Japanese exchange teacher reflects on one month with Pinellas County Schools

Megumi Manabe enjoyed presenting about Japanese music, food, and culture to PCS students of all ages while visiting from Nagano City, Japan this month. But her favorite memory of the trip was perusing the aisles of an American grocery store.

“I spent two hours in Publix,” Manabe said of the highlight of her trip.

Manabe also spent a day at Busch Gardens, took in a sunset at Indian Rocks beach and was welcomed by the Pinellas County School Board at its meeting Oct. 24, as well as the Clearwater City Council, Oct. 26. She lived with three different host families and presented at six different schools during her stay.

“I think I was really lucky because while working as a teacher in Japan, you don’t have this kind of opportunity to leave school for one month,” said Manabe, who has always enjoyed traveling and spent two years teaching in Honduras from 2015 to 2017. “It means many students here had the opportunity to learn about Japan.”

Manabe is the first exchange teacher to visit Pinellas County as part of the Sister Cities program since the pandemic. Nagano City, Japan and Clearwater have been sister cities since 1959 and up until 2019, sent both teachers and students back and forth each year.

Megume Manabe

“Having the sister city relationship and the relationships we build with teachers and students just amplifies the cultural understanding,” said Pam Benton, the Pre-K-12 World Language Specialist for Pinellas County Schools. “Japan is a drastically foreign country. It’s so different.”

Differences aside, the students in Ms. Gonzalez-Wright’s fourth period Spanish class at St. Petersburg High School can all agree on one thing: learning to write Japanese letters with calligraphy brushes was a highlight of their day with Manabe. Manabe taught them the brush strokes for the symbols for mountain and love, and then taught them how to write their names in Japanese.

“I think it’s really impactful,” said Sage Summers, a junior at St. Pete High. “It’s great that she came over here and I’m really honored that she wanted to show us about her culture.”

In addition to St. Pete High, Manabe visited Bay Point Elementary, Sanderlin K-8, Carwise Middle, Dunedin High and Osceola Middle. At the elementary level, she taught students the proper handling of chopsticks and how to fold origami. Middle and high school students learned calligraphy and listened to Japanese pop music.

“For our students and teachers to get a first-hand peek into their culture through getting to know someone personally, it’s really special,” said Benton, who first visited Nagano City in 1992 and took groups again in 1994, 1995 and 2019. “It’s absolutely fascinating for them.”