Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

Omake #4: Are we assistant teachers or aren’t we?

on April 17, 2012

I’m on the JET program.  My job title is ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher.  But for my first year, and much of my second, I have not been an assistant teacher but the MAIN teacher.  At elementary schools that is.

Many of us JETs came to Japan expecting to be helping a main English teacher, and for many JETs, this is the situation they do in fact find themselves in.  For JETs stationed at one or more middle schools, or one or more high schools, they often go along with a lesson plan that the school’s English teacher prepares, helping out where asked, or wherever they proactively ask to take part in.  However, even then, it’s not necessarily the type of school they’re working at but rather the teachers they are working with, and any precedent that has been set by ALTs in the past.

JET warns us over and over that “ESID” – Every Situation is Different.  You can’t really make generalizations about the JET program, because the JET program just works as a liaison to hire people for various Boards of Education across all of Japan.  We work directly for whatever Board of Education we are assigned to, NOT the JET program.  Which means that what we are asked to do ultimately depends on where we are assigned.

Despite variations in working conditions, the job expectations of ALTs are, unfortunately, extremely vague, and usually neither us ALTs nor the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) know what exactly we’re supposed to be doing.  It’s generally up to the individual people on both sides to negotiate our roles and involvement.

There’s been a very good thesis written on the “role-confusion” of ALTs and how this stems from cultural differences.  It’s titled “An examination into the extent that cultural factors cause role confusion between ALTs and JTEs in the Japanese English classroom” by Paul Cotter, and you can read it yourself here:


I considered summing up some of his points, but I wouldn’t be doing it justice, so read it if you have the time or the inclination.

What I want to talk about right now is the situation in Japanese public Elementary schools.

Many schools across the country have been holding English classes starting at grades 5 and 6.  Some schools, such as on the islands I live on, have English classes starting in preschool.  That seems rarer; it’s likely because we’re in a rural area of Japan and the ALTs assigned here generally have less schools and less students to work with, so they’re freer to be spread across the various grade levels and spend some time with the young ones.

Starting April 2011 (last school year), English classes became mandatory for grades 5 and 6.  There had been a textbook circulating for some years already (Eigo Note), but starting last year, all elementary schools HAD to use it, and HAD to have an English class once a week for each grade 5 and 6.

This year, April 2012 we’ve gotten an updated textbook called “Hi, Friends!”

The problem though, is that in elementary schools, much like the US, teachers are general education teachers (for the most-part), in that they teach all the subjects.  On occasion a school will have a dedicated music teacher, or a dedicated PE teacher, but this seems to vary from school to school.

This means that elementary school teachers are neither trained to be English teachers, nor very comfortable with English in the first place.  Many Japanese theoretically can speak English (they’ve studied it for years and years in middle school, high school, and probably college), but are disinclined to.  They tend to have decent vocabulary/writing/reading skills, but will look at you like a deer in headlights if you ask them to actually say anything out loud.  This means that when it comes to elementary English classes, they see the ALT, who is a native English teacher, and they go “phew, that person can just go ahead and do everything.”  They will generally go up to the ALT and say “It’s all up to you” (in Japanese, of course –  お任せします。)

I was told just that when I arrived in my town, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, in August 2010.  I was given the textbooks (at the time, Eigo Note) and told “It’s all up to you.”  Which left me thinking “. . . . . ”  Asking where they left off in the textbook was a start (I started teaching in September, which is technically the 2nd semester of the Japanese school year).

However, a big problem is that the lesson plans are written ENTIRELY in Japanese.  Now, I came in with a decent amount of Japanese (3 years in the US at my university, plus one year while studying abroad in Japan in Kobe and living with a host family).  Even so, for anyone who has studied Japanese for any amount of time, they know that Kanji (Chinese characters) are a nuance that never goes away.  I don’t mean to say that Kanji are always a pain in the neck – they can be fun, or beautiful, or interesting – but they aren’t exactly easy.  Heck, they’re not even easy for Japanese people.  They study hundreds each year, beginning in 1st grade, and there are still obscure kanji, easy to mix-up kanji, name-kanji, and all sorts of characters that give even native speakers trouble.

So back in September 2010 I looked at the Japanese lesson plans, filled with kanji (some I could read, some I couldn’t – some having combination where I recognize the characters but couldn’t read it and didn’t know the exact meaning…) and decided to throw it out the window.

Then there was the problem of what to teach, because just by looking at the textbook, it isn’t obvious.  It’s filled with a lot of pictures and a lot of obscure directions like “Number Game” and “Keyword Game” and how are you supposed to know what those are?

Then we run into the fact that most of us JETs are not certified teachers.  Most of us have never taken an education class in our lives.  Most of us have no experience teaching, and if we’re told to just “go for it” we have no idea what to do with a room of students.

There was a 2 day orientation in Tokyo, when we first arrived.  During that time was an optional seminar (you chose what seminars you went to) called “Teaching Elementary English” or something like that.  In that one (or maybe it was two?) hour seminar, I learned a grab-bag of games and activities to use in the classroom, that I clung to for my first few months.  It’s no joke to say that if I hadn’t attended that seminar, I would have had absolutely NO idea what to do.

Now, grades 5 and 6 have textbooks.  Grades 1-4 don’t.  Some schools give you a sort of syllabus of what topics to teach, and others say “teach whatever you want.”  Both have their benefits, but for an incoming ALT, having NO syllabus (as was the case at one of my elementary schools) was daunting.  What’s worse, for a new ALT, having NO pre-made materials means tortue.  Thankfully, all the elementary schools I worked at have had picture cards, though strangely, last year, one had large picture cards only (to show a class) and one had sets of small picture cards only (to play games like memory or go fish or the Portuguese Carta or whatever).  Oddly enough, they were both from the same set, so I often had to drag around materials between the two elementary schools to have access to both items.

Back to grades 5 and 6: in April 2011, I decided to go with the Japanese lesson plans after all, and squeak my way through all the kanji.  After being in Japan a while it wasn’t so daunting.  Ever since I have stuck closely to those plans, changing very little.

This year, at my current elementary school, with the new textbook, and new 5th and 6th grade teachers (one is the old PE teacher, and the other transferred in from another school) I thought, maybe I should go back to basics, and try to do team-teaching like we’re actually supposed to do.  Like, we should sit down and have a “meeting” about the upcoming lesson, so we can plan together and teach the class together.

Well, I did that for a week and it’s already fallen apart.  The two new teachers just stand off to the side and let me take the reigns once the bell rings and class begins.  At least I’m experienced enough now that I know what I’m doing, and familiar enough with the kids that it isn’t quite as taxing as it once was.  And thankfully, the teachers do help me in one regard – they call on the students when I ask them questions.  I’m terrible at remembering names this year – so much so I’m finally making name cards, a little too late.  I do appreciate this one courtesy, as well as the teachers actually being present in the classroom AND paying attention to what’s going on (two things you can’t necessarily take for granted), so I’m counting my blessings.

This has been my elementary school “ALT” experience.


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