There is a word I simply adore in Japanese, ‘Yoyuu.’ It’s kind of a fuzzy, all purpose word which means time, mental capacity, margin, monetary ability, elbow room, and the list goes on and on. If I want to buy a cool new bicycle with a banana seat, but I’m already over my monthly budget, I might say, “God, I want that bike, but I have no yoyuu.” Or, after a long stretch of working overtime, I might say, “I finally have enough yoyuu to spend some quality time with my family this weekend.” It’s a word I use regularly in Japanese. It’s also a word that I grope for in English lately when I talk about teaching.
Starting this year, I’m a home room teacher. On paper, things don’t look quite that different from what I was doing last year. I have 22 scheduled teaching hours a week. I’m in charge of the standardised testing classes, the lower-intermediate communication skills classes, and I manage the extensive reading program. The only real difference is that every morning, when I stand in front of 28 first and second-year high school students, the ultimate responsibility (at least in the eyes of the Japanese education system) for whether they stay in school rests on me. Sometimes the students are a bunch of wilting flowers. Sometimes I’m sure that Walter White has dropped a little something in their morning cup of tea. I take attendance, make the daily announcements, and then I have ten minutes left to do any old thing I want. But mostly, what I want is to find a way to flip a switch and help my students get to a place where the rest of the day is going to be about learning. Over the past few months we’ve:
- used the Newsmap.jp internet site to explore how different countries perceive and report on various news stories. For example, last week we spent two morning homerooms discussing how the U.S. and Australia’s take on the new U.S. CO2 emission regulations differ (U.S.: Largest attempt to combat warming in Amercan history; Australia: Europe demands U.S. do More).
- watched the video for Michael Jackson’s new song and compared how it is similar to Off the Wall and some of the reasons for those similarities.
- discussed the fact that Japan had its steepest population decline of the modern era, and brainstormed the reasons why people aren’t having children (students opinions included: it’s a pain in the ass, adults don’t have any money, there’s no ’yoyuu’.)
Because it’s a mixed homeroom of all the 1st and 2nd year students in the school, the students’ English levels are vastly different, their basic study skills are…yada yada yada. There’s a lot of reasons for why these short morning lessons are challenging. But I find a way to make them primarily in English and (I hope) mostly understandable. Sometimes I pass out a copy of a Japanese article I’ve taken from my daughter’s Japanese children’s newspaper. These print papers target elementary school students, use only the most crucial vocabulary, are written in clear sentences, and are short. A student who has quickly read through one of these articles is very much primed to listen to a short talk on the topic in English. To make everything a bit more comprehensible, I’ll often list up key vocabulary/chunks of language on the board with the Japanese equivalents, have the students form a stronger/weaker pair, and hope that the chemistry between the students is just right so what I’m talking about gets students talking to each other.
I guess I’m trying to say there’s a lot of stuff I’m doing in my classroom. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not at all. But the thing is, even when it does work, the fact that I taught my class and it went well is one of the smallest parts of my day. Now I finish that morning homeroom class and make notes of who didn’t make it to school today. Who didn’t bother to take out their notebook. Who seemed to be angry with whom. At the end of the day I call parents, I plan how to rearrange the seating chart, I talk to the other teachers about students who had a better or worse day. And I hope and wonder and pray that these students will spend the next year moving forward more often than they move back.
There’s a lot of about this whole teaching thing that I still don’t really understand. And maybe I never will. But right up until this August, there was one thing I was pretty sure about. Being a better teacher meant taking time to reflect on my classes, plug into my social and professional network of educators, and make sure I was finding a way to see the prism of my classroom from as many angles as possible. I was in fact, so positive that this was essential to developing as a teacher that I wrote articles and blog posts about it. I encouraged and cajoled and perhaps to some people, even crossed the line into that depressingly colourless world of proselytisation. I don’t exactly regret doing any of those things. It’s just that, now, I realise the only reason I could do those things, from classroom reflection to being a Twitter-pusher, was because I had ’Yoyuu.’
I still talk to my co-workers about what’s going down in my classroom…sometimes. I still read blogs…on occasion. But when it comes to what makes my classes better (whatever that means), I’ve found that a teacher pulling up a chair and helping to correct the weekly vocabulary tests, or a spontaneous offer to cover my weekly study-hall, or even a cup of steaming coffee unexpectedly waiting for me on my desk all seem to impact my classes more directly than what I used to believe was the one and only way to develop as a teacher.
It’s a humbling experience, this struggling to teach without any ’yoyuu’. I wonder if I didn’t come off as a kind of jerk over the past few years, thinking that I had found the magic key to professional development. If I was a little (or maybe a lot) condescending at times, I’m truly sorry about that. I’ve kind of got it now. The next time I’m talking to a struggling teacher, I’ll put my ideas of what they need aside. I’ll maybe cover a class for them, help them grade some homework, or just brew up a fresh pot of coffee. Because while RP, PD, and all the other things that I used to think meant being a serious teacher are important, none of it’s going to matter until you can find just a little bit of space—to catch your breath, get a chance to look around, and maybe, if your lucky, begin to set down some roots.
Addendum: over the past few months I realised that there are many superstars in my PLN who really are all about making ’yoyuu’ for other teachers. I just wanted to say thanks for the great example. I’m a little embarrassed I never noticed just what you were up to before. But I’m watching now. And recently, I’ve even found a bit of time to take down a note or two.