Just don't look down. Trust us on this one.
One of the more challenging aspects of ALT life happens at lunch. While it seems simple enough on paper - eat lunch with your students - the reality is seldom that simple. In addition to the logistical problems of when to go to which classroom there is the larger problem of what to do. Just sit there in stony silence? Try to be “on” and entertain every student in the class for the full lunch period? There are no easy answers, but in today’s article, we’re going to give you a few tips to survive lunch hour.
So much rice.
How Can We Eat?
The school lunch, called kyushoku, alternates between Japanese and international fare and usually consists of a main course, a salad, and a soup. For the Japanese meals, rice is served alongside fish and traditional foods like tofu and miso soup. International meals, on the other hand, may feature bread or pasta and sometimes even a dessert cup!
In fact, recently, here in Tochigi, for the international meals there has been an effort to provide meals centered around different countries cuisines. In other words, there might be a "Brazil Day" or an "Australia Day" where (Japanese interpretations) of that country's food is served. It can be hit or miss, but it's fun to see the efforts and interpretations.
Unfortunately, the meal service is not free. As an ALT you will be charged the same fee that other teachers and staff members are charged on a monthly basis. The good news is that this is often very cheap, coming in at as little as ¥250 per day, not to mention that the food is nutritious and usually tastes pretty good, too.
No cocktails allowed. Not even intergalactic ones.
Why Do We Eat?
ALTs are asked to eat with the students for a couple of reasons. The first, and most important of these is that it gives the children a chance to bond with an instructor they may not see all that often. By sitting down at a lunch table with a small group of kids, it is hoped that the students will lose some of the shyness and hesitancy that they often exhibit in the presence of foreigners.
Alongside this is the hope that the students will be willing and able to use what they have learned in their English classes. By the time they're in third grade, most students should be able to ask simple questions about the teacher's likes and dislikes as well as understand (simple, reasonable) answers. By giving the kids a chance to use what they've learned, they will gain confidence and be more willing to learn.
Your role here is to be friendly and to make conversation however you can. Ask the students about their likes and dislikes in English, or ask them about their lives outside of school, or tell them silly jokes. What you talk about it is not as important as making the effort to talk and bond with your students. And keep it local. You don’t need to entertain the entire class. Instead focus on the small group of kids in your group. Make sure they get your full attention and that they feel connected to you and you’ll have friends for life.
Where Shall We Have Lunch?
Some schools have a dedicated lunchroom, others have the students eat in their classrooms. Either way, you'll be asked to lunch just as you would be asked to a lesson, and shown to a seat. If it’s a few minutes into the lunch hour and no one has come for you, talk to the staff present in the staff room. They can, and will, call up to the classroom for you and make sure that you’ve not been forgotten.
And again, even though you're there with the entire class, you should focus your attention on the three or four kids in your lunch group. Introduce yourself even if the kids are familiar with you and ask their names. In short, be a good guest and avail yourself of the chance to chat with your students.
Once you’ve been served, wait until the student leaders have asked everyone for silence and lead the class in saying “itadakimasu.” Once that’s done, dig in! When you’re finished, say “gochisosama deshita” and return your dishes to the serving carts. But don’t leave just yet. Instead, either go back to your group or to another group and continue to talk to the kids until the end of the lunch period. Then you can escape back to your desk.
Milliways, the only place to eat.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
At the beginning of the school year, make sure to introduce yourself to the school nutritionist and let them know about any dietary restrictions or preferences you have.
In recent years, the schools here in Tochigi have been making a special effort to cater to any and all dietary requests, but they are limited in how many changes to the set menu they can make. In other words, if you are allergic to dairy, they can and will accommodate your needs by providing a juice instead of milk and by not giving you yogurt. Likewise, allergies that can be easily avoided merely by not having, for example, shrimp in your meal, can also be accommodated.
However, for those of you who may be keeping to strict vegan or halal diets, you may be better off bringing your own lunch. For those kinds of special needs, it is best to communicate openly and often with your schools to find the right meal plan for you.