Watching the sunrise on my balcony

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Classroom Renovation

Before Pic
The Canadian Flag was left by my predecessor 
In Japan, the fundamentals of society are based on harmony, with a focus on group collaboration. The whole group works together, makes decisions together and hierarchy is VERY important. I learned this the hard way, 2 weeks after I started at my Junior High School here in Okinawa. I thought my idea was brilliant, but it kind of blew up in my face because of my individualism. The buildings that make up my school are literally falling down. I was shocked when I first got a tour of the school. It looked so trashed and battered, I am assuming from the multiple typhoons that hit this island every year! So that being said, the English room looked rough and depressing to be in. The desks were rusting, the walls had so many stains, there were holes all over the place and it just looked terrible. After being driven around in the brand new hybrid cars the board of education bought themselves (24 to be exact) I was a little concerned why they couldn’t afford new desks for the school. Now, I have been here for 5 months and I have a better understanding of why it gets this bad. Japan is a very disposable country. Instead of doing constant upkeep on the school, the condition of the school will get to a certain state, and then it will be torn down and a new one will be built. This is another reason why all the teachers thought I was crazy, spending my nights and weekends fixing up the classroom. This school has five years left, then it will be torn down and a new one will arise.
You can see that the walls are torn
Anyways back to my story, when I first got here my predecessor told me that she started to fix up the room, but didn’t have enough time or money in the budget to do anything. So silly Tamara, being proactive, thought of a brilliant idea to put out an advertisement for paint donations, to see if anyone had extra paint they didn’t need and I could fix the classroom, without having to use any of the schools money or resources. I found an American military website (like craigslist) and the advertisement I posted got many responses. The people living on base were so generous and they really wanted to help out! Now that I knew the project was possible, I wrote a proposal and asked one of my English teachers to translate it. While I was at lunch, she set up a meeting with Kyoto-Sensei (Vice Principal) and when I came back we all had a meeting. She misunderstood my request because I only wanted her to write down the translation and not verbally translate it, but that’s how it rolls here in Japan, when you can’t communicate your wishes. So she told him my plan and he got very upset. I had no idea why he was upset because I had no idea what she was saying to him and I didn’t know what he was saying to her, but you could tell that he was mad! The English teacher said that if he (Kyoto-Sensei) let me do this, then all the other teachers could just do whatever they wanted. He thought I wanted to paint the classroom absurd colors and he didn’t understand that the intention of the whole project was to make the classroom nicer for the students and not myself. He told the teacher that all the other staff members could teach in that room just fine and that it should be good enough for me too! After this little event I felt terrible! I didn’t want them to think the school wasn’t good enough! I would teach in a cardboard box if it came down to it! It was very frustrating not to be able to explain myself, or my intentions. One wrong move with people higher up in the chain will ruin your time here at work. I was stressed out thinking that I had damaged the relationship at such an early stage. The next day, I came into work and another one of my English teachers (I have three) had my proposal in her hands. She said “Tamara – Sensei this is such a good idea!! We should go and tell this plan to Kocho-Sensei (principal) and see what he thinks!” I immediately looked at her and said, “ no way!” I told her what happened the previous day and she just said that Kyoto–Sensei was a grumpy old man and not to worry about it. But, going above someone’s head would look even worse so I asked her please not to mention it again.  2 weeks later, I came to my desk and the English teacher came up to me and told me she had talked to Kyoto-Sensei and explained the entire situation and what my intentions truly were. She speaks very good English and understood fully what my plan was. He was pleased at my proposal and gave it the okay! I was shocked! 10 minuets later we had a meeting with Kyoto – Sensei, Kocho – Sensei and the English teacher. They were all speaking in Japanese and then stopped and asked me if I used the schools name in my Internet advertisement. I said, “no!! I just asked for paint donations for a school. The Americans assumed I worked for an American school on base.” They were happy with this but told me that they thought the Internet was dangerous, and that they didn’t want their name be out there and people think that school is impoverished. So they gave me a budget and told me that I could go out and buy whatever paint and supplies I needed to make the classroom nice for the students!! 
I was surprised, happy and shocked! Kocho – Sensei took a bit of a liking to me during one of our staff meetings when I had to stand up and introduce myself to the staff. I had one of the English teachers translate the speech and I told the staff about myself. I mentioned that I had a teaching degree and Kocho–Sensei started clapping. He was visibly pleased that I had formal training in this profession. I am thinking that this might be one of the deciding factors, for the go ahead with the painting project, which went horribly wrong the last time it was brought up. Here in Japan you have to work your way up to respect. I am technically just a guest in the school. I sit the lowest on the totem pole. My main role at the schools is to bring culture and native English communication into the classroom. 

Naha contractor on the right

Another classroom picture before the changes
It took me months to get all the supplies and choose a paint color. I asked a contractor from Naha to come to the school to tell help me figure out if there was lead paint used on the walls used in the previous years. Since lead paint is extremely toxic for children, I decided to get a full inspection just to be safe. Multiple trips were made to the local hardware store with the office administrator. He also knew the most about projects like this and lent me a lot of painting and renovation tools. He doesn’t speak a word of English so thank god for google translate. Choosing a paint color was frightening. After the ordeal of trying to get the okay in the first place, I really didn’t want to pick some awful color that would piss anyone off. So I changed my mind about 10 times and also asked for several opinions. The opinions that came from the students were horrific. They were just choosing their favorite color on the color wheel so I couldn’t really go with those choices.  I also had Skype meetings with my family to get them to help. My sister is an interior designer but it was hard for her to visualize and clearly see the colors. My brother-in-law came to Okinawa for a couple days, so I brought him to the school to give me advice. After all that effort I decided on a color of yellowish beige. I was trying to keep the color close to the original like Kyoto-Sensei asked. On the day of ordering I handed in the paper with the paint codes on them and instantly regretted it. Everyday I walked into that room I hated the color. Why would I choose the same one? So I went back to the room and randomly picked a light steel gray purple that matched the green and the grey already in the room. I ran down to the office and caught the administrator before he faxed it off. I went with my gut feeling, it could have been a disaster!

