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Teaching English in Japan with the JET Programme

For College Graduates Seeking Challenge and Adventure

"Our students are very friendly, but they don’t like to study English,” my supervisor, Miss Sasano, wrote to me two years ago as I was preparing to leave for Japan to be an Assistant Language Teacher, or ALT, in the JET Programme. Big deal, I thought. Most of the kids where I went to high school in rural Michigan probably wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about learning Japanese, either. But, I said to myself, at least Japanese students are diligent, quiet, and well-mannered. You can probably guess what happened.

My first class: Following the advice of my predecessor, I showed slides of my family and some popular American landmarks. Out of a class of 40 students, only a few of the girls paid attention. The rest talked, slept, or sent email on their precious cell phones. Some of them looked up when I showed Wrigley Field and mentioned Sammy Sosa. I felt totally lost, not knowing what to do. It was the beginning of September. Mr. Kawasaki, a very friendly and humble man, was teaching with me that morning (all classes I taught were with a Japanese teacher of English). I remember seeing the look on his face, a look of 90 percent embarrassment and 10 percent anger.

I doubt that I was the only ALT who had such an experience. I was teaching at a public high school in rural Fukui prefecture, and only about 10 percent of the students went on to college or university. The high school in town had the kids who did well on the high school entrance exam; about 90 percent of them went to university. My school, however, was a mix of daydreamers, goof-offs, and a few students interested in English. As my JET Programme Handbook said, I was experiencing a “far less publicized aspect of the Japanese school system.”

Over time, I realized what worked and what wouldn’t. But I couldn’t help asking myself, what is my objective, my overall goal? And why wasn’t someone in the Japanese government telling me?

By the end of September the heat was no longer as punishing and teaching gradually became easier. I played trombone in the brass band at school, one of many after-school clubs. We played mainly Japanese pop songs and traditional Japanese music. To improve my speaking, I took Japanese lessons every Friday afternoon in Fukui, about an hour away by bus or train through steep gorges and beautiful green valleys.

I decided to stay with the Programme and at my school for a second year, and I’m glad I did. Although the year was spent under the cloud of terrorism and war, I continued to improve as a teacher and deepened my knowledge of Japanese society. However, I was still a little confused about my role as an ALT. If the students are supposed to benefit from contact with foreigners, then I succeeded. But if they were supposed to become fluent in English, I failed. Like many ALTs, I still struggle with these questions even after having left Japan. Getting to know the students, especially the ones whom I had labeled as lost-causes, was the most satisfying part of the program. And living in the Japanese countryside was definitely an enlightening experience. I would strongly recommend the JET Programme to any college graduate seeking a challenge and an adventure.