Sep 13

JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Mark Deyss of Marist Brothers International School in Kobe

"When students do right, let them know about it and make sure to tell their parents, too. Show students that although you may have high expectations, you are fair and reasonable. Love what you teach and that excitement will transfer to students. These are some things that I found go into successful teaching." (MBIS, courtesy of Flickr)

“When students do right, let them know about it and make sure to tell their parents, too. Show students that although you may have high expectations, you are fair and reasonable. Love what you teach and that excitement will transfer to students. These are some things that I found go into successful teaching.” (MBIS, courtesy of Flickr)


By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle has completed a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association of New York since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.

A native of Delmar, New York, Mark Deyss (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) is a history and social studies teacher at Marist Brothers International School in Kobe, which has been a historic institution for the Kansai region’s pre-K through 12th children since 1951. Married with two young children, Mark is also a competitive bodybuilder in his spare time.

In this expansive interview, Mark spoke with JQ about how a visit to Iowa landed him his job, the unique benefits and challenges that go with teaching and living long-term in Japan, and some surprising misconceptions about bodybuilding.

What sparked your interest in Japan? Were you always interested growing up, or was it more of a curiosity thing?

I didn’t have a real interest in Japan per se. I was more interested in teaching in Indonesia (Bali, to be specific) or Thailand (Phuket). Both those places seemed pretty cool and exotic to a 22-year-old fresh out of college (SUNY Oswego). But what the hell does a 22-year-old know?! In the end, I backed away from those locations because from what I could tell, you needed to actually go to the place and start knocking on doors at language schools to find a job. That was a little too much adventure for me. A professor at my college mentioned AEON. I looked into it and it turned out that I could interview with them right in New York City. They gave me a contract to look over before I actually went to Japan and they seemed much more legitimate in general. That’s how my interest in Japan developed—as a conservative alternative to Bali.

Can you tell us about the conversation school you taught at in Japan before you joined JET?

I first came to Japan in September 1998 to work with AEON. Like most people who knew nothing about Japan, I requested to be located in Tokyo (in fairness to myself, I did actually know a couple of people in Tokyo, which is part of the reason for the request). AEON said they didn’t have anything in Tokyo open, but put me as close to Tokyo as possible—Hiratsuka City, in Kanagawa-ken. It worked out for the best, as most things in life do. I was with AEON for a year before taking a job (for a lot more money!) with another small eikaiwa outfit named Proto, which was actually run by a car parts manufacturer named Nippon Seiki (amongst other things they make dashboard and instrument panels for the “All-American” Harley Davidson and Chevrolet Corvette). Proto was located in Nagaoka, Niigata, surroundings that were much different than the urban congestion of Kanto. I was with Proto for about a year and a half before I came back to Kanagawa (Yokohama) for JET.

What did you do after JET?

I went to NYC to attend graduate school (education) at Queens College. Those years were indeed the hardest of my life, but my trials weren’t related to Queens College per se, more just being a scared young adult with an uncertain future and a tenuous present! Queens College served its purpose well and gave me the wonderful experience of living in Flushing, New York.

While attending the college, I taught at The Summit School, located in Jamaica, New York. It is a pretty good school for learning disabled and emotionally disturbed kids. I already had some experience working with that population of students before I went to Japan for the first time (summer job), so it was not an unfamiliar thing for me. That job served its purpose and provided me with enough money (barely enough!) to pay rent, eat three meals a day and get out of grad school debt free.

How did you land the job at Marist Brothers?

Dumb luck. When I was working at Higashi Kouko in Yokohama, they had what they called a Model United Nations (MUN) club. It was essentially two girls that would sit around after school and talk about international issues in English. Actually, they would often use Japanese instead of English. And usually they didn’t talk about international issues that much—only stuff they wanted to talk about, eat, or just gossip. Well, being the resident gaijin (i.e., the most international teacher at school), I was appointed a leader of that MUN club. I remember thinking “what the hell is this all about?” (Of course, that is what most JET teachers are thinking through the course of the day, anyway…)

Well, that little “MUN” experience is actually what landed me the job at Marist, as the school needed a new MUN director and I put “MUN club Organizer” or some such thing on my resume. From what I understand, seeing that job responsibility on the resume was the only reason Marist contacted me about the job!

The headmaster at the time asked me if I had MUN experience, I said, “Yes, of course!” half-knowing that I didn’t have the kind of experience he was thinking of but also not really knowing what MUN was all about. That was all the headmaster needed to hear, and he more or less hired me right over the phone then and there. One minute I’m writing some bullshit education graduate paper on the latest learning theory that will no doubt be out of fashion in 18 months, and the next minute I’ve secured a job teaching social studies and directing an MUN program at an international school in Kobe. Life is always turning on the damnedest things! For the record, out of the dozens of schools I sent applications to, Marist was the only one to call me back. How lucky is that?!

