March in Japan is synonymous with endings. End of the school year, the business year, the tax year … Most importantly for my Junior High and Elementary School students, it is graduation! On Monday, I had my final English classes with my third year students, some of whom I have taught for five years now. It was emotional. My voice wobbled as I wished them well for high school, and it was a race to make it to the staffroom before I cried. Graduation itself isn’t until Sunday so I will see them around school, but the knowledge that I’m going to have to say goodbye to my kids … yeah, it’s not fun!
Graduation is a formal event with parents and representatives of the BOE in attendance. We say goodbye to the students as if we will never see them again. I cry a lot, say goodbye to my students as if I will never see them again and then inevitably run into them the very next day hanging out at the mall (perils of living in a small town). It’s not a big deal — but we treat it as if it is one. It’s a milestone and Japan is very big on milestones.
Milestones are not an end in themselves. My third year students are an example of this. The majority of their classes were designed with the sole goal of equipping them to pass the high school entrance exams. Obviously this is important — but sometimes I feel you would never know that English is a spoken language from our classes. Page after page of test drills and practice questions. I was lucky if I got time for a warm-up game to start the class. If I was unlucky, my entire participation in class was to do the greetings. This is an ongoing problem within the Japanese Educational System and steps are being taken to reform it! Unfortunately, not all teachers are willing to adapt. They teach students to pass exams. But if that’s all they do, it’s an ending.
My second year teacher, on the other hand, teaches our students how to use English and to teach themselves. Her classes are a revelation — she is everything a teacher should be! I love working with her and although our students don’t always appreciate her — she makes them work and think — seeing them grow and develop is incredible. Her students will not stop learning when they leave our classroom. When they graduate, it will be a milestone in the true sense of the word — a marker they pass on their way to the next adventure.
Inevitably, as I prepare for my last graduation at this school (perhaps any school, though I really doubt that I am finished with either Japan or teaching) I’m thinking a lot about endings. There are a lot of ‘lasts’ on my horizon — last classes, last day at schools, last time I see friends and colleagues … My final classes with my third years brought that home. I need to think of this less as endings, more as milestones — another step on a journey.
Likewise, although I’ve achieved a lot of writing milestones with Thorns and Fangs and The Ugliest Sweater being published, the stories don’t stop there. I have a lot to learn about writing and publishing. My teachers are not only the editors at NineStar and the blog reviewers but every one who buys, reads and comments on my book. Every bit of feedback lets me know what I’ve achieved and what I still have to work on. It’s an ongoing lesson. Graduation reminds me that it’s important to look at milestones (moving countries, cities, houses, job promotion/new jobs, marriages and anniversaries, etc.) as things to be proud of and celebrated while also a chance to take stock and learn.