Among the circulars we received when we enrolled the kids at the public hoikusho (day care/nursery school) was one about a program that roughly translates to “experience being a hoikusho teacher for a day.” It had a reply slip below it. My husband read it and asked me whether I would like to participate. I said, “Why would I want to do that? Aren’t we paying them to take care of the kids?” We dismissed the circular as one of those optional things that maybe parents with too much time in their hands might want to do and discarded the paper.
A few weeks into school, my son’s teacher approached us when we dropped the kids off and asked when we were going to sign up for the program. She strongly suggested that we do so as soon as possible. Nowhere was it written in the circular that we were required to participate, nor did she mention the word “required” when she spoke to us, but that was essentially what she tried to communicate in so many words. I resigned myself to losing two of my days off from work to do this — yes, I had to do it once for my daughter and once for my son.
If the school explicitly specified that participation was required, parents might complain to the local government but because it was communicated subtly, parents like us comply due to social pressure. My husband and I speculated on why they had this program in the first place. Are they understaffed and could use some free labor? It didn’t make sense though because there are between 15-20 kids in each class which translate to only 15-20 days of having extra help, that is, assuming everyone’s parents actually sign up for the program.
I signed up for my daughter’s class on Monday and my son’s class on Thursday of the same week just to get it done and over with.
Resentful as I was, I could not help noticing how excited my daughter looked when she knew that I was going to be mama-sensei (mom teacher) at her class. My son lives in the present so he doesn’t have a clue what was coming up.
That Monday, my daughter walked into her classroom with a deliberateness I don’t usually see when I drop her off in the mornings. She pointed out the things I could do while they waited for the teacher to call the class to order — play blocks, read books, do puzzles. She also pointed out her friends and her non-friends and I was able to put faces to the so-and-so-chans and so-and-so-kuns in her stories to me when she comes home from school (-chan and –kun are affixed to girls’ and boys’ names).
I watched my daughter with fascination. She started school just two months ago knowing very little Japanese, but now she can perform as well as her classmates in their morning routine. Every now and then, she would authoritatively clue me in on where I’m supposed to sit and what I’m supposed to do. I watched her belt out Japanese songs about rainbows and tadpoles. I watched her patiently wait for her turn to hold a huge black rhinoceros beetle with her bare hands. We ate the school lunch together and I appreciated the nutritious balance of meat and vegetables.
Her teacher spent their nap time asking me about how my daughter was at home and whether I had any concerns about her stay at the school. I could sense she was genuinely interested in learning more about my daughter and helping her thrive. I joined the teachers at the break room. The school day ended pretty quickly after eating snacks with the kids and watching them practice their summer festival dance.
That Thursday was rainy when I joined my son in his classroom. The kids couldn’t run outside in the huge play yard so the teachers brought out colorful strings, hula hoops, newspapers and balance foam beams and created an obstacle course for the kids. I watched my nimble son work his way through the course. He was particularly skilled in crawling through the tunnel. My son’s class routine is slightly different from my daughter’s as it involves an extra snack in the morning and toilet training throughout the day. But just like his older sister, my son started school with minimal Japanese language skills, yet I watched him communicate effortlessly with his teachers and classmates.
The two-year old kids don’t really make friends the way four-year old kids at my daughter’s class do. My son doesn’t know the names of his classmates so I never hear him talk about them when he comes home. The kids play beside each other rather than with each other. Being mama-sensei was a good opportunity for me to see who he gravitates towards, what he enjoys doing (he seems captivated by the teacher’s action songs), how he generally behaves compared to his classmates. At lunch, my son refused to eat the eggplant dish, but he ate it when his teacher coaxed him to try it.
During his nap, his teacher asked about Chuckie. She was happy to know that that their toilet training efforts have helped at home. She cut short her coffee break to prepare materials for games at the school’s upcoming summer festival and asked my help to cut some strings. The other teachers were busy writing in the daily diaries of each child, explaining what the class did and how each child was that morning. Being mama-sensei helped me appreciate how much work the teachers do and how dedicated they were to creating a fun and memorable experience for the kids.
Chuckie kept asking me the next couple of days when I was going to stay and play with him again. While he’s generally happy to be dropped off at school, he was clearly happiest when I stayed and played with him that day.
Like many parents, I am a sucker for things that make my kids smile and laugh. Being mama-sensei was not difficult nor expensive to do but was a huge deposit in my emotional bank account (a term coined by Dr. John Gottman) with the kids. Spending the day with each of them helped me update my love map of their world. I got to know who’s who in the hoikusho zoo. The kids felt valued by their mommy who “wasted” an entire day with them. I know this because they often command me, “Watch me Mommy. Watch me! Are you watching me?” or “Mommy, look at me. Look at meeeee!” And when I give them my complete attention and am fully present, they look ever so pleased.
I think kids should also have a chance to see their parents at work to help them understand what it is their parents do and contextualize their parents’ day. It would help them in turn to build love maps of their parents. My husband and I have brought our kids to our respective work places. My daughter summed up what she saw this way, “Uncle Jack’s (my employer) job is to look at the computer. Mommy’s job is to pack. Daddy’s job is to go to meetings.” Touche.
As for my mama-sensei experience, I would do it again in a heartbeat.