Language inspires Soldotna man to teach in Japan

Anton Weissenberg talks last week about his plans to teach in Japan.

Anton Weissenberg knew growing up he was going to follow in his father's footsteps and become a teacher.


"It was gradual, something I built up towards," he said. "But I was aware of that's where I was going." He had the path in front of him from the beginning. But he is about to embark on an adventure he might not have seen coming: Japan.

Weissenberg, a 2006 Soldotna High School graduate, will be traveling to Japan in August as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. In 2011, the program had 4,330 participants from 39 countries.

Being in a foreign country, Weissenberg knows he's going to face some challenges, but he's OK with that.

"I'll be completely out of my element and I'll have to adapt to everything including the fact my Japanese isn't that good," he said. "Which, honestly, I'm kind of happy about that."

Not having a complete grasp on the language will force him to learn the best way possible he said -- immersion.

Weissenberg won't know exactly where he'll be in Japan until later this week, but he does know that it probably won't be in a strictly urban area.

Yasuko Lehtenin, who teaches Japanese language and cooking classes at Kenai Peninsula College, is Weissenberg's tutor. The two have been working together since Weissenberg started his college studies at KPC a few years ago. Lehtenin said his multi-lingual talents make him a great candidate for the program -- he speaks Russian, English and Japanese fluently.

"He is not afraid to go international and be with the people," Lehtenin said. "He is not afraid to eat, do, see or hear other cultures. So that is a perfect person."

Lehtenin said she has sent five students in to the program, but Weissenberg will be the first one in the last 10 years.

His next challenge before he departs for Japan in August will take him to Boston to obtain his Master's Degree in education from Cambridge College. 

Weissenberg graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history -- which happens to be his favorite subject. His diploma led him to enroll in the secondary education program at UAF where he interned at Tanana Middle School for a year.

Weissenberg said he's already been able to seen the effect teachers can have on their students.

"I've seen the impact, I've noticed it. It's just interesting to see kids agree with their teachers and follow them," he said.

The interaction in the classroom between him and his students is a special relationship.

"I don't know the words for it. It's great, it's a great feeling but you can't really describe it," he said.

One of the ways he connects with his students is to make the subject matter enjoyable for the pupils and the teacher.

"It was easy, connect with kids' interest," Weissenberg said.

During his internship in Fairbanks, he noted the popular video game at the time was Call of Duty Black Ops, which is set during the Cold War.

"That's so easy to connect to," he said. "I mean, they've got actual real life events. It's really not too hard to connect with their interests, especially if the teacher likes it as well."

Connecting with students in America might be easier than his task ahead of him, but Weissenberg has been brainstorming as to how he'll break the ice with this Japanese pupils.

"There's always a good activity, you take a ball and ask a question, toss it to a student and they have to answer right away and toss it to the next student," he said. "So I could do something like that with English phrases, vocabulary or something."

The fast pace, he said, will make the activity dynamic for the students, as they don't have to stop and think.

"They just have to spit out (the answer)," Weissenberg said.

Lehtinen said the Japanese school system is very hungry to have American young people to go there and teach because they bring a fresh aspect to the table. Normally, students in Japan are very shy, there is no social time, only studying, Lehtinen said.

"Japanese students can't wait to see their American teachers," she said. "They are friendly, smiling, and they joke around. In the Japanese system, (teachers) don't normally do that."

Now, international teachers are heading to Japan, which makes for much better communication within the schools, she said. Japan is a big draw for teachers because of how well the education system is organized -- and the JET program makes it easy for international teachers by taking care of just about everything, she said.

Lehtinen said one of the things she sees in her classes it that young people don't dream like they used to.

"I mention to students every year, your hometown will never change," she said. "You go outside and have those experiences, and when if it's time to come back, it's up to you to come back. But you got the outside look to the different lifestyles and languages."

Weissenberg's not quite sure what his biggest obstacle will be while he's in Japan, but for him, that's what will make a great experience.

"The language barrier is going to be one thing, but I like a challenge. It'd be boring if everyone spoke perfect English," he said.

Logan Tuttle can be reached at