JLPT Failure: Life Lessons, Culture Clash, and Sunburn

Life will send you important lessons to learn. And sometimes life has to send them again because you didn’t learn your lesson the first time. That is what happened last weekend when I went to take the N4 JLPT. I studied for months and took two Japanese lessons per week so I could pass the exam.

I was confident in the visible growth in my Japanese. I could understand and respond to everyday conversations. I could read a lot more kanji than when I took the exam the first time. Overall, I just felt better about my ability to pass the test. And this time wasn’t going alone. My friend Itty was also taking the N4 with me.

It was the two of us and four other ALTs taking various levels. We decided to carpool with two other ALTs to save money and gas. We arrived about 30 mins early but because examinees are not allowed to park at the university we had to walk about 15 mins to the test building. And that’s where life reminded me:

Assuming makes an ass out of you and me.

Upon arriving at the building we see a giant board with the exam levels and their assigned room numbers. We read, N1, N2, N3, N5……but no N4. This was the exact building I took the N4 exam in last year. I was sure this was the place. Our test cards said Saga University on them. We thought we might be in another building. A few Japanese women were at the door so we asked them if they knew where the N4 exam was.

Her response (translated) was as followed:

“The N4? Oh, dear. It’s on the Nabeshima campus.” She looks at her watch. We asked her where that was. “It’s a twenty-minute drive north.”


We were flabbergasted. How? How could we have made such a mistake? We only had fifteen minutes before the exam started and if you aren’t in the room when the door closes you are disqualified from taking any part of the four-hour exam. There was no way we could make it in time.

The real irony here is that I had been nagging my friend to sit the N2 exam she had signed up for but didn’t want to take. She sat the exam while I sat in a park. We had wished them luck and then found a shady park to wallow in for four hours.

We weren’t angry. We were disappointed, embarrassed, and resigned. Both of us are well traveled and travel teaches you that things go wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prep or double-check, sometimes things don’t work out and you have to deal with your lot. This was an avoidable human error. You learn your lesson and move on.

The Cultural Difference

As we sat in the park we reflected on our situation. I started to fall into the trap of “at an American test, they would have tried to keep the test in the same building or at the very least on the same campus. Why would you move only one level to a completely separate campus? That’s really stupid.”

Itty reminded me that there was a cultural difference here. One that he experienced in France. In both Japan and France, the test examiners have the final say. It doesn’t matter what is convenient for the customer because you have already paid for the product. If you want the product you paid for (in this case a test) you will go where ever they tell you to go. End of story. Didn’t read the instructions properly? Not our problem.

In America, if the building didn’t have enough room for all of the examiners they would probably try to move it to a nearby building or find a new test site that could accommodate everyone.

Neither one of these thoughts is wrong. They are just different.

I made an honest mistake by assuming this Saga University was the same campus as the Nabeshima medical campus and that even if it wasn’t in the same building it would be in the area. So, I learned my lesson. I will read the entire test card next time. I will look up the address on a map. I will arrive at the test site an hour in advance just to be safe.

And maybe next time I pack some sunscreen, too. Just in case I get stuck in a park again for four hours at high noon. I look like a lobster.

On the bright side, I wasn’t alone.

From the Finnish View: Review Part 2

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Teachers and Leadership

In part 1 of the review, I ended with a quote on how Finnish teachers perceive their careers as professional with obligations and responsibility. This does not mean teachers or the general population of say – the United States would claim the opposite for American teachers. Actually, I imagine many people arguing otherwise. For which I am glad. However, teachers are often lauded or demonized in rapid succession by media, parents, governments, and politicians for being great or failing miserably.

But I’ll get into to that in another post. Right now we are looking at how Finland’s teachers act as leaders. Here’s what the article had to say:

No Buzzword

In Finland ‘Teacher Leadership’ in not a common buzzword. It’s probably not going to saturate the media or academic articles as the new ‘cure-all’ to the ongoing and new problems in education. Sahlberg reasons this is due to Finns attributing leadership to the profession because it is the nature of professions.


