Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

Omake # 8: Why teaching English in Japanese public middle schools can be soul-killing

on June 4, 2012

First off, I’m hesitant to publish this post for 2 reasons:

1) My sucessor (or other potential ALTs) might read this, and I don’t want him/her/them to be disillusioned going into JET.

2) Who can really say what’s better, or best, in terms of educuation?  So much of it is wrapped into cultural viewpoints and/or personal opinion.

In any case, here is my humble opinion from my limited, American, point of view.

In my a Omake post titled Are we Assistant Teachers or aren’t we? I talked about how, under the title of “Assistant Language Teacher,” I, like other JETs, ended up the sole, main English teacher in Japanese public elementary schools.

I’ve often complained about this because it’s taxing to teach elementary school students, even though Japanese kids, on the whole, are better behaved and more disciplined than their American counter parts. It still takes a lot of energy to teach and interact with them, and if the class is noisy or enjoying doing something, having them stop, or trying to shout directions at them (even if that direction is “stop!”) can be frustrating and hurt my throat. I generally just teach vocab and play games with the words we just learned (elementary English classes are meant to be fun and whet their appetite for further English, not to actually teach them anything useful), so just directing and demonstrating the games can be tiring.

Though, the one thing that elementary school teaching, for us JETs, has going for it is the fact that we are entirely in control of our class. Sometimes that’s intimidating, because we’re (mainly) not trained teachers, and generally don’t know what we’re doing.  But it can also be liberating. We say what we want, have the children do what we want, and conduct the whole 45 minutes to our liking.

In middle schools, the situation is different. There, JETs are generally co-teachers at best, or living tape-recorders at worst. 

My teaching situation changed this year (last year I worked at only elementary schools), and I was so excited to finally get to work at a middle school, where I figured the students would be more interesting because they were older, could talk about more than just pokemon or jumping rope or playing tag, and would also be able to use more complex English instead of simply answering “How are you?” or saying “I like cat” and yes, note the lack of the “s”.

Boy was I in for a shock. Teaching at the middle school has been just as taxing as the elementary school, but in a different way. I like to refer to it as soul-killing.

First of all, Japanese schools are based on a teacher-centered model. A teacher comes to your classroom (often the kids just stay in their homeroom) and lectures at you and writes stuff on the board. You the student are expected to be quiet and attentive and take notes. If the teacher calls on you, you answer. Otherwise you are silent, obedient, and unquestioning.

Now comes the foreign language class.  Well, most teachers do understand that when teaching/learning a foreign language you need to SPEAK it.  This wasn’t always the case though; with the older Japanese generation, they learned English purely through reading and writing with the grammar translation method.  This means they’d break down English sentences word by word and translate them into Japanese.  Or, as an exercise in the other direction, would look at a Japanese sentence and translate it into English.  This is a legitimate way of learning a language, if all you ever want to do is know it for academic purposes, and is the only way to study dead languages such as Latin.  (Well, unless you wanted to attempt speaking it – in which case, why not?)

Sadly, the grammar translation method is nothing more than an academic exercise in logic and memorization.  Perfectly a good use of time and energy if all you want is a basic knowledge or overview of a language.

But in our day and age, actually knowing how to speak a language is very important.  Especially when that language happens to be English, a major international language.

Now, I mentioned that Japanese teachers understand that you must speak English in an English classroom.  However, their interpretation of this is very misguided.  Japanese teachers of English (JTE) generally believe that as long as their students are speaking English (ie: their mouths are open and moving and voices are coming out of them), they are learning English. 

