I would never presume to claim that this site is a valuable source of indispensable information, but I would say that we’ve got some good stuff today. While it’s a subjective interpretation of the JET Programme, I believe it to have value for those considering JET, simply because it’s the rebuttal to the claims of the Programme’s PR machine. I hope that my summary of thoughts on the matter help to balance the paradigm of The Ideal Vs. The Experience as far as JET is concerned.
I’ve also got a bonus, which I’ll mention before we even get started. Fellow JET and friend, Big Matt (who has been mentioned from time to time), has penned an essay on this very subject during his post-graduate studies in Second Language Acquisition.
Suffice it to say that his piece is far more objective, well worded and footnoted than mine. We cover a lot of the same points, but he manages to touch on a few subjects that I was either too lazy to touch on, or simply didn’t occur to me in the first place. He is also far more optimistic about possible remedies for the situation within the framework of the current education system than I am.
All in all, if you were only to read ONE of our two essays, I’d say read his, even if he doesn’t cuss as much as I do in mine. I’ve made it available for download as a Word document and also posted an HTML version if you like to avoid the use of MS products, which you probably should.
“The JET Programme was started with the purpose of increasing mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations. It aims to promote internationalization in Japan’s local communities by helping to improve foreign language education and developing international exchange at the community level.”
So here we are at long last; the part where I look back on the past three years and evaluate various things, not the least of which is the JET Programme. I feel it’s important to preface this writing with an important disclaimer that has it’s own convenient anagram: ESID. During the JET orientation process, the mantra that was beat into our heads on a minute-by-minute basis was that although they were trying to prepare us for what was waiting in our working and living situations, ultimately Every Situation Is Different. You see, the way JET works in a nutshell is this.
1) The government tells schools in Japan about the Programme and that it can provide it with native English speakers to assist their Japanese Teachers of English (JTE).
2) Interested schools and/or townships put in a request for “One gaijin with a small fries, and for fuck’s sake, no onions on that! I hate fucking onions!”
3) The government then takes applications from various countries and interviews candidates (usually through those countries’ local Consulate General of Japan offices), making sure to ask “And how do you feel about onions? Please, answer freely.”
4) Those afore-mentioned requests for teachers-who-can-actually-pronounce-consonant-clusters are then filled in with these applicants, taking absolutely no steps to put them anywhere close to the area or type of region they requested. (Seriously, from what I can tell, the section on the application that asks for “preferred region or city” is only there to fill the otherwise dreary days of the placement-officers with some much-needed giggling, cause chances are you’re not ending up there.)
Those of you with the more gazelle-like mental trappings will probably have noticed that the initial process is remarkably similar to that of a job-placement agency. This is basically what it is at the government level (i.e. the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations,CLAIR, which is the nefarious section of government responsible for carrying out the JET Programme).
However, the reason I drew all this out in such detail is so those who haven’t dealt with JET before can see the reasons that Every Situation Is Different. Sure, CLAIR plays matchmaker, but after that the contract is struck between the JET Participant and his/her school (or town), which is where the variation comes in. The salary itself is set in stone by CLAIR, but everything else (rent, sick leave, vacation time, apartment furnishings, et al) is up to the discretion of your contractor.
For example, if you live in the countryside, you’re rent is likely to be very low or perhaps even taken care of entirely by your school/town. I knew of a few JET participants in this situation who were set up with rent-free, two-story, 8-bedroom houses. Cha-CHING! On the other hand, if you end up in the big city, the best your contracting organization might be able to come up with within it’s budget is a tiny studio apartment with a shared bathroom that the freak next-door is always leaving his putrid stench in. Even worse, they might not be able to help very much, or at all with that kind of rent (especially if they have multiple JET participants at different schools), which means that in addition to living in a shoebox, you’re also paying $600/month for it. Yikes.
So the moral of this introduction boils down to, every situation really is different. If you’re about to go through the orientation process, I guarantee you, after the first day, you’ll want to hit anyone who says “Every Situation is Different” in the face with a snow shovel, but they are speaking sooth, even if it is a very frustrating sooth.* Therefore, everything I’m about to go off on in this ‘evaluation’ is subject to the “Your Mileage May Vary” rule. In talking with countless other JET participants, I’ve found that we agree on many of the points I’ll hit, but there are always those that, either through their situations or their perspective, simply see it differently. If you really wanted to, I’m sure you could track down one or two of their blogs online; more power to ya if you do.
* It could also be pointed out that since ESID, there’s really no point in an orientation since they can’t give you any hard answers that you can count on. Just relax and be content, knowing that during the day-after-day of painfully irrelevant, cliché-soaked, inspirational speeches about changing the world, one “I’mfinethankyouandyou” at a time…. that you’re getting paid the entire time. Mmmmmm, sweet, sweet ¥en, I do love you so.
