In the Meantime

Well, I'm not sure who's scheduled to blog this week, but I'm sure like many of you, I have very few classes this week due to testing. To alleviate my boredom, and hopefully some of yours' I thought I'd try and write a few words. I am a little out of practice compared with last year, so forgive me if I am less eloquent than other bloggers.

Recently, most of us attended the JTE/ ALT conference. Since I was vacationing in America at the time of the first conference, it was my first chance to meet a lot of you this year. I was for the most part, pleased with the experience. I think the one part that irked me the most was the final meeting: the letter exchange.

Being a JET can be a frustrating job. Ambiguity is plentiful, misunderstandings occur on a daily basis, expectations and cultural differences create situations that most of us have little experience in dealing with. We all have our own ideas of what the JET Programme should be like and most certainly, our relationships with our JTEs can have a significant impact on our experience here. Developing these relationships can be very difficult.

I think it is important for us to realize how hard most of our JTEs work, or have worked to get to their position. It is my belief that they did not go to school to become team teachers with ALTs. I doubt there is even a class on effective team teaching in the Universities, and the minimal amount of student teaching means the subject is likely to have never been covered at all.

Then there is the curriculum. As we have admitted, it often times is less than effective or efficient, and indeed not just English, but many (most?) of the classes in the Japanese system appear to be hampered by this problem, as we have seen evidenced through recent discussion on this page. They teach the kids to pass tests, reading and writing are more emphasized than speech by far, and still it seems their English literacy is far from what it should be at this level.

So we have partners in the workplace who are not trained to work with us, teaching a curriculum we don't like, using methods we find less than ideal. Does that seem like a somewhat fair assesment of some of the feelings expressed at the workshop?

Next there is us. We come from a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds. Some have been teachers, some speak Japanese, some are younger and some are older. We are given a few basics before leaving our home country, fly into Tokyo, go through a barrage of meetings, conferences and lectures, and then are whisked away to our repsective cities and towns. For many it is their first experience in Japan, for others they feel rather comfortable, but to almsot everyone, things are not exactly as they dreamed.

In an effort to smooth the transition, efforts are made, emails, phone calls, meetings and conferences are all organized and held in the hopes of making your JET experience as wonderful as possible. Eventually however, you are on your own. It is you, your town and your JTEs and things are bound to come up.

Because we spend so much time in the classrooms and working with our JTEs, it is easy to fall into the idea that we are simply foreign JTEs. We bite our tongues at mispronunciations, we imagine all the ways the system can be improved, and we often wonder what the administrators who come up with these plans are thinking.

Some will stand up and try to change the system, and small steps may be made, but most will find ways to rationalize being content with the way things are, wishing they could do more, but feeling incapable of causing change. Then some will start to feel like they aren't being treated like other teachers, that the sacfrices they made to leave friends and family to come here and help kids learn English, is not appreciated and the mutual respect they had hoped for is lacking.

Eventually some people begin to get angry or frustrated, but do so quietly. With no one to talk to these feelings about, and no hope for changing, the pressure builds, waiting for the chance to tell people how they really feel.
No one can blame people for being angry and frustrated, it's a natural effect of unmet expectations and limited communication.

Thus, we have the reason, in my opinion, that the letter exchange meeting for JHS became so heated.

"The book sucks" "They don't respect me" , "Their teaching methods are worthless" "The kids are zombies" and so it went.

I don't criticize any of those feelings, to be sure, I can say I have felt them myself on occassion, but I can also say, that I don't feel them very often anymore.

Did I give up? Did I throw in the towel and submit? Did I have a miraculous epiphany that showed me the glory of the Japanese system?

Unfortunately, no.. it was none of those things.

Now I can't tell you what will work for you, and I only have my experience to go on, but I hope that it may help some of you in some way to have a better experience on the program.

The first realization, one that had been drilled into me many times, but wasquickly forgotten, perhaps in my desire to make things better, or to help these kids or whatever, was this: We are not here to teach English.

It's worth repeating:

We are not here to teach English.

This is a simple truth that can lift a tremendous burden off your shoulders. We are not here to be teachers, that is a common misconception and source of much frustration, particularly among JETs trained in education. The fact is, however, that if you came to the JET Programme to teach English, you will probably be very disappointed. The Japanese system is not setup to take advantage of your training, and it is unlikely that you will have much impact on the system. It is possible to have some, but if you place pressure to change the world on your shoulders, recognize that if it doesn't happen, you may not enjoy your experience here.

The second thing I learned was this:

Just cause people are nice and appear weak, don't ever make the mistake of thinking you're better than them. We are all people here. JTEs can offer you insight and knowledge about things that you may have no idea even existed. Things tend to work opposite to everything we know back in the West. Yes is no, left is right, absolutely is maybe and maybe is absolutely. The level that this goes to is nearly infinite. Every time you have a realization, remember there is probably an even deeper reason than that, and NOTHING on the surface is as it seems. Treat your JTEs with respect, humble yourself as much as possible, and they will repay you ten fold.

And while there are certainly other little lessons that might help you, I am sure you will find those on your own. The one last thing that made a big difference in my ability to enjoy my job (besides studying Japanese which will make a big difference as long as you don't get frustrated) is to not take yourself too seriously.

Joke with the kids, say hello to people on the street, sign autographs for the kids and play with them at recess. Just get involved. Sure there are some rough and tumble brats out there, but 99% are great and the time you invest with them will be well worth it. That after all IS our job. We are here to be fun, to get the kids interested in foreign cultures and to get them excited about learning English. So do those things. The more fun they have, the more fun you have, and the teachers will be watching when you come to eat in their class, play with them at recess or join a club after school. They'll see the hard work you put into your English boards and games and they'll appreciate the time you take to help them. You must know that they are thinking it, even if they are to reserved to say anything.

I hope that some of this strikes a chord. I want you all to enjoy your JET experience as fully as possible, and it was a bit disheartening to see how frustrated some seem to have become. It's understandable, but I hope you find a way to make this experience wonderful, because you are unlikely to repeat anything like it in the future. I'm sorry if I have been unclear, please feel free to tear my words apart or add whatever comments you'd like.