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Pandemic sends local college graduate to Japan for student teaching

Jessica McNulty with her Japanese host mother, Keiko Ishiguro
Jessica McNulty, of Butler Township, with her Japanese host mother, Keiko Ishiguro, stayed with the Ishiguro family while she completed her student teaching in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. Submitted Photo

In a roundabout way, the coronavirus pandemic sent Jessica McNulty, of Butler Township, on an educational overseas journey she will never forget.

McNulty graduated in 2015 from Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School and in 2019 from Point Park University with a bachelor’s degree in English creative writing but decided to put off looking for a job for one year.

“I took a year to substitute teach and pursue a career as an actress, then COVID hit,” she said.

With no teaching jobs available because teachers were not in the classroom, McNulty stepped back and considered her options.

“I started looking into other careers, and that’s how I started this master’s in teaching,” she said.

McNulty graduated in December from Duquesne University with her master’s degree in secondary education and a certification in secondary English education.

The latter portion of her master’s program required student teaching, so McNulty decided to go big.

“It has always been a dream of mine to go to Japan to really meet people and really know what life is like on the ground,” she said.

Her interest in Japan began with her avid interest in animé, a style of Japanese film and television animation.

So during her first semester at Duquesne, McNulty applied for the school’s Global Gateway program, which was a new program for the university at that time.

“Global Gateway allows students to go to different countries for student teaching opportunities,” she said.

McNulty was thrilled to be informed she had been accepted into the program and began her required in-state student teaching at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.

Her host teacher at Seneca Valley was Torrie LaMantia.

“She was fantastic,” McNulty said. “The best host teacher that anyone could ask for.”

Jessica McNulty
Jessica McNulty, of Butler Township, visits a Shinto shrine in Miyajima, Japan. McNulty completed the student teaching module for her master's degree in Japan. Submitted Photo
Off to Japan

McNulty boarded a plane on Nov. 23 in Pittsburgh to fly to Minneapolis, where she would embark on a 12-hour, nonstop flight to Tokyo.

From there, she hopped on the Nozomi, which is one of the fastest bullet trains in the world.

“It was great,” she said of the futuristic train. “I met a couple really friendly people on the bullet train who helped me stow my luggage, and one young woman talked to me for a little while. “She said ‘Hey, I noticed you are not Japanese. Do you happen to speak English?’ I was like ‘As a matter of fact … ”

The two talked about the woman’s business, their respective interests, why McNulty was in Japan, and what it is like to live there.

The woman recommended McNulty visit Miyajima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea that is known for its sacred entrance to a shrine, as well as its deer population.

McNulty disembarked the bullet train in Fukuyama Station, where she was met by the two teachers she would be working with, plus the Ishiguro family, which hosted McNulty during her stay.

She said her host father and brother spoke no English, but her host mother knew some English.

McNulty did use translation apps on her phone to help communicate at first, but tried to speak Japanese as best she could when conversing with her hosts.

“They were kind and patient and communicated more slowly,” she said. “It was great because we helped each other.”

Jessica McNulty poses with her host teachers, Cordelia Driussi and Jason Lowes
Jessica McNulty, right, of Butler Township, poses with her host teachers, Cordelia Driussi and Jason Lowes, at Fukuyama University in Japan, where she completed her student teaching requirements for her master's degree. Submitted Photo

She said unlike in Tokyo, few people in Fukuyama spoke English.

“It was an old steel town, so it’s a little more rural,” McNulty said.

The adult son of her host parents also lived at the house, and he took her to see Miyajima as recommended by the woman on the bullet train.

Her host mother taught folk dancing class, which McNulty attended, and her host father grew plants and made soba noodles, which she helped make.

“They were so welcoming and took me out to do things and invited me to do things at home with them,” she said of the Ishiguro family. “It was an amazing experience.”

She said Japanese culture includes more professional clothing than the U.S., even if going to the grocery store.

Showing the collarbone is considered inappropriate, so McNulty was careful not to pack any shirts with V necklines. She mainly wore suits or black pants with a blouse and blazer during her stay.