Can you elaborate on the MUN program?

The Model United Nations I direct at Marist is a labor of love. Thousands of high school and universities across the world have MUN clubs/teams and every one is different in certain ways, but fundamentally all MUNs are about letting students take the role of a United Nations delegate, study about and craft resolutions on some of the world’s most pressing problems, then debate and vote on the resolution. Some MUN programs want the delegates to mimic the policies and stances of their country’s current government to a T. At Marist, we are a little more relaxed.  Students should never go against their country’s core national interests, but they are also encouraged to compromise and to be more conciliatory than delegates at the real United Nations are. Crafting a resolution that can be acceptable to the majority of delegates can be an incredibly complex, tiring and sometimes even frustrating experience for student, delegates, which absolutely delights me! The democratic process itself is often a complex, tiring and frustrating experience, and students are leaning that firsthand. It is a real eye-opener for students.

From what I understand, most international school teachers attend career fairs, but it seems like you bypassed this process. Do you consider yourself lucky to have landed the job in Japan?

Not exactly. When the headmaster called me, the first question he asked me was, “Are you going to Iowa?” I thought, “what the hell kind of question is that?” And I probably sounded a little indignant when I told him, “No, why would I be going to Iowa, isn’t that just flyover country?” Well, it turns out there was a job fair there that he was going to, and he wanted to meet me. I was already planning to go to a job fair right here in New York City, but I knew it was competitive and probably wouldn’t get anything there. So, the headmaster then said, “Ah, that’s too bad, I would have liked to have a chance to talk to you.” I finally clued in that there was a job fair in Iowa, we talked a little (about MUN) and I realized that this guy saw me as a pretty serious candidate to teach at his school. I then said, “Well, I could go to Iowa, but I’d want to do more than just talk.” He picked up what I was putting down and countered, “Okay, you come out to Iowa and we’ll sign a contract”. Just like that! A few minutes after I hung up with him, I was searching Orbitz for plane tickets to Iowa where I was hired on the spot.

Before my trip out to Iowa, I did go to the New York Job fair and I was indeed WAY over my head. Most schools wanted a minimum of five years’ experience. I wasn’t even out of grad school yet! “Do I consider myself lucky to have landed a job in Japan?” Yeah, like most every day of my life! And I was lucky to get dumped into that MUN club during my JET teaching, and I was lucky to get assigned to that particular school in Yokohama, and I was lucky to have that chance conversation with my graduate school professor who told me about international schools in the first place.

How many international schools are there in Japan?

Many. The Japan Council of International Schools lists 28, but there may be more.

Tell us about your school—the students, faculty, curriculum, the type of classes you teach?

I’ll let you look up the basic facts about Marist yourself on their homepage. As for my classes, I teach grades 7-12, minus the 11th graders. Over my ten years at Marist, I’ve taught geography, religion, American history, world history, Japanese history (Japanese are always impressed/amused/slightly skeptical that a gaijin teaches Japanese history), AP comparative government, AP American government and politics, economics, and a regular (non-AP) American government class. Of course, I also direct the MUN program that hosts a conference with about 130 delegates every year. I also do a Global Issues Network (GIN) club (“Save the Earth” kind of stuff), and I coach baseball in the spring. It’s a small school, so everyone wears lots of hats!

The classes are made up about 50% Japanese kids, maybe 20% Koreans, and then a hodgepodge of Indians, Australians, Canadians, Americans, Lebanese, Chinese…well, you get the picture.

I understand that there are different tiers of international schools, not only in Japan, but in general. Can you elaborate?

Yeah, I guess you could say that, but I think it’s all overrated. Of course, I could be accused of sour grapes, as elitists would call Marist Brothers a “middle tier” school. Basically, the tiers come down to how financially endowed the school is, how selective its enrollment is, and the extra perks they may have, i.e., turf sports fields, annual service trips to Bhutan or Cambodia, maybe some high profile guest speakers a few times a year, a computer and iPad for every student, an in-school movie theater (or two), etc. At the end of the day, these things are great to have, but ultimately they’re educational add-ons, nice but not necessary for accomplishing the ultimate goal of opening up students’ minds and teaching them to think. I don’t think Plato had a SMART Board in his Academy, if you know what I mean.

Is there a relationship among international schools both within Japan and around the world? Does your school compete in any tournaments (athletic or academic) with other international schools?

Marist Kobe is just one of hundreds of schools that have been founded by Marist Brothers, so in that sense, we have a relationship with other schools. But international schools in general usually don’t have formal relationships with other schools. With that said, pretty much everyone knows everyone else at international schools (at least in Japan) and we all have a cooperative relationship. Marist Brothers competes in a number of athletic tournaments and our girls’ teams are particularly strong. About 90% of our games and tournaments are against other international schools in Japan; the other 10% are against American Department of Defense schools.

