The Secret to Corporate Teaching in Japan
My shaving razor's cold and it stings
Here I am drunk and stoned at 10.30pm, finding new white stuff in my dreads. It’s bedtime for me as I’ve got to wake up at 6.40am. I’m in the middle of my first proper corporate teaching gig. I’ve been to offices and factories before, and like a sudden storm bought the punters an hour of entertaining English; but I’ve never done the salary man shuffle in the train station and had to spend 8 hours watching my back. My strongest impression of the whole fiasco (other than it being a bizarre dream) is that for all the progressive, cutting edge, pushing-the-envelope theories about teaching English, it’s not so innovative and professional as everyone pretends it is.
Before describing a day in the life of a hippy pretending to be a corporate instructor, I’d like to take a few moments to reflect on the job of being an EFL teacher. When VSO sent me off to China for my first teaching job they gave me one valuable piece of advice that has held me in good stead since. Namely, the first rule to being professional is to appear to know what you are doing even if you are clueless. Just get up there and bluff it out. It is really a re-formulation of that colonial mainstay, ‘the stiff upper lip’. How did we manage to rule over millions of Indians? By pretending we were in charge. How do you teach 60 Chinese school kids on the hop? By wearing a suit and confidently orchestrating a chaotic game of Simon says. The trouble begins when you start getting positive feedback for your shambolic efforts. It drives many teachers to the delusional belief that they can teach. It took a class of unruly Italian teenagers to wake me up to the fact that I had no clue about how to teach. I thank those Italian pains in the arse for forcing me to learn how my language is composed and how it is best transmitted to the student.
To my mind this corporate teaching job could do with some Italian teenagers to expose the flaws in the teaching program. However, instead we have Japanese engineers and managers destined to be sent to the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam and the USA who are docile and unreflective like sheep. We herd them through the ‘intensive’ language and cultural training before sending them out to crime ridden cities like Manila, Mexico City and L.A.
Now I crave your indulgence to let me describe a day in the life of a corporate trippy traveler. At 6.40am I’m up with only one thought knocking around in my befuddled brain and that’s liquids. I stumble into my clothes, gather my teaching materials and last night’s empty beer cans and clump downstairs. First up is water and more water and then I put the kettle on for coffee. Then it’s preparing my breakfast of boiled egg and toast and a few drags of a fag while I’m waiting for the water to boil. It’s bloody cold and dark and miserable. I switch on the kotastu (Japanese low table with blanket and electric heater on the underside of the table), pour the coffee, butter the toast and run cold water on the egg. Then it’s the first luxury of the day – ten minutes of eating warm food, drinking coffee and watching the news in Japanese (which I can’t understand) under the toasty warm table. I prolong the ecstasy with lung fulls of tobacco. Reluctantly, I extract myself from the kotatsu and feel the pain in my back and a tightness in my stomach from constipation. Other than brushing my teeth I forgo all ablutions (I shave and shower the night before to save time). Hat, jacket, gloves, scarf, keys and out into the cold.
I ride my bike to the station, stop off to buy more ciggies and a sports drink and wait for my train, the 7.47 to K-. While stamping my feet to keep warm I study my fellow sufferers. There is the usual assortment of salary men in pointy shoes, factory workers, pimply school boys and school girls in short skirts and massive scarves. When the train pulls in nobody gets out the packed train. Instead everyone on the platform quickly squeezes in. I stand in the aisle and watch people. Most are dozing away, some are playing with their phones; one or two are reading. Nobody looks happy. Outside more light is seeping into the day and Mount Fuji looks sharp and white in the clear air.
If I’m lucky I get a seat. Mostly I stand for 20 minutes before disembarking at K- station with a legion of people. All eyes are down as the crowd slowly shuffles off the narrow platform, up the stairs, over the bridge and out of the station. The one ticket man makes a disgracefully poor effort at checking people’s tickets. The masses all head in the same direction – towards a series of tall buildings and factories that make up what everyone calls Z city. I refuse to be a zombie and stride with bravado towards my particular destination in Z city. As I get close, people start to recognize me and say ‘Ohio’ or ‘Yosh’ as a greeting.
The teaching section has two floors. The lower floor has a lounge area complete with bursting darts board and ping pong table missing half its green paint. Attached to the lounge area there are two teaching rooms and a small kitchen area. Upstairs there are more teaching rooms, a long area for teachers and administrators, a room filled with plastic bouncy balls and a computer room stacked with broken computers.
I do my obligatory greetings grab a full cup of coffee, put my bag in my teaching room and sneak out to the outside smoking area, which is packed with workers puffing high tar fags and wearing green Z company factory tops.
Next I find my fellow English teachers and have a quick conversation about what we’re going to do for the first group activity. After a quick scramble to find materials we head downstairs to the lounge. All the other workers have cleared out and only our 8 students remain. After a bit of obligatory milling about one of us starts the activity, usually it’s some game or other ‘fun’ activity.
Before I’m unable to hold back the yawns the session is over and the rooms fills up again with other company members learning different languages, their teachers and the admin folk. More coffee and fags outside and a quick chat about the next session, rhythm training.
