Note: I just spent an hour editing this then when I hit publish I got an error that said my edits were not saved, so in the interest in at least getting this out there I’m going to post it as is. I’ll come back and edit it again when I’m not as frustrated as I currently am. Please forgive any errors, typos or lack of creativity.
This is the third and longest post in my short series of blogs/rants on the JET programme and what to expect. This post will deal with what to expect in the job and give you a rough idea of how the school system works. It took me awhile to figure out the school system and knowing how it works before you get there will explain why things are done the way they are. So hopefully it’s less frustrating for you in the long run.
I was a SHS ALT so this will be a bit heavy on that, but I’ll try to cover everything I can. Even if you’re going to be JHS ALT, it’s important to know what the kids are building up to and I will go over university stuff as well so that SHS teachers know what to expect. The most important aspect is learning the perspective of the students and teachers your going to work with so I’ve try to focus on that. What you’re told at orientations doesn’t really go over this. So, I’d suggest just reading everything, even though it’s long. I’ve sprinkled in tidbits of advice in each section that work for all levels. Spend the time, this is at least the next year of your life and I’ll address some things that aren’t in the General Information Handbook as well as go over things you’re told that are incorrect. Are you questioning if you should spend your time reading a random blog on the internet that you stumbled across?? My JET background is in the second paragraph of the first post of this series on general advice. I’ve broken this down into sections on the school system, elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, and a typical day/lesson planning and students.
The Japanese School System
The Japanese school system is heavily based on testing. There are very few assignments that students actually have to complete. You will get things handed in with nothing on them, even tests that have been left blank. What makes or breaks a Japanese student is two exams. That’s it. There are senior high school entrance exams and university entrance exams. Fail these and your chances of being “successful” lessen significantly. Even employment opportunities in Japan are based on tests. Want to be a teacher? You have to write a test. Want to be a government worker? Pass the test. You’ll work with a number of English teachers who have yet to pass their English teacher test. Japan has difficulty finding English teachers, so they let quite a few teachers get by without passing the test. Don’t judge the teachers that haven’t passed. Eventually you’ll get a look at one and realize how difficult it really is. There will also be teachers that make you wonder how they ever passed to begin with. Even the English component of some university entrance exams had me second guessing my answers. But I’m getting off topic, let’s try and keep this a little bit structured shall we.
The Japanese school year is split into 3 semesters. They run April to July, late August to December and January to March with short breaks in between. SHS students still attend classes during these breaks, but sometimes they are optional, depending on the level of the school. Each semester culminates in a round of exams. It only takes a mark of 30% to 40% to pass a test. There was a range at the schools I taught at, at least I think there was from what I remember. Even if a student failed every single test, they move on to the next grade. It seems strange, but to hold a student back is considered more detrimental then to just move them on without the requisite knowledge to complete the next level.
Elementary school (Shougakkou 小学校) goes up to grade 6. Each grade is named year one (ichi-nensei), year two (ni-nensei) and so on. There is a small amount of English taught at this level, but this is where the issues with learning English really begin. Very few English teachers at the elementary level are actually English teachers. English is taught throughout elementary schools, but by teachers who sometimes can’t speak a word of it. These teachers just go from a textbook and use katakana in order to teach students how to make English sounds and that is where the problem begins. Students don’t learn to read the word cat, as cat, they instead read it as カト (ka-to). Teachers put the katakana above each English word on the chalkboard so kids never learn to drop the vowels off of the ends of words.
Teaching in elementary is something I did very little of. So, I won’t pretend like I know what I’m talking about. There are lots of songs and games. This is where students get teh basics meaning colours, animals, weather, etc. Some kids never progress beyond this. There will be students in their last year of senior high school who still can only say, “I raiku ka-to!” I did have quite a few friends that had to lesson plan on the spot. If you’re going into an elementary situation, have games and plans at the ready. Like I’ve said previously, Planet Eigo is your friend. Most likely, if you’re going into an elementary position you have some Japanese under your belt, so it should be an easier go for you. Quite a few JHS ALTs have visits to elementary every once in awhile. It’s a great experience as the kids are still outgoing and fun. Speaking a little bit of Japanese will blow their mind, but that works at pretty much every level.
