Embrace and respect differences: An educator’s lesson Japantoday, May 16th

By Alexander Homma

TOKYO – On the second and third floors of a small building in Azabu-Juban  in Tokyo, there is a preschool that offers children more than studying: it offers them a home away from home, where learning about respecting differences and appreciating others comes before the ABCs.

Established last August by Shelley Sacks in partnership with Darren Winney, Ohana International School is currently the learning home of seven children from six different countries. The children are taught phonics, math, Japanese and English, as well as community and environmental awareness classes, aimed at building the children’s strength as individuals in a global community.

For Sacks, an Australian born and raised in South Africa, there is never enough of teaching and learning. In her early education career, she specialized in training teachers for preschool and later on, earned a postgraduate degree in special needs from the University of Cape Town. She became a director of a preschool in South Africa and one in Australia, where she spent 8 1/2 years building and expanding the school. After visiting Japan as a tourist, however, she decided to expand her knowledge once again: in Japan, a country she fell in love with.

Teaching in various schools in Japan, however, turned out to be challenging for Sacks: there was often more business than real education. It was then she felt the need to set up a school where children are taught more than what textbooks can teach them; a school where children are taught to face themselves and their counterparts.

Despite her rich professional experience, Sacks believes it takes a lifetime for a teacher to learn to be a better educator: there is always room to grow, she says.

Sacks speaks of Ohana International’s founding principles, her thoughts on education, and her experience as a volunteer in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture after the March 11 earthquake.

What brought you to Japan and what led to the establishment of Ohana International School?

I came to Japan in 2004 to visit some friends and I fell in love with the country. After a month I came back, had interviews and got a job and I was back here within three months. I was living in Australia at the time and I had just started working again as a teacher after 8 1/2 years working as a pre-school director. But I left the job to come here and start a new life. For many years I had the pressure from others to start my own school and coming to Japan, where I worked in various preschools, I began feeling that the way many schools operated did not fit my true beliefs as an educator. So I strongly felt the need to create a small school that morally lived as an educational institution and was really true to its philosophy. I wanted to create a place of learning for little children, a place that has a personal relationship with parents. I believe that a preschool is a home away from home.

Where does the name come from?

When it came to choosing a name, I contacted friends all over the world and a very dear friend suggested “Ohana,” which in Hawaiian, means family and friendship. So it became Ohana International School: where children bloom and friendships flourish.

What were the challenges at the beginning?

It was much more emotional than physical. At the beginning I found it really lonely. I had to find all the resources and networks. I think that was the biggest challenge: feeling like I was doing it on my own. In terms of finding a building, registering our name and the technical things of registering a company, with the help of my partner and many other people, it went well. I always believed that opening this school was the right thing to do. I trust myself as a teacher. But, of course, I had times when I found myself impatient until the first student enrolled. And it eventually happened. The reality is that despite massive advertising, the only way that people have come here is through word of mouth. We have formed a beautiful community of families through that.

What is a regular day like at Ohana International School?

The children come between 8:15 and 8:30. We have free play, song time, snack time, library time, activity time, and then we go to the park. When we come back, we have lunch time. Then we have classes. I do a journal everyday – a record of the day with photos that I send to parents. The children go home at 2 p.m. and I start additional tutoring from 2:30 p.m. until 5:30-6 everyday.

How mixed are the students in terms of nationalities?

We’ve got Japanese, Norwegian, Belgian-Philippine, British, German and American-Japanese. At the moment we have seven students.

What makes Ohana International School unique?

We’re small and can maintain a personal contact all the time. We have qualified trained staff, which isn’t always the case. We also take children with special needs. We have an eco-awareness program where children are taught about recycling. We do not give parents any paper; we send everything via e-mail. Policies and handbooks for the school are all on a USB which is distributed to parents. In our curriculum we focus primarily on social development. Of course, academics are important, but we do not promote academics. We give children the opportunity to talk, express their feelings and we talk a lot about considering others. I believe that in preschool you should teach children about life: how to share, how to be in a community, how to respect and embrace difference.

