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Respect and embrace differences: An educator’s lesson

By Alexandra Homma

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/

© Japan Today

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as well as community and environmental awareness classes, aimed at building the children’s strength as individuals in a global community.

Very important for a 3 year old.

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It all sounds very nice. It would be much more beneficial for this type of educational philosophy to be implemented into a a school for children from 1st to 12th grade where a tangible difference could be made. All of this early childhood training will be washed away (or bullied out) as soon (if) they enter the dreary, drone life of public schools and the need to fit in takes hold. As will their English...

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People are aware of the importance of teaching children to respect people of various sizes, abilities, ethnicities and ages. When children respect themselves and others, they feel good about who they are. When children learn to value people who are different from themselves, they are better prepared to live peacefully in a diverse world. Because children learn during everyday moments, it is important that adults remain aware of what we say and do. Children can learn that people are more alike than different and that all people no matter what color, size, ability or age want love, joy and security. It all depends on the messages they're hearing and behaviors they're observing. We can model respect in our everyday interactions, so that our children learn to value all people. We should teach children by pointing out positive messages in stories, television programs or advertisements. Messages play an important role in how children learn. Children today are getting multiple messages from media and society. By becoming more aware of the messages our children are faced with each day and by focusing on the positive ones, we can influence the messages that our children are receiving. When we see negative messages or stereotypes, we can use those as teachable moments to discuss what we're seeing.

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This all seems very nice indeed, especially if she can provide kindergarten for children with disabilities, which serves their needs in a meaningful way. I often wonder how on earth parents of disabled children manage in Japan. However, there are quite a few international kindergartens, its education from 1st grade up which is problematic and very expensive if you do not go the Japanese public school route.

The fact that she is employing qualified teachers is a plus, quite a lot of these places do not seem as concerned about that in our experience.

Japanese kindergarten has always been very sweet and very positive in our experience, it is the later grades which are not so much fun.

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Well I dunno where to start, there is really a lot to tackle in this article besides that it is just another business, alongside a million others the same. But I think in the first paragragh, where it says, a home away from home, is where Id zone in on. This whole pharsing is propangda at it's extreme. There is no such thing as a home, away from home. What each home defines home as can be different, global views if you please, but even still, there is not and never can be, a home away from home. Besides that this lady looks still rather young, so maybe taking some advice from herself, that it takes a lifetime (actually some more propangada forya!) to be a educator, and maybe stepping back on the confidence and being so young, gaining some more lifetime experiences in children, rather trhan education and recycling, would be my advice.

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illsayit>> Well, I suggest you start by reading the article first. If you are going to criticize something be sure you have familiarized yourself well enough before that. First, it says it clearly in the article that the woman is an experienced educator (see 3rd paragraph) So, she was a director of two preschools, one for 8.5 years on top of having several diplomas in the field of education and you still think she lacks the training?! Also, I tried finding her age online and it seems like she's in her 50s, so I guess she's not exactly the young and inexperienced woman you talk of. I also personally like what she's saying about a home away from home. Just think about the amount of time kids spend at school and the influence they are exposed to through that. A school should be a home away from home, meaning that they should be in the hands of teachers who care about them and look after them. Makes perfect sense to me. 

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Well who is the suspicious one-I cant even be bothered reading the article again. Your comment was interesting enough! I never said inexperienced teacher-my english-I said inexperienced with children. But seeing you are so concerned and searched the age, does that mean this photo is fraudelent? Or that for a handful of kids, staff is required, and affordable? A school should be about education. Are you suggesting that teachers replace the role of parents? That teachers care more than parents? Are you suggesting that institutionalizing children is better or equal to that of home? This kind of thinking continues to take responsibilty away from parents, causing parents to loose confidence in their ability to relate to their child/ren, and your sense isnt necessarily everybody elses, so if you want to comment on the article, go ahead. But your suspicions of me are loud and obvious.

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But hey aeho, dont worry, your suspicions of me on some days are probably right, but most times I think Id disappoint you. But about this, can be said the same about home and educating centres-somedays are good and somedays, well, we all need a saviour.

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I never said inexperienced teacher-my english-I said inexperienced with children.

As a director of two preschools for almost a decade, I guarantee she is not "inexperienced with children". Or did you believe that a director of a preschool locks herself in her office and never works with the children?

But seeing you are so concerned and searched the age, does that mean this photo is fraudelent?

