First, some basics – Japan is obsessed with exams. To be accepted for just about any job, an exam must first be passed. Education is no exception, and the syllabus is drawn from the content of the exams rather than the exams being compiled from the content of the syllabus.
The exams are almost exclusively multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions; essays are rarely featured. The entire system is grounded on rote memorization. Thus, teaching is almost entirely receptive on the part of the students. The teachers talk while the students listen and try to remember. Critical thought and self-expression are not priorities.
Compulsory education starts at age six and finishes at age fifteen, though most students complete the optional three years of senior high school (SHS). University lasts for four years and is generally seen as a chance to relax after the grind of high school before embarking on a career.
The system is as much focused on preparing students for life in Japanese society as it is on academic achievement. This can be seen by the inclusion of subjects such as 道徳 (どうとく), or Moral Education, in the junior high school (JHS) curriculum. In compulsory education, the “one size fits all” approach is still the desired model, and every effort is made to streamline the students. Generally, there is no grouping according to ability (due to the stigma attached to being in the bottom set), although some schools do divide English classes with names like “advanced,” “basic,” and even “remedial.”
However, because of entrance exams, SHSs are in essence just really large ability groups. There are several different types of SHSs, but they boil down into academic schools (which aim to get students enrolled in a university) and vocational schools (commercial, agriculture, and fisheries).
Many ALTs are surprised by the lack of classroom discipline in schools compared to their home countries. (In Japan, all students are considered entitled to receive an education, even if they are disrupting it for others.) However, schools play a greater role in the wider life of a child than back home. If a student gets in trouble with the police, for example, very often the homeroom teacher will get called before the parents. Students also regularly come to school on weekends and holidays for extra classes, club activities, mock exams, and cultural events.
All this obviously puts a great strain on students. The Ministry of Education (MEXT) tried to go some way towards rectifying this situation by banning schools from holding lessons on Saturdays, which had previously been an almost universal practice.
This merely prompted school boards around the country to panic about having less time to get through the curriculum, so they took steps such as adding an extra period to the school day, extending the length of the existing periods, or offering “optional” lessons with privately hired teachers on Saturdays, thereby missing the point entirely.
The system seeks to instill in students qualities such as perseverance, harmony, and consensus – admirable qualities all. However, while they helped Japan become an economic power-house, many feel that something more is necessary in today’s global economic and social climate. Although, despite all of MEXT’s fine words about fostering individual creativity and self-worth, change is still very slow in coming.
The JET Programme
So, how do we fit into all this? You already know the history of the JET Programme, but on a human level there are as many different interpretations of our jobs as there are ALTs and English teachers, and probably then some. Essentially, our roles are 1) cultural and 2) linguistic, in that order.
This can lead to a fairly ill-defined experience for all concerned, as often having students simply exposed to foreigners is the sole aim, and the more students, the better. It is all about equality of access, seemingly regardless of the quality of the experience. Many teachers really like the idea of team teaching (TT), but they receive no formal training regarding how to do it.
As a result, you may see a lot of lesson plans along the lines of:
- 30 mins: ALT tells students about life in America
- 20 mins: Students ask questions.
The presumption behind this is that because most lessons are boring (which they are), the students will be so totally interested in having a strange gaijin in class that they will be held rapt for an entire fifty minutes (which they will not be). Additionally, students and teachers often base their preconceptions of all foreigners on American television and movies as well as how Japanese television portrays foreign people.
So, your first task is to dispel this. The best way is by putting some thought into lesson planning. Enthusiasm and willingness to work between classes, and even before and after school, can go a long way in the classroom. Outside of the classroom, they will go even further. While it can be very tempting to think that if you are given nothing to do, you do not have to do anything, try not to fall into this trap. You will have heard the various suggestions about ways to manage your time over the summer, but the best way to prepare for the new term is by forming strong relationships with your co-workers in order to gain their trust and receive more responsibility.
You may find initial reluctance. ALTs are often treated as guests/exceptions/a break from lessons/lazy. However, many teachers truly are run off their feet, and if you are lucky enough to be at a single school for three or more days a week, many will be happy to allow you to take some of their workload (lesson and syllabus planning, marking, incentives, etc.).
Even if this does not happen, try to at least seem industrious. The more involved you are/try to be, the better the impression you will create. This will give you more work to do and, ultimately, more personal satisfaction from your job.
Finally, every so often ALTs get together and have a good old moan about their JTEs. If you haven’t seen this yet, you will later, but remember that ALTs do not have a monopoly on this. JTEs discuss, compare, and rate us just as much as we do them. As teachers get transferred every two to six years, there are fairly substantial networks of JTEs around the prefecture who keep in touch. Do not assume that what you do in one school will remain there, and think of it as something positive, since displaying a good work ethic can create a reputation for yourself and future ALTs.