Thursday, May 19, 2011


Today's post was originally written for an e-mail to Julie who is also a pre-school teacher. I got started writing and couldn't stop!!!

For 23 I've been teaching weekly at a kindergarten and from 5 years ago I also teach at a nursery school every other week. Today's post is mostly about the kindergarten...I'm not sure principal would be too happy about my post though...

When my children entered kindergarten (at age three!) we all had a very good experience. Japanese children traditionally start kindergarten at least from age four, and 20 some years ago starting at age three was the norm. The Japanese thinking is that a child needs to learn to get along with his peers and learn how to cooperate and live together in a group society so kindergarten starts early. Many mothers' fears were that if a child entered kindergarten later than all his classmates, then he would not fit into the group.

The kindergarten my children attended and where I teach English now, was associated with the church we attended and I was already friends with the kindergarten principal. The three other kindergarten teachers were just pretty young things barely out of jr. college, not yet married, and they had energy to climb jungle gyms and catch frogs and ride unicycles. The kindergarten itself was a run down place with chickens wandering around the grounds and all children going barefoot indoors and out. NOTHING was "taught" There were no desks, few tables, everybody sat on the wooden floor and sang songs or did finger plays or made "art" from paper trash... toilet paper rolls, tissue boxes. A lot of emphasis was given to collecting bugs and flowers and climbing poles or skipping rope. Every morning we mothers sent our little ones to kindergarten with a lunch box made with pretty little decorations to make it most appealing (I remember cutting up wieners to look like baby octopi... or cookie cutting cheese slices into flower shapes.)

My children LOVED kindergarten!!!

My kids graduated from kindergarten but I never did. After 23 years I am still there teaching English.

Over the years things have changed. For one, the old kindergarten was rebuilt to look snazzy but it lost some of its outside play area space. Chickens were banned during the avian flue months. Though English was one of the first extra curriculum subjects, other part time teachers were brought in and now there is a schedule that includes Rhythmics, Arts and Crafts, Calligraphy and Swimming. The kindergarten was offered a large chunk of land in another city and they have planted blueberry bushes and made an obstacle course and can do all sorts of nature things out in the "off campus" but takes the kids 45 minutes to get there. There are countless other activities going on throughout the year that keep everybody hopping. Overnight stay during the summer, Sports Day and Bazaar during the autumn, Christmas pageant presentation during the winter, graduation ceremonies in the spring and all this takes A LOT of preparation from teachers and children during the weeks ahead of each event.

The kindergarten now has about 120 students attending it daily. 30-33 children in each class... Three year old class, four year old class, five year old class. And in the past couple of years there is a "Pre-three year old class" which means that the children who became three after the school year started can come to kindergarten the month of their third birthday. There are about 15 children in that class. Some of them (most of them?) aren't even out of diapers! This is a new trend I think... The mothers vie to get their children into kindergarten as early as possible and the day of registration some of the parents camp out from the morning of the day before in order to get one of the 33 prized seats in whichever class.

Kindergarten opens up about 8:00 in the morning with some teachers boarding one of two buses that make the rounds to pick up children. A few of the children in the neighborhood walk to the kindergarten and are welcomed by the remaining teachers. Each class (remember... 4 classes) has two teachers, one who is considered the head teacher, the other is the assistant. And in the past few years the kindergarten has incorporated a program of accepting handicapped children; emotionally, physically, mentally handicapped and for each student accepted a part time teacher is assigned to care completely for that child. This means that in a class of 33, there are usually 3 handicapped children, three assigned part time teachers and the two regular teachers all gathered in the little room and sitting on the floor or in little wooden chairs. IT IS CHAOS! I feel for the young teachers trying to teach and control while older part time teachers (usually older former teachers making a comeback after marrying and raising their own children) sit and care for their charges. I sure wouldn't want to be observed all the time if a were a young teacher starting out!

The young teachers (between 20 and 25) are frazzled. They try to keep control of the classroom despite outburst from autistic children or even children protesting being away from their mommies so soon in life. Japanese children in general are not spanked (you can see how old fashioned I am.... but I'm meaning even in the home) nor taught about time outs or anything else to encourage them to behave. If a child wants to have a tantrum right there then he will. If he wants to go out and play he might have some part time teacher chasing him and holding on to him as he screams to be let loose, but he is not disciplined. (By five most of the children have learned to sit.) And by the way... kindergarten hours go unofficially until 2:00 but then the teachers board the buses to take all the kids home. Nowadays a good portion of the students stay until 6:00 on extended care time. (They are not "taught" anything in particular... just cared for until parents pick them up.) Teachers are normally at the kindergarten until at least 7:00 though when preparing for events they often stay until 8:00 or 9:00.

As of last year I finally told the principal that I could not handle 33 three year olds at one time even with 4 or 5 adults in the room trying to get everybody seated (think of constantly moving puppies in a box... 33 of them!) I asked that the class be divided into two groups. That worked so-so.

This year when the three year old class became the four year old class, I asked to still teach them in two groups... 15 or so kids are enough of a challenge. And when talking about dividing the new three year old class into two groups I suggested that we divide the oldest class that way too. They were older... they would be able to imitate and play games and I might even get them to try simple conversations with me IF ONLY THERE WEREN'T SO MANY OF THEM! They were already missing out on a lot of English time last year because they had to run off to swimming lessons or ride the bus to the nature campus or go practice tea ceremony or whatever... Everybody is so busy...

So this year I teach two classes each of 3 classes (the pre-three year old class won't start till summer). I'm afraid we don't really learn anything anyway. I would LIKE to have English reviewed during the week... you know, have the teacher sing one of the songs I've taught before lunch or something. But the poor teachers look so exhausted that I don't feel like I can ask them to add something else to their daily schedule.

Yesterday was a nice day when I went to the kindergarten so most of the children were playing outdoors. They seemed to have made a mud yard (half of the yard!) and everyone was having a great time getting dirty. Ah... I remember those days of scrubbing my children's clothes clean! That teacher got down in the mud too didn't she?!

In another class there was a quick five minute rhythmic exercise with the teacher just playing music on the piano and the children knowing what movement to go into without any explanation...

In the older class, the teacher was giving a lesson on braiding. See the teacher's foot sticking out there? She is instructing the children on how to hold on to the the knotted fabric with your toes and then braid towards you.

Just looking at these pictures makes me tired. I'm feeling my age.

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