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IIST e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

2012 International Educators to Japan (IEJ) Program | Steve Matthews, Superintendent Novi Community School District [Date of Issue: 31/August/2012 No.0210-0857]

Date of Issue: 31/August/2012

2012 International Educators to Japan (IEJ) Program

Steve Matthews
Novi Community School District

IIST operates the International Educators to Japan (IEJ) program for educators from local schools in Europe and the US who teach the children of Japanese company employees stationed overseas so that these educators can develop a better understanding of Japan. Here Dr. Steve Matthews, one of the 34 participants in this year’s 12-day program (24 June-5 July), offers his thoughts on the experience. Background details on the IEJ program can be found at the following website.


We left home on Saturday and arrived on Sunday. After thirteen hours on a plane, crossing the International Date Line, and having the sun never set, the plane carrying six of us from the Detroit metropolitan area touched down at the Tokyo-Narita Airport.

The next morning we gathered with the other educators in our 2012 International Educators to Japan cohort. Colleagues we had never met from California, Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Oregon, Canada, and Belgium greeted us and together we wondered what the next eleven days would bring.

While technically we were a group, each one of us came with our own history and expectations. Our experience with Japanese students, the Japanese culture, the Japanese language, and the Japanese way of life varied tremendously. What the thirty-four of us had in common was a desire to see Japan, experience how students were educated in Japanese schools, and learn from our hosts so that we could serve the students in our communities.

Our International Educators to Japan group also shared a common experience. In each of our school districts and the schools in which we worked, there were Japanese students. Some of these Japanese students had grown up in and around the communities in which we lived. Other Japanese students had lived a majority of their lives in Japan and would be in our schools just a short time before they and their families returned to their homes in Japan. Some of us had Saturday schools where Japanese students attended to maintain a connection with the Japanese educational system. Each of us came to Japan because we wanted to understand what we could do to better serve these students who attended our schools.

The time we spent in Japan passed quickly. Our experiences were uniformly positive. Now, having returned to our daily routines, can I look back and say that we learned things that will help us as we work with Japanese students in our schools? Yes I can. We learned and re-learned several valuable lessons.

We were reminded that it is not technology or resources or buildings that make a great school. It is people. We visited several schools across several prefectures in Japan. Wherever we went all of us saw time and time again that teachers and students valued one another. The quality of the school was connected to the people. All of us understood that students and staff would be on their best behavior as we visited their schools. Yet, even when taking that into account, the lesson that I re-learned is that people matter.

I was fortunate enough to visit schools in Toyota City. Mr. Sugisaka Tadahito, the Assistant Principal at Honan Junior High School, served as the host and guide for the day. There were three schools— a junior high, a kindergarten, and an elementary school - in relative close proximity to one another and we were able to visit each school.

The first indication that this would be a special day was when Mr. Tadahito led us into the teacher workroom at Honan Junior High School before school had officially started. As our small group entered the workroom all of the teachers stood and applauded. It was a humbling experience to be so warmly greeted. It was the first, but certainly not the last, experience that demonstrated so vividly for me that these educators respected and supported one another. These educators reminded me that treating people with respect and honoring the work they do matters.

I asked about the teacher workroom. In my school district we do not have a workroom that would accommodate all of the teachers at one time. I was told that this common work area provided teachers with an opportunity to support one another, hold each other accountable, and to benefit from seeing and working with each other. It provided me with insight into the very supportive educational culture that we found throughout Japan.

At the end of the day, around 6:00 PM, the afternoon clubs and activities ended. As students left for the day, teachers stood on the sidewalk to say and wave goodbye. This simple action, a very small gesture, demonstrated, in a very powerful way that these teachers understood the importance of making a connection with their students.

One of the powerful lessons that I learned in Japan from the teachers and students that I saw was that relationships with people matter. I saw time and time again teachers and students act in simple yet profound ways to connect with each other.