The sign-up sheet for kids to come and help out. I ended up only having three boys help me and they weren't even on the list! It's very difficult to have 12/13 year olds help you with this sort of project unless they are very focused, so I had to be picky. The other students who signed up didn't mind since I started the project when they were on winter break!
The paint arrived the next day, but I decided to start the project when there were no classes, so I waited until Christmas break. I went for a 2 week trip
around Kyushu and came back January 3, 2012. The next day I came to school (Wednesday) and started sanding. In all honesty I thought it would take me about 5-6 days and I could start class the next week. I also thought I could do it by myself, but boy was I wrong. This was a huge job and I have never done this before, so I was learning as I went.
The first day was spent gutting the room, taking off all the light and electricity switch plates, moving furniture, taking down curtain rods ect. Then I started sanding, this was the most difficult task because I had no idea how much to sand and it was so hard on my knees on the concrete floor. I am pretty sure I over sanded all the surfaces but its all good. I would rather over sand, then under sand, and have the paint start to peel off next year. 
The walls were stained and damaged
I puttied in the carvings that were in the cabinet
I covered the punched out holes that were in the top of the cabinet
 One night I was at school super late trying to finish sanding the trim. All the teachers had gone home and it was dark out. All of a sudden the baseball coach come in and asks, “what are you doing?” It was like no one had a clue that I was doing this project! I told him I was sanding the wall and he immediately left and went and got the baseball team. They were finished practice and heading home. I am sure the last thing they wanted to do was stay at school any longer but they willingly pitched in. The coach proceeded to pull up desks and place them against the wall. Then, he would stack another desk on top of that, basically a lawsuit waiting to happen. The kids hopped up on each desk while they teetered back and forth, reaching as high as they could, and started to sand the trim. I let this go on for about 15 mins and then told them that it was all finished. It was far from finished, but I just wanted the students to go home and relax! I gave them all chocolate and they were happy.
The baseball team decided to give me hand after the sun had gone down, all the teachers had left and I was still sanding.
Three boys off the baseball team became very interested in this painting project and showed up everyday after school to give me a hand. They were extremely helpful and actually amazing at painting. At first I had to monitor them and teach them how to paint, but once they got the hang of it, these 12 year olds rocked! Also they would work for hours with out EVER asking for a break. Once they were done one thing, they would come up to me and say, “Tamara teacher, next?” So adorable!! I brought them food and snacks everyday. We would talk a little bit and they would ask me questions in English. They would sometimes have to run off to baseball for a bit but they always came back and would not go home until I told them we were finished for the day. I wondered what there parents thought when they were there until after dark sometimes. When I asked they just said "Daijoubu" which means, "its okay." So after two weeks we were finally finished. The room turned out great and the color matched the room perfectly. Kocho-Sensei and Kyoto-Sensei came up when I was in the last stages of the painting. They both walked in saying, “sugoi” over and over which means “wow.” They were thoroughly impressed and asked if I was a professional painter in Canada. I just laughed! Believe me its not that great, I think I am the first person they have ever seen do this. Crazy gaijin (foreigner), I am sure they thought.
The boys helping me clean after I finished sanding
The beginning or a very tedious painting job. Reaching inside those shelves was back breaking.

I ran out of painters tape so I went to the Daiso (dollar store) and bought more. Believe it or not that tape worked better than the expensive stuff from the hardware store. 
The purple color turned out great in the room.
Great job everyone!
The boys were trying to teach me some Japanese!

Scraping the newspaper off the floor, until I brought out the paint thinner!

Chika, my favourite Okinawan, helped me wash windows.
I painted the fan switches white. They used to be rusted and beige. 
While I waited for my black paper to be delivered, I covered the bulletin boards with Japanese newspaper.

So clean!
 The first week back in the English room was interesting. Majority of the kids loved it, some complained about the smell. After the first day, I noticed shoe marks on the white walls. I was disheartened to think that some students would intentionally kick the walls, in hatred of my fantastic color choice! “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “could this be intentional?”  After washing the walls everyday and seeing the same marks show up everyday, I realized it wasn’t.  The kids stand against the walls with their foot up on the wall behind them to balance. I spent all last week putting up tons of poster and pictures around the room. WOW what a difference this made. Not only to the room but to the kids. No joke, they act completely different when they are inside that room. Instead of running around, fighting, wrecking the furniture, they come in and look at the pictures and sit in their desks. Even in class they listen better, and they are more respectful all around. It’s amazing and every teachers dream, for the environment you created to have such a positive influence in the kids. There are no more footprints on the walls since there are pictures there now. I even noticed how one kid acted when he got something sticky on his hands. He walked towards the walls to slap it on there and clean off his hands. He took one look at the clean, decorated wall and changed his mind. 

This was my first DIY project and I am elated that it turned out a success. I did the whole project for under 200 dollars and it made 100 percent difference at this school. I am still working on putting up captions in English for underneath all the posters. I have the posters organized into different countries and parts of the world. I want to teach the kids a little about the outside world since it is improbable that they will get to visit these places. I will also dedicate one large bulletin board to the phonics club that I started at the school. It’s an English reading club and we are doing Dr Seuss books at the moment. The students at my school have a really hard time with phonics, so I have centered the club around this. Here are the photos of the room so far…

I added a strip of black tape at the base of the shelves for effect.

USA corner

The back of the room, how patriotic of me.

South Korea corner

Australia and New Zealand



South East Asia