Monday, September 29, 2008

The "Internationalization" crutch

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.


JetSetArnett said...

I always thought that when the literature said anything about internationalization that it was more explicitly talking about CIRs rather than ALTs, but I do see your point.

As for the reasoning behind it, I think a lot of ALTs will toss in the “internationalization” aspect of their job as something that makes them sound more important and as a result inflates their ego. However, when I say that, I don't mean it in a derogatory way. Rather, everyone needs to have their ego fluffed in some regard for the sake of their mental health. The reason Westerners might need to inflate theirs more in this way is because of the way teaching is viewed as a profession; while teaching is valued and respected in Japan, it is often looked down upon in other countries. I'm not saying that this is justified, but rather it might be a partial explanation.

Another reason ALTs might focus on the internationalization aspect of the job is also related to their self esteem; their teachers don’t trust them to teach. If you go into a job every day and you function solely as a human tape recorder, then you have to mentally justify your presence. In some cases, the ALT might be entirely superfluous; there is literally no reason to have them there. However, the ALT is still there, and the CO certainly isn’t going to fire them. This creates cognitive dissonance where the world around the ALT points to them being without specific purpose, but the ALT's mind believes that it is in fact more valuable than that. Therefore, the ALT's mind must come up with something to justify its physical presence, and it latches onto the idea of internationalization as a part of the job.

Hence, by pointing this out, you are sending any poor, bored ALT who reads it into a spiral of self-doubt and despair. Nice Mel, real nice.

See what I did there? I started off serious, and then it went all overblown and silly.

Oh JSA, you so crazy.

Rob Pugh said...

I kind of disagree.

You [and by "you" I mean ALTs] haven't been brought over to Japan because of your "different education" nor in order to infuse the Japanese educational system with your "different perspective."

The Japanese teaching culture and organizations really isn't looking to you to "improve" their system.

"...I think the expectation should be there that for ALTs to develop and carry themselves as teachers."

But ALTs aren't teachers. Rarely in their home country and even less so in Japan. Unless you're ready to take on taking care of a sports club, devoting your Saturdays to work, and being ready to take the phone calls when your student is busted for shoplifting at the local conbini... well, then, you're not teacher in Japan.

And besides which, few would agree on what "carry themselves as teachers" actually means. The variety and gamut of personalities and levels of "teacher-ness" amongst my Japanese co-workers alone varies widely.

Internationalization should never be used as an excuse for laziness, or not trying to make your involvement in the lessons both fun and educational... but honestly, the JET Programme and ALTs don't exist in order to "teach" English. They have teachers here already.

You're here because of the fact that Japan's remarkably homogeneous and insular popular was having trouble expanding, both its businesses and culture, into a predominantly English speaking world.

Japan was [warning: huge generalization ahead] and is, as a culture, deeply uncomfortable with interacting with anyone outside their respective in-group.

Foreigners were brought in, to a great extent, in hopes that exposure to them, both in the community at large and to students at an early age, would help to alleviate that problem of being a member of the world community.

It's right there in what it says the purpose is - "increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations, to promote internationalisation in Japan's local communities by helping to improve foreign language education, and to develop international exchange at the community level."

Actually helping improve teaching is third on a list of three. And some would say a distant third.

Doesn't mean you shouldn't do your level best, but it does mean you shouldn't fool yourself as to what your role is here in Japan.

I've seen a lot of ALTs, particularly folks with an education/teaching background, get frustrated/bad mouth the JET Programme because they thought they were going to come over to Japan and enlighten and revolutionize the Japanese masses.

You're here to fulfill a very specific role. With good supervisors and co-workers, you can make that role an outstanding and fulfilling experience, for all concerned. But it is what it is.

Rob Pugh said...

"Actually helping improve teaching is third on a list of three. And some would say a distant third."

Sorry, clearly it's #2 out of 3... my lack of reading comprehension is further proof I'm not a professional teacher... I only play one in Japan.

Presea said...

Hmm... I see where you're coming from, Rob, and I would agree that JET was started primarily for internationalization purposes.

However, speaking as an ALT from a city that's had ALTs for over 10 years (and I'm guessing this would hold true for other cities that have a fair bit of exposure to ALTs or "foreigners" in general), I'd have to say that currently the expectation for ALTs is less about internationalization and more about teaching.

Definitely the lack of acceptance/understanding of diversity (generalizing here) is still a problem in Japanese society (even among Japanese--witness bullying problems and the pressure to conform in schools), but even here in Northern Japan (usually considered more "backwards") I see a lot of "international friendship circles" and such things that aren't necessarily tied to ALTs.

