TWIN FALLS — After 17 years in Japan, I.B. Perrine Elementary School teacher Rob Weaver brings some non-traditional lessons into his classroom.

The last week of each school year, his Twin Falls fifth-graders participate in a “Japanese Week,” where they learn about the language, food and culture.

There are also connections back to south-central Idaho, such as the history of the Minidoka Relocation Center near Eden, one of 10 internment camps where Japanese-Americans were forced to live in the 1940s following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Weaver’s students also talk seriously about college and ways to better themselves to achieve their goals. In Japan, students decide early what they want to do as a career.

Students in Japan have a leg up — but only in some ways, Weaver said. “Academically and physically, they are heads and shoulders above our kids.”

But their maturity level and ability to make decisions is way behind their U.S. counterparts, he said. “If we can get a balance of both, that would be ideal.”

Beyond academic lessons, Weaver — who has taught at Perrine Elementary since 2014 — said the main thing he brings to his classroom as a result of his time in Japan is acceptance of others.

“Even though I was there as long as I was, I was always a foreigner,” he said.

In Weaver’s classroom, there’s significantly more diversity than when he was a child growing up in Twin Falls. He has seven non-Caucasian students, including refugees from around the world.

The journey from

Twin Falls to Japan

Weaver, who grew up in the Magic Valley, remembers playing in an open field and with frogs in a nearby ditch where Perrine Elementary is now. The school hadn’t been built yet.

He graduated from Twin Falls High School in 1989. His first experience teaching was as a survival instructor for nine months in Utah through the Challenger Foundation.

Then, he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan, where he became immersed in the culture. After growing up in conservative Idaho, he said, it was an eye-opening experience.

While Weaver was in Japan, he often extended a loose invitation to those he met to come visit him in the United States. One woman, who he didn’t know well, decided to visit after he returned home.

“After she came the second time, I asked ‘Why are you really here?’” Weaver said. As it turns out, she was interested in him.

After returning home from his mission, Weaver went to college. He and the woman wrote letters back-and-forth almost every day for a year. They later got married and decided to move to Japan.

Weaver taught in Japan in two stints over the years. The first part was in Osaka, the second in Miyazaki.

Weaver said one of his high school teachers inspired him to become an educator. “It takes one teacher to inspire you to do something,” he said.

His first teaching job in Japan was for a school of languages for about six years. He already knew someone working there. “A friend said ‘Hey, you should come work for us,’” Weaver said, so he did.

It wasn’t a traditional school setting, though, and he didn’t work with children. He worked with companies such as Mitsubishi, teaching their executives how to speak English.

After moving back to the U.S., Weaver took a break from education and spent three-and-a-half years as a stock broker for Edward Jones. “Right when I was going full commission, the tech bubble burst,” he said.

Weaver shifted gears again — this time, to teaching in the College of Southern Idaho’s English as a Second Language program. He also worked for the state providing intensive behavioral intervention for children who have autism.

He and his wife made the decision once again to return overseas. He spent almost 10 years there during the second stint, including teaching immersion kindergarten and opening his own school.

Weaver opened and operated a cram school, Yellowstone English School, for about six years. The biggest challenge was getting the equivalent of a green card in order to buy property. He bought a building and converted the first floor into a school.

It was a cooking, conversation and cram school. Cram schools are big in Japan, Weaver said. It’s supplemental to a student’s regular education, but it’s often viewed as an expectation for children to attend.

Students attend cram school anywhere from 3 p.m. to midnight to receive instruction in a variety of subjects. Children complete “kill and drill” worksheets until they demonstrate mastery of a concept, Weaver said.

If students don’t get into a good preschool, that can lead to a ripple effect for the rest of their education. And if students can score well on tests, they have a chance of getting into a good high school and university.

If a teacher has a student get into one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, it means they’ll get more students, Weaver said.

His own four children went through the Japanese education system. His daughter was on track to get into prestigious universities and her teacher begged her to stay in the country. But after Weaver and his wife got divorced, he decided to move the family back to the United States in 2010 after getting rare sole custody of his children after a two-year process in Japan.

Back in Twin Falls, Weaver had a decision to make. His teaching credential wouldn’t be recognized, and he was deciding whether to return to college or pursue an alternate route to certification.

He enrolled in Idaho State University’s Twin Falls bachelor’s degree program in elementary education and graduated in 2014.

Halfway through his student teaching at Perrine — in the same classroom he’s in now — he was hired to teach fifth-grade at Lincoln Elementary School. That was a result of the statewide teacher shortage.

Now, as a teacher back at Perrine, his experiences in Japan are never far from his mind. He said they transformed him as a person: “Teaching in Japan has helped me be better in a lot of things.”