As the months rolled on from summer into fall of 2011, I found myself unable to write about my life. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to, but I found that everything was becoming a new standard of “normal.” I wasn’t running off to go on adventures every weekend, I wasn’t living in an anime, I had a real life with a real job I needed to do. The days passed by with little to nothing noteworthy, so I ended up posting only two things the entire month of November.
I felt really bad for most of my junior high school students, actually. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that their English levels were perhaps American grade level forth graders, if that. It was around this time I realized that Itako was much like the decade ago version of Paducah: most of those kids would become farmers, they would drop out of high school, they’d get married, and they might never even leave Japan.
That’s not to say of course that many of them didn’t go into good high schools to eventually perform well at university (I actually met up with one or two recently in Yokohama!). At the same time, the majority were still just products of their upbringing and conservative environment. The schools are improving every year though, and I watched as our scores rose higher and higher while I was there. Yet I would also watch as the “punk” kids struggled to understand the basics of anything and wouldn’t even bother trying because they figured they knew exactly how their lives would turn out.
My Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs for short) are awesome. I love working with them. They are so accommodating with my crazy English. Sometimes, it can be hard to communicate some things, but I’m lucky to have them for JTEs. Some people have issues with their teachers and supervisors in ways that horrify me. I’m so glad my JTEs are nice, respectful, and willing to teach me.
While it’s true that my JTE’s were pretty great as people, I still couldn’t believe their English skills were so hit and miss. Considering that most of them came from the era of Japanese education where English was only reading and writing? It was pretty good. In terms of fluency? High intermediate level on average. They could run circles around me on explaining grammar, but they’d get stumped over simple language conversation usage.
I will still remain forever grateful that most of most stayed with me for all three years. I got that stability of knowing what each of them wanted and not having to worry about brand new people every year. And yes, none of these people gave me horror stories.
Many ALT’s will have THAT ONE ASSHOLE. He/She is the JTE who didn’t bother to do anything ever, blamed the ALT if scores were low, made disparaging comments about foreigners/ALTs/racist other things, sabotages demo lessons in front of other teachers and parents, ruins perfectly good worksheets, behaves like a seudo-yankee and threatens the ALT for coming to class, the list goes on and on.
I only ever had a problem with Mr. Igime (name changed into a pun). He was with me for only six months, and he was just lazy. He’d go into class, use me as a tape recorder, and then just have the students read the books over and over again. He would attempt to bully me, but I’m one of those people who can dish it right back. He learned pretty quickly that I’m not his slave and I’m not going to call him senpai or whatever. The only time he caught me off guard was when he complained in front of the students in Japanese how it wasn’t fair I was making “so much more money” than him. Huge dick move, but jokes on him because I went straight to the Principal after class and filed a complaint. He didn’t come back the following year.
The only downside, I’ll be honest, is the textbooks. The textbooks are awful. Whenever my fellow JET Setters and I get together at a meeting, this topic will invariably come up. Immediately, everybody has something to say in terms of what it does wrong. It ranges from everything to bad grammar, misspellings, archaic language, and then (my biggest issue) the huge lack of English culture in the book.
I could cite the many pages throughout the New Horizon and Sunshine texts that use incorrect examples of grammar and what have you, but that would take up too much time and effort. Instead, I’ll just give a couple of examples and move on.
“My favorite was Kinkaku-ji.”
First off, it should be Kinkaku Temple, not Kinkaku-ji. Also, favorite what? Your favorite place? Your favorite sight?
“Where shall we meet?”and “Pardon?”
Shall? Really? The last time I used “shall” was a sarcastic response to my mother when she asked me, “Are you going to clean your room?” And I responded in my most obnoxiously polite voice, “Yes, mother, I shall.” Nobody uses shall. It’s polite, but it’s ridiculously polite. And the last person I hear use the word, “Pardon?” was an old lady. Nobody, that I know of, uses the word pardon in everyday language. Instead, I always hear, “I’m sorry, what?” or “Huh?” or “Wha?” or “What?” and on occasion “Darlin’, I didn’ah understand uh word ya jus said.” I miss Kentucky accents. Anyway, they’re teaching the kids these words and I have to stifle the urge to giggle every time.
“I got a letter from Canada. But I can’t read it.”
GAHHHHH! WHAT?! Every single American, British, and Australian will tell you that when writing sentences, you do not put conjugation at the beginning of a sentence if you can help it. The textbook could just as easy say, “I got a letter from Canada, but I can’t read it.” They have other sentences like that in the book. Why the wrong version?! It’s so confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes, I will correct a sentence and a JTE might say, “Oh, but that’s in the textbook!” I clench my fists while I smile and say, “Well, I’m afraid the textbook is wrong. I will let it count, but it’s not correct.” It makes me want to scream just a little bit.