Introduction – “The Power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicysm by those who haven’t got it.”
Okay, so if you haven’t clued in on it yet, I’m a little critical of the JET Program’s effectiveness in “Improving foreign language education in Japan.” Another way of putting it would be to say that the JET Programme is as effective in teaching English to Japanese students as it would be to send Morse code to a renegade soviet submarine (under the command of Sean Connery of course) by beating a bunny on the head with a pancake. It just doesn’t work. The question is WHY doesn’t it work, which is what lots of people can’t seem to agree on. As luck would have it, I happen to have a few opinions on the subject.
Difference in Paradigms – The Apprentice Vs The Brick Wall
One of the things that most ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher, the official title of most JET participants) agree on is that getting the students to do anything in class aside from being emotionless zombies, is a feat downright Herculean in nature. They just sit there with blank looks on their faces in this heavy silence. And it’s not just getting them to react, which is pretty easy to do with little effort, it’s getting them to interact that is the problem. As near as I can tell this reluctance to interact is a cultural parting of the ways, which is a claim I will attempt to qualify…… NOW!
In most flavors of western education, the default teaching model (achieved with various levels of success, of course) is based on the old Greek model of Master and Apprentice, in which students are encouraged to engage in a dialogue with the teacher, in which they ask questions information given to them, poking and prodding in order to come to a truer understanding. Japanese schools, in contrast, rely on a model of monologue in which the teacher (a figure of respect) gives information to his students, end of story. The difference in this model is that the wisdom of the teacher is not challenged since it would be interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
The reality of the Japanese classroom doesn’t match up perfectly with the monologue model however. Japanese students do indeed ask questions and react to the information presented by the teacher to a minor extent, but as was mentioned above, this isn’t enough since it is the ability not just to react but also to interact in a language environment that results in learning. So here we have the first challenge: trying to teach communication (dialogue) through a non-communicative approach (monologue).
Okay, you say, then the solution is to just convince the teachers to change up how they’re doing class, right? As you may have guessed, it’s not that easy. Most of my JTE’s understood the problem that there was too much time spent on grammar and not enough on communication, i.e. getting an idea across to another person (which does not, of course, require perfect mastery of grammar. Need an example? Look at everything on this site. -_- ).
As it turns out, the ALTs and the JTEs have a common enemy, Monbukagakusho (aka the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, but for our purposes, let’s just remember the ‘Ministry of Education’ part).
The Ministry dictates the curriculum for English classes on the national level, from Jr. High through High school (and soon to be Elementary). This equates to ‘quotas’ being put on the English teachers of exactly what they have to teach and by when. I can’t count the number of times that I suggested an idea for a lesson to a teacher, only to be told “Well, it’s a good idea, but I’m afraid we won’t have time.”
Granted, all teachers have certain requirements for their material placed on them, Japanese or not, but the lengths to which this is carried out in Japan (at least from what I saw) is downright suffocating. As an example, there were times in class when I would read an example sentence aloud such as “This is a dog.” in which I would pronounce ‘a’ as ‘eh’ for whatever reason (I mean, we do that in English sometimes, rght?). The JTE would immediately cut in and say, “Um, they don’t know that ‘a’ can be pronounced ‘eh’, please just say it ‘ah’.
What the fuck is that!? This is an important, nay vital, point of comprehension for understanding spoken English, wouldn’t you say? It would take three minutes to explain it once and the occasional reminder throughout the year here and there as people need to be reminded of it until it finally becomes habit, right?
So why aren’t these little tidbits of “real” English welcomed into the JET classroom?
Entrance Exams – The Lynchpin
You know how college is, right? Lots of fucking around for a few years, enjoying freedom and all, but as it starts ramping up toward the end, you’ve really gotta sort your shit out, hit the books and pass those finals or that diploma that they’re dangling on the fish pole in front of you like a carrot is going to remain a misty pipe-dream. Getting out of college is our final test before passing into the realm of Responsible Society™.
Things are a tad different in the Japanese version of college. It’s basically one long undulating wave passing from the crests of drunken-halcyon nights to the troughs of responsibility-free hangovers during a class that you don’t really need to listen to because you’re probably going to pass it anyway. The point is, if you made it into college, you’re pretty much going to graduate. But how?? How is this educational Shangri-La possible and how didn’t you and I hear about before we spent all that precious effort on studying that we could have instead spent trying to figure out how to outwit hangovers?