Junior High School
With that, we’ll move on to junior high school (chuugakko 中学校) grade 7, 8 and 9. Kids go from elementary to their local JHS, with no testing involved, but this is when a student’s future begins to take shape. Grades don’t continue on from elementary, so students are once again classified as Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3. I didn’t mention this before but classes are split up by year and given a number. So, year 1 students will be in classes, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3 and so on. Students in JHS begin learning English with a focus specifically on grammar and vocabulary. This focus runs all the way through to the end of senior high school. As much as conversational skills are (I believe) the best way to become proficient at a language, university entrance exams are heavily based on grammar and vocabulary, SHS entrance exams are as well. So the rote drilling of vocabulary and grammar begin and regardless of what you may think, they are important. You may want to try and influence your Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) to use more oral communication in class, but realize that the JTE is taking a big gamble if they do, especially teachers that don’t have strong English skills themselves (there will be quite a few teachers who make you sit back and think, how does this person teach this language?). If a teacher deviates from the textbook/rote style of learning for their students and it doesn’t work out, it’s on them. The fear of students potentially doing worse on a test because of classes more heavily based in oral communication is enough that most teachers stick straight to the text book. Over time, you’ll be able to work in an oral communication with some JTEs, each has a different teaching style and some will be more open to oral communication than others.
JHS ALTs generally rotate between a few different schools. This rotation can go month to month or week to week. Quite a few JHS ALTs also have one shot visits, mostly at elementary schools. One shot meaning, every once in a while, you go to an elementary school. JHS ALTs work for a local Board of Education. At that local Board of Education, there will be one person who is assigned as a supervisor to the ALTs in that town, realize that that is NOT their only job and if you stay longer than a year, that person may not always be your supervisor. If you live in a big city, there maybe quite a few ALTs that work for your BOE, which will make office days fun. JHS supervisors may not have any English skills whatsoever, but at least in cities with more than one ALT, there is always someone that has decent Japanese and will be able to communicate for the group. In smaller town and villages, you may be the only ALT, which can be a great experience as small towns and villages tend to bend over backwards in order to help out new ALTs and there’s a higher possibility you’ll get your own house.
Positives of being a JHS ALT are that you’re dealing with people who directly supervise you. I knew a JHS ALT who was given time off when his sisters came to visit that didn’t come out of his yearly vacation as well as his birthday off, because he was the only ALT in the town and they were just nice. Local BOEs generally work harder to help you out and make you happy. In cities, you generally live in what I always referred to as a JETplex. All of the ALTs generally live in the same apartment building and that makes for a pretty awesome experience. If you’re going to be a SHS ALT, figure out where the JETplex is in your town, it’s the place to be and generally becomes the central hub in each city for JET meetups.
Negatives are having to partake in school lunches everyday. Initially, most people are more than happy to do this, but there will definitely be moments when you don’t know if you can take it anymore. Each day, you eat a lunch that is provided by the school in a class with the students. The nice part is that it makes your daily meals very affordable and you don’t have to make one.
At the end of junior high school students write senior high school entrance exams. This is the first step in the rest of their lives.
Senior High Schools
Senior high schools (Kotougakkou 高等学校) are split into quite a few different types. Instead of using the North American style where different levels of classes are offered in one high school, Japan opts to separate students into different levels of senior high schools. Think of it like applying to university in a western country, you have your reach schools and your safety schools and then there are those who don’t apply to university at all. There are quite a few different levels of senior high schools. Academic schools are split into three categories: high level academic, mid-level academic and low level academic. These designations are based on each schools ranking within the prefecture. Students sometimes apply to schools based on their sports program. A lot of students travel quite a distance to attend a school they’ve been accepted to. Outside of the academic schools there are also, commercial, technical and agricultural schools.
