education Middle School

English Used at School

Now that the days have become cooler, the heaters are regularly turned on in the classrooms at my junior high school. Since the thermostat controls are all centrally located in the teachers room, we have to call down there and ask someone to flick the switch to off for our particular classroom. Often, when this becomes necessary in one of my English classes, I will call down to the room and sort of surprise whoever answers by making my request in English. Sometimes the teacher will make a student do this. Today, for the first time, I was in the teachers’ room while this happened. The English teacher who teaches 1st grade English, and prefers not to teach with me, had a student call down and ask. The nurse answered and freaked out, handing the phone off to the secretary who by now is used to that sort of thing.

So, now that this has become a “thing” at my school, I wonder why I’m so bored of it. In principle, the idea of using English in a way that even ever so slightly breaks the typical bounds of the classroom environment (all the way downstairs!) is a good thing. However, I don’t expect that they will start requiring class leaders to use English when asking about preparations for the next day’s class, or conducting daily business in their homerooms. Why? It’s just too hard. In principle, this is a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that it is treated as a novelty (Oh my god, he’s speaking English, on the phone, to a teacher!) and not as something that everyone should be able to do.

One of the major failings of English education in Japan, by no fault necessarily of the teachers, is its inability to demonstrate the use of English in a normal or casual way, to show students that “yes, this is something that you can do too.” The common criticism is that there is not enough emphasis on a “communicative” approach to teaching. While valid, there is a more encompassing criticism in regard to the attitude taken toward English: It’s always set up as a sort of performance, rarely given utility or any plausible application. Obviously, that can be hard to do at the junior high level, given the balance required by testing and national standards and the simple rigor of the bukatsu-laden schoolday. Which is why my jaded view of these phone calls puzzles me. I should be embracing it as a tiny step toward my view of an ideal introduction of English. But I find myself rolling my eyes at it because I see it becoming another way English is treated as an other, as something else that exists in another world beyond the consciousness of everyday life.

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