Because I’ve mentioned the Japanese kindergarten where I taught in several posts already, I think it is time to do a little explaining. This will be helpful in understanding the environment I was teaching in and, if you are planning to teach in Japan, the kind of classes you may be expected to teach.
First, a Japanese kindergarten is not connected to the public school system. Kindergartens are often one of several types; privately owned, affiliated with a local temple (or church), affiliated with a university system (where kids are on an educational track), or city/prefecture owned facilities. Kindergartens must follow guidelines outlined by the Ministry of Education whereas daycare centers offer no academic curriculum and simply provide baby-sitting services.
I taught at a family-owned, private kindergarten on the outskirts of Omiya City in Saitama Prefecture. It held close association to the elementary schools of the city, the Omiya City Hall, as well as various civic organizations. The kindergarten was seen as a cultural and educational hub for young families and held many long-term business alliances that went back to the post-war era.
Japanese kindergartens would probably remind most westerners of daycare centers, if for any reason, the population size. The average kindergarten is a three-year program where students enter at three years old and graduate at six years old. At the kindergarten where I taught, there were between 275 and 300 students enrolled with about 100 students in each of three levels. (Those numbers are quickly going down with the decrease in the population.)
Besides the usual Japanese activities like sports events, holiday shows, entrance and graduation ceremonies, competing kindergartens offer a variety of extra-curricular programs that can include music classes, art classes, English classes, swimming and sports clubs, field trips, and even overseas travel experiences. Imagine a summer camp that lasts an entire year and you get an idea of the kind of hectic schedule these institutions are expected to maintain.
I was the director and only teacher in the English program. My classes started at 9:00 in the morning and ended at 8 or 9:00 at night. I taught all of the kids at the kindergarten in rotating morning classes that ranged in size from 30-60 students. I also taught extra-curricular classes in the afternoon to not only the kindergarten students, but elementary school students who graduated from the kindergarten. On average, I taught 250 kids per week in the afternoon/evening classes with about 15 students per one-hour class. My day started with three year olds and ended with twelve year olds. My Japanese language ability was more about crowd control but was absolutely required as nobody, and I mean NOBODY, spoke English. Ever.
I worked at the kindergarten for 16 years, but really, I think I had one year of experience that was repeated 16 times. Though I got better at it, I had no idea what I was getting into when I started. That first year, nobody explained any of it to me, if for any reason, it was simply assumed I already knew – just like we in the U.S. have a preset idea of what a kindergarten is. What’s to explain?
I’ll talk more about teaching at the kindergarten. It was an amazing experience that changed my outlook on Japan, my outlook on my own American-ness, and how I approach teaching.
OK. Now you know.