Strengthening the JET Program

By Sheila Burt

The Liberal Democratic Party’s plans to double the number of Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) participants in the next three years has once again roused debate about the merits of the program and what it has accomplished in its 26 years of existence.

I spent two years teaching English to junior high school and elementary school students in Namerikawa City, a small seaside town in Toyama Prefecture. Now that I have had just under a year to reflect on my experience after leaving JET last July, I easily consider the program to be one of the best things I have done in my life.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I wasn’t necessarily first interested in Japan, but rather the experience of teaching abroad with JET, one of the most established international exchange programs in the world. I viewed it as an international version of Teach for America, which places young professionals (often recent college graduates) in rural or inner city American schools in hopes of closing the education gap that keeps many students in impoverished communities economically and socially depressed. JET’s goals and structure are much different but no less valuable.

My life as a JET wasn’t always perfect, and I certainly had frustrations as with any job, but everyday I felt like I was doing something worthwhile. Even if I didn’t dramatically improve every single one of my student's English speaking ability, I sincerely hope that I at least inspired a few of them to travel and enjoy exploring the English language beyond the classroom. My goal was that by talking to many of them - either in class or outside in town - that my some of my students realized communication is possible even if you don't speak English perfectly. This is an invaluable lesson that can never be taught on a test or TOEIC exam, and it is the strength of the JET Program.

Whereas many English conversation school (eikaiwa) teachers are usually placed in or near bigger cities and only teach to families who can afford extra English lessons, many JET participants work in the public schools of rural communities, which means a JET could be the only foreigner in a town, and the only exposure residents have to other cultures and ideas. The work other Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) do with private companies, along with eikaiwa teachers, is also very valuable to Japan, but I don't think I would have felt the same sense of community had I joined a private company for my first job in Japan.

The impact that many JETs have made in local communities since the program began in 1987 may not be seen in education statistics but they are certainly palpable in meaningful ways –the child who at first was afraid of people who looked different from him but now says “hello” to ALTs who visit the school; the retired obasan who befriended an ALT in her local community and now has the confidence to travel to foreign countries and speak English; the ALT who knew nothing of Japan before arriving with JET and now works to promote Japan relations in her own country.

I hope more energetic teachers come to Japan with JET and that the program continues to support “grassroots internationalization” as stated on the program's Website. There are, however, some key ways JET can become an even more dynamic educational program. These suggestions are solely geared toward ALTs though some of the rules may apply to Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) as well.

  1. Educate Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) about how to effectively use ALTs.

One of the main problems with JET is that ALTs aren't always used effectively or to the best of their capability. I would think having an assistant in school who is native in the language you are trying to teach would be an asset and help ease the workload, but Japanese teachers don't always view ALTs that way, most likely because they have never been told what ALTs should do and how they can be used in class. I was lucky that in my junior high school, I taught often and many of my ideas were accepted (and my JTEs also helped me improve games if something didn't go as planned). ]

Although I didn't teach grammar, at least half of the class was for me to organize a game so students could explore the language and enjoy trying to use English with me or their friends. However, there were times when one of my JTEs would forget about me or would only have me read from the book. Other discontented ALTs I talked to shared similar feelings, and sometimes, sadly, they stopped trying and gave up on their school and life in Japan in general. But nearly all the JETs I met seemed to really want to help the students and be there for them - they just didn't always know how to given stringent Japanese bureaucracy.

  1. Give ALTs clear and defined work duties, and increase training.

JETs hear the ubiquitous "Every situation is different" because even though they are all members of the JET Program, they all have different employers (either at the prefecture or local city level). As a result, one ALT could have completely different job duties compared to another one a few miles away in a different town. If all ALTs had the same work duties (such as teaching at least 25 classes per week, organizing an English club and conducting original educational research), it would be easier for schools to use ALTs properly if a clear work description was created that is mandatory in all schools. An increased workload could also justify the higher than average pay that JETs receive compared to other ALTs with private companies or English conversation school teacher.

As much as I care about the program, it strikes me as a ridiculous waste of tax dollars to increase the number of JETs if they will never used properly in the schools. In addition, new JETs would benefit from more training once they arrive in their schools, rather than the three day Tokyo orientation and additional prefectural training. This could be in the form of additional meetings before and after departure, as well as a mandatory online TEFL course that must be completed within a certain amount of time.