Ehh... the "cause and effect" test on this comment fails.

Or that for a handful of kids, staff is required, and affordable?

It's a fact that the lower the student-to-teacher ratio is, the higher the quality of the education given to each student. The absolute ideal is a 1:1 ratio. Whether such a low student-to-teacher ratio is "affordable" is up to the parents, not us. Only they can evaluate whether the increase in the quality of the education is worth the increase in the tuition expenses.

A school should be about education. Are you suggesting that teachers replace the role of parents? That teachers care more than parents? Are you suggesting that institutionalizing children is better or equal to that of home? This kind of thinking continues to take responsibilty away from parents, causing parents to loose confidence in their ability to relate to their children...

I work in two primary (K-4th grade) public schools with one school running a Pre-K program. Many students in our schools have both parents working during the day. The teachers are expected to act as a parent would for those pre-K students. It's most effective when social "mores" and attitudes are reinforced throughout the day, not just when the kid's parents finally get home after work. Parents expect the schools to act as babysitters - entertaining the child in addition to educating them. It's not so much that the responsibility is getting taken away from the parents as it is that the parents are forced to both work, leaving the child rudderless for a major part of the day.

Additionally (and this may shock you) some parents are really bad role models for young children and the teachers really DO care for the child more than the parents do.

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fadamor, you are in agreement with aeho I see. In case it needs to be restated-I said that like a million other businesses the same out there. Of course, your cause and effect theory could probably argue the numbers, but I guess you get my drift. Im not arguing that this is a bad educational center, or that any other one is better or worse than. My point was that to say a home away from home, is misleading and degrading to parents. You would expect when you are a paying customer certain standards, that I agree with. But this article and the operator-who cares age or experience, really, thats not my point-stating a home away from home is where I see problems arise in the community as a whole. And no it doesnt shock me that there is people out there who think there is bad role models as parents. What shocks me, is that you need to state it. What shocks me is that you must think that everybody agrees with you and your ideal of a role model, are you a clone? Nearly everybody is a parent, let me ask how you regard the population on a whole? All those paying customers of yours, do they come up to scratch? And do we all need our children suffer a ideal that there is only one type of perfect role model? What sort of role model would set their role so high, that at any slight deviation the child would be considered, a deviant. No your jumping to conclusions about me is shocking, and as aleader of a sort, of educating kids, Id be very hesitant to consider you as a role model(seeing we are getting personal). But I bet if we met, we'd probably find our interest in children and the community is rather close; just how we tackle it, differnt.

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Well good on Ms Sacks for trying to promote her company here (I also run a preschool so am jealous!), but I just don't really see how it is that much different from what the competition is offering - other than her not handing out paper to parents (for environmental reasons, or cost-cutting?).

Anyway, good luck to her and I hope she is successful. I agree with others though, that unless there is some sort of plan in place once they start elementary school, everything the kids learn will soon be forgotten. Sad, but true...

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@illsayit .. your comments are jumbled, nonsensical at times, and irrelevant to the person to whom you're responding. To say that 'a home away from home' is taking away from the abilities and feelings of adequacy of parents, is strange, indeed. Children spend the majority of their lives IN SCHOOL. For all intents and purposes, it ought to be a home away from home, in that they should feel as comfortable as possible. 'Institutionalizing' children, as you put it, will happen, if our schools are run like most of our public schools.

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snowgirl, join the crowd! feel free to comment on the article. Your supposition of educating children is one and the same for everyone around the world is certainly news to me. Your talking about institutionalizing and public schools and this being a pre-school, is more non-sensical than anything Ive said so far. You arguing that for all intents abd purposes that is should be a home away from home, is fine, but I stated that there is no such thing. Can you please explain how a home and school can be the one and the same? This is non-sensiical as well. But join the crowd giving me a hard time, and any time you feel the need to add anything to this article, you can do that too.

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"Respect and embrace differences: An educator’s lesson" Yes. That is novel idea in theme-minded Japan. A lesson that has now been taught in the West for many decades now and who knows maybe even in ancient times, too. I have a bad feeling that the Japanese Government will do everything within its powers to extinguish this presumably silly notion.

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Are the Japanese allowed to send their children to international school in Japan? Most of the children in this preschool are non-Japanese, how will this help Japan in the future? Still, Good Luck with your preschool and voluntary work.

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