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“You’ve finally reached the starting line. [….] You now have the right to use the name, ‘Sensei.””

March 28, 2012

The words that make up the title of this post were part of the closing speech that Darrin McNeal, the Human Resources and Classroom Manager of Interac, gave during our closing ceremonies for training. After hearing those two sentences, some people sitting at my table glanced around in shock. You could just see the question on their faces: “After all that and we’re only at the starting line?” While I also had those thoughts cross my mind at first, I began thinking, “Wait, isn’t this exciting? There’s so much to do! We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

Let’s rewind the clock back to the starting line of training, shall we? This is pretty hefty post, just to warn you. A lot happened over the span of five days!

Our first day of training was on Tuesday, March 20th and the first order of business was to gather in a huge room that I began nicknaming the “Great Room.” There were 247 recruits from all around the world (America, the UK, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and more) sitting around tables in our finest business attire. The first thing that happened was that Mike, the person who gave us the crash orientation the night before, stood up in front of us and began talking more about the company. Interac was founded in 1972, and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year– “40 years young!” There are 15 branches/satellite offices around Japan, and 2706 total members of the Interac family. Mike then began speaking what the responsibilities of an Interac ALT were and the three parts of our mindset for the following week: 1) Accept change, 2) Bring change, and 3) Always enjoy.

None of us knew just how much change we’d be accepting in the next few days, but we began to get an idea as we immediately set into listening to more lectures. We heard about the changes in Japanese Education post-tsunami, an introduction to the philosophy and policy of the company, and then paused for a break. We were told to be back in our seats in ten minutes. I spent the break going over my notes and marking things I thought might be needed for the future. Anyway, after about nine minutes, a man suddenly came into the room, told the facilitators to close the doors behind him and not let anyone in, and began telling people who were still standing to move to the side of the hall. This was our introduction to Mr. C, as we’ll call him, the man who wrote our teaching manual and a member of the training department. He had everyone he directed to the side plus those who got closed out of the Great Room line up in front of the rest of us and began scolding them for being late. Then everyone had to one-by-one apologize for being late. Mr. C explained to us that when a teacher is late, no matter how good or bad a reason, he or she is eating into the students’ class time and that is disrespectful.

Once the point was driven home, Mr. C allowed the latecomers to sit down and immediately launched into his part of the schedule, which lasted a short while. We then got to break for lunch (and concluded that the previous event had to be a set up — there was no way that ten minutes went by that quickly) but once that was over we got to what was called the “First Lesson Sudden Immersion” on the schedule. And boy, was it sudden immersion. Mr. C reappeared and three colored boxes were revealed. Mr. C reached into a box and drew out a slip of paper. It turned out that the three boxes were for each grade level, and the slips of paper were the names of people who would be teaching at that grade level. The first person who got called up had to instantly go into the Introduction Lesson we all had to plan before coming to training. The poor guy didn’t even get three minutes in before Mr. C stopped him and began correcting things and calling another person up. The next couple of people didn’t get very far either. It was pretty discouraging to watch, and the rest of us all sat there praying that our names wouldn’t be drawn next.

The session ended (without my name being called), and it was time for us to split into our respective groups for school levels. All of a sudden my Managing Consultant (who is awesome, by the way) appeared next to me and asked if he could talk to me. I think he saw some form of panic and/or confusion cross my face and said that I wasn’t in trouble or anything. We went outside to talk, and it turned out that my placement had changed cities and grade levels. In addition, my new position was a driving position and did I get an International Driver’s Permit? Unfortunately, I didn’t, so the two of us got to know each other a little better over the week as we put our heads together to figure out a way for me to get my IDP. Anyway, I had to move from the junior high session to the elementary session upstairs and I came in about five minutes into the lesson. It was in this manner that I encountered Brayton, the session leader for the teachers who are teaching only at elementary schools, in full teaching mode. He’s taught at the elementary school level for five years through Interac, and all I can say is that I hope I’m like him after that much time. That or I want to be one of his students. Brayton used the time period to demonstrate what a First Day First Lesson would look like at the elementary level, and it was so much fun. We learned a lot about teaching just in the first ten minutes!

After the session we reconvened in the Great Room and ended the day. We were dismissed to go and meet with our branches to begin the paperwork process. I am in Tokyo Branch 1, which covers Ibaraki, Gumna, Saitama, and Tochigi prefectures, if I remember correctly. This designated time with our branch was to officially get our contracts signed and to get an idea of who we would be working near. Once Branch Time was over, we could break for dinner. Dinner usually lasted from 6:00-6:30, and starting from 6:30 were optional classes that we could attend. I only attended one class on Tuesday night, which was a gesture class for elementary students, since they wouldn’t really understand all of the English we would be saying.

