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October 20, 2003

English in the Japanese Elementary Classroom

Is the Japanese teacher needed in the classroom?

Dr. Mark Bjorndal
Foreign Language Instructor

I have been teaching ESL and American Culture for 5 years now in North Japan at the Junior College level, the Junior High School and Elementary level. I am a private hire English teacher. After retiring from the Navy in January 2000, I took on the job of Foreign Language and Culture instructor for the town that I live in. I have had, and still have at the time of this writing, a great time with the kids as well as a good rapport with the staff.

I have had concerns lately about the presence of the "Homeroom" teacher in my classes. My concern is this: Is the Japanese teacher really needed in the classroom? My reason for asking this question might seem a bit juvenile but if you will read on and listen carefully, you will understand. My Japanese proficiency is not perfect by any measure but I do get along quite well and am able to survive. The kids I teach are very forgiving and they help me when I don't understand and even if I do understand, they are always ready to help.

Aside from the above paragraph, teachers can either be a great help or a great hindrance to the English class.

1. A great help, because you have someone to talk to and they can offer insight to their children outside of the classroom or while using the Internet for exploration of countries, culture and state or world flags. They can also help with translation if needed and get the students to understand games as well as get them excited for the English class.

2. A hindrance, because they think you don't understand how to teach an English class and therefore step in to do your job using you as a voice recorder. Others still want to translate everything you say, thereby encouraging the children to rely on the Japanese teacher and not the English teacher. And still yet others want to talk to their students while you are talking to them, thus disrupting the entire class. And lastly, they intimidate their students by yelling at them and humiliating them when they don't pronounce words right or they are a bit slow at understanding a new language. Keep in mind that the teacher's ability is about the same as the students' ability to speak and to understand.

So again my question: Are Japanese teachers needed in the classroom?

My answer? No, they are not needed. Perhaps if this is the first school you have taught at, then I would say yes, because you must become familiar and acquainted with the students before they will open up to you. If this is not your first school and you have a good relationship with the students, then I would again say no, the teacher is not needed.

If we are to teach English as a foreign language, then the children who act like sponges must hear English throughout the class. It is not that hard. If you can speak some Japanese - and you should be able to before you teach English here (my opinion) - then that can be a great help in explaining your thoughts, amongst other things.

Children soak up every word, sentence, phrase and statement you say. They try desperately to repeat what you say and then they always have questions about this or that. The Japanese teacher is not needed for this since most of the teachers do not or won't speak English and they really don't understand what is being taught. To this statement let me clarify myself: though they understand to a degree what you are teaching, most of them have no interest in what you are teaching and the students pick up on this very fast. If they see their teacher not having an interest, then the students will follow suit and your class has just been ruined for the remainder of the year (my personal experience).

This is my last year teaching in the town where I live since they cannot afford my salary any longer. I will be moving on to other schools or jobs hopefully in the near future. I haven't kicked my teachers out yet and probably never will due to a thing called respect and just putting up with the whole thing, but I still stand against teachers being in the classroom along with the English teacher. An occasional visit is fine but leave it at that unless they ask to participate, and then monitor the situation closely.

Japanese children love learning about other countries and cultures in a non-threatening environment. They love to have fun and that is where the heart of teaching and learning come together. Keeping it fun and not over bearing or strict is the key for children to learn. If it is fun and interesting, then learning will come naturally and they will really forget about the study/learning environment and pick the English up naturally. If the Japanese teacher is in the classroom, then this will not happen, especially if the teacher has disciplined or humiliated the child in public.

Understanding the ramifications of the relationship between you, the English teacher, and the Japanese teacher should you not let them into your classroom, you must explain to them that you are the teacher during this time and while you mean no disrespect, it would be better for all if they did not attend your classes unless asked to do so and only as an observer or participant depending on what is being taught.

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