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March 31, 2003

Making the Most of AETs

Richard Shooltz

Having worked as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) for several years in the Japanese school system and after having talked to several colleagues, we agree that the AET program is beneficial to the students. However not all AETs are being used in the most optimal way possible. To help the Japanese English Teacher and the AET to work together better, the following points need to be considered.

First of all, the AET should be assisting the Japanese teacher in re-enforcing the grammar and vocabulary that the teacher is working on in class. A few Japanese teachers just tell the AET to do whatever they like in class. This generally is a very counterproductive way to help the students learn. For example, the Japanese teacher may be teaching the simple present tense to the students and if the AET is not aware of this, they may bring a lesson or activity that involves the future progressive tense along with 20 or more vocabulary words that the students may not be familiar with. Well, the confusion, boredom and subsequent lack of student participation is inevitable.

By making up lessons around what the Japanese teacher is doing in class, the students can perhaps see that the grammar and vocabulary they are learning can actually be used in real communication and is not being studied simple to be tested on and then forgotten.

Furthermore, by having the AET do their own lesson, it adds to the burden the students already have. Students in junior high and high school have 20 or more hours of instruction every week, along with the corresponding homework that goes with each course. They really don't need an additional class to have to prepare for each week. Especially since the AET is usually teaching a conversation based course and the students realize that there is no conversation test on the entrance exam to either high school or university, this gives them even less incentive to prepare for class.

It is also important that the AET and Japanese English teacher be seen in the classroom working together, helping each other out as problems arise in class. Since many AETs do not speak Japanese that well, it is vital that the Japanese teacher fill in gaps in understanding or classroom directions that occasionally occur in the classroom. Of course, to have this kind of teamwork, the AET and the Japanese teacher must be working closely together before class, so each person knows what the other will be doing during the upcoming class.

The importance of having the Japanese English teacher participate in class cannot be emphasized enough either. There are too many cases where the Japanese English teacher views having an AET in the classroom as giving the Japanese teacher the hour off. In such cases, the Japanese teacher comes into the room, sits in the back, correcting papers, reading or being anything but helpful.

Meanwhile the AET may be having trouble explaining some activity to the class and finds herself standing all alone desperately trying to make herself understood. Conversely, the students seeing the Japanese teacher just sitting around taking no interest in what is going on in class may end up thinking, if the teacher does not care what is going on, why should they. This can lead to a class becoming very disruptive with the AET trying very hard to keep control with no help from the Japanese teacher.

To help eliminate the above mentioned situation, it would be a very good idea if the school principal would survey their English teachers and find out which teachers would like to work with an AET and which ones would rather work by themselves. Since an AET is at an individual school so few hours anyway, it is a waste of an educational resource to have an AET work with someone who is not committed to getting the most out of the AET's time when they are at the school.

It is also important that the AET show some discretion if the Japanese English teacher should make a mistake during class. As everyone knows who lives in Japan, saving face is of paramount importance. So depending on the type of mistake, an AET should do their utmost to wait until after class to point out an error that the AET might have observed in the previous class. After all, if the Japanese teacher is going to class in fear of being constantly corrected by the AET, in front of the students, this is going to impede building a firm working relationship with that teacher and is going to lead to the kind of uncooperative teacher mentioned above.

Another factor that is out of the hands of the Japanese teacher or the school is the weakening Japanese economy, which has forced the Ministry of Education to cut the number of hours that an AET can be in the classroom. Certainly this has forced schools to make tough decisions as to how to allocate the hours they have for an AET. However, instead of putting the AET in any old class just because it is there, the school should think of making special English classes for more highly motivated students, based on student interest and teacher recommendations. This way the Japanese teacher and the AET would be able to accomplish a lot more with the hours available. Certainly this is not the best way, but with a limited numbers of hours, one should always be striving to maximize the AET's effectiveness when they are at the school.

The AET program is a great way for students to have a chance to improve their English and learn about other cultures. It is also a great way for the Japanese English teachers themselves to have a chance to expand their own abilities outside the classroom. However, for any of this to happen there has to be a sharing of ideas between both teachers, so the full benefit of having an AET can be utilized. And this requires that both the AET and the Japanese English teacher communicate openly with the goal of trying to do what is best for the students.

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