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.


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

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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