Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

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

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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Omake #5: Why I would hate to be an actual public school teacher in Japan

Oh there is so much to say on this subject.

There are many reasons why I would hate to be an actual public school teacher in Japan.

One is because I am a sensitive introvert and being in a school setting is too overwhelming for me.

Another is because I don’t believe in standardized public education. More on this some other time.

But the main reason is this:

Japanese teachers give practically EVERY WAKING MOMENT to their job.

I’d say the Japanese in general tend to give their all for their jobs, no matter what they are doing.  They are a hard working bunch. Too hard working in my opinion. It’s not surprising for people to stay at work until 7 or 8pm every night, when their work officially ends sometime like 4:30pm. This is without getting paid overtime, mind you.

In fact, the Japanese work SO hard, they sometimes die from overwork. This is known as 過労死 (かろうし) which translates quite humbly as “too much-work-death.”

Now, being a teacher in Japan (and I’m talking an actual certified teacher here – not what us foreigners do as English teachers), comes with a LOT of responsibilities. Way more than an equivalent grade- or subject-level American teacher would have.

Home room teachers basically become surrogate parents for their students. I don’t mean this in terms of caring about their emotional needs (though actually, they’re expected to do some of that too). What I mean is, outside the school and outside school hours (evenings, weekends, holidays) the home room teacher (HRT) is THE person responsible for that kid – not the parent. If something were to happen to the kid outside of school, even in the home, a phone call would be made from the parent or other responsible adult TO the HRT to let them know what happened. A more striking example is, let’s say some student shoplifts somewhere on a Saturday, and gets caught. Who does the police call to say “come pick up this kid” ? The parents, of course? WRONG. The police would call the HRT. While that kid is a student at X school under Y home room teacher, that kid reflects upon the school, not the family. A shoplifting incident wouldn’t be seen as a bad apple from a toubled family – it would be seen as a failure of the school to impart proper morals.

Which leads me to my next topic. The schools are responsible for teaching morals. Each grade level is required to have so many hours of moral education, and there’s even textbooks for this. I’ve glanced at a few textbooks – they’re basically about the sanctity of human life and considering other peoples’ feelings. Generally good things to teach, in my opinion. This kind of education would never fly in the US though. But since Japanese schools feel it is their duty to prepare students for life as an adult, this means that not only the HRT but all the teachers in the school are responsble for monitoring students’ behavior and correcting them when need be.

Back to homeroom teachers: Students write a sort of daily diary of their happenings and submit it to the HRT, every day as far as I know. This is a massive invasion of privacy (in my opinion). I mean, what 13 year old kid wants to talk about the fact that they’re going to the doctor for digestive problems to their teacher? But students dutifuly report everything, so the teachers know what’s going on with their charges after hours.

In many schools in the US there’s a hired school counselor who councils the kids. At my middle school in Japan, there is a professional school counselor that comes once or twice a month for a few hours to talk to kids. However, generally the task of dealing with students’ problems is on the shoulders of the school’s regular teachers (especially HRT).

Teachers must come to school even when there is no school in session. Us ALTs, as public employees, are subjected to the same treatment and most of us foreigners think it’s ridiculous. At first (for us ALTs) we think – whee! Free day to surf the internet and get paid! But after a while it gets old sitting at a desk with nothing to do. Regular Japanese teachers, the poor souls, actually have work to do, and constantly chip away at it all day long.

Japanese school breaks are shorter than in the US. In fact, their break between school years (which happens at the end of March) is only about 2 1/2 weeks long. Nothing like the 2 1/2 months in the US. But again, the teachers are not off then (like they are in the US). They must report to school.

During holidays (the break during new years, Golden week the first week of May, and even the break between academic years) teachers are responsible for club activities. In Japan as far as I know, in every middle and high school you are REQUIRED to be a part of a club. Here in rural Japan there are only sports clubs, and they are gender segregated. Girls can be a part of the table tennis club, or the tennis club. Boys get to join either their own table tennis club, or the baseball team. To her awesome credit, there is one girl who was brave enough to join the baseball team, and I admire her courage for being the only girl in an all-boys club. But it’s rare.

In any case, clubs constantly meet for practices or sports meets, during holidays and even during weekends. This sort of baffles me. For example, in the US, holidays and breaks are generally times to be away from school, and spend some quality time with friends and family, right? Maybe even go take a family vacation. Maybe just laze around the house and do your own thing. But not so in Japan. For example, for the break between the academic school year, each club was scheduled to come to school to practice nearly every day (with only about 4 days off, total, in that 2 1/2 week period) for approximately 4 hours a day. What family can go on vacation if their kid must still report to school each day, for half a day? What kid can truly relax and destress from school life if they’re still expected to go in each day and interact with fellow students and their coaches? (Who, by the way, are just regular teachers, and not speciality coaches).

Teachers also have responsibilities beyond teaching their own subjects or heading sports clubs. They also fill in for other teachers from time to time, and strangely enough, the principal and vice principal even on occassion fill in for classes. There are no substitute teachers in Japan as far as I know. Instead, classes are swapped around and another teacher either steps in to teach, or that teacher’s lessons (say, science lessons) get swapped around to a different day when the teacher is around.