 Teamwork is a key part of the Finnish teaching profession. Greenhorn and veteran alike must work as team players so all students and staff learn and grow.Teachers implement and evaluate what and how they teach, but that cannot be done alone. Curriculum working groups help teachers address concerns, develop solutions and activities, and discuss individual student support.

*as a side note: There is little ‘power teaching’ in Finland. Student-Teacher relationships are relaxed and informal. There is little to no stopwatch drilling of core knowledge (I’m looking at you Japan). Teamwork helps teachers to find ways for student-engaged learning to take place.

Work Load

But let us get down to some cold hard facts. The teacher workload is lighter in Finland compared to the USA and Japan (especially Japan). In Finland:

Elementary school teachers teach 4-5 45 min classes per day

Junior High School teachers teach 5-6 45 min classes per day

-and both of these have 15 min breaks between classes every day!

(points to Japan for giving teachers 10-15 minutes breaks between classes – but points deducted for making teachers regularly stay well past 6 pm with few days off even during holidays)

Teacher Education

 One thing that makes Finland’s education system famous is how they select and train new teachers. Finland has created a system where teacher training programs pick from the top 1o percent of high school graduates. Every year only 700 spots are open for primary school teacher education programs. Students earn a rigorous graduate degree (5 years) that is on par with doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers. It is an academic graduate degree based on research .

Teacher education has equal department status with regular reviews and evaluations, and all university are equipped with clinical training schools (like university hospitals). Finnish teachers-in-training spend more time gaining in-depth knowledge of child development, pedagogical content, creating curriculum, assessment, school improvement, and leadership. To top it off when teachers graduate they have the autonomy to use what they have practiced and studied.

Sahlberg notes that a North Carolina study found that teacher credential had little effect on student achievement. He is quick to counter with the fundamental difference in teacher education (all of the above). Finland has no alternative routes into the teaching profession (i.e. online programs, Teach for America (USA), Teach First (UK), etc.). So there is a higher and unified quality control. Sahlberg says it simply,

It is difficult to become a teacher [in Finland] without a high level of general knowledge, good social skills, and a clear moral purpose.

Teacher credentialing isn’t all there is to student achievement but when it is done with a unified and controlled purpose through a system that recruits the best talent and whose goal is to challenge, engage, and prepare not only teachers but researchers who are instilled with a sense of leadership and responsibility to their students and profession it is impossible to dismiss its effect on the entire education system.

ALT Perspective: NPR ‘How To Be A Great Teacher’

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JET ALTs reside in the limbo of teaching. We are Assistant Language Teachers, the keyword being assistant. Many of us didn’t, and will never, get a TOEFL certification; not to mention the majority didn’t study education or Japanese in college/university. That doesn’t stop us from wanting to be in Japan and believing in the potential of having a native speaker in the classroom. Difficult teaching situations are bound to happen in JET like having unruly/disinterested students, too many/too little classes, being the repeating tape recorder, or being T1 (first teacher) in an elementary school. I have experienced a few of these issues but not all.

If you are a ALT you are probably nodding your head. We are in a difficult and interesting situation. We are teaching but not full fledged teachers, trying to navigate a foreign work place and school system,  trying and our best to adapt and do well.

So when I stumbled on NPR’s  How to be a great teacher, from 12 great teachers by Anya Kamentz it clicked with me. I want to be a teacher, but most JETs won’t enter the teaching profession after their time in Japan. But anyone who works with children (or adults), aspiring teacher or not, can learn a thing or two from this list.

The article itself is short and sweet so I have decided to put my two cents in from a JET ALT perspective. For me being an ALT puts me on the road to becoming a teacher. Check out the article to see the quoted teachers.



1. Realize teaching is a learned skill

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. In the beginning it felt like I knew nothing or that nothing I tried worked. I had to ask for advice from other ALTs and my teachers. I also had to accept and learn from my mistakes. No one know is perfect the first time, everyone has to learn.

2. Get to the Truth

“I’ll tell you the truth, you tell me the truth. The rest is commentary.” – Molly Pollak

This is the only line under this tip in the article. I think it sums it up well.

