Twenty Four Strong

Japanese elmentary school students

It's not uncommon for inaka ALTs to be assigned to multiple schools. Personally, I have five - two middle and three elementary. And while I rotate between my middle schools Monday through Thursday on a weekly basis, I only see each elementary school once every three weeks on Fridays. 

Today, being a Friday, was an elementary day. And while these days tend to be my most tiring (since I'm there so infrequently, the schools do their best to make good use of me), they're also my favorite by far. Particularly enjoyable are my days at my two smallest schools - each has only about twenty-four students total, grades one through six. 

With a high school graduating class of twenty-five, I thought I knew what it was like to go to a really small school, but when there are few enough students that it's basically necessary to have combination classes for most subjects, the dynamic is completely different. Not only are the students' relationships a lot closer within and between grade levels, but the way that the school functions in general is also noticeably more tight-knit less hierarchical. The kids will play with each other in a way that's freer than even the students at my other elementary school, which itself isn't big by any standards (it has about fifteen students per grade). And the teachers, rather than just focusing on their assigned grade level, get to know all of the students equally, whether or not they've had them in class before. The principal and vice principal are even active participants in the students' activities, teaching certain classes and getting in the pool to do swim lessons with them.

And today was actually the perfect example of all of this. There was a special assembly this morning in celebration of Tanabata, the star festival, where the students decorated bamboo stalks with paper decorations and wishes. They were split up into four groups (the same groups that are always together when it comes to school-wide activities) with the fifth and sixth graders leading the younger students. And maybe it's a cultural thing, or maybe it's something that's specific to this particular set of kids, but I like to think that this small school environment has kind of forced the kids to understand that they really have to do their best to get along, cooperate, and help each other out simply because they've only got each other. There was no yelling, no frustration, just peaceful direction giving, receiving, and assistance. 

celebrating the tanabata star festival at an elementary school in japan

Later in the afternoon, there was another great example of something that would probably not be possible in a school much bigger than this one. Now that it's summer, the students have the opportunity to use the school's pool to do swimming lessons, which is part of their curriculum. They're split by ability rather than grade, and all of the teachers are in the water too. Today, I noticed that the group the vice principal was leading splintered off rather early leaving all but one to do laps and practice their freestyle. For most of the lesson, the vice principal was helping one girl in their own corner of the pool. We were talking about it later in the staff room, and it turns out that she's got a bit of a mental block when it comes to breathing to the side during freestyle because of some sort of trauma that happened when she was younger. What really struck me was that rather than just hand her off to the lower group and focus on the others, he decided instead to work with her one-on-one because he felt that it would be what was best for her and was where he was most needed. Something like that definitely wouldn't be possible at a larger school, and it's nice to see that everybody at every level is taking full advantage of this unique situation. 

But I guess what I'm really trying to say through all of this is that today was a great day, and I'm incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to witness this all first hand.