Alright, so you get the idea. Now, it may seem nit picky with these examples, but they’re all over the textbooks. It would be a different story if there were only a few problems, but it doesn’t stop at just a sentence here or there.
Every single ALT I know agrees that the MEXT textbooks are garbage, but they’re government issued garbage so we have to just use them anyway. Three years down the road when I realized that I knew those textbooks inside and out, and I asked myself, “Can I really teach these same lessons for one more year?” I realized the answer was an emphatic NO, and decided it was time to go.
However, this is part of the reason why ALT’s exist. We come into the classroom with Native English (or equivalent) under our belt so that we can point out these mistakes and then teach the students the better way to do it. I spent a lot of classes explaining things like, “Well, even though the textbook says this is natural, we actually say _____ more often.” or “Sometimes it’s okay to do this when you’re writing, but when you’re speaking please be careful not to say it like that.” and visa versa.
I might have been able to let sleeping dogs lie if not for the fact that the textbook teaches little to nothing about foreign culture.
Very briefly at one point the textbook students visit Canada, but then they go back to Japan four pages or so later. So often, the textbooks talk about things in Japan, things the students already know. To me, the implied message is, “Hey, kids! English is awesome for vacations and for a homestay, but really you don’t need to know a single thing about a culture other than your own!” Way to teach a language in a vacuum, MEXT.
Here is another reason ALT’s are necessary, we have the cultural background and understanding of our respective countries that we can bring into the classroom. I talked about Kentucky’s cultural traditions around the holidays-the top three being Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In addition to that I would make English Boards, posters that would get placed on a wall that discussed other countries traditions.
While I still think the textbooks could try and teach a little more about other places, there is something to be said for taking the reigns and proving your worth as vital part of the school. If you notice something that you think is lacking, do something about it.
There is little to no hope for change in the system. The textbooks stay the same because of the standardized tests, and the standardized tests stay the same because of the textbooks. It’s a vicious cycle.
I get through these moments by telling myself that the activities will make up for the loss. However, it’s hard to build up from a poor foundation. It’s very easy for the students to get confused with one little change in the script. For example, I was doing a “Where is…?” assignment. When I asked the students, “Where is your pen?” they all just sat and stared at me in confusion. Eventually they figured it out, but the fact is they couldn’t grasp that “Where is…?” applied not just to, “Where is the store?” but also other things and places. The textbooks make it seem like the scripts are just that, scripts.
Because there is little to no hope for change in the system, it’s really important for teachers to take the initiative to fight for proper English and cultural exchange. Of course, you’ve always got to pick and choose your battles, but make an effort to show that there’s more than just some lines in a book or something to memorize for a test.
Then, what past me doesn’t know yet is that there are ways to make the scripts more memorable and flexible, such as layering. Whenever you move forward, try to bring a little bit back from the previous lesson and layer it on top of new material. Keep it fresh in the students’ minds. Also, bringing in pop culture can always help make it more memorable while being fun at the same time.
For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough when it comes to activities that I haven’t had to work from nothing at all. Lauren left me a huge amount of worksheets and activity books so that I could make my lessons without much hassle. Also, I use a website called Englipedia if I need help with a grammar point activity or if I need something right before class. I love using Englipedia because it’s got the lessons organized by textbook and even by each section. For me it’s one of the most convenient resources online for ALTs.
Usually, I spend at least one free hour planning out the lessons for the next day or next couple of days, depending on what the JTE wants. Sometimes it’s hard to get a hold of them to find out what exactly they want from me, so I leave notes on their desks or a Lesson Plan Form that I fill out for them to look over and return to me. I try to catch them to talk face to face as often as possible, but sometimes they’re just too busy.
I still can’t recommend Englipedia enough as an ALT site. It’s got everything you need to make your lessons great. That being said, sometimes my JTE’s would get so picky about they wanted and I’ve have to redo a worksheet five to ten times to make it look just so or include this vocab word, or something. After all that, I sometimes didn’t even get to use the activities because of some scheduling thing or another! So frustrating, but that’s a part of the job.
Everyday when I leave, I say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” and the teachers in the staff room will either say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!” in return or “See you!” The English makes me smile every single time.
I think in my next Japanese Conversation Tip post I’m going to talk about all the different goodbyes that are possible in a Japanese workplace environment versus friends and such. When I first got there it was a bit confusing as to which one I was supposed to use, but nowadays I’m pretty confident on which I should and shouldn’t so I’ll pass that knowledge along.
The rest of the post is talking about my pet spider, which I’d actually like to save for next Friday. I’m going to take that opportunity to educate everyone on all the creepy crawlies that live in the inaka parts of Japan. You’d be surprised what you can find! Until then everyone, sayonara and see you later.