Thursday, March 3, 2016

School Life in Japan vs NZ

We are now officially a month into the new school year here in New Zealand. After a busy few weeks of getting organized and settled into the new classes, we had Parent - Teacher Conferences this week. My two boys are in primary school, so my husband and I met with their teachers yesterday for 10 minute sessions. It was really nice to get a chance to have a chat with them, but really - that's all it can be - a quick chat. There's no big lead up to the meeting - we had a talk with the boys about their goals and what they felt they needed to focus on in the classroom. Other than that, all we had to do was rock up to school. The meetings were over in a blur, which lead me to reflect on how different being a parent of school aged children in New Zealand is to being one in Japan.


There are so many formal aspects to education in Japan, there is always a ceremony happening for something. The beginning of the school year starts with an elaborate welcoming ceremony for the children starting Year 1. These are kids who are generally six years old, or close to it. They don't start at their fifth birthday like they do in New Zealand. The equivalent to the Parent - Teacher Conference is called katei houmon, which literally means "household visit." You guessed it, the parents don't go to the school, the teachers come to the home. They do these visits as a way to learn about the child and their living conditions, with their best interests at heart. This way, they get a little glimpse into how the child lives, where they do their homework, how they interact with their family - that sort of thing. About a month or two after school starts, depending on the number of students in the school, two weeks are set aside for these visits. During this period, school finishes just after lunch, around 12:30, and the teachers make their rounds to the family homes. I worked as an English teacher at 6 different primary schools over 7 years, so I was fortunate enough to witness this from my place in the staffroom and as a parent, on the receiving end. In Okinawa, not all of the little residential streets have names, so teachers would rely on maps drawn by the parents with only landmarks like "gas station" or "post office" to help them find their way. The streets were narrow, and the houses are close together with limited parking, so often, the teachers would go on foot. They'd dress up in their nice clothes, armed with notes on each child, and set out in the humidity. 

As a parent, getting prepared for the katei houmon was always a big deal. First, you clean, clean, clean. Making a good impression with your child's teacher is important, so a clean, welcoming home is a must. We lived in a very traditional setting, so we had a large coffee table with minimal furniture in the room, and we'd bring out the embroidered floor cushion for the teacher to sit on, as we didn't use sofas or chairs. I always made sure the air conditioning was blasting and offered an ice cold glass of jasmine tea to the teacher. Being new to all of this, I remember taking a bit of a poll prior to my first ever katei houmon. I asked my co-workers what they, as teachers, liked to be served to eat. Without a doubt - they all said that it was really hard to talk and eat whatever was offered. While it would be considered rude for them to not eat the food on offer, it was difficult as they'd have to visit anywhere between 5-8 houses a day and they couldn't keep up with the cakes, plates of sushi, fruit and sweets on the table. So what I did every single time - I had 8, total, in our years of living in Japan - was give them a little takeaway gift. I made up little gift bags of coffee or tea and some nice chocolate or biscuits that they could either take home to their kids or stash at work to have for their morning tea. So the teacher would come in, sip their tea and we'd have a lovely chat. The allotted time was 10-15 minutes, but more often than not, this stretched out to about 20-30 minutes. Some teachers told me that often, their last visit for the day, around 6:00, would end with them having dinner and a beer with the student's family.

The katei houmon was such a wonderful system - a chance for parents and teachers to get to know one other in a personal way. After all, what could be more personal than having your child's teacher in your home? This was especially true in Japan, as it's not as common to socialize in a person's home. Even close friends often meet at parks, beaches, restaurants or cafes, as Japanese homes can be quite small. So in some cases, teachers you barely know have been in your home before people you have known for years. 

Being a multi-cultural, English speaking family adjusting to life in NZ after eleven years in Okinawa is just bizarre. When we were living there, it was a challenge to stay on top of all the ins and outs of school in Japan. Just learning how to navigate my way through the paperwork and Japanese letters from school used to take me ages and I remember thinking how easy it would be if it were all in English but that hasn't been the case! There are so many experiences I face as a first time parent to kids in Kiwi schools that remind me I'm a novice all over again. It's challenging, but it keeps me on my toes and constantly reminds me that I don't know much about much - and that's ok. I feel so fortunate to get the chance to experience both sides of this. The downside is, I feel awkward a lot of the time - but that's ok, too.  :)