Thursday, September 11, 2008

What JET Needs

There have been some messages posted in the Aomori Listserv in the past year about JET positions being cut in various prefectures to be replaced with private ALTs. Although that sucks for JETs, I can understand why cities would choose to do so, particularly from a monetary perspective: JETs are extremely well paid; we earn probably the same amount (or more than) as a public employee who has been working in a position for 5-10 years and our hours are significantly fewer than said employee! And if a city happens to get a JET (or string of JETs) who don't perform at a standard to justify such high pay, well, it's easy to understand why a city would want to get rid of JETs.

I've been thinking for quite some time about the JET Programme as a whole and the selection of ALTs in particular, and though my ideas are constantly changing, these are a couple of the things I (currently) think would benefit the JET Programme and the reputations of JET ALTs:

- a minimum 2-year contract: it takes almost a full year to start to get into the groove of working in Japan, so I think that first year ALTs get a lot more than they put in, but I think in their second year ALTs can really start earning their keep

- focusing on teaching rather than internationalization: I think that having internationalization as one of the explicit goals of the JET program is silly; internationalization is a natural result of honest communication and genuine relationships between people of different cultures and the development of those relationships and communication come from earning the trust of coworkers &etc. (usually through demonstrating a commitment to one's work!)

- pre-departure teacher training: I think it would behoove the different embassies world wide to provide some sort of teacher training to ALTs before they come to Japan; this would also strengthen the point that coming to Japan on JET is a JOB and not just a means of exploring Japan and Japanese culture

In my personal experience, the biggest problem with JET ALT program is the perception (among some ALTs and Japanese teachers) that the job of the ALT is to “make English fun.” I mean, I think making English fun is important, but only as a means of teaching English. Teaching English, after all, is what we are hired and paid to do. Making English enjoyable is a good strategy to increase the intrinsic motivation of students, but it has to be accompanied by solid learning, e.g. games/activities that practice and/or reinforce key vocabulary/grammar.

Junior high schools and senior high schools have a set curriculum to get through, so it always surprises me when a junior high school sends a "play some games for 50 minutes" lesson plan rather than a "please think of a game related to the passive voice" lesson plan. I also think a lot of JTEs don't realize that it is possible to cover new grammar AND play some sort of a game when an ALT visits. Maybe it's just me, but I think that most ALTs are more than capable of planning a game to practice a new grammar point if given sufficient notice. Then again, maybe that--"sufficient notice"--is precisely the problem. I haven't discussed this with other ALTs, but I suspect that Towada ALTs are rarely blessed to get lesson plans faxed to us ahead of time. (We're supposed to get them at least one week early, but some schools leave it to one or two days before, which is still better than nothing!)

For elementary schools, "making English fun" is an OK mentality right now since there's no set English curriculum, but by 2011 English will be on the elementary curriculum so I think it'd be a good idea for schools to start planning for that time now. I know that when I was teaching at the Woodlands, the English department had its own "continuum of learning/skills" document that outlined precisely what type of knowledge/abilities/skills students should finish each grade/class with. If elementary schools could start putting something like that together now (e.g. grade 1: learn fruits, colours, sports, animals and basic question pattern "What ~ do you like?"), they'd be in good shape for when mandatory English cames are implemented in 2011.

I guess overall what I'd like to see is schools and ALTs working together in thinking about and planning for is the direction of English education for a school as a whole, rather than always just working on a class-by-class, grade-by-grade sort of basis.

But I guess I've kind of gotten off track from things that JET can control and into the realm of things I'd like to see more of in Towada specifically... (Although I suspect this could be equally applicable to a lot of towns/cities with ALTs.)