Another lesson that I learned from the schools we visited in Japan was the connection these schools created with their students. Students had a variety of responsibilities in the schools we visited. At the Kudan School in Tokyo I ate lunch with students in their classroom. Lunch was served by students in the classroom. After lunch, students were responsible for the cleanup as well.

In Honan Junior High I saw students assigned a variety of tasks. Some students served lunch. Others swept the hall. Some helped with the garden.

In the United States we often assign jobs as a form of punishment. My sense was that In Japan many of these same tasks were assigned as a way to connect students to the school. Instead of punishment students were able to contribute to the school, to share collectively in jobs that helped the school run well.

I was also able to observe and be reminded that students are students. It does not matter if the students are six-years old or ten-years old or fifteen-years old, students share similar characteristics around the world. Students love to smile and share. Students love to laugh and play games when the teachers back is turned. Students understand the need to work hard to learn. I saw in the Japanese students many of the same characteristics that I see in the students in my school district.

While this may seem self-evident it reminded me of the enormous responsibility that each of us who work with children has to guard their childhood well. Every day is important with our students.

A final lesson from our school visits was learned when we had the opportunity to visit with representatives from Toyota. The meeting focused on what schools could do to support the families that Japanese corporations send to the United States and other countries. The representatives from Toyota helped us see the many and varied transitions that families make as they adjust to life in another country.

The school visits were certainly a highlight for me and provided me with lessons and inspiration. Other parts of the trip were also just as memorable. Our visit to Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum was certainly sobering. On the morning of our visit there was a light rain falling. The somber day captured the mood of that historic place.

Looking at the Atomic Dome, walking through the Peace Park, ringing the Peace Bell, and seeing the paper cranes made by children around the world at the Children’s Peace Monument was powerful. While this historic place is quite familiar, being there, walking those grounds and seeing the destruction, gave me a different sense of the enormity of that event. It made me reflect on the relationships that countries have with one another and how important education is in helping to develop students who will become the world citizens we need to create better ways to solve problems.

Another highlight was our home stay. My wife and I were fortunate to be pared together in the Masuda home in Toyota City. The family —mother, father, three daughters, and grandfather and grandmother— welcomed us warmly into their home. They spoke very little English and we spoke very little Japanese. Before the home stay my wife and I worried about how we would communicate and wondered if there would be significant periods of silence as we struggled to talk with one another.

The experience was so much more rewarding than we had anticipated. We did struggle to communicate. But they had cell phones with translation apps and we had Google translator on our iPad. We brought pictures to show of our family, our dog, and the schools we worked in. They shared with us customs and food. We brought Uno to play together. They shared with us how to do Origami. We learned how to make rice balls and homemade sushi. We ate cold noodles with chopsticks. We watched the middle daughter do homework and were captivated with her ability to use the different Japanese alphabets. She was eager to show us how to write and we had fun practicing. We were so grateful of the warmth and hospitality of this family.

Our home stay opened my eyes to some of the struggles that our Japanese students go through when they come to our schools. I experienced in a different way what it is like to try and communicate when you do not know the language. It made me appreciate the unique challenges the Japanese students, really any student whose primary language is not English, face when they come to our country and our schools.

Finally, a wonderful part of our experience was seeing the unique temples and shrines that dot the landscape throughout Japan. Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and Christian churches were throughout the cities and countryside. In the middle of a modern city block we would often stumble upon a small temple or shrine.

The contrast of the modern city with the simplicity and the history of these shrines and temples was striking. It gave me a perspective that I had not had before. I came away feeling that there was a spiritual quality that was missing, or at least hidden, in my hometown.

Words cannot describe this trip. It was amazing and incredible. We were treated with respect and we felt like honored guests. Looking back on this trip I can truthfully say that the lessons that I learned and the memories that I have will stay with me and guide me for years to come.

(original article : English)

Related Page
The 37th IEJ (International Educators to Japan) Program (FY2012)

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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