Monday, April 10, 2006

My Job Is Stupid Part 1: Baka sensei

This is a big topic to cover and I have been a little hesitant about how to approach it.

A huge problem with the JET program is that English teaching in Japan is very ineffective. Despite English study being compulsory in both junior and senior high schools, as well as being almost universal in Elementary schools, Japanese students are often

unable to utter a single word of English

Many students will cheerfuly volunteer a few words and phrases, but the probability of coming across somebody who can hold a simple conversation is, at least in my area, zero.

The reasons for the failure of the English language education system in Japan are complex, but this is a blog, so maybe it will clarify things (for me, at least) if I relate my personal experience.

When I came to Japan I was not completely naive. I had taught Japanese students before, both in Tokyo and for several years in Australia. I had some knowledge of what the problems were.
I had heard, for example, of the 'Human Tape Recorder' problem, where ALTs were being used in the classroom only to read straight from the textbook.

Even so I was shocked when arrived in Nejime.

This might be a typical incident:

You ask a student a simple question, such as 'What's your name?' Or perhaps, 'How are you?'
The student will stare wide-eyed at you in shock and panic, then turn to a friend for help. That student will start looking through the textbook for an answer, perhaps enlisting the aid of a third student. Finally after 2-3 minutes of group consultation, the original victim will mutter 'I'm fine thank you' in a nearly inaudible whisper. Or maybe she won't answer at all and the silence will continue until the other teacher changes the topic.

These are kids who have studied several times a week for 5 years.

This story is not an exaggeration.

I didn't expect to change the world in Nejime but I did hope to make a difference. The first JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) I worked with was a disaster. Let's call her Baka sensei. When I first started 'teaching' at Nejime Junior High School I tried to schedule meetings with Baka sensei. After all, we were supposed to be 'Team Teaching', sharing the planning and execution of the lessons. While Baka sensei was pleasant and personable, she told me bluntly that 'You don't need to prepare anything.' In class I was expected to say a few words ('Good morning', 'Hello'); and for the higher grades 2-3 questions ('What day is it?', 'What time is it?', 'How's the weather today?'). There was no variation in these questions. After this 'introduction' Baka sensei spent the next 43 minutes of the 45-minute lesson talking in Japanese. The students stared either at the board or their desks. Sometimes they wrote things down. I was to 'stand in the corner' at this time. If I attempted to move out of my corner Baka sensei would say something like 'Michael, please return to your corner. Yuki can't see the board'.

At the end of the lesson I would say 'Thankyou. Bye for now.' Then the students would chant 'Goodbye'. Apart from those words at the beginning and end of the lesson, there would be no language, Japanese or English, uttered by the students. They were not permitted to speak or ask questions during the course of the lesson.

I was not permitted to be a human tape recorder. Baka sensei brought in a tape recorder for that purpose!

During testing periods (which seemed to come around often and take weeks) Baka sensei would tell me the students 'had no time for talking today' and I was 'not needed'. I would drink coffee during these times. I can't say exactly how often these tests come around or how long the 'revision for tests' took because I was never informed of dates or content of the tests.

This continued for the next 1 and a half years. For an experienced ESL teacher such as myself, it was, to say the least, extremely frustrating. I have about 8 years of teaching ESL, as well as a Masters in Linguistics. Yet at Nejime Junior High I was reduced to saying 'Good morning' and (if I was lucky) trying to talk to a couple of the brighter kids during lunch time. It goes without saying that it was a monumental waste of money, training, and experience. Not too mention an opportunity to motivate and teach those kids that will never come again.

You can be assured that I fought hard to change the system. I tried reasoning and argument with Baka sensei. She had a number of standard reasons why we could not do more communicative lessons. These included:

'We have to prepare for the tests.'
'We have to follow the textbook.'
'We can't do it like they do in the city.'

As time passed I noticed that the problem was even worse. Baka sensei went out of her way
to avoid situations where the students may have had to speak. For example, she would find another grammar point to speak about if her lesson plan was finished early, so the students would not have time to do a simple speaking exercise from the textbook. If worse came to worse, she would make me read out the pages from the textbook and have the students repeat after me. I realised why my predecessor had eventually simply refused to go to class with her (apparently she spent the last 6 months of her contract in the library every day.)

In the end I made no progress at all with Bakasensei. In meetings with my supervisor, I was told that 'You are the Assistant, not the Teacher', and 'Please don't make trouble.' I approached the head of the town Board of Education and told him face to face (in Japanese) that the teaching at the Junior High School was a fiasco, a waste of time, and that Baka sensei was incompetent. He laughed and told me to Gambate. A letter to the Prefectural Board of Education elicited the advice to try to be more flexible with the JTE.

A sense of cynicism was compounded at annual or bi-annual conferences for JETs. At these conferences, I was presented with dozens of good ideas for effective communication-based team teaching, as well as being lectured by well-meaning experts on the importance of Usage in the English classroom, the ineffectiveness of the traditional grammar translation method of teaching, and the general need to improve spoken English in Japan. Unfortunately, Bakasensei was never exposed to any of these ideas or opinions because...

It is not compulsory for JTEs to attend these conferences.

Perhaps it is not unexpected that I developed a certain cynicism about the School English Education System. It seemed to me that it was set up for failure, that it was possibly even deliberately designed to fail, that whatever communication ability the students acquired was despite the system, and not because of it, for example from talking to ALTs outside of class.

Well, that's all for now. Next time, my next JTE: Ironic sensei.

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