Thursday, September 9, 2010

The JET Issue

I must be back to work because we are back to Debito Arudo columns. This one is especially applicable however. As a former JET who would cut off a pinky to get back on the gravy train that gave me envelopes full of tax free cash, a subsidized apartment and a seemingly endless supply of badusi, you might expect me to be a vocal advocate for the program. Well.... Then again as a frustrated educator who believes that Japan should throw its English program out with the bathwater and into the sewer you might think I would be calling for torching the program....not really. There is more I want to talk about in this article than the survival of the JET program. To sum up the topic quickly, JET brings some rotten people to Japan. It brings a lot of lazy people and drunk people and immature people. It is also responsible for everything I either have or don't have, most of my friends and surely my marriage and everything that came along the way. It is, in the end, a great tool for soft power, placing people with Japanese sympathies in various positions all over the world. Don't give that sentence another reading. But, it does that too.

The real issue here is what Debito has to say about English learning in Japan and the fact that he is 88% correct. And where he isn't correct he isn't exactly wrong.

The point is made that many JETs aren't trained English teachers. This is very true, and it could be a problem if they were often called upon to be teachers. Sadly, this is usually just a cudgel for Japanese teachers to ridicule them with (do you ridicule people with cudgles?) even though the teachers have very little real training themselves, especially in teaching English. Most teachers that I have encountered are still stuck in the grammar translation method of teaching, which disappeared along with Latin classes in the West. If they were asked, though, most teachers wouldn't even know that this is the method they were using. They would just think of it as teaching. It might be hard for you to picture a class in Japan, but just imagine it as somewhere between algebra and Latin, being written on the board and described by someone who has a loose grip on the subject to students who have neither clue nor interest. It is amazingly counterproductive.

On my first day as an ALT the superintendent of schools told me "Please tell us how to make our education system better." That was nine years ago and no one has listened once. I had a conference with all of the English teachers this year and typed up a list of what we should concentrate on. Everyone thought it was great that I could write in Japanese, but nothing has changed.

One thing that has changed is that the teachers are no longer as dead set against ALTs as they used to be. Some here and there are and there are still a lot of stereotypes and generalizations ingrained in the school system as a whole, but most seem more accepting these days. I am still often told, however, that there used to be "some problems" with an ALT in the past. I sometimes ask "You mean like the problems with Japanese teachers?" Which could mean the one who was selling drugs in a hotel room, or the one who was caught in the school pool with the girl's soccer team or the one who was drunk driving or the one who killed the kid in judo class and on and on. But as we know, these are different things. Japanese people operate as individuals and foreginers are a monolith.

This is not just a bitter jab, this has to do with a failure of the overall system. As Arudo correctly points out, "Now add the back-beat of Japan's crappy social science." Agreed and super agreed. I have often said that non-Japanese are not here to teach English we are here to teach Japanese. How do I mean that? We are here to reinforce how English and foreignness are separate from what the kids in class are learning to be, Japanese and Japanese. The prevailing Japanese view is that nationality and ethnicity are fundamentally inseparable. We can engage in cultural exchange but only in so far as it is illustrating differences. That is where I rock the boat slightly. I usually try to point out in class that I don't understand what "gaijin" means and that we grow up eating rice too, we just have more kinds. My most repeated phrase is "I don't know, it depends on the person." Which seems to be almost ungraspable, even to adults. I don't know what Americans eat for breakfast, because I usually don't go to my neighbor's for breakfast, much less a stranger's house. I can only answer for my family. That kind of thing. In this atmosphere, it is very hard for kids to see English as something that they can do just as well as anyone else learning a language. English is crazy and separate and bears on them very little.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fault I find with television in the whole dynamic. I blame Japanese TV for many things I find repellent. This is not to single out Japanese TV in the world, but to single it out in Japan. What you need to understand is that TV in Japan has about 4 channels, so everyone is pretty much watching the same thing. These channels are all populated by the same people, as the same 'talent' are on every show, every day in Japan. Non-Japanese show up from time to time but they fall into two general categories, comic relief and strange gaijin. If you struggle awkwardly in social situations and misuse the language, like Bobby, you are comic relief and beloved. If you speak Japanese fluently and have an opinion, you are strange gaijin. Maybe there is a small third party of those fluent in Japanese that play the game well and talk about how great Japan is and how there are no problems anywhere like this muppet, who I used to have an email exchange with and now makes me scour in shame. But maybe I am not being fair.

In any case, in this environment, the kids see most things in the context of the TV that is on at their house constantly, they struggle to view ALTs as teachers or even as adults. They are assumed,by both teachers and students to be the comic relief. This isn't said explicitly, but it is reinforced constantly. At meetings, it is usually coached as "ALTs are here to expose the kids to English so you should have upbeat and fun classes." Or by teachers as "Today the ALT is here, so let's play a game." I once taught at a school where I was told, "Our image is that foreigners smile a lot, so you should smile more." I never went back. I was told at my school now, "Your job is to stand there and smile and speak English." This was a large fight. I have many more stories but I am sure I have had it relatively good.

In the excellent, "You Gotta Have Wa" by Robert Whiting, which I consider and essential text on Japan, the author illustrates the practice of bringing average or failed American baseball players to play in the Japanese league. Their role is to continue to be average, be hyped as saviours and then to be blamed for all of the teams struggles and then be sent packing and told they are great disappointments. I think a lot of that is what has been going on with ALTs. It is easier to talk about the problems with them and their lack of certification and how they use the internet at work than to look at the internal problems weighing down the halfhearted attempts to teach English. It is easier to invest your hope in someone and then send them home like you burn your good luck charms at the end of every year.

The only place where I think Arudo gets it partly wrong is his image of the Japanese classroom. It might still hold true some places, but most I have worked in, failure isn't punished at all. Not even enough in my opinion. Answering, "I don't know, I don't speak English." Is often acceptable and the height of humor. "This is Japan." Is also a popular one. Failure is not only accepted it is expected. As I have asked many times, "What happens if you show up to a Japanese school and fail every test and never turn in your homework? You graduate."

It is a large issue that I could write on for a while, but debating JET is just another why that Japanese education can avoid debating itself. Last question: Of all of the board of education, school-wide and English teacher meetings I have been in over the years, how many times has a native English teacher been asked, "What can we do better?" Do I even have to tell you the answer? Zero. Do you think the cowboys ask the rodeo clowns how to ride a bull?

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