August 24, 2021

This is Konnichiwa, Not Good-bye!

Carol Koran is a semi-retired teacher and principal from Lethbridge who spent three years teaching in Tokyo, Japan after her retirement. In August of 2020, she returned to Canada and has been enjoying spending time with her daughters and re-hiking her favourite trails in Waterton National Park.

It is possible that my entire thirty-seven-year career in education was just a dress rehearsal for this moment. Standing on a tiny stage, against a backdrop of old records, vintage posters, and a string of Christmas lights, facing an eager, well-lubricated and multi-cultural audience at the Good Heavens British Pub in Tokyo, Japan. I was about to deliver my story at the Perfect Liars Comedy Night. My first time ever delivering a “routine” in a comedy show – unless you count all those years teaching English in high school. It is possible that all those experiences as a teacher were just preparation for this moment. It is possible, just not probable.

So how does a retired educator from Alberta end up in a comedy club in Tokyo? It starts with the realization that I was less enthusiastic about being a principal and teacher than I used to be. Before I submitted my official retirement notice, I realized that I was viewing the ever-present issues as annoyances, not as challenges with solutions. I begrudged the time spent working late into the evenings, creating timetables, wrestling with budgets and writing newsletters, rather than enjoying the mental exercises that administration demanded. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

However, I also knew that the desire to contribute, the urge to be part of a community and the joy of working with young people wasn’t gone. The phrase “life-long learner” that we love to toss into resumes and biographies really just means, “I crave the new”. I recalled saying to my associate principal as we exited the school late one Friday, after a particularly trying week, “Well, at least in this job you can never say, ‘Boy, today was just like yesterday.’” It was time for a change. So, six weeks after leaving my position in Alberta, my husband and I were unloading eight duffle bags of clothes, books, and hopes into a van at Narita Airport, ready to be taken to our temporary accommodation as I joined the staff of Nishimachi International School as their new Director of Learning. Maybe this would be fun. It certainly was going to be “not like yesterday.”

There were so many things I had to learn and unlearn. Expectations and assumptions quickly were replaced by reality that was sometimes tough, sometimes magical, but always had a tinge of brightness, of that “newness” that I had craved. A tough reality – having the title of “Director” doesn’t necessarily translate in practice. It quickly became clear that my new position was more of a Curriculum Coordinator, since my attempts to “direct” learning were not always welcomed by the principals of the school. It was necessary for me to restructure my understanding about my role and to accept a position where I had less decision-making power, but more opportunity to work directly with teachers and students. The switch to a new role was hard; I had not realized how my previous role as principal was a part of my sense of self. I discovered that the pace of change and the willingness to embrace new ideas depends very much on the culture of the school. My success depended on respecting that reality and redefining my sense of who I was as an educator. Once I embraced the new understandings, I was able to feel that I was contributing to the community, and I cultivated friendships with colleagues who are now spread across the globe.

I rediscovered the joy (and terror) of spontaneous teaching, since I was often called at a moment’s notice to substitute in a class — replacement teachers are as hard to find in Tokyo as they are in Alberta! After spending years in junior high and high school, I faced the reality of squirmy, vocal, tiny students in kindergarten. When I paused during the “carpet reading” to say, “You know. This is my first time teaching kindergarten. Am I doing it right?” one child made a back-and-forth gesture with his hand, the universal sign for “so-so.” It’s a little disconcerting when formative assessment turns back on you! My new position had me interacting with younger grades for the first time in my career, awakening in me a special appreciation for the talent and skill of teachers who establish the foundation for literacy and numeracy skills in children.

It was during one of these Friday “staff meetings” that a teacher mentioned there was a cafe in Tokyo that had English comedy once a month, and, since one did miss hearing familiar accents, the prospect of an evening reminiscent of “home” was appealing. When the moderator mentioned that they were looking for female speakers for their next show, to be held on International Women’s Day, I found myself thinking, “When will I ever have this chance again? There can’t be THAT many English-speaking females willing to do a comedy show in Tokyo.” After all, as a teacher, telling stories is really what we do…although telling a story to an audience who will then get to grill you to see if you are telling the truth is a little more daunting. On the other hand, there was a delicious sense of anonymity in my new reality; at least in Tokyo I wouldn’t have to wonder if I would encounter one of my high school students or parents when I was out for a social evening. The principal of the local high school might have to be more discreet, but this retired principal was going to give it a go.

It is possible that my decision to move to a position in an international school in Tokyo after retirement also prepared me for that moment on stage. Having spent those previous thirty-seven years in familiar surroundings, I took a leap of faith to go in search of a different reality. I needed that new learning; I needed that chance to remember how it feels to be a newcomer, trying to navigate the route from outsider to member of the group. I needed to face uncertainty in a new environment, to question my established beliefs about teaching and learning as I encountered a diverse group of students, and to remind myself that learning and life are always connected. I had not fully realized that retirement should be about possibilities, not probabilities. I suppose I should have expected that I would learn that lesson, where I had always learned so much – in a school.