Friday, July 10, 2009


Sorry for the lack of blogging presence. I've been swamped with work this month, and the month before we had our Kenshu-kai divisional/Prefectural open class presentations. Basically they are an over-rehearsed class in which the kids reitterate the same lesson they've been practicing all week for a bunch of Prefectural board of education supervisors who then proceed to tell you how to improve your teaching methodologies of the totally "fake" class you just acted out.

It's totally useless! But the Japanese love their pomp and circumstance, and sometimes I think the ritual itself is more important than the actual act of learning.

This goes with school assemblies too. So many hours wasted listening to down talking style lectures in which the Principal is obligated to speak for and hour or more drilling safety lessons, about how to behave as responsible adults, and other moralist high horse preaching into the kids heads before summer break. As if they will remember anything he said or just absorb a sophist behavior through osmosis. Yet junior high school students rarely ever recollect anything past the fifteen to thirty minute mark let alone over an hour of preaching. It's just another example of ceremony for the sake of ceremony and is, in my opinion, a huge ceremonial waist of time. Especially since everything which is ever said at these assemblies could be completely summed up in 15 minutes or less. The drawing out of events just for the events sake is a monotonous, but we all happily endure it because it means... in an hour... summer vacation begins!

One of the biggest cultural difference of K-12 education back in the U.S. where I'm from, is that the teachers get time off when the students do. In Japan, regrettably that's not the case. In Japan... when the students get let out for vacation the school teachers come right back and work all summer long. Of course, I find that Japanese teachers are some of the hardest working people I know, and it's really a challenging job, and I admire all the teachers I work with even though much of the system they are forced to work in restricts their teaching abilities or what and how they can teach.

One of the things living and working as an educator in Japan teaches you is how to be patient when it comes to having your time waisted by ridiculously near obsessive compulsive cultural traditions (which have only arrisen in the last 60 years). Much of the modern Japanese school system is modeled on the Western one with the exception that they ignore the proven teaching methods which work to incorporate distinctly "Japanese" ones--regardless of whether or not it increases the quality of education.

For example, if I try to have the kids learn an extra vocabulary word that's not written on their weekly vocab sheet... the teacher always informs that it's too difficult for them, because going above and beyond demands the kids put pressure on themselves to learn more... instead of learning just the same amount as everyone else. This insular close-knit everbody is the same feeling which creates a strong sense of unity in Japan, also is present in the classroom. To distabilize such a traditional mode of thinking by asking the students to try a little harder... perchance to actually learn... sparks instant excuse making on why such a request is impossible. Often times I think the teachers simply mean to say, "This isn't how we do it in Japan." And then deny the children a chance to learn if the learning pushes the accepted boundaries of what is considered "acceptable" teaching in Japan.

Part of this is legal of course. The government regulates exactly how class curriculumns should be taught, but it always is a dissapointment at how futile and useless the "English" model of teaching in Japan actually is. This is probably why Japanese have over 8 years of formal English education coming out of such a rigorous curriculumn without so much as the ability to form a single coherant English dialogue, but countries like South Korea and China will have their students fluently chatting English in two to three years.

It's the system that's flawed. And it needs to change if Japan wants to stay competative in today's global ecconomy where English plays such a vital part.

This is the most common gripe among foreign English educators in Japan, because it is a real obstacle and a real hinderance to our jobs. We can't teach English very well if the system doesn't allow us to, and that can get downright frustrating. JETs last an average of only two years because they get so frustrated of being under-utilized and unable to teach that they just throw up their arms and let the Japanese suffer the consequences of their own inflexibility toward the necessity of change. But I have toughed it out for the long hall, and in my opinion, after five years, I've learned one thing... Japan isn't going to change because nobody wants it to.

And those who desperately do want better educations opt to send their children to International multricultural private schools where the little children get the highest quality educations. The public school system continues to have high standards of standardizing the children to a homogeneous group of intelligent young people... but if you ever have wondered why Japan has so few Einsteins, Platos, Aristotles, and people who stand out above the rest of the pack... it's because the system is designed to make it so nobody stands out at all. Everyone must be the same.

This has certain pros and cons. But the bottom line is, in the arena of English Education, it's dreadfully maladaptive. By keeping everyone the same it holds the brightest students back. And that's no way to equip future generations with a skill they are going to absolutely need.

But enough complaining. There's not much Educators like me can do. We're not even supposed to have a "political" opinion, and by law it is illegal for us to partake in any political action. So all we are left with are opinions, which go unheard by the Japanese, because they still haven't learned the required English they need to understand our complaints. Ironic, isn't it?

And even for those like me, who speak conversational Japanese relatively well, and can voice such opinions in the native tongue, I risk losing my job. So I don't say anything. But it's best not to let it get you down. The way I've survived so long is that I take every opportunity to engage on a cultural level with my students. By showing a great interest in their lives, their culture, their interests and ambitions... I can spark greater curiosity in them about my own exotic and exciting culture.

Last week one of my seventh graders came up to me and handed me a note from her older sister, a girl who graduated two years ago. I read the letter with a huge smile as she wrote asking for some private English tutoring as she was thinking about speninding her senior year of high school as an exchange student in Australia, and wrote to tell me how much fun she had in my class and that she thought I was a great teacher and wanted to speak with me about this new exciting chapter in her life. It's the little things like this which really keep me going... keep me interested in working endlessly and tirelessly against the machine knowing that even if I can reach just one student that it's all worth it in the end.

Well, I can't promise any frequent or exciting updates, let alone on a regular basis. This years Hiroshima English Camp is two weeks away and I'm gearing up to do some real hands on intensive English teaching. I've been promoted to camp Coordinator, or rather invuluntarily voted into the position, and have some more responsibility this year. Hopefully it will all go smoothly and work out in the end. I guess we'll see. I should have some pictures and camp updates posted in a few weeks. Until then, stay cool, drink that refreshing ice lemonade, and have a great summer!


Dymond said...

I just happen to come across your blog. Very interesting on the whole Japanese education thing. I am an ALT and cannot agree with you more. I was telling my family and friends about the Japanese system and how different it is from the US. I could not believe when teachers told me to do simple songs and games because it's too difficult for the kids. Seriously, how do they know? Why not challenge them? It's sooooo sad isn't it. It's nice to know that there is someone out there that thinks like me :)

Tristan Vick said...

The education system in Japan is set to work with the Japanese standard of standardizing education. Which equates to the entire educational curriculum being geared towards standardized testing, memorization, and repetition but has very little to do with actually thinking independently.

That's why when it comes to problem solving skills Japanese are almost helpless alone. But throw them into a group of 12 or more people, and they slowly, ever so slowly, brainstorm together and eventually figure out a way to solve a problem. Yet because it takes time, nobody has adequately organized to address the educational problems of Japan. It's the system that is flawed.

But the education, on average, is extremely good. It's just the teaching methods could be improved to optimal efficiency... but the Japanese would rather keep a defunct system and stubbornly hold to the shibboleth of standardized education than to be at all progressive. Japan, is after all, conservative, homogeneous, and allergic to change.

Tristan Vick said...

By the way, where do you teach?

Wendy said...

Hi there. I just came across your blog today. I was an ALT in Hiroshima from 2000 - 2003 and found similar situations with some teachers, but much more freedom with others. It seemed entirely dependent upon who you work with (and what regulations they were choosing to ignore, it sounds like). As an elementary ESOL teacher in Virginia now, I seem more frustrated with constant assessments here than the constraints of what to teach in Japan, but it has been awhile.