Students are different in each school setting. High level academic schools have students that are study machines, who are very shy, don’t raise their hand and will stare at you blankly for an entire class. I understand this is a blanket statement but it’s pretty accurate. These students are focused on getting into university or a junior college. High level academic schools are pretty much 3 year prep schools for university entrance exams. They pound grammar and vocabulary into the kids heads. Students at these schools have to learn Japanese to English and English to Japanese translations for anywhere from 50 to 100 words a week. They’re tested on these each week and then they move on to the next chapter.
The other route for post secondary is a trade school but normally students in mid-level academic to agricultural schools are the ones who go to these schools. Don’t put students in boxes depending on what school they go to. It’s completely possible for students at technical schools to get into a marine biology program(I’ve had one do that) at a prestigious university. It’s also possible for a kid at an academic school to end up working at a gas station. It just depends on how much that student works. A little side note, on student’s goals. Don’t be surprised if a student tells you straight up that they want to work at the convenience store down the street. There is very little classism and people are very rarely judged on the jobs they do. The curriculum, at least in English is more relaxed and of a lower level at the “lower level” schools. In my opinion that makes is easier to teach what you want and gives you far more flexibility on what you want to teach. Students at lower level schools are far more like western teenagers. This makes them far more likely to participate in class, but it also makes them more likely to tell you to fuck off or give you the finger.
Just like JHS, SHS teachers are under pressure for their students to succeed, more so at high level schools. So attempting to bring in oral communication or deviate from the set script of textbook and vocab practice may be difficult. SHS students are at school for easily 12 hours a day, everyday and teachers are there with them. Teaching extra “optional” classes that every student attends as well as coaching some kind of team that kids are obsessed with. I’ll get to clubs a bit later on.
SHS ALTs are in a very different situation than JHS ALTs, the structure is totally different. If you are a JHS ALT, don’t listen to anything another newb tells you about anything if they aren’t a JHS ALT themselves and the same goes for SHS ALTs. You’re in totally different situations, different types of supervisors, working for different BOEs.
SHS ALTs also potentially rotate between schools but unlike JHS ALTs, it can be on a day to day basis. At the same time, you can be placed in a single school that you work at everyday. There are positives and negatives to both. Everyone will have a base school that they spend most time at though. My general schedule was Monday, Wednesday, Thursday at my base school, a high level academic school, I went to a low level academic SHS every Tuesday and a technical SHS every Friday. I also had quite a few one shot schools, that I would go to anywhere from once a month to once every six months. These schools included agricultural, technical, low level academic schools, as well as a school for handicapped children and a school in a hospital, mostly doing bedside lessons for sick kids. The first year without a car made going to all of these schools a bit difficult, so, like I said in the second post, get your IDP because even though you think you won’t drive, your situation may force your hand. SHS ALTs work for the prefectural Board of Education. There will be one person in charge of the entire SHS JET programme for your prefecture, although you may see them once or twice a year at conferences. If you’re wondering where this person ranks, it’s above teachers but below your Kyoto-sensei (vice principal). A SHS ALT’s supervisor will be an English teacher at your base school. Remember that they are a teacher and have quite a few other responsibilities. Also realize that they may have never done this job before and may be unsure as to what you need and how to help you. SHS ALTs generally live in teachers’ residences, meaning there will be other teachers in your building from schools throughout the prefecture. There is the potential for you to live in a SHS JETplex with other JETs as well as Japanese teachers or apart from other people.
The positives of being a SHS ALT are that there are no school lunches and there’s a bit more freedom during the day. The negatives are that because you actually work for the prefectural BOE you can’t get away with as much and there’s limited wiggle room. None of your supervisors want to be called out as the one that let that one ALT get away with more than the others. So it is a bit more strict.
Typical day, lesson planning and students
This is probably the stuff you’re most worried about. In most cases, you probably haven’t taught before and you most likely haven’t taught in Japan. I know that this is what freaked me out the most and your home orientations and Tokyo orientation really doesn’t go over concrete examples of what kind of stuff you’ll be teaching or prepare you at all. Most of it is just rough outlines of what teaching is like and people say things like, crosswords are your best friend. This leaves you with more questions and confusion. So, I’ll try to explain as best I can what it’s like at a base school and at a one shot school. Keep in mind that I was a SHS ALT, but the advice should give JHS ALTs at least a rough idea of what’s ahead of them.
