As a high school Japanese teacher in Deerfield Beach, Florida, WIlliam Collazo teaches his students about his time on JET along with his language lessons. Little did he know he would inspire a student to pursue JET years after she left his classroom.
Collazo said that JET was instrumental in deciding to become a Japanese teacher. He has a BA in Asian studies and religious studies, and he also studied Japanese language at Cornell University in New York. After JET, Collazo earned an MA in East Asian studies from Washington University in St. Louis, where he turned his academic interests to studying language pedagogy.
When he applied to the JET Program, he thought he would enjoy the work since he had some high school teaching experience, but mostly he was hoping to enhance his understanding of Japanese culture by living and working there. Instead, his two years on JET from 1997-99 in Hiroshima Prefecture were life-changing. “I didn’t think I would actually become a teacher of Japanese before going,” Collazo explained, “but my experience was so profound that I felt compelled to come home to Florida and share what I had learned in public education.”
His former student Clare Grady graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in Chinese and departed to Northern Gifu on the JET Program last year. It was Collazo’s stories of JET that inspired Grady to apply for the JET Program. It might seem surprising that Grady majored in Chinese and not Japanese, but by the time Grady entered university she already had considerable Japanese capability under her belt due to the Deerfield Beach International Baccalaureate (IB) program. She started studying Japanese when she entered high school, but after completing all the Japanese classes offered at her school she began teaching herself Chinese—earning her the nickname “Kanji Master.”
Grady passed the AP Japanese examination and became the first student at her school to score a perfect seven on the Japanese IB test. (She even wrote her IB extended essay, a twelve-to-fifteen page research paper required for an IB diploma, in Japanese.) She also participated in the Broward County Foreign Language Competition, winning the Best Speaker award her final year out of all the foreign languages in Broward County, and participated in the Regional and National Japan Bowl competition, which meant going to Washington, D.C. three years in a row to represent Florida.
It was during her first day of Japanese class in high school that Grady was first heard about the JET Program. Collazo did a self-introduction where he explained that he lived in Japan for two years teaching English. “I remember being shown videos about the JET Program, along with hearing all of Mr. Collazo’s amazingly interesting stories [over the years] about his time in Japan,” Grady said.
“I tell a lot of my JET stories to the students, especially using stories of mistakes I made in language or cultural misunderstandings that occurred between me and my friends or colleagues,” Collazo explained.
He continued: “I am very careful to qualify my statements and not to overgeneralize, since I know there are so many exceptions to cultural rules and differences in contexts. But that is exactly what the JET experience is intended to do… provide meaningful and ‘real’ cultural exchange and experiences that can be shared with people.”
Grady recalls one of the stories from Collazo’s class: “I remember a story about Obon in Japan and how they often leave food out like rice cake or oranges for the dead. Mr. Collazo said he was talking with a friend when his friend’s young son came up and asked if the dead ancestors really come and eat the food. The friend said, ‘Of course they do.’ Then, after the son walked away, his friend whispered that they just throw the food out when the kids aren’t looking.” Fond memories of Collazo’s stories have stayed with Grady over the years.
In spite of her many scholastic accomplishments, Grady credits Collazo’s dedication with helping her achieve her dreams. Though Collazo supported her through the JET application process, it was his support as her teacher in high school that helped shape Grady’s studies and interest in becoming a teacher in Japan. “I honestly cannot imagine any better of a teacher,” Grady said. “He taught me Japanese for three years, but it was so much more than just teaching. My first trip to Japan through the Japan Discover Challenge in 2006 was only possible through him.”
During high school summer vacations, Grady visited Japan twice, spending time in Saitama and Tokyo. She considers Saitama, where her host family lives, her nihon no jikka (Japanese hometown).
“All the contests I entered and the competitions I participated in…those were all possible thanks to Mr. Collazo’s dedication as a teacher,” Grady explained. “All the late Japan Bowl practices, flying to and from D.C. three times, and telling us how he was so proud of us after making fifth place in our final year…those are the ways I remember him, and the ways I remember what kind of teacher I want to be to my students here in Japan.”
Grady has recontracted for a second year and will soon begin her second year on the JET Program. Collazo is extremely proud of his former student and was pleased to hear how much she loves the JET Program so far.