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Japan: Sugano Elementary School Internship

While I was in Japan last fall, I had the privilege of taking part in an internship/field study sort of position. Every Wednesday I got up at the crack of dawn, put on my sweat pants, ran to catch the packed, rush hour train, and took the 40 minute trek to Sugano Elementary School a few towns away. Yes, you heard me correctly, I wore sweat pants to my internship–and it was mandatory. While there were many things about my experience that seemed relatively similar to how an American elementary school is run, there were enough differences to keep me in a constant state of unease and to fill an entire notebook with observations.

*I do have a “day-in-the-life” kind of post that I wrote while I was in Japan, though it is a look at one day and not at the experience as a whole. Check it out here!*

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As I mentioned before, the first shock came even before the first day I started, at the “interview.” I went with one of the IES staff members to greet the principle and have a sort of interview/discussion of what was appropriate for the position. As per my own cultural standards, I went wearing a nice skirt, dress shirt, and nice shoes. As soon as I walked in the door, I noticed that everyone was wearing sweats. Soon after I was told that not only did I need to wear sweats/gym clothes every time I was at the school, I needed to wear outdoor gym shoes to the school and change into indoor gym shoes at the entrance to the school.

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I wasn’t at the school long enough or often enough to warrant an official locker, so I stashed my shoes in the guest cubby at the school’s entrance. Fortunately, this was next to the teachers’ room. Unfortunately, I observed the 4th, 5th and 6th grade classrooms, which were upstairs and on the opposite side of the building. >_<

In the US, elementary schools typically have an office for the principle and any other high ranking people at the school, a teacher’s lounge for lunch and other such breaks in the day, and otherwise teachers have all of their materials in their classroom. In Japan, teachers all share one large room, each teacher having their own desk and materials, which they use primarily before the school day starts and after it ends. Of course, teachers have their own desks in their classroom, but somehow this isn’t sufficient. Since the teachers all started their day off in this room, this is always where I started my day as well.

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Even after 4 months, I never got accustomed to every teacher showing up in sweat pants and wearing a name tag. Especially the principle, who frequently wore shirts with Disney characters and random English words splayed across the front and back.

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By the first bell I would head off to observe whatever classroom I had been assigned to. I was only assigned to a few classrooms, so luckily for me I was able to observe the classrooms multiple times throughout the semester. At first I was focused on the structure of class, my role in the classroom, and other random things. But after awhile I started focusing more on the kids in my classroom.

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99.9% of the school was 100% Japanese, so I of course stuck out like a sore thumb, and attracted the curiosity of students in my classrooms as well as the other students in the school. I would hear kids in my classroom bragging in the hallway that the “gaijin” (foreigner) was in their classroom–which the younger students found particularly fascinating. One classroom I was in had a student who was half Japanese half Filipino, and because she too was “gaijin” despite being fluent in Japanese and having been born in Japan, the other students were quick to introduce us, thinking we would have a ton in common.

Of course I also developed favorite students. Some I got close with because they were always willing to talk with me (even though I am super awkward in Japanese), some I got close with because they always looked at me when they thought I wasn’t looking and would bring me random cards and drawings during breaks, and then there were others who were just plain adorable.

None of the classrooms, being a random public elementary school, were learning English yet, so I really had no way to participate in the actual class or in teaching. But I was always observing and helping when there were activities, or if the teacher needed to leave the classroom for some reason. One of my favorite classes to observe spent most of an entire day making aprons. The only thing they had to do was to make it a certain size, but otherwise the kids all had complete creative liberty–something that is oddly missing from most Japanese classrooms, as all kids are expected to reach a certain standard, and creativity is often found in smaller and subtler ways than in American classrooms.

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Every single student was working so hard to create their apron, it was the most adorable thing I have ever seen. Especially since most of them wanted to show me what they were doing, and a lot of them wanted me to explain the random English they had used to decorate their apron.

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In the end I was happy to finish the internship only because of how much time it took every week. I also wish I could have participated in the classroom more, as I felt like I was awkwardly sitting there most of the time, and wasn’t able to demonstrate to anyone at the school–teachers or students–that I was an educated, smart, college student who was capable of a lot more than taking notes. It was a great look into the Japanese education system though, and I am so happy to have had the experience. Not only did it help me understand more of my career goals, it helped me understand the culture my Japanese friends and teachers had grown up in, and gave me some insight into why they have some of the beliefs and traits that they have.

I know this is a fairly short post considering I spent eight hours every week for four months in this setting, but if you want to know more or hear about more of my experiences send me a message below! Thanks for reading and come back soon for more adventures!

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