But you see, what JTEs see as “speaking” English is merely pronouncing English.  They see it as repeating vocabulary words over and over.  Okay, sure, to establish basics.  They also see it as repeating a textbook passage, over, and over, and over.  And over.  And again.  And once more.  They often believe in memorizing said textbook passage.  Then, they pull out their old friend “grammar translation method” which they maybe grew up on, and have the students translate the text into Japanese.  Then they have the students look at the Japanese and translate it back into English, either saying it or writing it.  During a class period, a lot of English may be “spoken” in this way, or “practiced” by writing, but it is spoken robotically, or written absentmindedly, and by using a fixed text.  And once a lesson (it’s grammar point and dialogue) have been covered, with perhaps some very basic grammar exercises inserted in there(also either “speaking” or “writing” the answers), the teacher moves onto the next lesson.  And the next lesson.  And the next lesson.  And then a Unit Test.  Then the next Unit begins…

What I am trying to say is, the students almost NEVER get to use language for any communicative purpose whatsoever.  They almost NEVER get to say what they are thinking, or what they are feeling.  They almost NEVER get to create, on their own, sentences that use the grammar point or vocabulary introduced in a lesson.  They simply parrot the text over and over, or parrot sample sentences spoken by the JTE.  They never have to think.  Just blindly memorize, and blindly repeat; blindly copy down words or blindly memorize their spelling.

Now imagine that you were an assistant English teacher (ALT) in this situation.  Imagine being asked to read a text and having students repeat after you.  Once, okay.  Twice, sure.  Three times – is that really necessary?  Then maybe the JTE will take over and have them repeat it 2 more times.  Then she’ll make them stand up and say the dialogue out loud, to themselves 2 times, then have them sit down and say the dialogue to themselves a further 3 times.  Then maybe she’ll tell them to say the dialogue to themselves 10 times for homework, or perhaps have them even memorize it for the next class and make sure they can say it in under 30-40 seconds, depending on the length of the passage. 

And vocab?  She tells them to write each word 10 times in their notebook.  Or to fill up so many pages in their notebooks with vocabulary (ie: 3 pages a night).  To write it until they’ve memorized it.  But then comes the inevitable response, from a bright and easily bored student “but I’ve memorized it already!”  “Tough luck” says the JTE; “do it anyway.”

This leaves most Japanese students hating English.  It’s such a pain in the neck, and requires a fair bit of mindless work that often leave even the brightest, most curious students burnt out or turned off.

Oh yeah, let’s go back to the ALT.

I admit, not EVERY class is like this.  Sometimes my JTE will ask me to design an activity around a certain grammar point, and I’ll make one or find one on the internet.  I try and make sure it’s actually communicative – perhaps even using language creatively – and something fun and absolutely NOT mindless.  Sometimes my activity will take up a good 10-20 minutes of class.  The students will laugh and have fun.  I’ll be like “aww these kids are fun and they’re actually learning something” and get a little fuzzy feeling in my heart and be glad to be here in Japan, teaching them.

But those moments are rare gems.  Mostly class is mindless chanting.  Mostly homework and activities is mindless writing.

But I’m the ALT, you see.  I’m the Assistant Language Teacher.  I don’t make the lesson plans at the middle school – my JTE does – and I’m just expected to help her out and provide support.  It’s not my job to tell her that her methods are bad, or ineffective.  I even tried bringing up once the “do they really need to memorize these passages every time?” talk and her response was “that’s how I learned English – I think it’s good for them.”  End of story.

Looking back over the last 9 months I spent here at the middle school, I do wonder if I could have made more of an effort to change the way my JTE runs her class.  But I don’t think it’s my job to singlehandedly revamp the Japanese educational view of learning foreign languages.  I don’t think I could have had much more of an impact than perhaps creating more activities and worksheets that are more interactive, and making sure there was at least one of these every time I helped out in class.  I suppose I could have done that.  Maybe out of laziness, or maybe out of antipathy for the seemingly unfixable situation, I couldn’t bring myself to be so involved.  It’s exhausting enough for me personally to have to plan and do the elementary and preschool lessons on my own, that I didn’t want to take on the middle school ones too. 

