Japanese praise role-playing above all else.
If the teacher acts like a teacher, and looks like a teacher,
he is deemed to be a teacher. Dress the part. Polish your shoes.
Students take their cue from the act. If you act like a teacher,
they will in turn act like students.
This has nothing to do with teaching, of course,
and nothing to do with learning. The act is the outcome.
The performance is what is rated, not the applause.
There are no gods of caring. Passion is frowned upon.
You’re expected to come in everyday for the duration of your career.
That’s what teachers do. Caring too much is seen as a sign of malfeasance.
Interference, a form of molestation. You don’t call the parents when their daughter forgets her
homework. You don’t call the police if she has bruises. You mind your own business.
People will wonder why you care. She better not be cute.
If you talk to the boys, they’ll figure you’re a homo. They’ll be concerned.
Stand back, and do your job. Your job is to go through the motions.
Don’t laugh or cry, that’s not professional. Look busy; you don’t have to do anything.
Don’t complain. Don’t offer suggestions for improvements.
Don’t talk about student needs. Come in at 7 and leave after 5.
You’ll do fine. Don’t whine.
My top engineering student asked me why all Americans eat McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch
and dinner, seven days a week. Don’t we get tired of eating the same thing?
Do we have fish in our rivers? Have I ever tried rice?

In America, acting is frowned on. People want to know how much you care.
They’re looking for passion. They expect burn-out.
Two years of hard work is all anyone can do. Everyone understands.
They want you to put yourself at their mercy. The students in turn will do nothing.
It’s not expected. Students are praised for being alive. They want a prize.
They want to be thanked for living. They want to be praised for coming to school.
They’d prefer to be paid.
If they don’t like you, you’ll be blamed.
Your job is not to act like a teacher, but to be a friend.
If you just act like a friend, the kids will laugh.
Even the Principal will advise against your trying to be a teacher.
Teachers, after all, make and enforce rules. These days, your success will be measured by your
willingness to make exceptions. Waive the rules. Overlook the cheating.
Pass those who are failing. Teachers who act like teachers are hated, first by the Principal,
then by those who call themselves teachers.

The students will turn on you.
You’ll do best to pretend to be a teacher. You’re one of them.
You too are a kid. You too smoke pot. You too like porn.
You too have a tattoo. Be cool. Show the boys and girls.
Open your pants. Now you’re cooking. You’ll get the hang of it.
Believe it or not, they pay you to act the fool. Smile. Say you’re sorry.

And then there’s China, our enemy. I’ve taught there, too.
They come to class looking for escape from the State. They are sick of fake news.
At the same time, they’re doing college math at the 6th grade. They’re easily bored.
They read Jane Austin in English. Their favorite movie is “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn.
They figure you know something. Of course, they value kindness and patience.
They value excitement most of all, challenge, being asked to work hard.
They are willing to pull all-nighters every day of the year. They like passion. It’s a novelty.
They like to be scared.
They love Japanese horror movies.
They don’t think being stupid is funny.
They associate ignorance with hunger, not with laughter.
They’re ambitious.
They want to know why you gave them a 98 and not a 99. They won’t be willing to let it go.
They’re eager-beavers. They think Chinese propaganda is boring, but they want most of all to die
for their country.
They’re in a struggle to become number one.
They want to take over the world. They’re desperate to win, I’d say.
They figure you’ve come to the right place to teach.
China is hot.

What about Arabs, you ask. Yes, I taught in Saudi Arabia for many years.
This is very difficult to answer. Arab males I know, not females. Never met one.
The boys are willing to study but want to make a deal. “My average,” the boy says,
“may be 67 but, teacher, my friend, I need an 80 to pass. For me, just this time,
won’t you help me?”
If you say no, he will turn his back and walk away. If you say yes,
he will kiss your feet and promise life-long loyalty. In either case,
he will forget all about it in less than one minute.

If you get the reputation of never bending, they will say you have a black heart.
If you get the reputation of always bending, they will call you a fool.
Somehow or other, your goal is to be known for having a white soul. For Arabs,
they’ll respect your brain, but they’ll love your heart. Justice means nothing to them;
they want mercy. They won’t ask you to be fair. They will beg you to make an exception.
There is no such thing as rights in Saudi, just love. They want you to love them and,
if you do, they will love you back.
It is in my experience very easy to love them, but it is not easy to teach them.
Here are a few tips: Don’t ask them what they want to do. They will answer,
“As you like.” Deciding is your job, not theirs. They won’t want to give input. They know
nothing of democracy. They don’t want to vote. They’ll assume you know what you are doing. If
you don’t, they’ll complain. It’s not manly to grovel, to seek affirmation.
Fathers don’t do that, the King wouldn’t stoop to begging.
It’ll be tough if you are an American, but you’ll have to act like a man.
They will obey or not.
At a deep, deep level, nothing really matters. They know no fear.
You can’t threaten them. But they’ll study to make you happy. They’ll study for their mother.
They are hyper-sensitive like rattle-snakes. They’ll feel your pain.
“Teacher,” one boy said to me, “if you cry, we will cry.”
They’ll give you a lot to cry about, believe me.


Image Credit:Jeff Hitchcock
David Lohrey grew up in Memphis, studied at the University of California at Berkeley, and now teaches in Tokyo. His plays have appeared in the UK, Switzerland, India, and, most recently, in Croatia. Recent poetry has appeared in Softblow, The Blue Mountain Review, Otoliths, Cecile’s Writers, and Quarterday.


  1. David,

    So cool! I can relate! I once taught English in Hamamatsu, outside Nagoya. Today, i am a substitute teacher in a private Florida school. You’re 100% correct about student attitudes and behaviors. 🙂

  2. This poem-essay-short story gives insight into the teaching craft that not everybody has access to. It both inspires and informs. Happy to have read it.

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