Wednesday’s and Thursday’s schedules were pretty similar to Tuesday. We’d sit down in our large group for an hour or so of big group lectures and then divided into our grade levels for specialized training. After each session where we divided we had Learning Consolidation, which was when Mr. C pulled more names out of the boxes and had people stand up to deliver their lessons. It was really interesting to see how people had taken the information they absorbed during the extra lessons, previous Learning Consolidations, and our specialized sessions and incorporated that into their demo lessons. People lasted a lot longer out front, and Mr. C’s corrections were ones that we all could use in our individual introduction lessons. We then took a break for lunch, and then reconvened in our sessions to continue training. We had another Learning Consolidation, a closing for the day, and then dinner. After dinner were the optional classes. On Wednesday evening I attended Communicative Games for High and Low Level Elementary Schools as well as a Demo Lesson for a regular ES English class. There weren’t any optional classes for Thursday evening, but we were able to go to any of the training classrooms and practice our First Day First Lessons for our evaluations on Friday. There were session leaders and facilitators roaming around the facility as well so we could pull one aside to ask for advice and feedback. It was really helpful. Some of my fellow Elementary folk and I holed up in the Tokyo 1 Branch Room and practiced our lessons on each other and a current ALT from Scotland acting as facilitator sat in with us and gave us all some really great ideas for our lessons. Since we all were the same level, we all had an idea of what would and wouldn’t work with the students.

Friday was the big demo lesson day. We were separated into groups of fifteen through alphabetical order, so I was in a group of mixed levels and I also was the only person from the pure elementary group. Our facilitator decided to have people go up by seating order, and by luck of the seating chart I wouldn’t be able to teach my lesson until after lunch. One wonderful thing that we learned the previous night was that we had to scrunch our demonstration lessons from 45-50 minutes (depending on your grade level) and condense them into 15 minutes. Another thing we learned Friday morning is that we would be evaluating each other on top of the facilitator’s feedback. That was a comforting thought for many of us. I think we all were really nervous about how we’d be evaluated. It was really interesting seeing all of the differences in teaching styles and what people decided to focus on in their lessons. My demonstration lesson went very well, and I had quite a few people in my group come up and tell me later that they really enjoyed the lesson. In addition to these demo lessons, each group was called out for a health check, which pretty much meant we got our chests X-rayed for tuberculosis– even though we had skin tests done before we came to Japan. Better safe than sorry, I guess!

While Friday was the last day of official training, Saturday was the day we spent with our branches. We got up and met at 9:00 to meet all of the staff and introduce ourselves to the group. Once that was over, we immediately got swept away in a wave of documents and information. First came some general information, followed by documents we would need for school and documents we have to submit to Interac monthly and twice a month, et cetera. We took a quick break, during which time we brought down our heavy luggage to the lobby to pay to get it shipped to our apartments later. It was at that time that I learned that my apartment wasn’t ready for me to move in yet, and I had to stay in a hotel for two more days. Oh joy. So before I handed over my big suitcase I pulled out a few more items of clothing, shoved them into my briefcase, and went to get lunch in the next room. The tables were set up in a giant square so we could eat as “one big happy Interac family,” as our Managing Consultant put it. It was pretty fun, and I was able to talk to another person who was going to be placed in Koga. We determined that our apartments aren’t too far from each other, so I think visiting each other will happen at some point. After lunch our names were called in groups and we filed back into our original room and finally got to learn about our housing. Most of us already knew that we would be staying in LeoPalace apartments (I knew because I saw my new address on my application for my International Driver’s Permit), but I think the biggest thing we wanted to know was what would be in our area. According to the map they gave me, my apartment is near a huge shopping center, as well as a couple of grocery stores, and really close to a post office. Good things to know! We then paid for our first two months’ rent and those of us that had driving positions got shepherded back into the lunch room to talk about car logistics.

Once we finished talking cars we gathered back in the first room and the last item on the agenda was that we finally got to know how many schools we are teaching at and where they are. I will be teaching at six elementary schools in and near Koga-shi, hence the need for a car. I have once school per day except for Fridays when I go to two different schools. I only have one class period to haul ass between those two schools, so I need to get my route down fast. Not only that, my first teaching day is a Friday, so I really need to get my route down. Oh International Driver’s Permit, why aren’t you here yet?

And so, after accepting and bringing lots of change and enjoying it along the way, we’ve arrived at the starting line! I think I’ll end the post here. Coming soon, you’ll hear about my moving to Koga and the first few days!

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