As I’ve said, the Japanese system is very structured and teachers have deadlines to meet as far as getting through the textbook and vocabulary. There is very little stress on students actually retaining the knowledge, they’re expected to do that on their own. Some ALTs do lesson plan quite a bit, but in my experience most are given instructions by the JTE and sometimes are told to come up with a short activity. If you’ve never taught before, you’ll be a bit lost, once again, Planet Eigo is your friend.
So, here is a typical lesson at a high level academic school. You go into the class, it begins. Maybe there is a short conversation between you and JTE about the topic in order to introduce it to the class that you have planned ahead of time. Then, the kids open their textbooks and you read the passage to them. Then you read it again and they repeat it back to you. Don’t expect too much enthusiasm. At this point, the JTE may do translations and explain the finer points of target words and sentences in the text. Then you ask the students questions based on the text (I had one JTE that made me do this for every class). Students then do an activity based on the lesson like writing sentences using the target sentence, reading the story with a partner, fill in the blanks. Don’t be surprised if you collect these afterwards and there are completely blank pages. Japanese students would rather erase an entire sentence on a test than potentially write something incorrect. I’ve seen kids write entire paragraphs and then erase the whole thing and hand in something blank because they thought something was wrong with it.
Other classes you may just be a tape recorder. I had entire classes where I read words and the students repeated them back to me. I switched it up as best I could, having them say the Japanese word when I said the English one and vice versa. This stuff is boring to do and you may come away feeling frustrated, but you have to give into it, especially in SHS. These students need to know proper pronunciation and memorize thousands of words. They come out of SHS not knowing how to form a sentence longer than 6 words, but they know the translation of nuclear holocaust. Until the university entrance exams change, this is the way it will be in Japan. So, all in all, the teaching gig isn’t that difficult.
Every once in awhile you’ll be given free reign over a class, especially at lower level schools and one shot schools. Use this to rock out some conversation lessons. Here’s a solid example of a decent lesson plan (at a SHS level) that works on conversation as well as creativity, which Japanese students have very little of when they’re using the English language.
I had about 20 small pictures with feelings written at the bottom of them. Scared, overwhelmed, happy, sad, etc etc. I gave students the entire list along with translations, it takes too long to go over each feeling and explain it all in English. I cut up pieces of paper, each with one feeling on it. Read each word and have the students repeat it so they can learn the proper pronunciation for each word. Then give the students the following conversation.
A: How are you today?
B: I am __________________ (your feeling)
A: Why are you feeling ______________ (B’s feeling)?
B: Because _____________________
A: _______________________ (A list of different responses followed this)
Students are then made to come up with a reason why they would be feeling whatever feeling they have. This can take awhile, especially for shy or introverted students. At the end of the allotted time, I then wrote on the board, “I feel embarrassed.” Followed by, “Because I have studied English for (however many years they’ve studied it) and I cannot write one sentence in English.” I know this sounds harsh, but embarrassment or humiliations are a great way to motivate students. After all of the students have the completed conversation I made them walk around and have the above conversation with other classmates, writing down their name, the feeling and why they feel that way. Watch to see that they’re not copying and make sure everyone is participating. Give them a number of students they have to talk to.
This lesson pretty much covers everything. Reading, writing, vocabulary and conversation and once you’ve attempted it a few times, it’s easy to do in one period. I used this model quite often, having students create conversations and then have those conversations with other students. For added fun, tell them they have to talk to 3 boys and 3 girls. Watch how that turns out for you.
Lesson planning can range from completely on the fly to days ahead of time. For my base school, I approached JTEs ahead of time, because I was there on a regular basis. For my one shot schools, I received faxes days and sometimes weeks in advance on what we were going to be doing. My visit schools varied. Sometimes I got faxes, other times I got nothing and had to go in on the fly. Lesson planning for the most part is NOT you and the JTE sitting down for hours coming up with ways to teach the students, regardless of what you’re told. They come to you, tell you what unit you’re doing and then either ask you to write a few questions about the passage, prepare a short activity or they just straight up tell you what’s going to happen. Always have a few lesson plans with you for fun activities, think reverse jeopardy or quiz games, especially for one shot schools. The JTEs there just want the students to experience a native speaker. By my second year, I could do entire classes with nothing. I’d just go in and have conversations with the entire class, asking them questions, joking around and just getting them to use English. Regardless of how good your Japanese is, or what your level of understanding is of Japanese culture, fake it and pretend like you know nothing. This leads nicely into my next few points of advice.
