English as Second Language Teacher is 1 of 31 educators selected

For the average tourist, a trip to Japan offers the opportunity to observe rich culture, ancient history, urban technological advances, and awe-inspiring experiences.

For one DeKalb County School District (DCSD) teacher, a trip to Japan offered the chance to reconsider how she approaches education.

teachers pose at tables

Fernbank Elementary English as a Second Language (ESOL) teacher LaShia Brooks was one of 31 educators to visit Japan as part of an international partnership with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. The purpose of the trip—which lasted from June 24 until July 5—was to foster a deeper understanding of Japanese culture and, by proxy, native Japanese students studying outside of Japan.

“It’s important to be able to connect with ESOL students through real-world experiences,” Brooks said. “By going on these types of trips, I can pick up on cultural norms and connect on a deeper level. Even if it’s just mentioning a popular snack or place, it’s making more of a connection. It’s letting them know you’ve been on their turf, seen their food and clothes. You would be surprised how far that can get you.”

Brooks was invited on the trip after being nominated by a former Fernbank Elementary student, Kota Onohara, who she taught for three years. Following an application process and a three-person panel interview, Brooks was invited to explore the bustling, bright lights of Tokyo, the serene countryside of Ikaruga, and the culturally resonant history of Kyoto – all expenses paid.

“Kota cried, ‘Yes!’” Brooks said. “I cried after realizing how much he wanted this for me.”

Brooks, who had only traveled abroad to the Caribbean previous to the trip, said she felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. After all, she had never traveled alone, as a teacher, representing an entire country. Nevertheless, Brooks brushed up on her Japanese via an old Rosetta Stone course—asking Kota for help when she needed it.

Ms. Brooks takes picture in Japanese classroomFortunately, Brooks found all of her anxieties to be unfounded.

“The trip was amazing,” she said. “I have never experienced anything like that in my entire life.”

Brooks’ trip included visits to elementary, middle and high schools in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Ikaruga, Naru, and Kyoto. She was also able to visit city centers, local shops, temples, and entertainment venues to take in the entire spectrum of the country.

The contrast of the paces between cities with the countryside, the amount of historical weight at both cities and smaller towns, and the general order of it all struck Brooks intellectually and emotionally.

“There was beauty in it all,” Brooks said.

One of the stark differences Brooks noticed was the country’s approach to generally everything. Rather than focus on differentiation, Japanese society tends to take a communal perspective. People in public, for example, are incredibly respectful to one another. Public spaces are treated with great respect. Solving a problem for one person generally includes all involved.

“People in a public space were very considerate of their volume and personal space,” Brooks said. “I prefer that, for sure. Even in the crowd there seemed to be organized. I definitely felt like a part of ‘it.’”

When it comes to education, this philosophy carries over, according to Brooks. Problems are approached as a group, and when one student has a hard time understanding, the entire group contributes until he or she grasps the concept.

“In the truest sense, no child is left behind,” Brooks said.

Ms. Brooks poses in traditional Japanese clothingWith such great respect for the learning process comes greater respect for education as a whole. Students and teachers commit to one extra day per week for school, and some even start their day before 5 a.m. to fit in extracurricular activities.

As a first time visitor and longtime educator, Brooks was surprised with how well-received the group was for merely being teachers.

“School culture is considered more worthwhile—they enjoy it,” Brooks said. “Everything is taken with greater pride,” Brooks said. “We were treated first class no matter where we went. Once people realized we were teachers, they bowed, and they treated us even better.”

Upon her return, Brooks gained a new sense of consideration for ESOL students. When comparing Japanese culture with American culture, she said she could see how moving stateside could be overwhelming for certain students. Her only wish is that this program existed throughout the world in almost every country.

According to Brooks, this consideration may have been the ultimate lesson taught by the life-changing trip.

“I think each educator was meant to determine their own purpose,” Brooks said. “It makes me consider more for my students. It has given me pause in my approach to things. Japan has acknowledged this, and the country wants to better serve their own people abroad.”