In this interview, Mario Passalacqua talks about teaching young learners of English, and living and working in a post-tsunami Sendai. Mario moved to Japan to teach English in 1997, after graduating with a B.A in English Literature and obtaining a TESL certificate in Vancouver, Canada. Having gained experience teaching Japanese students of all ages, he opened his own school in 2005. Tot’s Language Center is a modest school in Sendai city, Miyagi, which specializes in providing lessons for young learners. Mario is currently undertaking an MA in TESL/TEFL.
Where were you and what were you doing when the earthquake hit?
I was just about to start a lesson for 3-4 year olds. The children were happily running around in the lesson room and their mothers were busy chatting. When the earthquake began every one stopped and watched the building sway. As the swaying grew in intensity I realized that this was not an “average” earthquake and quickly escorted the mothers and children outside. We waited outside and watched the whole city shook for what seemed to be at least 20 minutes. We saw very little damage occurring so we were unaware of the true extent of the danger. Luckily, we were far enough away from the tsunami that struck the lower parts of the city.
How is your life in Sendai changed since before the earthquake and tsunami?
I am very grateful to say that my life has not changed since the earthquake. Of course the week after the earthquake, we had to live in a state of “constant readiness” in case of another large quake. Many stores were closed and the city itself was a shadow of its former self. At that time, I felt that the quickest path to recovery was to open my school and give both the students and the mothers a chance to resume a normal life. Everyone seemed grateful for the opportunity to forget about the stresses of aftershocks and the uncertainty of nuclear fallout. I believe this enabled me to not only retain my student numbers but also has helped me to gain more students during the summer months, a time where usually there are no new student enrollments.
What advice would you give to English teachers thinking about living and working in the Tohoku area?
The Tohoku area is very beautiful and very easy to settle down in. However, it is still considered to be a rural area. Thus, there isn’t many things to do here if you don’t like the outdoors. Another aspect is that there aren’t many schools here so if you burn your bridges at one place your next employer will be sure to find out about it. Lastly, I feel that a good understanding of Japanese is important. It has been my experience that those with limited Japanese skills tend to feel uncomfortable here and usually only stay one year or two whereas those who apply themselves to the learning the language tend to stay much longer.
Some English teachers left Japan, while others left the Tohoku area after the earthquake and tsunami. Can you take us through the factors you considered in reaching your decision to remain in Sendai?
Well making that decision process was an emotional roller coaster. When the earthquake first struck everyone was in a state of shock. Due to the lack of information, we were unsure of just how safe we were. The aftershocks kept coming and it wasn’t until 2 days later we heard about the radiation. That’s when we started to consider leaving Japan. The only complications that remained in my mind was what to do about my school and what to say to my wife’s parents. Once I mentioned these concerns, my wife started to question if she really wanted to leave her family behind. Then the Canadian embassy started calling and offered me and my family a bus ride to Tokyo. However, when I found out that this was a one way ticket I began to question the logic fleeing. I read the media reports in earnest and felt that we were far enough away barring a nuclear explosion. Since that was not physically possible at Fukushima I began to feel a little safer. As everyone began to leave the city, I felt that those who stayed would be an invaluable asset in the rebuilding process. Finally my thoughts turned to the business end of things and thought that if I closed my school even temporarily I would lose students and that if other schools would close, my school would be remembered as the only one which kept its doors open and provided a service to the community even in the toughest of times. In fact, I opened my school 4 days after the big quake!
You specialize in teaching very young children. Do you think training courses such as the CELTA or Cert TESOL adequately prepare teachers for working with such students? What do you like or dislike about teaching very young learners of English?
First of all I greatly respect teachers who get CELTA or TESL certifications. Any training is better than none. However, when teaching young learners many other factors come into play besides grammatical knowledge and teaching pedagogy. Teaching young learners requires a combination of knowledge in developmental psychology, early language acquisition and classroom management. A good children’s teacher must be able to assess the children’s moods, motivation and skill levels on a constant basis because the children themselves are ever changing. This brings me to what I love and hate about teaching young learners. Since the children’s attitudes and motivation levels are constantly changing, I must continuously improve or fine tune my teaching skill and methodology. Though I really like this challenge, there are times where I feel I am not doing enough because a game or teaching material that worked well the day before utterly bombs the very next day. When this happens classroom dynamics break down and a good lesson can turn into a bad one in seconds.
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