Would you recommend international school teaching as a career for returning JETs? What specific advice would you give on how to get started?

Lots of people become JETs less because they want to teach and more because they like the idea of living in a different country and getting paid for it—sort of like a paid vacation. I know that’s why I did it! Living in another country is great, but if you don’t really love teaching nor take the job seriously, you will probably be only a mediocre teacher at best and you won’t have lots of job satisfaction. If you don’t have job satisfaction, you won’t really be satisfied with your life because it’s what you do during most of your waking hours!

For those that are serious about teaching and would like to do it in an international school, you’ll need to get a teaching degree (preferably a master’s) and you’ll probably have to put in a couple of years teaching in your own country to gain experience before most any reputable school will even look at you. Of course, people do sometimes get teaching positions in international schools through some sort of backdoor entry, but those people are few and far between. If you think you really want to teach (i.e., something besides eikaiwa), just bite the bullet and go back to school now—you’re not getting any younger.

I understand that many teachers change countries every so often—can you elaborate on this process? Do you have any interest in “jumping countries”?

I think the majority of teachers tend to jump around from country to country and usually stay for three to five years before shuffling off again. A few of those teachers do that for their entire career, but it can make raising families difficult! Many of those types of teachers end up back in their home country at some point in their mid-30s to “settle down.” Some teachers (such as myself) find a place that fits very well for them, get comfortable, and end up staying for the long haul. Of course, once you find a spouse from your host country and have a few kids it can be very difficult to leave even if you wanted to!

How does teaching in international schools differ from teaching in the States (public and private)?

All I can really do is speculate, as I’ve never taught in the States and have only taught at one small international school with a modest budget—quite different from the big international schools that have 2,000 students and seemingly unlimited money. Between my friends that teach school in the States and the stories I hear from public school teachers when I come home for various teacher conferences, it seems that I have it WAY better than American teachers. I get the feeling that they deal with much more bullshit (can I say that?) at their schools. From bureaucratic nonsense, to all sorts of drug and gang problems with the kids, and the lack of support from parents, etc., public school teachers just deal with so much stuff that isn’t really teaching related at all.

Of course some of those things may go on at other international schools, particularly outside of Japan, which is still a pretty safe country, but I’ve never experienced any of those issues at my school. Indeed, I often think that I’ve been so spoiled that I could never go back and teach in the States. The kids would probably eat me alive, and if they didn’t I would probably get so frustrated with “the system” that I’d end up either quitting or being another miserable teacher just counting the days until I could retire.

Can you explain what it’s been like living in Japan this whole time?

Before I had a family, I swore that I’d never raise children in Japan. I didn’t particularly like the educational system, the provincialism of even some of the larger cities here, the high cost of living, i.e., the usual gaijin complaints. Now that I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful little boys, I find myself saying that I’d never raise children in America. Children in the States seem to be forced to grow up too fast. By the time they are 12 or 13, they will have to be educated on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, (pre)teen sex, etc., and don’t get me started on the gun violence. Once thing that really solidified my opinion was the Sandy Hook Massacre in Connecticut [in 2012]. Not only was a young, disturbed man able to walk into an elementary school and butcher 20 five-year-olds (five-year-olds!), but relatively little has changed since then. The law of averages says that nothing of the sort would ever happen to my children if we lived in the States, but it’s the principle of the thing; what kind of society allows that to happen? Not the kind of society I want to raise my family in.

Now with all this said, I did have a wonderful time this past summer with my family back in my hometown, and it had me thinking, “Hmmm, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to live in the States after all.” That sort of thinking is a result of my “space envy” which hits me hard every time I travel back to the States. Currently, my wife and I are looking to purchase a house, and I’m very conscious of the fact that for less than the amount of money for a 90-square meter condo in Japan, I could get a three bedroom suburban house with a big yard in Upstate New York.

Recently, too, I’ve become rather tired of the stereotypical conversations and comments I get from many Japanese. If you’ve lived in Japan for any period of time, you know what I’m talking about—”Wow, you’re pretty good with those chopsticks.” “Do you eat rice or bread?”-type shallow (and quite frankly, ignorant) conversations. For the years before I had a family and felt like more of a guest here in Japan, I tolerated such conversations realizing that they weren’t intended to insult or demean. But now that I’ve been here half my life, speak pretty good Japanese and am even raising a family, I feel more annoyed with such questions.

