Monthly Archives: June 2017

My Time in Japan, a guest post by Chris Mares

I find personal stories fascinating.

We can share or disagree with people’s beliefs, we can have dramatic differences in our interests and/or life priorities, we can value the same or opposite things in life – but a personal story is a story that, to my mind, will always bring us closer to understanding each other. And I think we should give each other more space to share our stories, which can largely explain who we are and why we are so.

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer based in Maine, the US. For me, a person who has never met Chris, he is a writer and a powerful storyteller. In fact, I share many of Chris’ views on teaching and on what being a teacher means. And when I asked him to write a story about his time in Japan (because I knew nothing about it and was curious to find out), he did, for which I’m grateful.

Below is Chris’s story about his time in Japan, and it’s a story well told. Enjoy.

 

***** My Time in Japan *****

Gosh. Something I have never written about. I went there, ostensibly for a year. And never came back, at least not to England. I was twenty-one. I had worked in France, lived in Israel, was idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous.

I was in Japan long enough to save money in order to do the Cambridge Certificate in TEFLA, the Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Reading University.  I was also there long enough to find a wife and co-produce three children.

I had never thought about being a teacher, despite the fact that both my parents were initially teachers. I had imagined being an author, actor, movie director, or some such – things that I never made any effort to do. I did become an author. But that’s another story.

I was in Japan long enough to become involved in the ELT writing business with my pal and best friend Steve Gershon. Some of my happiest memories involve giggling helplessly with Steve in various coffee shops along the Odakyu Line between our respective homes, laughing about faux listening scripts, when attempting to write actual listening scripts for our coursebooks.

I am a bundle of contradictions as will become apparent. I read Japanese literature passionately in English. I ate only Japanese food. I loved the rural geography, the sanctity of the temples and shrines, the chaos and order of Tokyo, the rush of the city.

I windsurfed at Enoshima and kept my board there. I would cycle 25 km to get there on my town bike. Then 25 km back. The wind always in my face.

When I left Japan, my windsurfing master, Toshiki, told me my Japanese was strange – a cross between a woman and a child. To my shame I never learned katakana or hiragana for that matter, and only recognized about four kanji. Though I had the greatest respect for my friends who studied hard and became extremely fluent. I never did.

Japan was a complex pleasure. I wrote book reviews for the Asahi Shimbum and will always be indebted to Jim Dalglish for the opportunity.

I never had a Japanese girlfriend and only slept with one Japanese girl. I never went to a love hotel. I learned to drink excessively but to use my weekends wisely, always heading for the hills or the coast or a hot spring.

The one year became many. They tumbled by. I loved to teach. To pick up my kids from the hoikuen. To chat with the hobo-san. To grocery shop. To ride past the rice paddies to the beer machine and back with all three kids on my bike.

I rode my mountain bike in the Tanzawa mountains. I would run from our little farm house to the top of the hill in Hadano and ring the temple bell, then run home, the deep tone resonating as I descended.

“We heard the bell,” Aya would say, when I returned.

I remember the smell of mosquito coils. The cicadas. Reading the series Master and Commander on the train between Hadano and Machida. Finishing all twenty one novels and then starting over.

And then I left. And here I am. In Maine. Happily teaching at the University of Maine. I’m still idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous, though slightly tempered.

My energy and enthusiasm are the same. My kids are grown and gone. I’m divorced. Jackie, my beautiful black lab, is fifteen and on her last legs, her brother Steve long gone.

I’ve been back to Japan. It felt strangely familiar. In Japan I learnt that the world is not black and white. That contradiction is the norm and that Japanese culture is profound, complex, and simple all at the same time.

My best friend Steve Gershon is still there. I miss him.

And when we get students from Hirosaki University in Maine, I’m thrilled because I get them.

I never meant to go. I never meant to stay as long as I did. But that’s what happened.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

*****

You can read more of Chris’ stories, or rather blog posts he wrote for the iTDi Blog, here.

 

Examining listening habits

I have to break it to you: our monthly Reflective Practice Tokyo group meetings are great. While the two-hour sessions are normally planned, with the expected flow of discussions and activities outlined in my notes, I just never know what will happen. From my observations, it is 84% about the people who attend and 16% about the topic (random percentage, obviously). Most of the times we only do 1 point from my original plan, and while a year ago, at the group’s onset, I did not always take this fact well but rather as a flaw in either my preparation or facilitation, I’ve grown a lot more relaxed about it. I have a feeling other RP groups might be doing things differently. Some day we’ll try a different way, too (oh this reminds me – I wish there were a way to connect different RP groups functioning around, to share the ways of holding meetings, notes, topics, maybe even record some of our meetings and share those!…. dreams, dreams… if you’re interested, please get in touch!). At the moment, I feel that ours is a “fluid” style: we go where the current takes us. And at the next meeting I promise I’ll bring this up so that other group members can have a clear say in this themselves!…

Anyway, this afternoon we held our 11th meeting.  The topic I wanted to discuss was listening habits. Since the very first meeting, we have been focusing a lot on developing our listening skills – basically, trying very hard to be “good listeners” to each other while talking about things. I can hear you asking a reasonable question, “What makes a good listener?” The answers we arrived at in our different previous meetings mostly revolved around being focused on whatever the speaker is saying and asking “good”, useful questions instead of giving advice or referring to our own experiences (unless advice is explicitly requested!). At a certain point, I think I became curious to see more to it. For example, I noticed that I often fail being a good listener in my daily life outside that meeting (which is 99% of my life!))), and that the criteria, in fact, are more complex.

While doing some research online for communication skills activities for some of my higher level students, I found an interesting task, which I brought to the group meeting and which was the springboard for a deeper discussion about listening BAD – and consequently, GOOD – habits. Unfortunately, I lost the original link for this exercise, I will include it when/if I find it…!

The activity included examining 10 bad listening habits that people might be guilty of while communicating with others. Here they are, plus two more that I added to the list based on where our discussion took us:

  • interrupting often or trying to finish the other person’s sentences;
  • jumping to conclusions;
  • being parental and offering advice even when not requested;
  • making up your mind before you have all the information;
  • being a compulsive note taker;
  • not giving any response afterward, even after promising to do so;
  • being impatient;
  • losing your temper when hearing things you don’t agree with;
  • trying to change the subject to something that relates to your own experiences;
  • thinking more about your reply while the other person is speaking than what they are saying;
  • not listening to questions but rather seeing them as a personal attack;
  • not being present while listening. 

 

Guess what? We’re all guilty.

 

When I realize I wasn’t at my best as a listener in a particular situation, it’s always either too late or there are excuses (tired, busy, grumpy, not interested, “want to help”, etc). It was really great to look at this list of habits and think about myself through the lens it offers.

And I’d like to end this post abruptly with another important take-away from today’s meeting, which is also a take-away from last weekend’s Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe. Change does not have to always be the necessary outcome of reflection, well not immediate change. A better understanding of ourselves could be a more fulfilling purpose, and with a longer lasting impact, too…

 

As ever,

Thank you for reading.