A Long Way to Discover
My Teacher Identity
by Kae Takaoka
For a very long time, I have struggled to admit myself as a teacher. Honestly, I still see myself being on the way.
The main reason I hadn't been confident in myself as a teacher was probably because I had felt that there was no place or a role for me as a teacher in school. I had always thought that I was the only one with different ideas, belief, educational values, and ways to approach things compared
to other teachers. I felt alienated that no one except me would want to pursue new working styles, teaching methodologies, a better way of engaging projects, etc. I was very uncomfortable doing what other people call "as usual" and that they continuing to carry out things based on what they have done in the past. Often I found it not easy to make sense of the school's conventional environment. Less access to technology, strict rules to manage students to be quiet and be respectful in class, and an exploitative working environment for teachers followed by different modes of what I regard as sexual harassment and abuse of power were none of my priorities in life. Before being a teacher, I studied at a university in the United States for my master's degree. I worked with many people from different countries in Japan and abroad. I could not fit in the Japanese traditional school environment because my educational perspectives were inconsistent with other teachers. It was more stressful than I thought that I couldn't share the same values with other teachers and that I couldn't behave like other teachers in front of our students. I was trying not to think about the emotional conflict I had at that time because becoming a teacher was just one of the career options for me back then. I was ready to leave the job whenever I wanted to.
Even though I struggled to find my teacher identity, I had a clear image of who I want my students to be when they graduate high school. I didn't want to educate students who can only live in Japan due to insufficient skills and competencies. I went through struggles and challenges overseas to figure out how things go differently from what I learned at school in Japan. I was quite confident that the Japanese public education system doesn't prepare us enough to be on the same stage with people of different perspectives.
However, the fact is that the situation at school hasn't changed at all since I was a high school student. Teachers kept teaching the same way and students have been assessed in the same way as we had been in the past. The only skills that students learn from school seem to be the ability to do what they are told to do, to be quiet and polite, and to follow the rules. I was stunned to know that the priority to try to have students acquire new skills other than that was surprisingly low at schools in Japan. As a teacher, I felt useless every day in the reality that my international experience was not fully utilized to prepare future generations who need to thrive their life that will certainly be changing more dynamically than we can expect.
Nevertheless, I continued teaching, and it was solely because of my students. They are the ones who accepted me as a teacher despite the fact that I had an issue of identifying myself as a "decent" teacher. I was fascinated to getting to know my students as who they are. Any students I know are honest at heart and some students are even sensitive about what they are told or how they are treated by teachers or parents. Sometimes you find students who seem to be unwilling to learn in the classroom but if you look at them closely you will notice that they have other private issues to tackle. Students never fail to show some signs if you don't give up engaging, and I just fell in love with the process of getting to know my students through a variety of interactions inside and outside of the classroom. I couldn't help but wonder what is the best I can give to my students given the quality of time students spend with us teachers at school every day for years.
A turning point for my teaching career arrived in my tenth year of teaching when I joined a teacher exchange program to teach at a high school in the United States. While observing how schools are run, classes are taught, teachers engage and students learn at school differently in the US, I realized my ten-years' career had prepared me with enough hands-on knowledge as a teacher of Japan. It helped me a lot to understand different educational systems in the U.S, and I also came to recognize the benefit of the traditional Japanese educational system. It was an unexpected discovery for me to find my teacher identity in a foreign country. For a long time, I had struggled to recognize myself as a teacher but I had been a teacher of Japan for the past ten years. Having emotional conflict and disagreement with traditional schooling doesn't deny my teacher identity because I have tried many ways to bring the best educational opportunities for students and that is who I am as a teacher.
I wouldn't have been able to identify myself as a teacher if I didn't get the change to work in the U.S. I might have been still at a loss labeling myself as a failure to be a "decent" Japanese teacher.
After returning to Japan, I finally felt comfortable teaching in the way I want to even though it might seem a bit off from what other teachers do. I was at last able to see myself as a teacher. It is ok to teach outside of the box. And that is my style because I believe there is more to teach students than what has been taught at school. I don't always agree with what traditional school does to students, but I am still a teacher who keeps finding the best I can do for students out of what we have at school.
The Teachers of Japan aims to share the voices of teachers who support or had supported Japanese education, including myself. I wouldn't be able to make this happen without the love and support I have received from my colleagues and students from all over the world. I hope that it will be a place for all teachers of Japan to let their voices be heard nationally and internationally and to revisit their own teacher identities.