Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aomori Guinness world record attempt

Just got this email...I'm tempted to join, but Aomori is an hour away... ^_^;;

If ya'll haven't heard it through the grape vine, this Saturday AOMORI will attempt a world record for most people gathered to play the bamboo flute. We are just a hundred plus people away and NEED YOU!

You don't need to know how to play the flute per say, when they say go, just blow!

Doesn't that sound fun? ;-)

THIS SATURDAY MORNING, 9:00am at the NEBUTA village near ASPAM.

Please meet at the village's EAST SIDE entrance and bring some friends.

Keeping JET in flight

As long as I've been in the program, I've heard talk about its decline and pending demise. Even though I know that many JET positions are getting cut, since I'm still employed and Towada has gotten two new ALT positions (one prefectural and one municipal) in the past two years, it feels like just so much doom and gloom. I feel like if the JET Program does ultimately get cut entirely, that it will be sometime in the distant future.

But with the current Japanese economic situation and the news that all ministries will face a 10% budget cut for 2011, it seems that my feelings might be completely off the mark.   

According to this recent Japan times article, "Ex-students don't want JET grounded," the Government Revitalization Unit, the jigyoshiwake budget review panel already reviewed the program last May and has recommended that its "necessity be reviewed."

Even though I'm critical of some aspects of the program and think there's a lot that could be done to get better value from it (re: previous blog posts: "What JET needs," "The "internationalization" crutch" and "Attitudes/Goals & Reality"), I think it would really be a shame if the program was to be cut altogether.

The Japan Times article does bring up some good points in "the case against [The JET Program]" which I'd like to discuss briefly:

The JET program is a relic of the go-go days of the bubble-economy years, when any half-baked idea could get government funding if it had the word "kokusaika" attached to it. Since its inception, over 50,000 young foreigners with few, if any, teaching credentials have come to Japan and partied for a year at taxpayer expense. They have usually enjoyed their stay, but their effectiveness in improving the English language ability of their students was never quantitatively measured and, given Japanese students' performances on international English tests, is questionable at best.

I've personally had similar critiques. Although for me the "young" part is not so much of an issue as the work ethic, but I guess the two can be somewhat related. If candidates come straight from university with little more working experience than the occasional part time job, I can imagine it'd be harder to judge their work ethic than if they came after working full-time for a year or more.

I don't think the best JET ALTs necessarily have to come with teaching degrees, but I do think that the learning curve is slower and steeper for those without teaching experience. (And when it's a one-year contract, a difference of even a month or even a few weeks in terms of ability to adjust to the job can be significant, but more on that later...)

Still, I feel like JET is somewhat addressing these issues given the seeming increase in older (late twenties/early thirties) participants and the number of participants with teaching backgrounds in the last couple of year. (Of course this is purely based on my own personal experience/perception of the situation in Aomori Prefecture, but...)

Because most JET teachers are from North America, Europe or Australasia, the program promotes an "Anglo-Saxon" view of the world that disregards the importance of other cultures.

It's true that the largest percentage of JETs are from North America, Europe, and "Australasia" (58% from America, 11% from Canada, 9% from the UK, 6% from Australia and 4% from New Zealand) but that doesn't necessarily mean that JETs from those countries will promote an "Anglo-Saxon" world view.

Again, I can't speak for the program as a whole, but take Towada, for example. I'm Canadian, but I'm ethnically Chinese and my parents are from Singapore and Malaysia. One of my university majors was East Asian Studies so I'm also quite familiar with Japanese "culture" and perspectives; I've had many teachers comment about how Japanese/Asian my perspectives/values are. Another Towada ALT is a Canadian who was born in the Philippines and traveled around the world from a young age with a diplomat mother (and continues to visit many different countries for pleasure even now).

My point is, just because people claim citizenship from a Western country doesn't mean that they're Anglo-Saxon or even particularly "westernized" in their thinking or that they hold "American/British" values.

And the percentage may be small, but I think that the fact that there are JETs from South Africa and Singapore is significant. Since Japanese English education is based on American English and all the listening tests for junior high/high school use American speakers, I suspect that most schools would prefer to decline non-North American English teachers if given the choice because they'd want their students learning American pronunciation, etc.

I  sincerely doubt that small rural cities/towns like Towada and Shichinohe would ever think to hire English teachers from South Africa if left to their own devices. (There's currently a South African JET in Shichinohe, and one worked in Towada for the two years before this one.)

A JET's presence in the classroom with Japanese teachers can actually be disruptive to classroom discipline, while the need for their colleagues to assist them with personal matters due to the language barrier places extra burdens on school staff.

This can definitely be true. But a change in JTE can also be disruptive to class discipline/morale (I've personally seen this) and that happens all the time. Besides, isn't it a little unfair to blame a lack of classroom discipline on a JET?

I suppose that since JET ALTs often try to do interactive activities with students things can get more rowdy/out of control than if they were just sitting at their desks and copying notes from the blackboard, but in that case the JET's presence itself isn't the actual problem, right?

[And I guess it's because of my experience teaching high school in Canada, and because I'm really lucky to be in a "nice" city like Towada where I have experienced very few classroom discipline problems in general and none that were what I'd consider "serious", but personally I sometimes wish Japanese classes/students were a little rowdier. I can't count the number of times that teachers have apologized to me for classes being "noisy" when they were simply being what I'd consider "high-spirited" or "energetic" (aka "genki"). But I digress.]