Regardless of what you’re told at orientation, USE JAPANESE IN CLASS. I know, I know, JET videos say, John Smith here is a good little ALT and he doesn’t use any Japanese at school. This is utter bullshit. Think about it, you’re in school learning French, the French teacher has an assistant from France, that assistant can’t speak a lick of English or any other language. If you’re a high school student, you think, “Well, if the teacher can’t even speak multiple languages what chance do I have?” I’m not saying that you should just be rocking out the J-go at all times, but as I said in an earlier post, most Japanese people are under the impression that no foreigner can speak Japanese. Shock your kids a little bit.
As well, not everything has to be about internationalization or oral communication for that matter. This is another thing that will be stressed in orientations. You’ll leave the Tokyo orientation thinking, I have to fix the system and bring oral communication to every class I do. Some JTEs will be very open to this, others will not, gauge them accordingly. As I’ve already said, it’s not about what you perceive the students need to become fluent in English, it’s about students attaining their goals and getting what they want out of life. The kid going into computer programming may not be huge in English, but he knows he needs to learn it for entrance exams, that’s what’s important. Get them the information and skills they need. As far as internationalization, don’t focus on differences. Yes, obviously those are going to stick out the most to you, but in order to attach your students to the English language, western culture shouldn’t be seen as something opposite to the Japanese culture. There are a ton of similarities and go over those just as much as you go over the differences. Point out highlights of both your own culture and of the Japanese culture. If you want students to talk freely, have them educate you about Japan. They all LOVE JAPAN. Ask about festivals or holidays, why they certain things. Especially around Christmas time. I had them tell me all about what happens around New Years. I explained the Canadian New Years quickly and then asked entire classes about what they do and why they do it. A lot don’t know, but it generally tends to get the entire class involved. After you’ve done it a few times, you learn where to throw in jokes and where to mess up your re-enactment of what they do at a shrine. It’s like charades, but they give you instructions.
Finally, the best way to motivate your students is to use humiliations. I know this sounds harsh, but it works. It’s using the old Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” against the kids, for their own benefit of course, and for your amusement. If you’re doing an activity or a game and you know that there’s a group that is just going to sit there the entire time and not participate, raise their hand or do anything, tell them, the team that loses does a humiliation. This is better than prizes if you ask me. I always wrote a tongue twister on the board at the beginning of every class that I was going to do a game in. The losing team had to stand at the front of the class and recite, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers three times fast, individually. That’s far more motivating to the students that don’t care and aren’t interested in English then telling them, I’ll give you a sticker if you win.
I know I already said finally, but I just thought of this. For the love of God, please don’t portray English as a travel tool. There is plenty of English in Japan, on signs, in restaurants, on clothing and on bumper stickers. Don’t tell your kids, well, when you travel you can speak English and get around. I think two or three of the 4000 students I taught every year wanted to leave Japan. Show your kids that speaking two languages is a requirement in today’s world. That everyone does and the more and more the world succumbs to globalization the more a second language will be a requirement and that if they’re going to wear clothes that have English on them, they should know what they say. I used to laugh all the time at my kid’s clothes, because the Engrish is hilarious. When they asked what it said, I told them they should study harder because their t-shirt didn’t make any sense. Going the travel tool route will basically tell kids that aren’t planning on leaving Japan that, well, this isn’t important.
Ok, this post has become more like a chapter in a book than a blog post, so I’m just going to stop here. I’ll leave my musings on Japanese students for another day. Next up will be post on orientations. And if you’ve actually made it this far through the post, here’s a little video that I made in my second year on JET detailing a weekend. So you waste more time on things I’ve created. My youtube channel has a few videos that I created over the years.