Basically, I think that the time for "internationalization" as the primary goal of JET is past.

This is strictly based on personal/anecdotal evidence, of course, but things like JET ALTs being phased out in some cities in favour of private ALTs and the recent swing (back) to choosing older ALTs and/or ALTs with some teaching experience suggests that what cities are looking for from ALTs is English teaching.

Of course I totally agree that we shouldn't come thinking to "enlighten and revolutionize the Japanese masses" (that smacks of old time Eurocentric imperialistic thinking, doesn't it?). We are, after all ASSISTANT Language Teachers.

But I think it's important that we think of and try to carry ourselves as English teachers. How people interpret that will naturally differ based on their own personalities, experiences, their placement in Japan, etc., but to me, having that attitude/goal is important (as I discussed in my follow up post - Attitude/Goals & Reality).

Particularly with the new elementary English curriculum set for 2011, I think Japanese school boards and teachers are looking for people to help teach English--particularly since Japanese teachers are concerned with many other things and may not have used their English in a long time (again, I talked about this in the aforementioned post).

But again, a lot of this comes from my personal experience. Here in Towada, there are very high expectations placed on ALTs as English teachers.

Rob Pugh said...

"I'd have to say that currently the expectation for ALTs is less about internationalization and more about teaching."

It certainly sounds that way where you're at. And I'm sure respective schools/cities/regions may or may not have a more academic/teaching/learning centered role they expect the ALT to fill.

But I'd proffer that's not the norm. Which is why, imho, there has been a slight shift away from the JET Programme and ALTs. As there begins a swing in Japanese education, once again, towards better and more "success" - which, in Japan, let's face it, equals better test scores and test taking skills - there will be less call for ALTs, conversational English and internationalisation.

Until, once again, they realize they can pass tests but not carry on a conversation. And then they'll emphasize ALTs again.

Constant flux, swinging back and forth, every 10-15 years or so...

S said...

Hi, I am a Japanese guy again who is sometimes checking your blog.

I think everybody's opinions are in some way right, because they have their own purposes and views.
JET programme has in the first place various purposes, and not limited to one or two, so no wonder there are many types of ALTs the programme hire.
I know Mel-san is a more experienced professional English teacher back home, so she is more focused on the teaching aspect. I think that is correct and can be what Japanese students are actually looking for these days.
As some of the commentors said, there are other aspects to the purposes of JET Programme like this (in random order):

1. Providing Japanese students with a first chance to interact with foreigners(Westerners) in their lives
--this used to be the main purpose decades ago, and still a main purpose in some boards of Education. Actually, my first contact with a foreigner was with ALTs because I lived in inaka(rural area). They were all the foreigners I knew back then. That's why your first impression is very very important to make good impression on your home country. you are like a local version of ambassador of your own country. Because this purpose weighed most in the past, majority, if not all, of ALTs were chosen from white British/American/Canadian/Australian people with blond hair because they looked obviously foreigners.

2.To make more worldwide Japanese fans who know and have experienced real Japan.
---Japan is an isolated island country with few friends nearby. Many foreigners abroad used to, and even now, misunderstand Japanese culture and society, and used to harshly bash Japan back in 70's and 80's. Japan realized it needs to advertise Japanese are not only emotionless money-obsessed people.

By making foreign people be familiar with real Japan by having them live and work in rural Japan, they are able to see real Japanese lives and sometimes become fans or at least be more familiar and will stop ignorant bashing like in the past.
According to the Jet Programme official website, The programme has received over 46,000 people from 55 different countries in the past two decades since its start in 1987.
That is a large number, and considering that they often talk about their lives and memories in Japan to their families and friends, they have substantial influence in making better images of Japan.
It results in more tourists to Japan or favorable views of Japan, and it is also a good way to increase international influence and security of Japan in a peaceful way, just like ODA projects.
So, while ALTs advertise their own home countries, cultures, and societies in front of their students,
you are advertising Japan back in your home countries too. It's a win-win situation in internationalization. Of course this aspect is only one hidden aspect of the purposes of the programme, not the main purpose.

3. Teaching real English in practical ways
---Some might say Japan already has Japanese teachers.
However, I must say their level of teaching method is quite low.
I think at the beginners' level, it is very important to teach them correct pronunciation and correct rhythms of English. and it is also important to start conversations in English.
I wish if I could take your class back then, Mel-san...
In my opinion, this "teaching" aspect is more important now.
That is why more and more non-white ALTs are selected over white candidates these days.
I think..those boards of Education who accept non-white ALTs are more serious about this teaching aspect.