3. Build Trust

Oh boy! Isn’t this the truth. If students don’t trust you, good luck. The best way to have a good class experience is for the students to trust you. A lot of trust is built outside of the classroom. For example:

One of my schools is a “Yankee/Yankii” school. It’s my favorite school, but many of the students don’t see the point in studying (particularly English) or paying attention in class. However most of my yankii boys are on the baseball team (that seems to be a trend around here) so when one of the pitchers invited me to the last game of season I jumped at the chance. After the game their attitude towards me and my classes changed. It didn’t magically make them behave or be better students but they did start listening to me and work with me during class. I call that a win.

4. Assume a secret identity

I can see how this works for normal teachers but this is hard for ALTs – if you are placed a small town everyone knows you and probably what you ate for dinner. Even in larger cities with multiple ALTs assuming a secret identity can be difficult, but on rough days you learn to put on a smile and exude energy you don’t have.

5. Be Sparring Partner

When I think of being a sparring partner I image students honing a knife of knowledge on me and I hone my knife of teaching on them. We get nicked, and bruised during our mistakes and failures but we never get dull. We can laugh together or they can laugh at me. I don’t mind.

6. Be Someone to Watch Over Them

When ALTs work in many grades at multiple schools it can be hard to watch over students. Not speaking the language, not being Japanese, and not having a the power to discipline students is frustrating, but asking a teacher for help understanding students, or just being present in situations can help.

Correcting extra work (I have a student who can write in cursive!) and talking to students outside of class has helped me a lot. I got one my yankiis to fill out his vocabulary pages by adding baseball vocab to his list.

And try to learn as many names as possible. Students appreciate it and are usually surprised.

7. Be a Teacher, Not a Friend

Currently I am trying to figure out where I need to draw that line with my students. From my own experience this distinction is vital. In high school I had a new teacher who was smart and talented but acted more like our friend to win the class’ favor. In the end there was less respect and no control in the classroom. It was one of my most difficult and enlightening experiences.

8. Believe in Their Success

Success manifests is different ways. As teachers or ALTs we may not see it during a students time with us. It might be in test scores, class participation, in hallways, how many times a student tries or that a student finally decided to do class work. One of my best English speaking 7th graders doesn’t pay any attention during class, or does any of his work. However if I bring up a topic he’s interested in he’ll start speaking. My goal is to teach students English and encourage them to use it. If they use it with me that is a success.

9.Recognize it Takes Vulnerability to Learn

I never thought of it this way before and now I see it. I see it in my students who won’t try speaking for fear of making a mistake or the students who won’t do the work because they might not understand and fail. Going back to number 3 on the list, to be vulnerable means to trust. If a student doesn’t trust you then it is harder for them to learn and harder for you to teach.

10. Look for the Success Stories

Sometimes no matter how hard you try to engage a class or a particular student it fails. Shake it off and try again but remember the students you have reached.

11. Blow Off Steam, But Remember Why You’re Here

Living and working abroad can cause a lot of stress and frustration with language barriers, culture shock, and general work/life situations just being more difficult/time consuming. Let it out. Vent to a friend, a family member, or go dance it out at a club. Try not to hold on to it. Negativity is a slippery slope. Be honest with yourself and the problems you face but be productive – yes rest or venting can be productive. Remember why you wanted to be an ALT – why you wanted to come to Japan. Reevaluate that, then pursue it.

12. Be Grateful to Your Teachers

As an ALT I have felt old. Often I shake my head at my students wackiness, drama, or lack of common sense. I realized how annoying it was to try and catch chatting students attention. And I realized that someone had to put up with the 7th grade me, too.

And I am eternally grateful.




Blooming Mondays: Get Well Soon

Blooming Mon Get Well

Big thanks to my classmate who brought over these flowers when I was ill.

This Monday’s arrangement is my personal get well card.

The Flowers

I normally take the flower picture on my phone but it died in the beginning so the pics are on my big camera instead. I will update during the week.

The First (and only) Attempt


I had no idea how to use the ferns so I just stuck them in. I tried to keep the arrangement balanced but I was more concerned about getting the flowers in the water since had had been sitting, wrapped in newspaper in front of my door for more than an hour – oops.

Overall this was my poorest/laziest/sickest attempt yet…looking back I’m not sure what I was thinking.

