Okayama. The Branch from Hell.
There were several training branches around the country, and our closest was Okayama, a three-hour shaky train ride away. I had a few days of blissful freedom in Matsue before I had to return to Okayama for training so I could start work. I won’t lie, it absolutely petrified me. I was certain there was no way I’d be able to do this job. I was shy. I was awkward. I didn’t know how to talk to people, how to be around people, how to teach people, nor how to carry a conversation all by myself, especially with people whose English ability was “I like cat.”
(A nifty little teaching tip: remind students that “I like cat” without adding “s” at the end means that they like to eat said animal’s flesh, and not that they like the cute and fluffy animal itself. They soon remember…)
Nova had a very specific way of teaching lessons and—officially, at least—you weren’t supposed to deviate from it. Each lesson was split into sections that had a specific time you were supposed to run them through. One or two minutes for greetings and introductions, five minutes to introduce the topic of the lesson and get the students talking, five to ten minutes introducing and practising new vocabulary, five to ten minutes doing exercise one, etc, etc. At training there was a head teacher sitting in the next booth (the walls are made of glass so, of course, the students could see them too) watching our every move like a hawk. They would be constantly writing notes while we were trying to subtly read from the instruction sheet because we had no idea what was going on.
Okayama is a rather large city, and the students reflected that. Many were brash, loud, and being that it was a training branch, often unforgiving of how many newbs they had to deal with. They were paying top dollar for these lessons, after all, so it was hard to blame them. It was several days of living hell, and at the end they were like, “Well done, now go back to your branches and teach!” Congratulations. You still know nothing but now you’re a teacher!
Beautiful Matsue by Lake Shinji
Matsue was a breath of fresh air after that. Once again the students reflected the city they were from. They were much more laid back, incredibly quiet (painfully so when trying to get them to speak up in a conversation class…) and, in general, much older. Shimane Prefecture has the smallest population of all the prefectures in Japan. It also has the highest number of old folk of all the prefectures in Japan. That meant that one lesson I could be teaching two high school kids, the next I might be teaching a 70-year-old retired businessman, and in the next I might be teaching a high school kid and an 80-year-old grandma in the same lesson. I’m sure you can imagine the fun of trying to find a common conversational point between a 17-year-old girl and a 70-year-old retiree who can say little more than “I like sake.”
I showed up to my first day of work in Matsue at 12 p.m. I was only supposed to work 5-9, but for some reason, when I got there I saw I was scheduled to start work at 1.20 p.m., the start of the full-time afternoon shift. I was panic central. It turned out to thankfully be an error by one of the Japanese staff, and in the end I didn’t start until I was supposed to several hours later. Which meant I sat in the tiny staffroom for five hours trying to learn how to teach lessons according to their guidelines. It was one of those jobs that was insanely repetitive; once you knew what you were doing, you could autopilot the entire lesson, any lesson, regardless of what level it was… but getting to that point took a fair bit of work, especially for someone as shy and panicky as me.
I don’t remember my first lesson; not exactly. Whenever I’m in such a panic about something I tend to remember very little afterwards. It was a man-to-man lesson, which is supposed to be easier because you’re only dealing with a single student, but in reality it means you can be talking for 40 minutes while wanting to stab your eyes out because the student refuses to do anything other than nod and say “hai.”
“Good afternoon! How are you today?”
“Great! Me too.”
“… Okay, well today we’re doing lesson 15. Please open your book to page 50. No, that’s 15. 50. Yes, that’s it. Okay. So, what’s your favourite colour?”
“I like blue.”
“Okay… well, today’s lesson is about art. Do you like painting?”
“Okay… can you draw?”
“Okay, me neither… Do you read manga?”
“Great. Well, I love Dragon Ball.”
“Do you like Dragon Ball?”
Attempt that for 40 minutes and pulling your own teeth out with pliers starts to seem pretty attractive (and the answer to “How are you?” is always “I’m fine.” Literally never anything else. That’s a set phrase and you can spend years trying to teach students to use “I’m good/I’m okay/I’m anything that isn’t fine”).
When you have a class of four, you can at least make them talk to each other while you sit there and pretend to write down their mistakes for dicussion after. Plus, regardless of where you worked, there were always those students that were, for lack of a better term, assholes. The type that wanted all the focus entirely on them, no matter who else was in the room. The type that refused to follow the lesson plan and wanted to just chat for 40 minutes while the other students were trying to do what you set out. The type that only wanted to talk to you, the foreigner, and not the other students you paired them with. The type that wanted to rag on your country until they realised you were Australian and not American, and they couldn’t think of anything bad to say about Australia so they continued on their American rant even though my mother wasn’t even born until 20+ years after the war and neither she nor I have ever stepped foot on American soul and I’m about as American as a lamington on a hot beach on Christmas Day. Those types.
It was probably a few weeks before I started to feel comfortable enough not coming in two hours before my shift started so I could plan my lessons in minute detail beforehand. It was probably another month or two before I realised that all these lessons are the damn same so why am I still scared of them? It was another month or two after that that autopilot kicked in and I was able to check my lesson five minutes beforehand, grab the folder and just wing it. They were both the best and worst times.
Like automated factory jobs, doing the same thing over and over can be soul crushing. Teaching in a conversation school was no different. We were not supposed to deviate from the text. This meant you could be teaching the same lesson several times in a day, multiple times a week, over and over before you knew the thing so well that you could predict what questions the students were going to ask before they even knew they wanted to ask them, and you knew exactly what words they wouldn’t know, what question they’d get wrong, and what they’d say in the role play at the end. Over and over, day after day, only the faces changing, but not really because the branch was rather small, and we saw the same students pretty much every single day.
But on the other hand, we were a tiny branch out in the countryside. The guys in charge of us, Okayama, were three hours away. We got away with a lot more than their teachers could have ever dreamed. Most students were laid back and happy to go off-topic. Some specifically requested we didn’t do the lesson and instead wanted to chat instead. Others had been there longer than us and understood our pain; they would often change the topic for us and ask us things instead, or teach us things about Matsue or Japanese culture in return. I enjoyed my time working in Matsue. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories from Nova teachers over the years; I heard them while I was working there at the time, and I experienced them first hand whenever I had to go to Okayama myself—and Okayama wasn’t even one of the biggest branches. Imagine the poor teachers in Tokyo or Osaka. There are some true horror stories out there. Matsue was a dream, and it was like a family. The teachers were close-knit, the students were like friends, and the Japanese staff were amazing as well. Until everything went to shit when Nova stopped paying us and filed for bankruptcy when I was less than two years in. But that’s a story for another time.
Like many, Nova was my first full-time job. I was the youngest teacher there, which was a position I knew well because, being born at the end of the year, I was always the youngest at school and in life as well. I was incredibly lucky to be sent to Matsue, a city that seemed to gel with my soul automatically. It was like I was meant to be there. I don’t believe in fate, but by pure luck I ended up in the best place I could have, and I will remember many of the students I taught there until the day I die. I’m still friends with some of them to this day and we catch up over the internet every now and then.
And to this day I’m thankful that I wasn’t placed in Okayama, which is funny because I did a brief stint in Kurashiki, the next (slightly smaller) town over that will forever have a special place in my heart. But like the bankruptcy that caused it, that’s also a story for another time.