  1. Educate students more frequently in elementary school

The Japanese government recently started to require that all elementary school students begin studying English, using a textbook in fifth and sixth grade. I applaud the goal to start teaching students younger, since they are at an ideal age to begin exploring a new language and can generally pronounce new words and sounds with more ease than older students. But in order for their English level to improve, English should be considered a "real" subject, not playtime as it often was when I visited my four elementary schools. Having it become too serious would be a grave mistake as well, but finding a balance between fun and instructive education would only benefit the students more.

I was not allowed to teach the alphabet in my elementary schools because I was told that the Japanese teacher could not teach this when I was not present. I was also asked to follow a script even if I didn't agree with the game or thought there could be a better learning activity. Some of my younger students only had English education once or twice a year because I was spread so thin between my five schools. While I think a little English is better than no English, if the students are going to retain anything from year to year, it is important to review constantly. If more ALTs are solely based in elementary school and taught each grade every day, I think Japan could start to see an increase in English ability among students at a much younger age.

  1. Focus less on tests

In contrast to elementary school, many junior high school and high school English classes are focused solely on tests and studying for material that they must learn for the entrance exams. I noticed a dramatic shift in my junior high students’ attitude toward English by the time they were third-year students, and some began to resent the subject. Tests are important for entrance exams, and later, scoring well on the TOEIC exam for future employment, but in order to become an effective speaker, Japan needs to think beyond tests. One of the best pieces of advice about studying language came from a Singaporean JET I knew in Toyama who is fluent in English and Chinese, and who also speaks a high level of Japanese. She said that language is a living, breathing organism that should be explored - not dissected like a frog in science class.

  1. Train JTEs to speak a higher level of English

The Japanese Teachers of English I worked with spoke a high level of English for the most part, but when I talked to other ALTs or visited other schools, I noticed a large discrepancy in the level of speaking. I was told that at many schools, a speaking test isn't required to become an English teacher. This only perpetuates the problem of Japanese people being able to understand a higher level of written English than being able to speak it.

My time with JET has passed but I still feel connected to the program in ways that I don't think I will feel about any other future job. I very literally feel like a different person because of my experience in Japan, and this would not have been possible without JET. I am forever grateful to the program that changed my worldview for the better, and made me a stronger person and educator. I wish for many others to experience Japan the same way I was able to through JET, while also improving English education in a country that still needs it.

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Get rid of the program. It sucks eggs!

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Some excellent points in this article, although I disagree with the conclusion the author reaches. The reason that the JET programme is not working is because the young, inexperienced, "genki" JETs are at the bottom of the teaching totem pole in the schools.

They're not old enough to command the respect of their co-workers. They're not experienced enough to impress their co-workers. They're often not even qualified in the subject area they're teaching.

Occassionally there'll be a JET who is all of the above, older, experienced and qualified, but the JET programme boots them out after a maximum of 5 years, just when they're becoming senior enough to push for positive changes in the school.

Add to this that many JETs stay for just 1 year, creating a "revolving door" mentality in the minds of their co-workers. Why bother to listen to a co-worker who will be gone in a year.

This "revolving door" problem also has other aspects, for example, most JETs might be decent enough, but because of the high turnover there are a lot of JETs through a school in a short time, and almost every Japanese Teacher of English I've met has had a horror story about at least one JET who disgraced themselves and the programme. These horror stories weigh far more heavily on the minds of Japanese teachers than the success stories (its just human nature), and so every new JET has to prove they're not a problem-JET before they're trusted... but most don't stick around that long.

For numerous reasons the JET programme has serious problems and needs a complete overhaul or to be scapped entirely.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

MDV3: How does one suck eggs, by the way?

As someone who was on the program 26 years ago, it is an interesting read but not unexpected to see how things haven't changed in terms of institutional practices, though there wasn't elementary school teaching then. Not sure it should be. The program's mission has been to have its participants' worldview changed, not reform Japanese practices in English teaching. And if Japanese at the local level can be impressed, all the better, because that is where reform will begin.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think the role of cultural ambassodor is one that the majority of JETs are suited to, if the selection process has been well done. However, as mentioned above, the role of emissary of educational reform is not. Anyone who simply sticks to the first and avoids the second is unlikely to have problems.

