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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.© Japan Today