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School Issues

It's not the spoon that bends. It's you.

When you dance with the devil, the devil doesn't change.
The devil changes you.

Inevitably, foreigners teaching in Japan will face the question "Why do we have to learn English?", in Japanese of course, delivered in a huff, from a student who refuses to participate in an activity. (This comment is typically preceded or followed by mendoukusai or "This is annoying".)

Answers about the benefits of learning a second language or becoming a more well rounded individual will clearly pass in one ear and out the other. Asking the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) to provide an answer will usually earn a shrug, a grunt and the word "internationalization" muttered under breath with barely disguised disgust.

Foreign Teachers will also hear speech after speech from Powers What Are about the benefits of "internationalization" and also how they hope the foreign teachers will bring about reform in English education in Japan.

The confusion and inevitable frustration for foreign teachers comes about when they try to equate the two concepts. "Internationalization" and reform of Japanese English education are not meant to refer to the same goal and they are not necessarily shared by the Powers What Are and the teacher at the next desk

It is first important to understand the difference in the notions of "reform" between Japan and the West. In the West, reform is a hands on, active process usually accomplished quickly. Old ideas are shoved out along with those who held them. In Japan such notions are anathema. Old ideas, or more specifically, those who held them, must be respected along with their seniority. Anything else undermines respect for the system and its heirarchy and creates the anarchy of the young. Reform, therefore, must procede slowly, almost imperceptibly, like the slow pressure of a glacier against a mountain.

Westerners thrown into such a situation and hearing that their job is "reform" will find themselves feeling frustrated at every turn. Some JTE's will preach reform in the Teacher's Room, but will be reluctant to practice it in the classroom. Young, energetic JTE's who claim to seek reform will always defer to the wishes of older teachers, even when those wishes run contrary to what has been discussed with the foreign teacher in private.

"Internationalization" is an even murkier concept born out of a rivalry between what was then the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Foreign Ministry and The Ministry of Education. That the three came together to create both the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program and the concept of "internationalizaion" is a remarkable achievement chronicled in Importing Diversity.

Unfortunately, the three ministries all have different interpretations of "internationalization" based on their motives for getting together in the first place. Home Affairs is seeking a larger say in foreign policy. The Foreign Ministry is seeking to improve Japan's image abroad and establish contacts with the future diplomats and business leaders of the West. The Ministry of Education is seeking to minimize the impact of foreign teachers while at the same time seeking to improve English education. Complicating matters is that each community, each board of education and each school also has its own interpretation and adjusts its teaching methods accordingly.

The murkiest matter of all is who is actually being internationalized. Cynics say that JET and "internationalization" are simply parts an expansive PR campaign intent not on changing Japan, but on giving select foreigners insights into the Japanese Psyche so that they may then go home and explain why the Japanese are the way they are. (Hence the pithy epigraphs at the start of this bit of silliness.)

On the other hand, there is a sense that "internationalization" does involve, over the long term, changing the Japanese by promoting the notions that foreigners are neither fearful nor intimidating. By "acclimatising" young Japanese to foreigners, a bit of the foreign mystique is rubbed away and the young Japanese will be able to negotiate face to face with Westerners in the language of the West.

English language education is a vital part of this transformation, but only part.

Imagine you've just been handed the program for the graduation ceremony at your school. You scan down the teachers list for your name. At the top is the Kocho Sensei (Principal), followed by the Kyoto Sensei (Vice Principal), the head teacher, the heads of each individual year, senior teachers, junior teachers, and the school secretary. Below the secretary is the head janitor followed by other members of the custodial staff.

At the very bottom is you.

If you're like your humble editor, your head will spin around, fly up and then settle back on your shoulders just a bit off center. (The more qualified you are as a teacher, the higher your head will fly and the more off-kilter it will be when it lands.) Keep in mind though, that most ALTs in public school are hired through the Board of Education and assigned to the school. This puts you in the same class as the custodial staff. (The Kocho Sensei, it should be noted, also works for the Board of Ed.)

This place in the grand scheme makes you both a bit special and a bit suspect. Although you may sit with the teachers of one "year"--teachers' rooms are divided into three groups representing the homeroom teachers of each year--you are not actually part of that group and will often be excluded from important meetings and teacher trips. Other teachers will presume that you report back to the Board of Education and will be very distant. They won't always be willing to give you their honest opinions.

During October of their third year of junior high school, all students, whether they aspire to attend university or not, stop participating in extracurricular activities and enter a period known as "Exam Hell."

The exams in question are written at the Prefectural level (based on Ministry of Education quidelines) and taken on the same day by all public school students. Oddly, even though the test is the same for all schools, students must sit the test at the school they wish to enter, rather than merely sending out their scores to a number of schools. If they fail, or if the school rejects them, they then have to quickly regroup and apply for a lesser school or wait a year and try again.

It's important to keep in mind that just as Universities are ranked according to prestige, so too are high schools. A student accepted by a prestigious high school is almost guaranteed a spot in one of the best universities and, consequently, a good job in the government or with top name companies such as Canon or Sony.

Conversely, a student who fails to gain acceptance into a prestigious high school will most likely be rejected by the best universities and, while still able to get a good job, will be blocked out from the best jobs. The student's future is, for all practical purposes, determined by the age of 16.

Although this system is changing--students going to Todai (Tokyo University) are no longer guaranteed the best jobs--the entire system is still geared toward preparing students for the entrance exams. Teachers are required to teach approved curricula using approved textbooks. Every word of the textbook must be taught.

As a result, English in Japan is taught as a test subject and not as a living language. The ability to speak English is deprecated and grammar--the more obscure the better--is elevated. In fact, it's theoretically possible to pass the test without ever having spoken a word of English. This is why older JTE's speak very little English and why the Japanese can, after studying English for over six years, still speak English poorly.

Foreigners, especially those with teaching credentials, will typically find themselves both horrified and frustrated. Younger JTE's will seem energetic and full of ideas, but they also are responsible for teaching the text. As such, foreign teachers will frequently be assigned the unenviable task of writing communicative lessons for grammar points which typically appear only in print or have been declared "wordy" by writing guides. For example, one grammar point taught in third year Junior High School is something akin to "My father is a man who likes to eat pizza." A foreign teacher attempting to explain that this is best expressed as "My father likes pizza." will face a shrug and shouganai (It can't be helped).

A healthy attitude to adopt when dealing with all of the above is the notion that "You're right. So what?" (This a more compact, less eloquent version of "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.")

Remember that change in Japan occurs slowly and almost always from the top down. The Japanese English Teachers know the textbooks are bad. They know that the textbooks are not useful for teaching spoken English. They know that, in some of the approved books, there are mistakes. They also know that there's very little they can do about it and there's little gained by complaining about it. To many JTE's and students, spoken English class is irrelevant play time. To the most cynical JTE's, it's a few hours off each week.

To make your class relevant keep in mind that the Japanese are moved by results, not by promises or complaints. If you hand your JTE's a well written lesson plan that plugs into the textbook, they will almost always be willing to use it in class, especially if you've carefully defined their roles. If you simply huff and puff and declare you could write a better lesson plan in your sleep, you'll be met by a shrug.

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Copyright 2003, Dwayne Lively
Created January 2003