Senpai Success Story #6: Faye Sensei, the Japanese Language Teacher

Faye Sensei

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills.

I am a particular fan of this week’s SSS because I believe we need more Japanese language teachers to teach and inspire students. My own story started because of my Japanese high school teacher, Van Camp Sensei, and I am forever thankful for him opening my eyes to a whole new world. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

Have you seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That’s my life, but here’s my version of that movie. Growing up in a bilingual household, I was already the odd man out. No one in my neighborhood spoke anything but English. To make matters worse, in those days, it was frowned upon to learn a different language as a child. They felt it messed with one’s English learning. The school even told my mom to not speak anything but English with us at home. She didn’t listen. Greek was my first language, and we spoke it at home. We went to Greek school from 1st grade, after school, twice a week. We ate the Greek foods that people couldn’t pronounce, but it was delicious! It wasn’t until I was an adult that I appreciated that we went to Greek school, that we spoke it at home, and that we were forced to speak/read/write it.

Growing up I had a huge admiration for my teachers. I looked up to them for guidance, reassurance, help, education, and problem solving. I had some great teachers in my lifetime. It was because of my teachers and the work they did that inspired me to want to be a teacher when I grow up.

Here I am about to enter high school, and low-and-behold my district is offering Japanese. It wasn’t heard of then; no one had it in Michigan, it was different. But, it was the “Japan-boom” in Michigan, so it was the new language to learn. I was signed up for French, but it didn’t happen. My mother made me take Japanese. She felt that since I spoke English and Greek, I needed to learn another language, and one that could possibly take me somewhere in my future. I didn’t like it. I already wrote and read Greek letters, which has its own alphabet; I didn’t need another language that had a different writing system. I even dropped out of it at one point, but my mother put me right back in. I held on, but didn’t try my best. I’ll admit I didn’t know how to study for this language. That was the problem, now that I look back on it: I didn’t how to study for it. I was clueless and felt helpless.

Senior year of high school, I got the opportunity to go to Japan with the school and visit our sister school in Shiga. At this point I was slowly starting to like Japanese. While in Japan, we stayed with a student from our sister school, went to school everyday, but we also went to the Michigan Boat, where Americans were working on the boat. I saw one guy selling phone cards, and he was doing it all in Japanese. I was so envious at that point. I was thinking, “wow, I’ll never speak Japanese that well.” Little did I know where my life was going to take me.

Those two weeks in Japan made me realize that Japanese is indeed a cool language to learn. The culture, the food, the houses, the school, the people – everything just made such a huge impression on me, that I started appreciating it. 

Upon returning home, I went to Eastern Michigan University, entered their Japanese program, but I had no idea how much college is different from high school. I was overwhelmed. I almost dropped out of the Japanese program. My professor, Tabuse-Sensei, told me that if I don’t go to Japan for a study abroad for a year, she wouldn’t let me graduate. Everyone listened to Tabuse-Sensei, so off I went to Japan.

That time I spent on the study abroad in Kagawa, Japan, was the best time ever. Having that kind of immersion was the best thing for me and my professors at EMU knew it would have a positive impact on me. I came back to EMU, and my professors were blown away. I not only came back with so much knowledge, but a much larger base of vocabulary and grammar, and much more confidence. I also came back with a new fire, an urge; I wanted to become a Japanese teacher. I finally figured out my two loves: teaching and Japanese.

Fast forward to my senior year of college. I was introduced to the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. Tabuse-Sensei highly recommended I apply, so I did, and I got accepted. Off to Japan I went, back to where I lived before, Kagawa. 

Here I am now, a high school Japanese teacher. I reflect on my time in high school and I see my students struggling, so I often tell them my story to give them hope. To show them that just because you don’t like something now, doesn’t mean you won’t excel in it later in life. I give them tricks to studying; with technology there are so many apps out there that one can use to learn Japanese. I now love to talk about my time in Japan, my own struggles with learning the language, and how important Japanese is in the state of Michigan. I thank my mother all the time. I also thank Tabuse-Sensei for pushing me to live in Japan. 

Lesson here is: don’t give up. Do push yourself. Total immersion is the way to go; just hop on that plane and do it. Study abroads are so important and essential to our learning a language. Keep it up and you will be successful! Also, Japanese teachers are so few and far between, if you have the love of Japanese and teaching, do it! Get that teacher certification! You already have me over here cheering for you!

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