Do children sometimes feel stress over living in a foreign country or is it rather the opposite?

If there is stress, it most probably comes from the parents. Children’s instincts are so pure when they are little, but in fact they already have so many learned behaviors from their parents. However, until now, I have not experienced any children feeling stress about living in Japan. It is also because we provide an environment where we embrace them – literally and figuratively, and we talk about things.

What aspects of Japanese culture are most popular among the foreign students?

The rituals and the tradition of “matsuri” (festival) symbols. The songs and the food too. We do cooking in a class that’s connected to different festivals. For example, on “Setsubun” in February, the kids made sushi rolls, traditional for that festival.

You have lived and worked in various countries. How has this experience influenced you as an educator?

What I focus on in my teaching is the issue of difference. Growing up in South Africa where difference was in my face, I was brought up with a clear demarcation of color and that is what has carried me to where I am now or how I am with people. I teach children that it is not about what you look like, but about being compassionate. We all want to have a sense of belonging, we all want to be loved, and we all need others at certain times in our lives. Sometimes, I’m quite hard on children when I hear them saying things like ‘That’s not how you do it.’ I try to teach the children that we are all the same; we just say things differently and we have different opinions on things. Respecting differences is a huge thing for me. Differences are fine – it is good; it is beautiful; it is special. I am very strong against injustice and unfairness and that is what I teach the children as well.

How has the March 11 disaster affected Ohana International?

We have less children now. We had 11 before, now we have 7. We’ve also had less inquiries. But I’m looking at the situation now as if Ohana is starting again. We start up small again and grow again with the years.

How do you think the March 11 disaster will affect education and internationalization in Japan?

I think that international schools will start accepting more Japanese children. The opportunities to access international education will improve for Japanese families. In terms of internationalization, I think that many foreign companies will not come here, but will go to Singapore instead. Japan needs to open its heart to the global community more. There are so many opportunities here; it is such an incredible country, but there is a need for a fundamental change. If Japan doesn’t make changes now, it will suffer economically.

No country can exist on its own. The enormous help the international community offered Japan after the earthquake may be a trigger for Japan to make a step forward in internationalizing itself more. I hope they don’t only look with their eyes, but with their hearts too. Stepping outside of the box allows more creativity and opportunities for people to grow. In Ishinomaki, where we worked as volunteers, there were no barriers—foreign or local volunteers, they were all there to work. At times like this, it is not important how you look or who you are, but how you act.

What is the “Ohana helps Japan” project?

We collected clothes, water, toys, food, blankets and other items from parents and other individuals’ donations and we took them up to Ishinomaki and Minami-Sanriku in Miyagi Prefecture. We continue collecting donations and I will travel again to Ishinomaki in May to deliver the donations personally. We also donated micro-scooters to kids thanks to a special donation we received from Micro-Scooters.

How was the experience of visiting the devastated areas?

Before I went up, I thought I would cry a lot. But once you are up there, you totally separate your feelings and do what you have to do. I never cried, but I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Nothing can prepare you for it. Nature swallowed life up there. It left nothing, but it also left so much destruction. When we visited shelters to deliver the donations, we asked if anyone wanted their house cleaned. A 75-year-old man said yes, and so we spent the day cleaning the mud from his house. We found photographs of his late wife and that was the only thing he wanted to keep. He threw away everything else. While I was working with him, I asked him how he felt as we worked together and cleaned his house and he said: “I am fine. I must be strong.” A man of courage and there are so many of them.

What are your hopes for Ohana International for the future?

I want it to keep growing as it is. I want to keep it small, maybe a maximum 60 students. My partner works at a taiko drumming school and I would like to include taiko in the program and have a sound-proof room. I would also like to be able to take more students with special needs and have a professional instructor who will be here everyday. And I would also love to have a garden.

Among all the things kids will learn at Ohana International School, what is the one you want them to remember forever?

To respect differences.

For more information on Ohana International School see http://www.school-in-tokyo.com/  OR

EIJ Editor’s note:  See also our page listing and information on OIS