Blooming Mondays: After the Snow

Welcome back! Kyushu experienced a freak snow storm last week, the roads were covered in ice, water pipes froze, and my ikebana class was cancelled.

Blooming Mon After


Alright, this week arrangement is made up of yellow sweet peas (this is the first time I have ever seen yellow ones), light and dark pink carnations, dracaena (the green leaves), indigo leuco, and two branches of small white cherry blossoms/sakura.


First Attempt:

This is the first time I tried to contemplate the feeling/image I wanted to convey with flowers. It is harder than it looks. Sometimes you have an image but the flowers aren’t shaped the way you want or you don’t know the skills or techniques to manipulate the arrangement to your liking.


Pros: I tried to visualize; I remembered to place the cool colors lower and spread out the sweet peas; utilized small sections of the sakura to even out the balance and shape

Con: no idea how to manipulate the sakura branches; didn’t cover the kenzan well with poor use of the leaves

Teacher’s Lesson:





Blooming Mondays: Basics


Today I am introducing some basics for Ikebana and the Ikenobo school. This will also be my format for the rest of the series.


First: Tools

Starting from the top of the photo.

1. Hasami or scissors – In a pinch any sharp scissor will do but if you want strong, fluid cuts – guide through oversize leaves and shorten a tree branch – you want Japanese scissors specifically for flower arranging. They come in various sizes and styles and even the cheap ones – those are mine in the photo – stay sharp.

2. Kenzan or bed of spikes – This is the foundation for any ikebana arrangement. The metal spikes hold the arrangement together. Traditional western arrangements are designed toward symmetrical fullness while ikebana replicate or represent the beauty of nature/seasons through asymmetrical arrangements and negative space. The entire area is a part of the arrangement even if nothing is there. The kenzan, in a variety of sizes and shapes, provides a study base and ability to manipulate flowers into precise positions.

3. Vase – In Japanese there different names of different vases so I decided to go the easiest route. Vases around the world come in many shapes, sizes, styles, and colors. In ikebana you may see large shallow vases, short/long rectangles, tall and deep vases – like the one above- with a suspended platform to rest the kenzan on, and many others.


Second: The Flowers

Every class you pick a “bouquet ” wrapped in newspaper. When you unwrap it at your station that is what you are working with for the day. Without instruction from teacher you get started. Talk about getting thrown in the deep end. However, it is a chance to showcase what you remember from the previous lesson and experiment; to use the tools you were taught to create something new.

Today’s flowers: yellow gladiolas, pink amaryllis, and purple German status

Third: The First Attempt

My first try – usually having no clue what I am trying to do.


Fourth: The Teacher’s Lesson

At the end of the first attempt – or when I can’t figure where a flower or branch should go I ask the teacher to critique the arrangement. It usually results in something quite different. The teacher is not afraid to cut a giant leaf down with a sharp angular cut and I am constantly blown away by a simple turn of a branch that brings the whole arrangement to life.


So there you go the basics of ikebana. Stay tuned for next Monday when I review the basics to Ikenobo arrangements!

Series: Ghost Student: Intro

or….The one time I wish I went to Harvard

To my excitement and dismay I found out that Pasi Sahlberg, lauded Finnish and International Educator and author of Finnish Lessons, is currently a visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. He is teaching a course called The Teaching Profession Around The World and I would kill to sit in his classroom. Fortunately, Sahlberg posted the course syllabus on his website complete with required texts and focus questions.

I decided to turn myself into a “ghost student” and self-study my way through the course. I am not ready for grad school but that doesn’t mean I should not challenge and expand my mind. I want to learn as much as I can about education in the United States and in other countries. I know from experience some of the best lessons come from personal intention and unexpected opportunity. I can’t sit in on his lectures or hear his guest speakers, nor do I have classmates to bounce around new knowledge, experiences, and ideas, but I do have the opportunity to explore new resources and guide my thoughts with critical questions.

So here is the plan:

I will post bi-monthly summarizing what I learned, responses to the focus questions, and my own personal thoughts and ideas regarding education. Since the course is broken down into weeks each post will contain one week’s worth of work.

You can check out part 1 and 2 of the syllabus here:



Check out Pasi Sahlberg on his website