University in Japan is a relative breeze, graduation is a virtual signed-sealed-and-delivered contract, not because there is no final test before passing into society, but because the test comes BEFORE entering university, not after. There are entrance exams that determine who gets into the best (and worst for that matter) schools and these happen near the end of High School. After these are passed and you get into uni, you’re on a four-year “rest stop” where you can catch your breath and enjoy your last real chance to kick back and savor life before you fall into some despicable humdrum existence as a salary-slave for the rest of your life.
These entrance exams are insanely difficult, based mostly on rote memorization and are the bane of true educators across the nation. You can probably deduce that their use results in a system of trickle-down consequences. Because there are college entrance exams, there are high school entrance exams; In order to get into the best university, you have to get into the best High School so you can pass the test. But in order to get into the best High School, you have to pass the High School entrance exams. When do you start preparing for those? Jr. High, of course. So Jr. High and High School classrooms are scorched-earth battlegrounds of entrance exam preparation, which will ultimately decide the life course of the students who comprise them.
Ready for the punchline to all this? Guess where almost all JET teachers are placed; yep, Jr. and Senior High Schools.
No wonder all the students are zombies and none of the teachers want to stray from exactly what’s on the Ministry of Education-approved text book page. No one is there to learn; they’re there to find out what’s going to be on “The Test.”
This creates a substantial conflict of interests between the goals of the ALT and those of everyone else involved. The ALT is there to teach “real” English. In many cases, ALTs have little to no background or experience in education (my degree was in film and theatre, for example); the only thing they know is how to introduce “real” English. But neither the teachers nor the students have the time (nor often the interest) to be bothered with real English. ALTs are not only unneeded in the Jr. High and High School setting, they are virtually unwanted because they are seen as an obstacle to the primary goal of exam preparation.
Elementary School – Meta-Education
Enter another factor that drove me nuts, Elementary schools. Many ALTs find themselves charged with going to elementary schools on a periodic basis in addition to their normal Jr./Senior high school posts. In my case, I visited three of Fukuma’s six elementary schools (the others were visited by Fletcher and after he left, Malik), once a week. As faithful readers may recall, I was never very happy with the experience and dreaded it like the plague. I never knew what I was supposed to be doing since there was no curriculum set by either the Ministry of Education or by the elementary teachers. The teachers had never really been briefed on what I was supposed to be doing, so they were never in a position to offer any support or guidance.
Worst of all, once I finally figured out how to create lessons that would keep the kids’ attentions and perhaps even teach them something, it didn’t matter because I visited them too infrequently. I would see each class perhaps once, maybe twice, every semester. By the time I came back to a classroom to teach the next lesson they had already forget everything I taught them in the last one. I was basically treading water from visit to visit, not making any progress and just trying to come up with new ideas that ‘start from square one’ that wouldn’t bore the kids (or myself) to death.
My goals as a teacher were incompatible with the time allotted to them. Whenever I brought this up with my supervisors, they agreed that it was a ‘difficult’ situation, but there wasn’t really anything to be done. They said that I should treat it as PR time, not to actually teach them English, but to ‘get them excited about the idea of learning English’. Pardon me if that isn’t the most magical load of horseshit I’ve ever heard.
First, this is a colossal waste of the resource that a native English speaker represents to a classroom setting. Proper pronunciation and usage can be observed and mimicked in a “safe” environment where experimentation is encouraged and rewarded. In addition, most ALTs’ Japanese language ability is hardly sufficient enough to function productively in an informal setting aimed at brewing “motivation.”
Second, the idea to spend time convincing students that English study is enjoyable and worthwhile is ridiculous unless they can see how it is so. Most of this “PR” will be spent on students that will not enter Jr. High and begin their English study for many years. Is the time of both the students and the JET really worth being spent on this kind of “hollow studying,” which is really nothing more than a form of propaganda? To put it another way; In the case of 1st-2nd year students, is five to six years of learning that “English is fun” really more desirable than simply learning the language itself?
Plus, let’s follow the logic of ‘English as PR’ through to the end: I’m supposed to spend time hyping up English from First to Sixth grade so the kids are looking forward finally, someday, maybe getting to learn the real thing when they get into Jr. High? I think we’ve already established what a rude fucking surprise they’re in for when they get there. Treating Elementary English visits as PR from the students’ perspective is essentially a six-year campaign of blatantly false advertising.
The JET experience at Elementary school is about as frustrating and impotent as at the Jr. and Sr. High school level.
Possible Solutions – Elementary School as the Alpha and the Omega
These problems seem multitudinous and insurmountable at first glance. How can so many issues of incompatible goals and wasted time be solved without flying in the face of the Ministry of Education as well as the incredible number of teachers already secure in what their jobs are and how to accomplish them?