Which brings me to my next point – middle school schedules in Japan are crazy. In both my middle school in California and my high school in Illinois, you had a set schedule that was the same every day. You took 6 subjects. Say you had English 1st period. Well, you’d have English 5 days a week, always at 1st period.

In Japan, students take more than 6 subjects. In fact, they take 12. Let me list them:

  1. Japanese (ie: their “English” – reading, writing, etc)
  2. Social Studies
  3. Math
  4. Science
  5. Music
  6. Fine Art
  7. P.E
  8. Arts & Crafts
  9. Home Economics
  10. English (as a foreign language)
  11. Morals
  12. Class activities (not entirely sure what this covers, but I think it includes local history and learning about the community)

Also sometimes there’s special things going on within the school that don’t count as any of these subjects

There’s only 6 periods in a day, so each day looks different, and each week looks different too.

Take the 1st years at my middle school (equivalent to US 7th graders).

Today, Friday May 11th, they had

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd period, Japanese
  • 4th period, Social Studies
  • 5th & 6th periods, Special Event Thing (prepration for some upcoming sprorts meet)

How about Monday, May 14th?  They’ll have:

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd period, Japanese
  • 4th period, Science
  • 5th period, Social Studies
  • 6th period, Student Meeting

That doesn’t look too different.  But how about Tuesday, May 15th?

  • 1st period, Morals
  • 2nd period, English
  • 3rd & 4th periods, Arts & Crats
  • 5th & 6th periods, Pool cleaning (no, my school does not have a pool – they will be cleaning a community pool).

One more.  How about Wednesday May 16th?

  • 1st period, Math
  • 2nd period, Music
  • 3rd & 4th periods, Japanese
  • 5th period, Fine Arts
  • 6th period, P.E.

And don’t you start thinking that there’s ANY kind of consistency going on here.  It just so happens that they have English second period today(Friday), as well as next Monday, and Tuesday, but on Thursday they have it 1st period and on Friday they have it 3rd period.

Schedules are made a week in advance.  Because the schedules are so twisty and random-seeming, it means the teachers can never count on having a stable schedule.  Sometimes they teach 5 classes a day.  Sometimes just 1.  Sometimes they teach several periods in a row; sometimes it’s more spread out.  It sure keeps you on your toes.

And how about the student side of things?  I think it’s terribly confusing for them too, what homework they need to do (say you have fine arts homework, but it isn’t due till next week, when you’re not sure when it’ll be, and have a million other subjects work of homework in the mean time).  Students often forget to do homework assignments, or more often than that, forget to bring even basic things to class like their English notebook or sometimes even textbook!  The poor things are like chickens running around with their head cut off.  What class is next?  Where do I go?  Do I need to change into my PE clothes now?  What do I need to bring to class?  Am I forgetting anything?  Even if students don’t forget their essential notebooks or textbooks, they forget worksheets or handouts we used last class and didn’t finish, because their world is chaotic and having just one or two folders, or sticking things into their textbook and having it later fall out, just doesn’t cut it.

The poor children.

The poor teachers!

I often wonder how teachers can have families.  Especially if they have a high schooler, many moms actually make their kids lunches.  Nothing like a sandwich and a piece of fruit – they cook elaborate boxed lunches (bentos) to send off with their kids every day – rice and several side dishes – as there is no school provided lunch in high schools.  I know some mom teachers have to wake up at like 5am or earlier to get their household and kids in order before getting themselves to school.  And of course with all the classes going on, lesson plans often need to be done at home (though I know this is probably the case for US teachers too).  My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) quite often gets up at 4 or even 3 am just to lesson plan for a busy day.  She had to teach 5 classes today – 3 English classes and then be present for the sports meet prep for the last 2 periods of the day.  Whenever there’s some big event going on in the school, even if it’s led by, say the P.E. teacher, all the other teachers must be present too.  Which means at times like these they can’t just sit at their desk and do their own work – they have to be on hand for whatever school-wide event is going on.

Then at the end of a busy day, at least in my school and in the other middle school in my town, there’s something called “Run-Run-Time.”  The students have to change into their gym clothes and run around the school grounds a few times, and then do various stretches and things.  From here they might break off into their club sports teams and do more sport-specific activities.  This however does NOT count as club practice, which often follows this time, or occurs before school.  The run-run time last 15 minutes and all teachers are generally in attendence (either running with the kids or standing off to the side awkwardly and doing some half-hearted stretches).  I probably should be joining them too, but I prefer to sit at my desk.

Oh the poor, always on the go, Japanese teachers.

This is why I am glad I am not one of them, and never will be.

I suppose before I end this post, I should acknowledge their dedication, and the fact that the majority of the teachers I’ve interacted with genuinely care about their students and seem to take pride and a great deal of responsibility in everything they do.  I just don’t think they need to be doing as much as they are.  Students don’t need to be micromanaged as much as they are.  But then again this is Japan, and my views on education and people are not the same as the Japanese take on it all.  The Japanese people believe they are doing their best in terms of education, and it really seems like they trying and working very hard.  If only they could slow down and enjoy life a little more, and let students be a little freer and allow them to be more creative and independent… but that’s just my view of things.  I’m not here to change Japanese society.  I am here as an observer and as someone with a limited, perhaps miniscule impact, only here for a very short time.

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