Does that make me a bad ALT?  Maybe.  But the system, that was here before I got here and will be here when I leave, is not something that I can be or should feel responsible for.  As much as us ALTs want to change the way the Japanese approach education, or at least foreign language education, our power is limited.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have an influence, and change things slowly, little by little.  I personally have gotten disilusioned and burnt out, and am all to happy to jump ship and leave this all behind me when my contract ends at the end of July.

But to all remaining ALTs, incoming ALTs, future ALTs, prospective ALTs, I hope that you can learn to care about your students and their education, and do what you can, no matter how little that is, to get your students to actually use English and appreciate it as something more than a mere subject to be memorized.

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4 responses to “Omake # 8: Why teaching English in Japanese public middle schools can be soul-killing

  1. I found this post really interesting as we too have been struggling with the system of education that exists in Korea. It is just so different to what we’re used to and, like you say, more a system of having students learn English grammatically perfect for the sake of ‘knowing’ it rather than USING it. We work in hagwons (cram schools) so we’re lucky the focus for us is actually on conversation but by the time the kids get to us, they are so over what they see as the chore of learning English that it can be really hard to get anything out of them, especially with the middle school kids.

    There are many other flaws in this system too but as someone here for a year or two its kinda beyond our change. Not to say I don’t care but unfortunately we’ve learnt the hard way that when we challenge the status quo or care too much about trying to get kids to learn it can result in losing your job here. So we kinda suck it up and do what we’re told. At the end of the day, I’m sure your students will remember that they had fun when they learning with you and those will be the lessons that stand out in their memories :)

    • I’m glad you got something out of my post. I often hear that the Koreans are more into education and push English harder than the Japanese – though I perhaps naively assumed this meant that Koreans are starting to learn to speak better English, when maybe in reality they’re just spending more time cramming in knowledge like they already do in schools, but at hagwons….

      How do you manage to stay positive, and keep doing your job? How do you face work and the students every day, knowing it’s a constant battle to teach and interact with them? I’ve gotten a bit pessimistic and fortunately am getting myself out of my teaching situation very, very soon as my contract is up in a little under 2 months now. But it’s been a rough year for me. Maybe I care too much?

      • I assumed that the level of spoken English here would be fantastic – but its really not. In fact, there have been many recent articles in the newspaper focusing on exactly that problem as there are far reaching implications in terms of overseas college admissions and getting into situations when people are employed by large companies that expect them to be able to interact on an international basis in English when they’re just prepared to do so.

        Yes, its a constant battle to teach and interact with the students. But at the end of the day the opportunity to be here is pretty cool and we don’t work very long hours (around 6 a day which is far less than back home!). There are certainly days when we wonder what the point is but the hagwon directors are actually very clear about what our responsibilities are here – none. Seriously. We are the ‘faces’ of the hagwon that give them the ability to promote having a native speaker. We are not actually expected (or in some cases even allowed) to teach much English. They have Korean teachers for that – which of course goes along way to explain why the level of English spoken here is so poor. But we’re encouraged to smile, have a bit of fun and get the students talking if we can. And if we can’t, they don’t really seem to care that much. Once you realise that’s the way things here work, its really just a a matter of making the most of it and not letting disillusionment get to you. I imagine its not for everyone, especially the people that are really driven to teach and change lives. But hagwons are not the environment for those types of teachers, sadly. That’s probably the best piece of advice I could give anyone looking to teach in Asia – establish your reasons for wanting to teach and choose the type of placement accordingly. Otherwise it can be a nasty wake up call!

        The two remaining months of your contract I imagine will absolutely FLY by. I always find when I’m on the cusp of leaving a place thats when I start to absolutely fall in love with everything about it too. Which means you leave with great memories and great stories to tell. And then you’re on to the next adventure!

        • Wow, I’ve heard the term “glorified babysitters” before for people who work at Hagwons/Jukus (the Japan equivalent), but I had no idea you were that much of a token foreigner. What do you do with your classes then? Generally how long is the class period? How many kids are in each class? How many classes do you “teach” a day?

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