Rhythm training is one of the centerpieces of the supposedly progressive and cutting edge learning strategy pursued by the company. It was designed by the legendary founder of the company and thus held in complete awe. To my mind it resembles the mindless drilling and rote learning techniques that make up the backbone of an Asian education. By way of practicing for rhythm training, the students have to listen to mp3s of phrases spoken over a cheap Casio beat. In the actual session I get to say “She is hot”, “Where is John?”, “His car is more expensive than mine” over and over as I beat out a broken rhythm and wait for the student to repeat. Each student does four minutes with each ‘trainer’ (I’m no longer a teacher – I’m not sure if this is a promotion or demotion) and eight minutes at a listening station.
By the end of the 45 minutes I feel inducted into the hall of mindless phrases, and mumbling that day’s drills I dart outside for some more nicotine therapy.
At 10.30am I start my first lesson with my two designated ‘members’ (they have been cast out of the realm of student-dom by the necessity to give everything a shiny new appellation). I should have three members but one member was hospitalized after the first week. It seems that a week of rhythm training and no brain training, early mornings and whiskey nights had taken its toll on Mr. A. Nevertheless, in true Japanese corporate style the fiasco must go on and the memory of Mr. A is cast to the back of our minds; to a small cramped room that contains memories of lie-ins, family, warm summer days, imagination and empty train carriages.
The next lesson is meant to be a homework review session, but I get the marking out the way in less than ten minutes and so I start giving a real lesson which is interrupted at 11.15am by another coffee break. At 11.30am we start the first scheduled lesson, which for me is a continuation of the last lesson. Why do they still call them ‘lessons’? Surely they should be ‘trainer facilitated learning sessions’ or ‘tfls’ or some such acronymic nonsense.
And so after being up for 6 hours and having taught for one and a half hours lunch rolls around. I eschew the corporate canteen and instead quickly gobble down a sandwich and rice ball bought at the ‘Get A Life’ convenience store. This frees up 30 minutes to get on a computer and check my email and the footie news.
All too soon the unpaid lunch break comes to an end and the ‘no brain training’ begins. This is another brain child of the company’s founding guru. For this all the trainers and members gather. A few minutes prior to the event, a few trainers put their heads together and brainstorm a few weak ideas. We then learn numbers, body parts, greetings etc. while standing in a big circle. I’m confused by the Chinese teachers. They always teach ‘good morning’ in Mandarin even though it’s clearly afternoon. The Vietnamese teacher always tries to catch us out by putting the wrong actions to her drills (irritating cow). The Thai trainer bravely repeats ‘pleased to met you` in her language but our responses are always garbled mumbles. This goes on for 15 minutes. Everyone pretends to be energetic and enthusiastic which is the most essential façade for those seeking to fit into the business world in Japan.
After my first week of training my brain after lunch, I discovered that it was impressively useless. I asked all the English trainers to tell me what 7 was in Chinese, 2 in Vietnamese, 9 in Spanish. They had no idea.
At this point I gratefully slip back into my classroom for two more 45 minute lessons. I try my best to counteract the brain deadening effects of intensive lack of sleep and moronic multi-lingual drilling by giving language learning tasks that require real thought. These antidotal lessons fly by. Before I know it, it’s ‘assignment block’ time. This is when the trainers are supposed to prepare lessons and the members are supposed to do their homework. I spend this 45 minute session typing up my lesson plans, looking at pictures of beaches on the net and chatting with the English students. I’m sure the other trainers are similarly pretending to prepare lessons. The Chinese trainers hold loud discussions on how to bluff their way through the following day and the admin people get a chance to bother everyone with requests for expense forms, hour sheets and teaching updates.
Occasionally the head of teaching phones in (he wisely has an office in a different city) to query time sheets or worse, to demand the trainers miss lessons to go to his office to give presentations on teaching. Luckily my status as temporary employee of Z city means my attendance is not required. Instead I have to teach all the students until the trainers come back from their meeting. Here is a classic example of corporate teaching bullshit. Our supposed head of teaching never appears at Z city training centre, never gives useful advice about teaching, never provides new materials and never makes sympathetic enquiries to see if everything is going alright. Instead he hides in a fancy glass plated office with his power suit and pours over his excel tables to make sure no one trainer gets paid overtime. Perhaps he’s the wizard of Oz.
Finally, at 4.30pm we go downstairs and conduct the final activity. It’s another group activity. If the trainers can be bothered it’s something educational, if not then it’s a game of cards or yahtzee or table tennis or watching a dull video charting the meteoric rags to riches story of Mr. Z, the mythic founder of Z corporation (I wonder if he made it big by manufacturing for the war effort). In fact we seem to be encouraged to avoid teaching (this is the cultural training). The distant powers that be insist we take the students on outings; that we do cooking with them; that we get drunk with them. If only they were hot females. No such luck. Woman can only rise to the pathetic and derogatory rank of ‘office lady’ in Japan.
So that’s it. At 5.15pm we take off our name tags and re-gain our humanity. Everyone without a trace of irony proudly comes out with the standard incantation about doing a good job and rushes to catch the crowded train home. When I get off the train I start farting loudly and wonder when I’m going to get a chance to have a shit.
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