“When they go out, Japanese people are more fashionable and more interested in exactly how they are going to present themselves,” McNulty said.

The Japanese consider heavy makeup garish, but both men and women wear a light application of makeup when outside homes, she said.

Food, glorious food

McNulty gave herself a stern talking to about expanding her palate and trying new foods while in Japan.

“Eating was a lot of fun, because prior to this, I was a little 5-year-old,” she said. “Give me my chicken nuggies. But I was there, and I was like ‘I’m going to try everything.’”

McNulty said the Hiroshima Prefecture, which includes Fukuyama, specializes in okonomiyaki, which is sort of a crepe topped with cabbage, carrots and green onions.

A small indentation is then excavated in the vegetables to accommodate an egg, then the whole concoction is topped with bacon grilled on both sides.

“It has its own special sauce as well,” McNulty said. “I think I ate two or three slices. It’s really good.”

She said most houses have a table with short chairs where families eat, but many restaurants have cushions on the floor.

Multicultural teaching

While her student teaching took place in a secondary school in the U.S., McNulty taught in a university while in Japan.

“I could have taught at an elementary school if that was my certificate, but because I am secondary education, I was bumped to the university level because in Japan, high school is taken so seriously because you want to get into the best possible college,” she explained, “so they’re not taking chances on untested people like me.”

She said her host family included a grandson who attended high school and “cram school,” which is another school attended by high school students after their regular school day.

“Some schools have classes on Saturdays as well,” McNulty said.

After just 12 hours on Japanese soil, she was taken to Fukuyama University by her two host professors, who are American and Canadian, respectively.

“I was very impressed by the students’ willingness to actually listen to me, especially since they were college students and I’m closer in age to them,” McNulty said.

She said an atmosphere of mutual respect existed between students at the university.

Many participated in the Global Cultures Club, where they practiced English and other languages.

“We played games together with students from Japan, Bulgaria, Greece, China, Vietnam, and Costa Rica,” McNulty said. “There were tons of different cultures represented in that club, and it was just amazing.”

Her job at the university was to teach English, and her students were surprised to learn that she is a fan of animé and manga, which is a comic book form of animé.

To teach conversational English, McNulty played games with her students that involved using circumlocution, or talking around an English word they don’t know using English words they do know.

She said some students were nervous to speak to her in English.

“I was like ‘Hey, you’re better at English than I am at Japanese,’” McNulty said. “They were happy to learn English doesn’t have to be scary or difficult.”

She said some classes she taught were more formal and followed a book closely, while others allowed her to be more creative in her delivery.

The university president also appreciated McNulty’s teaching style.

“He actually observed one of my classes,” she said. “He was only supposed to stay 20 minutes, but he stayed the whole hour and a half because he was having fun.”

McNulty returned home just in time to celebrate New Year’s with her family, and said she would love to return to Fukuyama University as an instructor, if they would have her.

She said the Japanese culture stuck with her for a few days after returning to U.S. soil, as she bowed to a food truck worker when he thanked her for her order.

“I thought, oops, they don’t do that here,” McNulty said.

Jessica Sheahan, student teacher supervisor at Duquesne, said McNulty was very innovative and extremely invested in her students while in Japan.

My Hero Academia Exhibit in Japan
Jessica McNulty, who is an animé fan, poses at the My Hero Academia Exhibit in Japan. Submitted Photo

“She was creative with lesson planning and trying to appropriately engage her students to be more forthcoming and more forthright in dialogue regarding assignments and reading material,” Sheahan said.

She recalled McNulty’s keen interest in animé and the costumes of the heroes in the animé games she played.

“She was so excited about getting an opportunity to invest herself in the culture of the Japanese people, and especially embracing her host family, who seemed to take to her right away,” Sheahan said.

She has high hopes for McNulty as she plots out her future in global education.

“Wherever she lands, those students will be most fortunate to have her and call her teacher,” Sheahan said.

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