International Educator Interview: Sarah G. in Tokyo

The lovely Sarah is one of my friends from Lewis & Clark who is also one of the few teachers I know from Oregon who have gone abroad to teach.  She was one of the people who inspired me to teach internationally. Welcome Sarah!

Sarah at Nara

Sarah at Nara

Tell us a bit about your background. Where and what are you currently teaching?

I am from Oregon in the United States of America. I got my Bachelors of Science in Educational Foundations at the University of Oregon, and my Masters of Arts in Teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. Currently I am teaching fifth grade at a small international school in Tokyo, Japan.

Sarah and her husband at Daibutsu

Sarah and her husband at Daibutsu

Is this your first international post or have you been doing this for a while?

I have been doing this for a little while now. I taught English at a small English language school in Tokyo for a year after earning my M.A.T. Then I taught in the U.S. for a year and am currently in my second year at this school in Tokyo.

What made you decide to teach internationally?

Honestly as a kid if you had asked me if I would ever move internationally I think I would have thought you were crazy! Initially I moved to Japan because my husband was working on his PhD. in Japanese history and needed to study here for a year. Then I fell in love. I love working with such a diverse group of kids. The fact that they come from so many places and speak so many different languages gives them a unique perspective on the world. I love how compassionate and internationally minded they are.

Seasonal festival

Seasonal festival

Wow, that sounds like a great situation you have! What’s it like living in Japan? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there?

Japan is really convenient, and generally people are really nice. I love that everything is seasonal here, from special foods and festivals to activities. It can be hard however to stick out so much. It is very clear from looking at me that I am not Japanese and if you are curvy it can be hard to go shopping here! I love that the old and new are all mixed together here. You can be walking down a street full of sky scrapers and stumble upon a shrine, or a temple. People here really value the traditional along with the modern and I really like that. I also love how easy to get around it is here. The shinkansen is the best way to travel!

 

Sarah on the Shinkansen train

Sarah on the Shinkansen train

What are possible downsides to living in your host country?

The language takes a long time to learn. The sounds and hiragana and katakana (two of the writing systems) are pretty fast and easy to learn, but kanji takes a really long time to learn and you cannot even read a newspaper until you can read around 2,000 kanji. It is hard being somewhat illiterate and when you teach in English all day it can be hard to learn new vocabulary, you really have to work at it. I also have a hard time being so far from family and friends sometimes.

That does sound pretty tough! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful. 

This is a hard question to answer! I was here for the March 11th earthquake. I was teaching English to a three year old when it happened. It was my first earthquake. I got him into another room under the table and waited for things to stop shaking. I remember thinking at first that the building had been hit by a semi-truck, the noise was unbelievable. I did not know that earthquakes had a sound. It kept shaking for what seemed like forever. The phones were all down, but I was able to access the internet from my phone and use facebook to find out my husband was okay. After my student was picked up and my other classes cancelled I had to try and figure out how to get home. The trains were all stopped. I remember walking to the station and seeing the electronics store all the televisions inside were showing the tsunami coming in. No one could look away. I saw the girl who cut my hair a week before. Her mom lived right where the tsunami was hitting. We all felt so powerless. I never found out what happened to her mother. After hours of waiting in line for a taxi I got in with two business men the older man had his grandson with them. My Japanese was not good at all at this point. I knew they were going to the train station two stops from me so I joined them. They were asking me if I was going to be okay, and where I lived. I told them my station and they started speaking to each other in rapid Japanese. They talked to their grandson who explained that there was no way to walk from their destination to mine as the bridge connecting them was only for trains and cars. We had to stop in the middle of a bridge because of traffic as aftershocks hit us. In the end one of the business men got out at the first station paying nearly 100 USD for that distance. The next man asked the driver to continue to the next station and overpaid so that the driver would take me to the next station to my home. I ended up owing about 3 USD for the entire ride. I will never forget how kind those men were helping me to get home and keeping us all calm. I wish I could thank them.

That sounds really scary! It obviously didn’t scare you away from Japan though.  When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

I look for a school that supports its teachers and embraces diversity. I look for a school where administrators have worked with students and believe that teachers and administrators should work together to support one another. I want a school that values the arts and allow teachers creative freedom in how they teach and allows students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, not just on tests. I also look for a school that handles disciplinary issues with respect and encourages and supports professional development.

This has changed for me. I had a wonderful student teaching experience and have been very lucky afterwards as well, but traveling the world and working with people from other schools you learn that they aren’t all like that. Administrators and their beliefs and attitudes have a huge impact on school culture. I think it is important to make sure your philosophies match before accepting a position at a school.

Sarah's class decorated as South Africa for International Children's Day

Sarah’s class decorated as South Africa for International Children’s Day

What do you do to acclimate to a new country and make it feel like home?

Explore! Also I am a huge nester. As soon as I get to my new apartment I have to put my things away and start decorating. I really enjoy searching for wall art while exploring the area.

Traditional Japanese Hotel

Traditional Japanese Hotel

What is one thing you wish you had brought with you? What is one thing you wish you had left at home?

I wish I had been able to bring my scrapbooks. I wish I had left my pair of brown shoes at home. I kept hauling these heavy shoes around forgetting that they give me terrible blisters! Tokyo is a walking city, there is no room for uncomfortable shoes in my opinion!

What has been your favorite teaching position/location thus far? Is there anywhere you are hoping to land a position in the future?

So far I have loved my current placement in Tokyo the best. I have been lucky enough to teach kindergarten for a year and then jump back to fifth grade. Along the way I was able to teach after school programs to all the grades in between and have gotten a lot of wonderful IB training and made great connections.

I am excited to be making a move to a bigger school in Yokohama next year as well. I think change in teaching keeps things fresh! I think it would be amazing to get to teach in other countries as well, but I don’t know that it is practical with my husband’s career. I will say I think once you teach internationally it would be hard to leave it. It is such a different experience.

Sarah and a Tanuki

Sarah and a Tanuki

I agree; I’m not sure I can ever go back to teaching in the US! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher, and in your current career?

My travels have made a huge impact on me as a teacher and on my career. Experiencing being a minority, gaining a very different perspective on my home country, experiencing reverse culture shock when visiting home and learning about the cultures and languages of my students cannot help but change me. I think that I think a lot more about my opinions and judgments and where they come from. When I look at history I look at the different sides of the story more. I think a lot more about the answers my students give to questions and how their cultural and linguistic background impacts their answers and understandings. It has made me want to learn more about other parts of the world and explore them more. I also think that I have learned the importance of learning about the languages my students speak. Understanding the structure of the languages your students speak at home is really helpful in helping them with their English and understanding why some misunderstandings happen. I would definitely recommend people try teaching abroad if they are open to being out of their comfort zone and are passionate about kids!

Sarah with a deer in Nara

Sarah with a deer in Nara

 

Thank you so much for sharing your experience and advice Sarah!

 

If you are an international educator interested in being interviewed for this blog, please email me at TeachingWanderlust at gmail (dot) com.

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