This article originally featured in the May 2020 issue of Connect.
By Rachel Boellstorff (Okayama)
My world right now is small.
I’ve been isolated in my apartment for weeks now. When I began to feel the first twinges of illness, I confined myself to my apartment. Even though classes were cancelled, I still felt guilty about not being in the office. I missed the interactions I had with my students and the rewards of teaching. Most of the time I was certain that I was right to be cautious, but sometimes I wondered if I was overreacting. Japan seemed to be churning on as usual, other than the school shutdowns.
Was I wrong? Maybe everything was fine.
Maybe the pandemic would never really come to Japan in a drastic way, and maybe I just had a cold. But the news I was seeing from other countries told me that things really were serious, so I stuck to my initial decision and did not leave or see another human being.
That disconnect between the stress I felt about the global situation and the business-as-usual atmosphere in Japan was only intensified as I had more time to look at the international conversations. I found myself scrolling Twitter and news sites, watching depressing news roll in relentlessly. As the world got worse, so did my physical condition. I only had a fever at first. Trouble breathing came next, with an unbearable pressure as if my lungs had been shoved into a tiny box. There wasn’t enough room to get the air I needed. Confined to my apartment, looking at the same walls every day, there was somehow even less air to breathe.
Then one day, I saw a tweet from an educator in the USA, who wanted volunteers to teach online classes to the many children in the United States whose schools were now closed. They were in quarantine, and their parents were likely still working. I followed the link to Youth Remote Learning, and read about the need for people to teach remotely.
I volunteered. But at first, I wavered—what could I possibly have to offer? While I work as a teacher and design most of my own lessons here in Japan, I never taught in my own country and wasn’t certified to teach any young children. My childhood scores in geography were abysmal, and I didn’t have textbooks to teach any basic subjects.
Scrolling down the list of offered classes, I found a myriad of options. Poetry, African art and culture, even a class engaging with the concept of poverty! There were classes on anything the teachers were passionate enough to teach.
There were classes I would have loved to take when I was younger, with so many different interests. It didn’t matter that these courses aren’t the typical education—a pandemic isn’t a typical time.
I had something to offer here. I signed up, explained my qualifications, and offered two potential courses, eventually settling on Japanese 101. I could offer a basic introduction to the language for children who might otherwise never have had the option.
Now, I teach a one-hour weekly class to children from all over North America as a volunteer. Even though my school is closed, I get to teach other students and help them to grow and succeed in their goals.
I am not a fluent speaker of Japanese. However, I realized that I don’t have to be advanced in order to teach things like hiragana and common phrases. Those foundational Japanese skills are satisfying intellectual curiosity and will hopefully encourage my students to learn more, on their own and in other classrooms in the future. I started with the activities that I remember from Japanese 101: hiragana memorization, short vocabulary lists, and practice speaking. My experience teaching English to Japanese students is not dissimilar to teaching Japanese to American students. I think that a lot of people who live in Japan could do what I’m doing.
Since I don’t have a curriculum, I found online resources that I could use, including videos that we can screen share in the class zoom. My class has children from upper elementary school up to high school age, but when signing up to teach a class, the volunteer can choose which age groups, time frames, and frequencies they are willing to take on. If you’d like to propose a class of your own, here is the Google Form. There’s a high demand for Japanese language classes, because a lot of students have been exposed to the anime and manga that drew a lot of ALTs to working in Japan. You don’t have to be ペラペラ(pera pera, fluent) to teach hiragana and how to ask the time. After I started teaching it, other students kept asking to join, so I caught them up in individual sessions. But there’s a lot more students than I can teach by myself. If you can teach English to Japanese students, then please consider teaching Japanese to English-speaking students. You can use the same classroom skills to promote learning.
It isn’t easy to feel useless—like the world is on fire and hurtling towards an unknown future, and all you can do is watch. It isn’t easy to know that your friends and family are struggling half a world away. It’s not easy to struggle alone, either. I hit lows of exhaustion and depression, and I had days when I could not get enough oxygen to walk around my apartment. I don’t know what I would have done if there weren’t other ALTs nearby who I could ask to leave groceries outside my front door. I’m not sure that a person can get through a pandemic without community connections. I can’t even guess at how much longer life is going to be this way, as the projections seem to change every week.
For me, the uncertainty might be the worst. I never got a COVID-19 test, so I may never know if that’s what I’ve been struggling with. If that wasn’t the COVID-19 virus, then I’m not at all ready to get hit by another lung problem.
I know this is a stressful time for everyone, and everyone deals with stress in different ways.
For me, the only thing that helps is to find something I can do—not focus on the things I can’t control.
I tend to spiral, to delve into literature and read about everything that causes me anxiety, and progressively just become more anxious and stressed. But finding something to occupy my mind and time helps me regain some of the control I feel I’ve lost—figuring out lesson plans for a subject I’ve never taught, how to teach online, how to foster a sense of community with students I’ll never meet in person. It’s also rewarding to see that the experience I’ve gained working in Japanese classrooms transfers to teaching in other ways.
I really recommend this program to anyone who has the Japanese skills and willingness to be up late for zoom calls with students in North America. If you want to volunteer in other ways during this international crisis, please keep an eye out for some National AJET initiatives such as the Sew-A-Thon mask-making event, or even propose your own alternatives. There’s plenty that we can do as individuals. Hospitals will need blood with COVID antibodies, and people in your community might need no-contact grocery delivery or other assistance. The National AJET website has detailed information about how to donate blood in Japan, if you are interested. And of course, if you are ill, please reach out to your community for aid.
It’s hard to live in a small world. But reaching out to help others makes it easier to push those boundaries out and get some room to breathe.
Rachel is a fourth year JET in Okayama Prefecture and the current NAJET Chair. She lives with her dogs as she finishes up her Master’s degree from American University. She has recently learned how to make carrot cake, and it’s easier than predicted.