I'm pretty sure I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I think having "internationalization" as a stated aim of JET is a crock. I'm fine with it being a desired outcome, but as a goal, I think it's too easily used as an excuse or crutch for indifferent teaching.
When internationalization is there to fall back on, ALTs can tell themselves it's OK if they're not actually teaching students English, as long as the kids are having fun (interacting with a "foreigner").
Again, fun is great for an English class, but it's not the point. If fun was the main goal, teachers could play Bingo, karuta and fruits basket variations all the time and students would have tons of fun. But would they actually learn English?
I think the role of an ALT is to help students learn English. We do this, for the most part, through coming up with fun games and activities to reinforce learning. That's the key point here: learning.
Honestly, if all teachers needed was games, they could spend a lot less money and invest in Genki English or something. Why do they want us, as people from different countries, to help the Japanese English teachers (or homeroom teachers for elementary schools)? Because we were educated differently and thus bring a different perspective to English education. Besides, the Japanese teachers have other concerns (making sure students do their homework, pass tests, understand concepts, behave properly, etc.) whereas we, as assistant language teachers, are free to focus solely on engaging the students in learning. (And the advantage we have over curriculums/resources like Genki English--great as they may be--is that we can adapt and create new things to suit the needs of our classes.)
So yeah, even though it's difficult when you only see a school once a month or once or twice a term, I believe it is our responsibility to help kids learn English. This means diversifying our methods/games to appeal to different types of learners (bodily kinesthetic, verbal/linguistic, etc.), targeting games to develop specific skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing), and etc.
Basically, I think it means we need to start thinking of ourselves as actual teachers and not just "(international) circus performers." True, there is no teaching experience requirement to become a JET, but teaching is the job, so I think the expectation should be there that for ALTs to develop and carry themselves as teachers.
I think the fault here in not setting such expectations lies with the JET Programme as well as the individual ALTs, contracting organizations/school boards/teachers, etc. (Here's where I go back to my first point.) By leaving such a fuzzy crutch of a goal as "internationalization" in the mission statement of JET, the Programme is setting the wrong tone right from the get go. It's not surprising, then, that teachers, schools, and even ALTs don't necessarily expect ALTs to do more than "making interacting with people from different countries (using English) interesting and fun for students."
And I think that's doing a huge disservice to everyone involved:
- to the students who, at the end of the day, still need to pass the English portion of various entrance exams;
- to the teachers who have to accomodate ALTs periodically coming in and "disrupting" the usual flow of classes;
- and to the ALTs who are sometimes paid to do nothing more than sit around the office or to be human tape recorders in classes.
The responsibility for rectifying matters, I believe, must necessarily fall to the ALTs, who arguably have the most free time out of all parties involved.
I have seen the incredible results a little bit of initiative (and probably a lot of tact) from ALTs can create. Admittedly our city has had the advantage of a veteran (five year!) ALT and supportive supervisor/Board of Education, but I sincerely believe it's within the powers of all ALTs to effect changes, even if they are only small and slow in coming.
So yeah, at the end of my time on JET, I want to be able to look back and honestly say that I worked "isshokenmei" (with all my might) to leave the state of English education in Towada a little improved from when I started.