Cultures clash in an educational way for teacher with classrooms in Cedar Grove and Japan
Jordan Hoeppner at first struggled to adjust to a new culture after being hired by Cedar Grove-Belgium High School two years ago.
Not that he’s not from America or even Wisconsin — he’s a Sussex native — but he spent three years teaching in Japan right out of college and still returns to teach during summers.
Across the Pacific Ocean, the symbol for customers of any business is royalty, Hoeppner said, and they are treated as such. He got the American wake-up call from a rude cashier upon landing in Chicago.
“That was probably my biggest reverse culture shock,” he said.
Hoeppner grew up with an interest in Japan and its history, including baseball. He followed Japanese-turned-American players Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo. As soon as he finished his teaching degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2010, he went to Japan.
There came his initial culture shock.
“It was like a totally different world at first,” he said.
Hoeppner could read basic Japanese, but not technical terms. Paying an electric bill was difficult, and he didn’t drive.
“Being reliant on others is tough,” he said.
So is sometimes feeling like he was in a zoo exhibit. Hoeppner teaches in Isesaki, a city a two hour drive from Tokyo with few foreigners. People are friendly but fascinated with his blond hair. One child once walked up to him and began petting his arm.
Hoeppner’s stature didn’t help him blend in. The 6-foot, 5-inch American found success on the basketball court in a country where the average male height is 5-10, but Hoeppner said ceilings are often too low for him.
The heat was another difficulty. In summer, temperatures reach 95 to go along with high humidity.
“You’re sweating when you get out of the shower in the morning. It never stops,” Hoeppner said.
Culturally, Hoeppner adjusted to a more reserved, kind society. In Japan, it’s considered impolite to speak one’s mind.
“There’s actually no word for ‘no’ in Japanese culture,” Hoeppner said.
But there’s a word for love, and Hoeppner met his wife at the international school where they both worked. Hisami is a Japanese native who experienced an opposite yet similar meteorological adaptation to Hoeppner’s when the couple moved to Sheboygan Falls.
“She struggles with the winters here,” he said.
But Hisami loves America, and Jordan likes teaching better in the United States.
All students at the end of sixth grade must take a national test to get into junior high school. Many study for the test years ahead of time at “cram schools” for several hours after their regular school day. Cram school ran so long a curfew had to be issued, Hoeppner said.
“In Japan, there’s so much stress on students,” he said.
Students attend school year round in Japan, a total of 240 days, compared to about 180 in America. By the time Japanese students finish junior high, they will have spent more time in school than American high school seniors.
Though many attend, high school is not required in Japan. Expensive schools focus on certain areas of study, like science, humanities or technology. One of Hoeppner’s nephews was hired out of high school by a firm that makes microchips for iPhones and iPods. One of his nieces is learning how to plant rice and manage a farm at an agricultural high school.
After high school or college, graduates enter a society nearly addicted to work, especially men. Hoeppner said his brother-in-law once worked 50 straight days, and much longer than eight hours each day. Japan also has an unwritten rule that employees shouldn’t leave work before their boss.
Japan focuses heavily on international business, hence English teachers like Hoeppner are highly desired. He teaches English to elementary school students in Japan under strict school rules.
“I would give kids detentions for speaking Japanese in an English class,” he said. “I was not allowed to speak Japanese to my students at all.”
Hoeppner’s school supported his American teaching style of more hands-on activities. Japanese students are usually expected to sit with good posture and listen to teachers lecture.
While computers are becoming more popular in schools, Hoeppner said Cedar Grove-Belgium’s model of each student having a laptop is not a trend in Japan, where blackboards are still in use.
“For being a technically driven culture, their schools are very traditional,” Hoeppner said.
Just learning letters is a challenge. Japan has three alphabets, all of which can be incorporated into a single sentence. Reading a newspaper requires mastery of more than 10,000 characters.
Hoeppner’s sixth-grade students know two alphabets and are a third of the way through the final one, he said.
American schools, Hoeppner said, focus more on individualized accomplishments than those in Japan. He said teamwork is built by students cleaning the school and serving their own lunches.
Speaking in general terms, Hoeppner said teachers in Japan are more revered than in America. Japanese teachers are known as “sensei,” the same term for doctors.
Referendums in which residents vote on school improvements don’t exist in Japan, he said. If a school needs work, government takes care of it.
“Our system has become politicized,” Hoeppner said.
The young teacher said he would like to see a hybrid of the American and Japanese school models.
“I think both are excellent,” he said. “If you could put the two together, you’d have one of the most effective educational systems.”
While Jordan’s wife could do without the Wisconsin winters, neither one misses earthquakes. Hoeppner experienced several minor ones in Japan, and his wife was at the epicenter of the tsunami-triggering Tōhoku quake in March 2011. Hoeppner and her family spent two harrowing days waiting to hear if she was OK since cell service was down. Hisami was stuck in a rescue center but was unhurt.
Both miss Japanese food, and they found a couple of grocery stores in Sheboygan to recreate their favorite dishes. Hoeppner likes Japanese-style steak, consisting of various cuts of high-quality meat dipped in different sauces before cooking.
Finding the best of Japan in America or not, some new habits die hard. Hoeppner said he bowed to Principal Josh Ketterhagen during his job interview.
Regardless, Hoeppner wouldn’t trade his time in Japan for anything.
“It’s the best experience in my life seeing how people live,” he said.
Hoeppner looks forward to seeing his students and his new family each summer. He will leave for Japan in early July, he said.
Image Inforomation: Cedar Grove-Belgium High School history teacher Jordan Hoeppner held a class photo of the students he taught last summer in Japan while standing in his American classroom last week. Photo by Sam Arendt