What really makes me irate is when people ask some asinine question about my boys. “Can they speak Japanese?” For Christ’s sake, they ARE Japanese! Why is so hard for some Japanese to understand that a person can be Japanese and American? I ask that rhetorically because I think I have a pretty good idea of the answer: Japanese society puts order at a premium. There is a correct way and an incorrect way to do most things in this society. And in general, people seem to get anxious when things and even people don’t operate as expected. Japanese don’t seem to be very good at holding ideas in tension and dealing with dualities. I don’t mean this as a knock on Japan and I hope people don’t get upset by that comment.

So the idea that someone could be American AND Japanese is just too much for much. They have to bring order to it some way so they slap mix-culture kids with the “hafu” label, again not realizing the very negative connotations of this term for Westerners, i.e., “half-breed.” Sometimes these things are burdens I bear lightly, other times I think I want out. Basically, my feelings tend to flip back and forth, but at the end of the day I’m usually pretty content wherever I am—I guess that’s not such a bad thing.

In the U.S., there has been a movement in public schools to measure teacher accountability by the students’ standardized test scores. The result has been less “real teaching” and more teaching to the test. Do you feel lucky to be free from this restraint?

There are all sorts of policy debate in America about the best way to educate students. I read in the New York Times about the way the Cincinnati school district has made changes to dramatically improve the quality of education they deliver. I do not disparage those that are trying better ways to educate students, but may of these “innovative” educational styles, systems and techniques seem to be quite fleeting to the point where it can become hard to take the “latest and greatest” educational methods seriously. (It’s comments such as this that probably would get me fired pretty quick in an American public school!)

I’m fully aware of the movement in the United States to hold teachers accountable. That is such a shrill debate that I’m not going to weigh in too much on it. Are there teachers that underperform? Absolutely, but I’m not sure using test grades to hold them accountable is the best way to go. Some teachers just have lousy skills and personalities; what they need is remedial training and supervision. If that doesn’t do the trick, they simply need to leave the teaching profession!

I don’t think there is any huge secret to making a good teacher; most of it is common sense: be firm but fair with students and you will have their respect. Establish very clear boundaries and enforce them so they know you know business. Don’t make rules you’re not going to enforce, as it will create confusion. When students do wrong, let them know, but without lecturing to them—they get lectured to enough by other adults. Have them explain why what they did was wrong and just listen. When students do right, let them know about it and make sure to tell their parents, too. Show students that although you may have high expectations, you are fair and reasonable. Love what you teach and that excitement will transfer to students. These are some things that I found go into successful teaching. As you can see, most are just part of good people skills. Despite the way they act, high school students are people, too.

Do you have any interest in administration?

Currently I have absolutely no interest in administration. I think there is a misconception that if you are in an executive position you have all this power, you can be the shot caller, you can run things as you see fit. That’s nonsense; ask any administrator or executive. Even the most powerful executive in the world has all sorts of constraints preventing him from getting things done the way he’d like. It’s not much different if you administer a school, with all these competing interests that you must take into consideration. And besides that, lots of administration, especially at small schools, seems to be simply fielding complaints from all the stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, office staff. Where’s the joy in that? I’m never as happy at work as when I’m in the classroom teaching. Why would I want to give that up?

To wrap up, I also want to mention your bodybuilding activities. Can you give a history of your interest in bodybuilding, what it’s like to compete in Japan vs. the States, and your competition history?

Like most bodybuilders, I never really said, “oh man, I want to be a bodybuilder.” What kind of teenager says, “I want to stand on stage in a thong with oil all over my body?” (Don’t answer that.) I was always into weight training since I was very young, and bodybuilding is just something that grew naturally out of it. I did my first competition when I was 19, and have been going more or less since then. I couldn’t even tell you how many competitions I’ve done now—lots. For the past few years I’ve started competing in the States again, and in fact I just won a competition in July and received my INBF pro card, i.e., I’m officially a professional bodybuilder, which is a goal I’ve had for a number of years now. Currently, I’m looking for a sponsor to help with travel and supplement costs (hey, any JET alums want to help a brother out?). You can check out my recent photos on’s BodySpace. My BodySpace name is mdeyss.

As for bodybuilding in Japan, there is often an assumption (usually from people that don’t really understand bodybuilding, and that’s most people) that I must kick ass in Japan because I’m a “big American” and “Japanese are so small.” That’s not really how bodybuilding works; it’s not just about who is the biggest guy on stage. If that was the case, the sumo boys would clean up! There are other elements involved such as muscle symmetry, definition, posing, presentation, and stage presence. What I’ve found with Japanese bodybuilders is that on average they are more serious and more dedicated than the average American bodybuilder I’ve come across. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone that has lived in Japan. There aren’t really many dilettantes in Japan! They tend to have one or maybe two hobbies and they do them full out. I really respect that about most Japanese bodybuilders, and I think Americans and Westerners in general could learn from Japanese integrity to their craft, whatever it may be.

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