Speak up (Part 1)

“Ok, Priscilla, start when you’re ready.”

I was 14. At a new school. My very first English speech. Which was printed and taped onto cue cards. And highlighted. Still didn’t help.

You know what else didn’t help? The class was full of future lawyers. No, really. Now that we’re not in high school anymore, a lot of them really did study law. Even in adolescence, it showed.

My hands were sweating. That’s gross. I was shaking. That’s embarrassing. Everyone was looking at me… Am I just quoting Eminem now?

“Priscilla?” the teacher repeated, not unkindly. “You may begin.”

I nodded. Squeezed my cue cards. Took a deep breath. And, finally,… ran out the room and into the toilets where I spent half the time trying not to throw up and the other half trying not to cry.

Not everyone likes public speaking. On that note, does anyone actually? But for me, that was the tip of the iceberg.

I like spending my Friday nights in bed with tea and a book. When I go out, I’ve usually got earphones in even they aren’t plugged into anything. If I burn out at the first hour mark at parties, I’m doing well. I grew up a little jealous of my charismatic older brother who makes friends and leads groups with ease and warmth.

It’s strange to think that someone like me would become a teacher where speaking in front of a class is the basic requirement.

Even stranger still is the fact that I’m teaching English conversation in Japan, where foreign teachers are expected to be mascots who can charm anyone, and I mean anyone, at any given moment.

I won’t lie. I find teaching exhausting. In a way, I find it even more so than working in the media. But perhaps for different reasons.

Of course, I still needed to work long hours and socialise when I worked in retail or the radio station, but then there are the lulls when I could just fold jeans or write copy.

As a teacher, however, the proportion of time being the centre of attention in larger groups is exponentially higher.

I should mention again here that I actually like teaching. But the thought of a full day of small talk is still quite daunting.

This is how I recharge during the day so I don’t shut down before school’s out.

My Canadian friend says that she can see me shutting down at the end of the day.

My Canadian friend says that she can see me shutting down at the end of the day.

1. First impressions

…last forever. Sort of.

At the very start of my preschool classes, we sing, we dance, we jump. As high as we can. Every. Class.

Something I realised is that if people expect a cheerful, high energy class, they tend to build their own self-sustaining high energy environment. Which is great. All it needs is the initial push.

I genuinely love teaching my classes. I really do. I work as hard as I can to fight complacency and make them so much more whizz-bang fun than I actually am.

So although I’m not exactly a friend, it also doesn’t hurt when students know I’m on their side, rooting for their success every week and in between.

Once a student has seen me at peak enthusiasm, even for a moment, it takes all of a smile or a reaction to let them know that yeah, I’m still with you. I am on the ball like a seal, as one of my friends used to say. I might not be talking right now but I’ve still got your back.

And in between? I’ve mentioned before that I love it when students are friends with each other. Students having fun equals teachers having fun. Students motivating each other equals teachers having fun. Students getting excited to learn equals teachers having fun. You get the picture.

So those preschoolers? Who sing and dance and jump every lesson? Even the ones who used to cling to their mothers and cry now have those same mothers tell them to wait for Teacher they’re allowed to race off to the classrooms.

2. Autopilot.

The first time I met my manager was apparently not the first time I met her.

“Hi,” I said with as much charm as I could muster. “I’m Priscilla.”

“I know,” she said, sounding very confused. “You’ve taught me before.”

Well, this sucks, I thought as my inner monologue started slow clapping.


By that stage though, I was pretty good with remembering all the students, if only by their faces. Even if they only took my class once. Even if they hadn’t taken any of my classes.

“Are you sure it was me?” I asked carefully.

She nodded. “Yeah. It was on a Sunday,.”

Yes! I sighed with relief. “Actually, I don’t work on Sunday’s. Oh no, wait…”

And then I remembered. Yes, sometimes I do.

It just so happens that the class she took fell at the tail end of a seven day work week. Try as I might, I cannot, to this day, remember that class.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly and, picking up my courage, I asked, “How was it?”

Please say “good.” Please say “good.”

“Fun,” she smiled.

Imagine my relief.

As much as I love teaching and as much as I love my students – which, by the way, is a whole lot more than even I expected – sometimes, I need to take a breather. And this isn’t always possible.

Reducing thought processes is necessary. Having triggers that automatically switch on the charm – like a phrase (mine’s a bright and clear “hello!” spoken in a very particular intonation) – is downright useful. Being able to kick it into cruise control during well chosen moments – a listening exercise, for example – is an absolute lifesaver.

3. I made friends.

“プリシラ (purishira),” my manager will often say at the end of the day. “帰って (kaette: go home).”

“Yeah ok,” I’ll say appeasingly while decidedly not moving from the chair.

Even though I usually stop working once my work hours are over, I generally try to stay at the office until the last person leaves, even when it means staying until the last train.

This sounds counterintuitive to conserving social energy but at the end of the day, regardless of any introverted tendencies I might have, the truth is that I need more than just acquaintances.

I’ve talked about the difficulties of staying in touch with friends from home. It’s true that my friends and family are still there for me, just as I am for them. But I know that as much as I fill them in, what happens in my life has lost a lot of relevance and immediacy for them, and vice versa.


For me, having a comfort zone equates to having a community. People who don’t require much energy to be around. People who I don’t feel the need to talk around.

Of course, the friendships I have in Japan certainly aren’t as many as their Australian counterpart, and they don’t have that history either. But the friends I’ve made here have seen me through a big change and a huge learning curve. Most of them came from my pool of coworkers.

The thing is, schools can be a hectic place. You’ve got papers to mark, classes to teach, people to meet, counsellings to be had, parents to update, lessons to prepare, and lots of smaller in-between things to not fall behind on. Even on the days when I’m not busy, the other staff are.

So there are three times during the workday when we can collectively relax and talk:

  1. At the start of the day, when we’re cleaning the office together and taking a verbal inventory of our snack supplies;
  2. Lunch time, if someone else’s break falls at the same time (the office has long gotten used to me doggedly chasing お兄ちゃん down to have lunch together); and,
  3. At the end of the day, when, being the hardworking Japanese staffers that they are, someone will inevitably want/need to work overtime.

I did a Leslie: convert "workplace proximity associates" into friends.

I did a Leslie: convert “workplace proximity associates” into friends.

Spending time with them, bless their hearts, is no kotatsu (but what is? Other than, you know, a kotatsu). But the resulting friendships certainly make a whole day, a whole week, a whole year of high energy teaching more comfortable in the long run.