Australian teacher before, just as I have never taught Japanese or Korean students before.

Although it's true that teenagers are teenagers wherever you go, there seems to be a much deeper level of respect for teachers in Japan. I'm reminded of this whenever I hand out worksheets. Many of my Japanese students will receive it with two hands as if to say "I humbly accept your gift of knowledge". At least that's how I interpret it.

Teachers can get frustrated when students do not look them in the eye. Although it's actually a sign of respect here, it could be an issue in an international setting, particularly if the student hopes to attend a Western university one day.

I'm still learning to read the right prompts from my Japanese and Korean students. One such cue is what I call the "ooh factor". I refer to the heartfelt "ooooh" that students emit in reaction to some weighty piece of new information. This could be some advice about an upcoming assignment or simply a timetable change. At first I thought they were joking; I realise now it's their way of saying "I understand".

Of course, there are frustrations. Those who have spent time in Japan's education system tell me it's unheard of for a student to voice an opinion in class. Thinking for themselves can therefore be a challenge for Japanese students entering the international arena. For instance, I've noticed that when asked to brainstorm their ideas, some of my seniors resort to googling, somewhat defeating the object of the task.

We've all taught "that kid" who loves to draw attention to our mistakes but that is something a Japanese student would never do. It can be disheartening when trying to generate a class discussion - sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. I want my students to develop their own views. Challenging authority, even if I'm that authority, is an important part of their critical thinking. At times I miss "that kid"; he or she is important for bouncing ideas around.

Japanese students are often typecast as hard-working and driven to succeed. This stereotype is partly fostered by the existence of evening "cram" schools, which are attended by students from elementary age onwards. I've seen these in full swing as late as 10pm on a Saturday evening. Like anywhere in the world, Japan has its fair share of students who need engaging or find it hard to concentrate. Cram school probably doesn't help them in this respect. In fact, it is only in Japan that I have had a student fall asleep during a class test, although I suspect this was due to a marathon video-gaming session the night before rather than over-zealous studying.

The simple fact is that there are lessons to adopt from Japan and lessons to reject. But what an adventure it is to teach here.

David Van Tol is a history teacher at the Fukuoka International School, Japan

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