It's kind of strange thinking that I've been here for three months. I still remember my first weekend here, going to a matsuri (festival) with the other new ALTs, melting in the ridiculously humid summer heat, watching some great fireworks, and then biking home in the dark, hear pounding, desperately hoping I'd be able to find my way back to my apartment. Now I've hung out with the other ALTs loads of times, and met lots of others. It's great getting to meet and learn from so many new people from all over the world! The built-in community is a real benefit of the JET programme, and one that has definitely helped me a lot.
As for work, the job is going pretty well. There are ten Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) at my school, and all of them speak and understand English superbly. I only teach classes with five of the teachers, but they're all really friendly and happy to help me with anything. I teach ten different classes of forty students each, and I teach twelve lessons per week (I see eight different first-grade classes once a week, and two classes of third-graders twice a week). This means I have a lot of downtime, which is honestly one of the things I'm finding most difficult to adjust to at the moment. It might not sound like a major thing, but at my old job, I was standing, walking around, and usually busy for 9 hours every day. When I was training as a primary school teacher, I was busy interacting with people every moment of the working day. Now, I spend the majority of my day sitting at my desk in the staff room. There's stuff to do, sure - plan lessons, mark student's work, write my morning speeches, study Japanese, read the news...but it doesn't change the fact that I'm sitting at a desk for the large majority of my day. It's a huge step down in responsibility, activity, and interaction, which is a big change for me, and I'm still deciding how I feel about it.
I do enjoy interacting with the students when I have class, although there's a learning curve to that, too. Senior High School students in Japan are generally very shy, and nervous of making mistakes, which makes student-teacher interaction, and student participation in class a difficulty. Pair work generally goes down a lot better than teacher questioning, but I would much prefer them to enjoy both. I'd like to have some student input, and to have a dialogue going with my students so we can draw connections between the material and their own ideas and experiences, you know? But that's not a teaching method Japanese students are used to. The Japanese education system favours a lecture-style classroom environment, in which the teacher talks, and the students listen. It's a total change for me, after being trained to have as little "chalk and talk" as possible in any of my classrooms - especially language classrooms! There's a time and place for lecturing, but I can't help but feel that my classes (titled "English Expression" and "Oral Communication") are not it. Based on my own teaching experience, I believe that teachers resort to this method of teaching when they are not confident either in their ability to manage the class, or in their student's ability to do the work. I did it myself many times, out of fear. It's very, very easy to stand in front of a class and talk at them (especially when many of them are falling asleep, as is common here). The difficulty, and the risk in teaching comes when you hand over the reins to your students. Of course, that's also when the real, experiential learning happens.
I went out to dinner with one of my JTEs and my school's amateur debate club earlier this week, and I asked the JTE about her time spent living abroad. When I asked if she had been studying in America, she told me she had completed a Master's degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) there. I was surprised, as I had never heard this about her before.
"Yeah" she replied. "I don't really want the others to know about it."
"What?" I asked. "You mean none of the other English teachers know you have a Master's in TESOL?"
"No..." she said hesitantly. When I asked out of curiosity if the other JTEs had studied TESOL, she also said no.
This blew my mind, and I think it really gave me an insight into the teaching culture here. Here is someone highly trained in their field, who knows the theory, who's done the research - and their knowledge is being swept under the rug. I don't even know why. Shyness? Age? Standing within the school hierarchy? It's an interesting (and for me, disappointing) matter.
I meant for this to be a general post about settling in to life here in Japan, but obviously this stuff about the job has been on my mind. I think that conversation really brought all my thoughts about it to the surface again. I didn't mean to sound as if I'm not enjoying the job, as the JTEs themselves are lovely, and I have definitely had absolutely fun classes, breakthrough moments, and kids who really stick their neck out to try and communicate with me. I've got kids with great senses of humour, ones who break the mold, and ones who try their hardest every time. With over 400 students in my classes, I'm still getting to know them, but it's an enjoyable task. I guess my little rant comes from wanting more for them. I want them to have fun using English, and to learn useful things. But unfortunately that would mean not only rocking the boat, but damn well sinking it and investing in an aeroplane.