COLUMBIA — The shimmer off of brightly colored food lining the window of a Japanese restaurant caught the eye of Tammy Cox one summer afternoon. As she walked inside and opened the menu, she found herself staring at untranslatable symbols. With no English speaker in sight and a picture-less menu, she calmly gestured to her waiter to walk outside. Through the sign language of a hungry tourist, she pointed to the plastic food replica of what she wanted to order and walked back inside. Embarrassment hit home when she saw the faces of the local diners, who smiled sweetly and returned to their food.
Cox, a social studies teacher at Lange Middle School, along with Clint Darr, a fourth-grade teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary, were selected to be among 160 American teachers to spend three weeks in Japan from June 8 to June 26.
The two Columbia Public Schools teachers traveled across the Pacific Ocean as part of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program funded by the Japanese government. There were about 1,700 applicants, and the program was open to all school staff, Darr said. This year, the chosen participants were all teachers.
Darr and Cox exchanged phone numbers before the program started and planned a small group trip to Hiroshima during their “free time.”
Neither Cox nor Darr had visited Japan before – nor did they speak Japanese. Darr added that it was crucial to have little to no knowledge of Japan for an applicant to be chosen. After meeting in San Francisco, the 160 teachers had a day of orientation and flew to Tokyo as a group. Once in Tokyo, the group listened to speakers from different functions of Japanese government, the education system and even Japanese politicians and representatives.
Teachers were split into 10 groups of 16 and went to individual host cities where they each spent the night with a Japanese family. Cox, who was in a separate group than Darr, stayed with a family in Tama, part of southwestern Tokyo. She said her host family was welcoming, generous and warm-hearted. She plans to keep in touch with them.
“Maybe someday my family can return the favor and give them some insight into our American lifestyle,” she said.
Darr spent the weekend with a family in Inagi. The overnight stay helped him realize how similar Japanese families are to his own. The family he stayed with had three daughters, just like he does. Darr also plans to keep in touch with them.
After spending time with the families, the teachers visited schools where they further recognized similarities between the two countries.
“Kids are kids and teachers are teachers,” Darr said. “The kids (in Japan) aren’t perfect either. They had their fun moments, too.”
Darr said there were few major differences between the two school systems. Most noticeable, was that class sizes in Japan are larger and there are fewer group activities. Just as the title of doctor carries a high respect in America, the title of teacher does in Japan, Darr said.
“The respect that the teachers get in Japan from parents, kids and from the public at large, when they find out you’re a teacher?” he said. “It’s a position of honor.”
Even though not all Japanese classrooms are the same, Darr said the most common teaching practice in Japan is lecture-style. The children practice in workbooks in a less “one-on-one” setting than back here, Darr said.
“They don’t have any secret way of teaching,” he said. “There isn’t something they do differently that makes them better than us.”
One of the best experiences Cox had outside of the classroom was attending a Seibu Lions baseball game.
“I was honestly surprised. I could feel the excitement that emanated from the fans of a Japanese team I didn’t follow,” she said. Cox enjoyed the differences of “baseball food” in Japan — as she had the option of using chopsticks to eat it. As an outsider, she said she immediately felt included and could cheer along a team she knew little about.
“Baseball, I learned, could cross cultural and language obstacles better than the guidebook I purchased at the bookstore,” she said.
Now that the teachers are back home, they plan to share their experiences with the community. Cox has already contacted the MU College of Education to do a presentation in the fall, as well as a presentation for the Regional Professional Development Center for educators.
Darr plans on constructing a Web site that will include photos and snippets from his journal, which contain detailed notes about the Japanese people. Both Darr and Cox plan to present interactive lectures to teachers and students in the district.
The most exciting part is the creation of a Japanese club at Cedar Ridge, Darr said. The club will likely meet once a week after school and include a lesson, sharing pictures and video from his trip and bringing in culturally significant items such as Japanese food, money and even an authentic kimono. Darr brought back extra money, fans and chopsticks specifically for the club and looks forward to sharing his experience with Cedar Ridge students to help teach that cultures around the world have more things in common than meet the eye.
With some Japanese phrases in hand and a stronger sense of cultural similarities, Cox and Darr appreciate the opportunity they were given.
“Although the people look different,” Darr said, “it felt very comfortable — very familiar.”