Building Connections through Teaching Abroad

Yeti Mallavi, M.Ed. in Studies in Teaching and Learning

For many of us, teaching abroad is an experience that really does change our concept of how to make connections both globally and locally. I always get excited when I meet other teachers who have spent time abroad, especially when they were so passionate about their experiences and I think that a large part of that has to do with the connections that they have made.

I was an assistant language teacher (ALT) through the JET Programme. The JET Programme is an exchange and teaching program sponsored by the Japanese government offering grassroots cultural exchange opportunities through either as an assistant language teacher (ALT) or a coordinator of international relations (CIR).

I was an ALT from 2015 to 2019, in the city of Sasebo, in Nagasaki-prefecture. Sasebo is a mid-sized city by the sea, home to both American and Japanese naval bases, which as you could imagine, meant that there was a lot of building between a variety of communities in both a local and global sense. I taught at seven schools; a large middle school that I went to three times a week, a small middle school that I went to every Friday and then I would rotate between five elementary schools every Tuesday. While this was certainly a lot of schools, there were still many ways to get involved.

As an ALT my main duty was to work side by side with either the main English teacher or homeroom teacher to develop activities, make materials and grade and evaluate oral presentations. I was also expected to try and bring global perspectives into the classroom. While I would introduce students to what are considered typically ‘Canadian’ things like maple syrup and hockey, I also tried to push beyond that image and introducing them to my home region of Nunavik. My younger students were always specially excited to videos of fishing, as Nagasaki was well known for seafood and many children would go fishing with an older relative. While of course they were excited to see all the things that were different, they were also so incredibly receptive of the things that they could relate to.  

Another part of my duties was to work alongside either the homeroom teacher or the main English teachers. This was honestly one of my favorite experiences as it taught me the importance of cooperation and compromise; learning when to share my ideas and expertise, while also taking in the knowledge and opinions of my co-teacher who had a closer relationship and understanding of the students’ capabilities and struggles. When we were both on the same page, it just clicked and really made things easy to teach. I really do miss being able to team-teach.

The connections that were most important to me were those made beyond the classroom. One of my favorites happened every winter where the PTA of three of the schools in my neighbourhood would have a rice-cake making event in one of the parks. Everyone from the neighbourhood was welcome to join and we all got to learn how to pound and roll the rice. Because there were also several American families from the naval base that also lived in the neighbourhood, they were always encouraged to join as well. I could name so many other events and activities that I love, but that would be a list that went on and on.

Maintaining Connections Through the Pandemic

The pandemic has certainly been rough for many of us in education, especially with the shift to online. It can be incredibly frustrating not being able to engage with our students like we normally do behind a screen. However, in some ways, this has also allowed for us to think outside the box. In November, I received a Facebook message from my former supervisor from my first year on JET. On top of travel restrictions currently being implemented in Japan, she also teaches at an island school that is only accessible by ferry. Because their school had recently acquired a Zoom account, she thought it would be a great opportunity to try out an Online English Day with her students. So, on the December 16th (which was December 17th for them), I along with other English teachers in Canada and America, got to participate in this event. I shared pictures of my life in Ottawa with as they also shared their life on their island of Ojika. What started of as nervous silence quickly erupted into laughter and fun as we went off script with guest appearances of our pets or asking about different books and articles in the background. Despite being alone in an apartment on the other side of the world, I couldn’t help but feel that connection I had experienced when I was still there in person. The day was such a hit that my former supervisor said that they would most likely be doing more of these events in the future. I am not sure if an event like this would have been considered had we not started to move certain activities online.

What do consider when teaching abroad

As you can probably imagine, my time teaching abroad was an amazing experience and one that I hold deep to my heart. I feel incredibly lucky that I have been able to create some great relationships that I hope to maintain going forward in my educational career.

There are a few things I would suggest if you also intend to teach and work abroad. It’s important to be mindful of what are your goals and intentions are and how you can do so in a way that is respectful and beneficial on both sides, particularly when teaching English. Make sure that you are not going in with the intention to change everything because you feel your method is the ‘best’ way. Working collaboratively is the key and of course, making sure you do not fall into neo-colonialist practices. If you identify as someone who is not part of the ‘dominant group’ in Canada, some experiences may also come across differently; some positive, some negative, and some that are just sort of… unique. Our JET block had a blog series about teaching as a PoC in Japan, with various teachers sharing their experiences. If you are curious, I would suggest reading some them here.  

Join Yeti for a talk about her experiences in Japan on Thursday, September 30th from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. on Zoom. All teacher candidates in the Global Education Cohort will automatically receive a link to this event via their UOttawa email, on the day of the talk. See you there!

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