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Guide to Japan and Teaching English in Japan

Ryan Olson Thousands of people come from all around the world to work on the JET Program every year. Most work as Assistant Language Teachers, but there are also many positions at municipal offices. This guide by former JET Ryan Olson tells it all, including the pitfalls to watch out for.

January 08, 2009

A Guide to the JET Program - The First Class

Some tips...
Invariably, your first lesson will be a 'jikoshoukai', or self-introduction. My advice is to try not to let your teacher allocate an entire period for it, since the kids usually can't focus on pure English for that long. Photographs are very useful, although they're too small to be shown to the class as a whole.

Instead, make several small poster board montages with photos arranged based on theme (I use 'my family', 'my friends', 'California', and 'college'), cover them with clear plastic, and give them to the students to pass around. If you have a home video, save it for a later class (unless you really need it to fill time or you're doing a one-shot visit). My experience has been that the kids appreciate it more after they've had some time to get to know me.

If you do have a question and answer session after your self-intro, which you should, you will invariably be asked personal questions such as "do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?" which you may find objectionable. Don't be offended. Remember, the students are teenagers, and their interests may somewhat be limited as such. If you really don't want to answer, just turn the question back at them and they'll get the message.

Most schools have slide projectors, although they may not be used to using them. My first lesson went rather badly for a number of reasons, not the least of which were entirely ineffective curtains which did little to enhance the image's washed-out non-appearance on the screen. I haven't tried to show my slides since.

The SEA (Sports Exchange Advisor) type of CIR position was introduced in the 1994-95 program year. SEAs engage in international exchange through sports.

Student Silence
Although I still occasionally find the lack of response disrespectful, I have learned to realized that lack of response is itself an acceptable response in this culture. Whereas in an American school such a student would most likely be coaxed or scolded into providing some sort of verbal acknowledgement to a question, Japanese teachers seem to accept the blank stare as a legitimate 'pass' on a question. Yes, it drives me crazy, but we all learn to deal with it.

When, on occasion, a student does choose to verbally acknowledge a question, it will almost always be preceded by a brief meeting (oh, don't mind me, I'll wait) with surrounding students. This stems from the Japanese decision-making model (implicit consensus --> formal proposition --> adoption instead of proposition --> debate --> decision), and tends to strike us Westerners as something akin to cheating. Well, I suppose they don't do it during tests.

Related to this is the great difficulty experienced in getting Japanese students to express themselves. I could write pages on this topic alone, but you'll all see for yourselves within a week of your first class. Suffice it to say here that any question without an obvious 'correct' answer -- or at least a limited range of set possibilities -- is likely to earn you a whole lot of confused looks.

Many of my students can manage something as innocent as "What sport do you like?", but anything more adventurous, say, "What do you think about (anything)?", is usually entirely confounding. Unfortunately for us, the truth is that many of the most important implements of language education, that is, questions and statements which easily generate interesting discussion, are quickly mitigated by cultural barriers.

CIRs must have good enough language ability for daily work in a Japanese office environment.

Any solutions?
Many teachers and education officials are aware of this problem, all the way up to the Ministry of Education. Proposed solutions are questionable, however. We recently learned that some genius at the Ministry of Education came up with the idea to introduce debate into the junior high English curriculum.

Although perhaps a seemingly good idea at face value, what the policymakers seem to have neglected is that most Japanese students can't even debate in their own language, much less English. Many of us suspect that the proposed debate curriculum will serve only to make English an even more foreign and less accessible subject to all but the most extroverted and liberally-minded students.

So anyway, when you come bursting into your first classroom with your goofy English and all that, don't be surprised when your kids don't quite burst out back at you. Don't be insulted, and above all, don't lose your temper. I guarantee that by doing so you will do nothing more than relegate yourself to that class of 'mean' teachers whose apparent respect from the students is nothing more than a mix of fear and contempt.

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