While the obvious answer might be to abolish university entrance exams, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the remoteness of this possibility coming to fruition (to my great chagrin). I might suggest instead, that the answer starts with the most flexible part of the entire equation, the ALTs.
ALTs were brought in by the JET Programme in order to improve communicative English education in Japanese schools; this is a sound idea with a poor implementation. Currently, ALTs are placed in Jr. and Senior High Schools and this is the primary mistake. It is a mistake precisely because Jr. and Senior High Schools already have a clear objective laid out for them (exam prep) as well as a detailed roadmap of how to achieve that goal. The Jr. and Senior High English equation is already complete and needs no outside help. To bring in an ALT in this stage of the educational process is to introduce an incompatible goal to both the teachers entrusted with guiding their students, and most importantly, the students themselves. Simply put, Junior and Senior High Schools, know where they are going and they don’t need the ALTs help in getting there.
The solution then falls to placing ALTs, not in secondary education, but in Elementary schools, which could not possibly be a more serendipitous and fitting solution to all involved. Elementary schools have no established roadmap of English education (though this is in flux, as I mentioned), thus there are no English specialists, presenting Elementary schools with a material need for English teachers. This lack of a roadmap also means that the ALT is not “getting in the way” of incompatible objectives which are already in place.
The next big advantage brings up the issue of the nature of how children under the age of 12 learn. As research has repeatedly shown, children’s learning processes function through immersion and mimicry, not through cognitive allegory. Thus, there is no greater advantage to learning English pronunciation and usage, than to simply use it on a regular basis with the ALT and with each other. This, of course, necessitates that the ALT is a regular influence in the life of the elementary school student. Ideally, each elementary school would have an ALT and classes would occur at least once or twice a week, with possibly supplemental study or activities being conducted by the homeroom teacher without the presence of the ALT (they can’t be everywhere, they’re only human after all). Anything less would be wildly insufficient to keep the “momentum” of English learning in the students’ studies. In any case, the current practice of two visits a semester or less cannot be considered anything more than a waste of time.
Another lucky byproduct of placing English education in Elementary schools is that it takes care of “the basics” of English, which are at present only rushed over in Jr. High school English classrooms. One of the biggest drawbacks to current Jr. High English education is that not nearly enough time is spent on building the foundation of a language, i.e. the basic sounds and forms of grammar. Instead, the curriculum is rushed through with a “pick it up as you go” attitude that is not suitable for the learning processes of students over the age of 12. The right approach is being used on the wrong people.
The Elementary school atmosphere also benefits from a distinct absence of the lingering prospect of entrance exams. “Exam hell” is only a distant concept to the elementary student. Thus, with no prior impetus to learn English, they are free to learn and absorb the whole of the language without having to discard those things that “won’t be on the test.” This is another example of the ALT being misappropriated in Jr. High schools; natural language (as the ALT speaks and instructs) is not a series of equations to be individually memorized and tested, but a broad, living thing that must be understood as a whole.
By placing the ALT in elementary schools, the problems of objectives are solved by both by introducing a goal where there was none before as well as the means to achieve that goal. In addition, this particular goal of language acquisition is placed precisely at the time in a person’s life when it is the most useful and most easily achieved with lasting results. What was before only an afterthought (Elementary school visits), if reoriented to be the primary focus, can become the source of long-lasting results and could be the first step in achieving Japan’s goal of successful Communicative English education.
So there you have it, after three years of bitching and moaning, those are the conclusions I’ve come to about the shortcomings of the JET program as well as a few thoughts on how those might be solved. This is by no means objective or guaranteed to be consistent across all JET Participant experiences, but they seem to be some common threads that run through the thoughts of the ALTs that I’ve known and spoken with.
I should also mention that there’s a lot more to JET than the classroom experience, which is what I’ve focused on here today. Upon re-reading what I’ve gone over, I think I’m going to whip up an addendum on some of the other facets of being a JET that weren’t covered here, because believe me, it’s a full time job that doesn’t end just cause you’re not at school.
Also, if you’d like to offer any rebuttals, ideas I haven’t considered, or general hate-mail, by all means, mail me and I just may post it as a follow up. I’m thinking of gathering all this stuff on one page as a small resource for those thinking about applying for JET. I know I would have liked to have been able to find a collection of thoughts about the ‘real’ program all in one place before I went. I would have gone anyway, mind you, but I would have been a little better prepared perhaps.
I will try, try, TRY to get that up by this weekend, but I can’t promise anything. In addition to my (apparently) never-ending job search, I’m in full swing working on video segments to play in conjunction with a stage version of Trainspotting me and my flatmate are producing, which is eating a lot of my free time lately. Just cross fingers or send me harassing emails if you like. Until then.