JEEP Report by Akemi Sessler

Ms. Akemi Sessler

Dryden Elementary School, Arlington Heights School District 25


You may be familiar with the quote “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Thanks to the very kind and generous efforts of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chicago and the International Educators to Japan Program coordinators, it has been a great privilege to journey thousands of miles to and through Japan, learning firsthand about Japanese culture and education from the finest and most gracious people one could ever imagine meeting. Although travelling to Japan was a marvelous and life-changing journey in itself, I feel a new and wonderful journey in my life is just beginning as I take the first steps in applying all that I have learned to make a similar positive impact on those around me.

As we visited each school, we were greeted by students and staff with friendly smiles, “hellos”, waves, welcome signs and delightful refreshments. The band, violin and singing performances by the students were outstanding; it was obvious the students worked hard as a team to make a positive impression and perform with heart and precision.  An assistant principal or principal from each school took time out of their busy day to greet us and teach us about the special qualities of their school community. It was impressive to observe the teachers supporting students in reaching new levels of learning and personal development. I treasure the origami paper cranes that the children made and gave to us. As a result of all of these school experiences I feel even more committed to being supportive and welcoming to Japanese and other families new to our community, reciprocating the same kind of warmth and kindness with which we were treated. Additionally, watching even the youngest students work together to serve and then savor a healthy school lunch with their peers inspired me to think of ways I can improve a sense of school community, appreciation and well-being among the constituents I serve.

Upon arriving in Ikaruga, I was deeply touched by the gracious welcomes of our host families, town dignitaries and amazing Taiko drum performance. I am forever grateful for my sweet host family, Chieko and Ayaka, and the time we spent together. They simultaneously made me feel right at home and like a special guest with the delicious food, friendly conversation and cozy bed. It was a special treat to visit Chieko’s hometown of Osaka, tour the castle, learn about its history and enjoy the local “soul” food. I hope someday they will visit me so that I can reciprocate and show my true appreciation of our new friendship.

Having gained a deeper appreciation of Japanese culture, I feel more sensitized to the challenges those new to my school community in the United States. From attempting to teach a lesson in English to Japanese students, I became more aware of the need to rely on visual communication, body language, patience, flexibility and friendliness in order to communicate and learn with one another. I was very touched by the students’ genuine desire to understand and successfully complete with careful detail the work that was asked of them while I struggled to retell the story of “An Armadillo from Amarillo, and use this book as a springboard to share and learn about where we live in this world. The quiet, gentle encouragement by the teachers to their students while I attempted to teach reminded me of how important trusting, caring relationships are in order for children to take appropriate risks and approach challenges in their learning.

Being a global citizen now has even more relevance and meaning as a result of my time in Japan. Whether traveling to a distant land or in my hometown, I more fully understand the importance of a friendly smile, a warm welcome, helping someone who is lost, learning a different language, sharing a meal and conversing face-to-face to get to know someone better. I am grateful for such constant gestures from those I encountered in Japan. Among the aspects of Japanese culture that were most impressive were the strong presence  of  harmony, caring for the environment, teamwork, and honoring and learning from history. While in Hiroshima, it was profoundly moving to listen to those impacted by the atrocities of the atomic bomb and their mission to use this as an opportunity to promote world peace. Similarly, it was a tremendous honor to be given a tour of Todai-ji Temple by the priest to learn about the significance of Buddhist and Shinto religion on the current culture. No website, video or photograph can replace the experience of physically being in Japan and getting to know the people. While in Japan I constantly felt uplifted by the beauty and harmony I observed in nature, architecture, the countryside, urban areas, historical sites and even pop culture.

As we learned that the Japanese culture emphasizes thinking of others first, I want to help ensure that our schools convey the empathy to new students, similar to the treatment we received from others in Japan. Assuming positive intent, allowing time to make sense of a new culture, kindly helping and explaining, and gently forgiving mistakes were just some of the ways we were cared for as newcomers. Being treated with great kindness and respect throughout every part of my time in Japan—in the airport, at the train stations, in the hotels, at each school, during my homestay, and at every store and restaurant—is something I will constantly try to emulate.

Mr. Hattori, Mrs. Wakita and the tour guides were exceptional! I cannot put into words how appreciative I am of how everyone went above and beyond to make our visit to Japan so meaningful and special. They are truly inspirational models of how I want to be as an educator and as a global citizen. The term “pay it forward” references expanding and extending the kindness and goodwill one receives to others as an expression of gratitude and to help make the world a better place. From the bottom of my heart, I am so thankful for this opportunity and look forward to my “journey of a thousand miles” to “pay it forward”!