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