Today I dropped by the town hall and found a letter on my desk from a university in Tokyo, written on fancy letterhead. It was a request to complete a survey of ALTs. It focused on ALT’s experiences in and attitudes toward teaching English in Japan, and intended to help improve English language education in the future.
I intended to answer the survey online quickly and be done with it, but while answering it, I soon realized that I actually had some strong opinions and very specific answers that I wanted to share. It ended up taking me nearly 45 minutes to complete. I decided it would be a shame if my written responses were simply swallowed up into the survey, rather than used for personal reflection or even as a conversation starter among ALTs (who probably have also received this survey.) Considering that my written responses are my own intellectual property, I thought I would republish them here:
What do you think are your strengths as a teacher of English in Japan?
I have a realistic attitude toward what is possible with only 35 hours of team-taught instruction per year. Yet I am independent and forward thinking in the lessons that I plan for students and the materials that I use to introduce them to English and foreign cultures.
What aspects about your culture or country do you teach to students?
Simply reading storybooks from your own country can be a useful activity, since it allows students to make both active and passive connections to different ways of expressing emotions and humor, structuring a story, and even styles of drawing.
In planning of classes, what do you think is important to discuss with JTE’s?
It is very important for each to know what each person’s responsibilities are for preparation, and also important that those responsibilities both be shared and co-evaluated between teachers.
What do you find advantageous in teaching with a JTE?
It allows students in the classroom to see a realistic model for their own use of English. ALTs may be good pronunciation models, great ambassadors and introducers of culture, and great friends to students, but it is unrealistic to think that the students will ever attain native linguistic or cultural proficiency. The JTE is the only member of the teaching team who can be a practical role model for students.
Please write freely any comments you have about your relationship with JTEs.
I think it is important to develop personal relationships with JTEs. While I believe in a separation between work and personal life as much as possible, it really does make a difference to socialize with JTEs. It is one reason why I strongly believe that ALTs should remain at as few schools as possible and make only one school visit per day. “Downtime” in the teachers’ room is not downtime – it can be used for meaningful interaction between ALT and JTE. Conversations that I have had during this time have actually been one of the greatest sources of useful and innovative lesson ideas during my tenure as an ALT. Ideas come much more naturally in casual conversation than in planned meetings.
What are the reasons for your using Japanese in class?
Very rarely for classroom management (perhaps if the JTE is out of the room for more than 5-10 minutes) and also sparingly used to develop metalinguistic awareness about a teaching goal.
Please write freely any comments you have about your relationship with students.
Since every teacher has problems with students, I felt it would have been dishonest to write that I did not. That said, the problems are few and typically dealt with easily and nearly always confined to certain groups or individual students. I find it’s typically an easy matter to deal with problems, particularly when you have the support of a JTE.
What suggestions do you have, if any, that might help improve English education in Japan?
Expectations need to be set higher. Elementary students do not need to be babied by avoiding phonics and spelling, but they also do not need to be graded in order to make them “learn.” Hours of instruction need to increase. The job of ALT needs to be professionalized, both via hiring policy/pay and the responsibility taken on by ALTs themselves. There need to be more ALTs in schools – one in each elementary school would do wonders for students, the support of JTEs, and for the ALT’s own work satisfaction by being able to feel like they are an insider and a member of a team who share common goals. The list goes on, but these are the points that I see as being realistically accomplished within my lifetime.
Do you have any memorable episodes in your interactions with your students in and/or out of class?
In order for teachers to teach well, they need to know what students already know and bring to the classroom from their own homes, individual experience, and culture. Teachers also need to know what students can already do. For an ALT to be able to know these things and use that knowledge effectively, they need to listen, which depends on time and strong teaching and community relationships. Once they have a good understanding of this, they can make appropriate connections to students’ lives, and also challenge students with things they can’t yet do. Trying new things together is often the only way for real learning to happen. A teacher should learn along with their students, especially in the case of JTEs.
A good example of what I consider “real learning” happened in a Skype class that we conducted in a 5th grade elementary class with a 5th grade class in America. Each class presented their weekly class schedules in English, and made comparisons between the different school days and lesson times. At the end of the lesson, the two classes played a gesture game, in which one side of the Skype session acted out an activity from a school subject, and the other class tried to guess what the subject was. An “Aha” moment occurred when the class in America acted out reading a book to represent English, or “Language Arts” as it is called in North America. Our students immediately understood, but they shouted out “Japanese” which they had learned for kokugo, the native Japanese term for Japanese language study. They were confused at first, but soon realized that the “kokugo” of America is indeed English. Not only was this an amazing “light bulb” experience for them, but it was a real learning experience for me, because it helped me better understand the kinds of assumptions and misunderstandings that students are prone to make when learning a foreign language or culture, but that I would never have predicted by myself.
Do you have further comments on any aspects of your work as an ALT?
The job of an ALT is one that is shaped enormously by the person who fills it. It’s also one that can very quickly become either unbearably frustrating, or unbearably boring. I think that a significant burden falls on ALTs like myself to expand the role of the ALT in Japan so that we are used more effectively, as well as to constantly try new things so that our lessons improve over time. Maintaining a positive attitude toward this end is key.