Same but Different

In most of my entries I realize I haven’t made much mention of the little thing called ‘my job’ which sustains me here in Japan, but I assure it’s not out of any sort of loathing. Instead, it’s rather that it’s the ‘thing’ I do during the week that is usually overshadowed by what I get up to on the weekends. But I suppose, six months in, an explanation would probably be in order.

I am termed, in JET-lingo, as a ‘base-school’ ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). This basically means that majority of my time is spent at one school, in this case the town’s ONLY Junior High School, Takushin. Additionally, I teach at five elementary schools spread out around Sarufutsu. Now bear in mind that this is a small village, so the elementary schools average in total population of four to seventy-four. Every school in SA that I’d attended averaged around one thousand students, so these tiny class sizes are a mind screw in their own right. I think it was my supervisor who explained that this can be attributed to the policy that every student should be within close proximity to a school. Easy enough in the cities, expensive to implement in the countryside. But this is Japan, and it must be done, for the greatness of the emperor, or something…

… my roles in the respective schools differ along two broad lines. At the Junior High School, I take a firm second role to the main English teacher, or JTE, and this is most probably for the better. My JTE, Eizo Katsura, speaks excellent (near fluent) English, having studied in Ireland for a spell as well as extensively in Japan. As a result he’s a very capable teacher, who would likely not need me at all really should Sarufutsu decline to have an ALT here. In the classes with him, I am simply there to help out with pronunciation, intonation and the other verbal nuances of the language that cannot really be taught so much as heard and absorbed. So aside from the occasional subtlety of the English language which I can expound upon, I am effectively a human voice recorder. It gets terribly boring sometimes, but then again, were I to take a more instructive role in class, I think it would disrupt their education far more than it would benefit them.

In the elementary schools, however, I am effectively ‘the’ English teacher. Because of Japan’s hopelessly inadequate educational budgetary restraints (as a result of equally hopeless legislation), all but one of the some twenty-odd elementary ‘homeroom teachers’ I teach with don’t speak a lick of English. It makes for entertaining meeting sessions, but it also gives me a far greater freedom to shape the lessons as I am comfortable with. In almost every single class, I am the effect ‘JTE’ rather than the other way round, and the truth of the matter is, it’s awesome! In the elementary schools, the kids are under far less pressure, respond way more positively to the language, and are generally less blasé about the whole second language thing. By the time they are ready to leave the Junior High, however, those who are not so great (ie BAD) at English have essentially given up at trying to do better, while those with promise leap aheap. In Elementary schools, because the class sizes range from two to twenty, the students carry each other along.

The lessons are active and full of language-related games aiming to build a solid notion of what they’re learning, and I try as much as possible to encourage the kids to be unafraid to speak English as loudly as possible. For the most part, it’s far more rewarding than the JHS. It’s just a pity I am ultimately allocated far more time at the latter than the former, because where I can do the most positive work is precisely where my time is limited. Severely! I visit each elementary school roughly once or twice a month, with the max being weekly visits, which is just plainly not enough. These kids likely get rigid, textbook-based English classes (about once a week with or without an ALT) and enter Junior High School with a crippled ability in English. If I could have my way, I’d be far more oriented around the Elementary schools, and provide weekly ‘oral’ classes with the JHS students. But that’s not the way it’s done, and I’m but a piddly 1st year JET person, so what do I know!?!

Nonetheless it’s an enjoyable job, if somewhat boring after a while. The elementary classes, while fun, hardly tax my well-versed knowledge in Plato’s Republic or the intricacies of Marxist theory. But for anyone reading this wishing to embark on the JET programme, this is likely what you can expect! I know several folks around Japan who can speak decent Japanese and are still relegated to second-fiddle gaijin voice recorders, which is a shameful waste of a rather expensive resource. I suspect the native teachers don’t really know what to do with us, and that only exacerbates the waste. Why spend all that money flying in a foreigner with native-level command of the English language if they’re going to simply be ‘helping out’? This problem hints at my own suspicions that the JET programme, while delightful, is a colossal waste of resources that could be streamlined far more effectively. Course, nobody wants to hear that, so I’ll be the good JET employee and shut up about that :p Japanese educators are taking close to a 9% pay cut next year, the third year running, and yet us gaijin get ferried in by the thousands to ‘internationalise’ and help unmotivated Junior and Senior high school students pronounce English words correctly! It’s a criminal waste!

Thankfully, many Elementary schools are beginning to see the need for English instructors in their classrooms from an early age, and thus the demand for elementary-focused ALT’s increases. Although by now there is no budget for it in the over-burdened education ministry. It’s a pity, because it’s at those very young ages where the problem of teaching a seriously difficult language can be dealt with effectively with the correct training and legislation. Yet instead us JET’s are stuffed like the pale white sewer rats we are into senior high school classes to teach to those who are already far beyond what little contributions the ALT can possibly make. Even the most enthusiastic, fluent Japanese-speaking ALT of English can hope to achieve so much. Extra-mural ‘language clubs’ and all that wonderful fluffy stuff might help a select few gain mastery of the English language, but I can almost assuredly say off-hand that these are the minority, and that the rest of the students are doomed to ESL failure for the rest of their educational existence!

Nay! I say it should be the elementary schools that receive us ALT’s first, instead of the other way round! They learn more, respond better to instruction, and quite simply need it more than their senior counterparts. Also, for a gaijin like me, I have way more fun with them anyway!

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