Besides, if students want to act up, sure, they'll use an ALT visit as an excuse, but they might just as well use an interactive activity (even without an ALTs presence) or any other change in routine as an excuse to act up.

As for the "need for their colleagues to assist them with personal matters due to the language barrier [placing] extra burdens on school staff," well, it's true that we often ask for help with personal matters, but I think that whether that's a "burden" or not is more debatable.

Again, I can't speak for everyone, but I don't think JETs always need school staff to assist them with personal stuff. I think that most people have the sense to ask for help from people that they get along well with and whom they believe wouldn't mind assisting them. And requests/favours really only become burdens when the person asked to do them is unwilling or feels unequipped to do the task, right?

And while many JETs ask for help from school staff because they are the people they come into contact with the most often, I think that a lot of JETs also ask for help from other JETs and/or friends (Japanese or otherwise).

True, especially at the high school level, some teachers are stuck with the job of being an ALT's supervisor even when they're antipathetic to the idea, but that's life. Teachers also get stuck with a lot of other responsibilities that I'm sure they'd like to do without, but they just accept that as part of the job, right?

And again, I think the JET Program is trying to address the issue by selecting more candidates with some level of Japanese language ability/familiarity with Japanese culture. When I was helping out at last year's Tokyo Orientation for New JETs (Group A), I definitely felt like there were more people who had studied Japanese coming in to Aomori last year than there had been the year I came.

As I've said many times before, though, I think the JET Program could really improve matters/reduce the burden on schools by making the first contract for a two-year contract rather than a one-year. I think schools/boards of education would find the process of  getting new ALTs much less burdensome if they knew that after the first six months to one year of effort they'd be able to get another one or one and a half years of improved work out of a JET.

Obviously it's going to be frustrating and feel like a waste of time to expend so much effort on a JET only to have him/her leave just when they're starting to get the hang of the job (right around the one-year mark). And I think that the JETs who come in thinking that they're only going to be staying for one year also tend to have a "I want to get as much as I can from my time in Japan" mentality rather than thinking about how much they can give back to the schools/city/program (compared to some of the "lifers," at any rate).

Before I came to Japan, I thought I'd be staying for only a year. Within a week or two after starting to go to my school (Kirita), however, I pretty much knew that I would be staying for at least two or three. (And now I'm going on to my fourth!) As a result, I didn't really feel that there was a need to rush to travel to all the places I wanted to see in Japan and really spent the majority of my time in my year (and a half) lesson planning, making materials and thinking about what I could do to improve my job.

[In fact, I think I even ended up carrying over something like ten or twelve days (half or more!) of my vacation leave to my second year! Conversely, it was only when I thought that I was going to leaving Japan at the end of my third year (that would be this August) that I started going crazy with trip planning, etc. (And even then I did my best to avoid inconveniencing my schools with my absences.) Now that I've taken care of most of my "must-sees," though, I feel like/hope that this year I'll be back to my "School is #1" mindset.]

At a time of fiscal austerity and when thousands of native English-speakers — many with teaching qualifications, Japanese language ability and a much better understanding of Japanese culture — can be hired as contract workers from private firms depending on local needs and at lower cost, why should Japanese taxpayers continue to subsidize the JET program?

Personally, I've asked myself the same question several times in the past, but recently I realized that for me, the most compelling reason why Japanese taxpayers should continue to subsidize the JET Program is that it's generally a very equitable program. It's only natural that big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, etc. would have the money to pay for contract workers for private firms to come into their schools (which is why JET placements in metropolitan areas are far and few between) but without government (re: taxpayer) subsidies, I think many of the more rural, cash-strapped areas would be left in the cold.

Being next to Misawa (which has an American air base) I suspect Towada would find a way to get English teachers into the classroom even without JET, but what are the chances that small, remote villages like, say, Sai Mura up in Shimokita would?

And because we're salaried workers and not paid by the hour, we can stay at schools for an entire day and, in elementary schools, teach younger grades (and not just the grade five and six students for whom English will soon become mandatory) as well as eat lunch and play with the students. We can also be put to work helping out at local English teacher seminars, or community center children eikaiwa classes.

Personally speaking, I feel that Towada does get pretty value from its ALTs. (Although relatively speaking,  I do still think that we're overpaid for the amount of work we do--i.e. in comparison to native Japanese government employees.) I think we've been lucky to have ALTs who love Towada--its people, schools,  students and teachers--so we take up more and more responsibility/work as time passes rather than gradually slacking off/coasting more and more. I really feel like we take pride and ownership of our positions as Towada ALTs. And of course the city does its part, too, by treating ALTs so well that we naturally want to do everything we can to make English education in Towada even better.

And I know it's all too easy for me to say this, coming from a wonderful placement like the one I've got, but I really think it's possible for every city to use its JETs as effectively as Towada does. Towada has been great since before I first arrived, but I'm sure that things weren't always like this in the beginning. I think it's just that schools/cities need JETs and supervisors/teachers who have a commitment to working together to improve English education in their school(s). Some of that is a matter of luck/timing, I'm sure, but I think the larger part is vision and commitment/perseverance.