When it comes to the current value of the JET program, however, I think it is already a case of mission regards the program's potential for internationalisation. People in Japan, including those in country areas are now relatively comfortable with the foriegner in ways that they weren't before the program started.

In the days of relative national affluence, the JET program was an easily affordable one as well. But these days with many ordinary school teachers having had their salaries savagely cut in some areas as a matter of budgetary necessitity, the presence of the freindly underutilisable cultural missionary would seem an unnecesary extravagnce.

Doubling the number of JETs makes no sense in terms of the original mission of the JET., and arguments could be made in favor of reducing the number from that point of view. But enhancing the original mission is not the purpose. The people proposing this hope that they can thereby achieve significant a difference to the success of the nation's English programs. Personally I think this is highly over-optimistic and not based on any evidence that ALTs do or can in fact improve the abilities of students to any significant extent.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@frungy My biggest issues with the 'revolving door' comment is that the Japanese teachers themselves are often only at a given school for a few years before they're moved to different areas. The non-licensed part-time teachers get shuffled around my district every year and are still given a place in the school that I am not, even the one who just graduated, almost two years after I got here.

And even the full-time teachers usually only get to stay at a school for a few years before they're shuffled off to a new school. My new JTE this year has been teaching for four years, but this is his first time teaching JHS English like this (he was at an elementary school until now)

So sure, the school are getting lots of teachers who've been teaching for years, but they've only just come to the new school, and don't always know that much better than the ALT.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Interesting comments. I agree entirely with Sheila Burt, both in that it was great for me as an experience (thanks, Japan!) and also how it could be improved. However, we were saying exactly the same things when I was on JET in the 1990s and things have not changed since then.

I always thought that JET brought "internationalisation" to Japan in a safe package that would leave after a couple of years, but saved Japan the trouble of having to "internationalise". Each village can have its own pet gaijin who will maybe inspire a couple of girls to study English at university, but otherwise leve things much as they are.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Ah_so May. 21, 2013 - 04:42PM JST I always thought that JET brought "internationalisation" to Japan in a safe package that would leave after a couple of years, but saved Japan the trouble of having to "internationalise". Each village can have its own pet gaijin who will maybe inspire a couple of girls to study English at university, but otherwise leve things much as they are.

Touche! I would accuse you of cynicism if your comment wasn't so spot-on.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

An interesting article, with some good comments following it.

I am (contractually speaking) an ALT, but have never been on the JET program, so don't know too much about it. As a result, what I write may be moot.

Still, some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts with my morning coffees:

I agree that the high turnover and the youth of the ALTs is a major drawback. This is where each school / BofE should have a standard syllabus, or selection of syllabi for each school to choose from.

It staggers the mind that JTEs see the ALT as a hindrance, but I get it. For any teacher having to partner up with an ALT, they mostly see it as extra workload, not an opportunity. Most teachers' regular workload is maxed out without adding to it by making them babysit a foreigner.

Then, as the author says, the JTEs don't always know how to use the ALTs. Some kind of afternoon introductory course or workshop, organised by the BofE, would be one idea, before the start of the school year. Some JTEs are probably very keen to use the ALTs, and just need some practical ideas. But chances are good, this would happen in the form of a tedious lecture...

Finally, the humiliation aspect - a lot of JTEs are insecure about their language abilities, and fear the ALT will show them up. I am sure there have been tactless corrections and confrontations in the classroom between a well-meaning ALT and a stressed-out JTE...

The author suggests training-up the JTEs in their language abilities. However, in reality, this is each teacher's responsibility isn't it, to keep up with language changes and maintain their fluency? There are plenty of workshops nationally for this. Teachers in rural areas should start up their own, even in cooperation with the ALTs.

But again, that requires time and effort and energy, which most JTEs have in short supply.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Up to the end of JHS they (students) still dont have to do anything in school. They dont have to care about learning English, they`ll still graduate. Change the system.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

as long as JET keep hiring ALTs as cultural exchange ambasadors, the program doesnt go anywhere in terms of language learning. they should hire qualifide people and dont waste money on people who doesnt have any idea how to teach language. just because your mother tongue is english, that doesnt mean you can teach english.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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