Yesterday, we had a student teacher, a university student in Education from a nearby university who is doing a week-long practicum at one of my junior high schools, teach a demonstration lesson to the first grade class (7th graders in the US). Other teachers from the school, including myself, sat in on the lesson and took notes. After school we all had a meeting with the student teacher to discuss her performance and to give our suggestions and comments.
It is funny how 3 years into the JET Programme and 6 weeks from going home, I have my first truly consultative role as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and native speaker of English. Of course, I have had carte blanche when it comes to my elementary school lessons or my adult conversation class, but when comes to teaching at junior high school, most of the time I just go along with a lesson that the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) has prepared or I am given my own block of time to present a culture lesson or to play games that reinforce language acquisition. I have been to quite a few Prefectural and Regional meetings between ALTs and JTEs, but because of the general nature of these meetings and the fact that they bring together teachers from very different school environments. Many of the lesson plans presented at these meetings are done "for show" to make teachers look good in front of their colleagues, but are too ambitious to carry out on a day to day basis at school or way too difficult for mixed-level English classes which is the norm in Japanese public (state) junior high schools where tracking students by ability is strictly forbidden.
Anyway, let's get back to the demonstration lesson given by the student teacher. I was asked to stay for a bit after school (something that has also never happened before) and we had a conference in the principal's office. The non-English teachers and the school principal had lots of comments for the student teacher about classroom management and the flow of the lesson, etc. I then gave her some tips about pronunciation and some minor points about usage and grammar. I also criticized the use of katakana (one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries used to transcribe foreign words and which function like italics in Roman script) as an imperfect method of describing English pronunciation. Surprisingly, the principal and the English teacher agreed with me. They also believed that proper pronunciation should be taught, through the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), diagrams of tongue position and articulation of sounds that don't exist in Japanese such as the English "th" sound or the difference between "L" and "R", and/or through repeated oral practice and listening to ALTs or native speaker recordings. They also admitted that perhaps the use of katakana was a crutch used by lazy teachers, teachers who couldn't pronounce English properly themselves, or simply a way of placating students who did not feel at ease learning a "strange" pronunciation. Wow! I was surprised that they admitted all of this. They also said that according to official guidelines, the use of katakana should be avoided. But nevertheless, I see it used all the time, and we will see if it actually gets banished from English language classrooms. Katakana is the bane of every native English language teacher in Japan. It is responsible for the characteristic "Japanglish" accent of substituting "Z" for "TH", mixing up "L" and "R" and the addition of extraneous vowels at the end of words.
In terms of personal growth, I feel like I have come a long way. It felt pretty good being able to follow a staff meeting in Japanese and to give my comments and suggestions about teaching English to a Japanese teacher IN JAPANESE. I certainly feel that my Japanese language ability has come a long way in my 3 years here. I also feel a little bit disappointed that I did not have that many opportunities to discuss and consult with Japanese teachers about their teaching methods and their own English abilities. I am sure that the JET Programme has had a positive impact on Japanese students, especially in rural areas, in familiarizing them with foreigners (still a rare sight outside of major cities), as well as giving them access to native speakers as models for pronunciation and as conversation partners. However, if real English language reform is going to happen, ALTs should be helping the JTEs to improve their English and their pedagogical methods, since ALTs come and go every few years, but most JTEs will be teaching at their school district for their whole careers.
Perhaps it is because I have been here for 3 years and that they are used to working with me now that they invited me to the "backstage" of peer evaluation and discussiong of methodology. I certainly have more to add and to comment on after 3 years teaching here than I did straight out of university with only a few weeks of informal teaching experience before coming to Japan. This meeting also happened at the smallest of my three schools where there is a closer, warmer, more relaxed work atmosphere than the 2 larger schools. But maybe it is also the hierarchical nature of Japanese society that prevents JETs from having more of a say in how English is taught. In this case, I was advising a student teacher who is younger than me and less experienced, so I would be considered her senior. However, I think there may still be resistance on the part of older, full-time Japanese teachers of English to view the ALT as their equal. I think this is too bad, because as native speakers, we could certainly help the JTEs improve their English ability so they can pass it on to students. Another reason is that Japanese teachers in general work really long hours and are responsable for way more than just teaching their subjects and evaluating students. Their roles often include coaching or directing after-school club activities and the "upbringing" of students, a role that would be considered parental domain in the U.S. For example, many schools enforce curfews on their students even during holiday periods, so students can't be at the video arcade, for example after a certain time. Or they forbid students from buying snacks and drinks at convenience stores on their way to and from school. So Japanese teachers often play the role of social workers and surrogate parents, adding to their workload and stress levels, leaving little time to discuss English language pedagogy with bright-eyed, idealistic ALTs with far more freedom and free time than their Japanese counterparts.
Finally, I want to talk about a question posed by the principle to the student teacher during the meeting that I found very interesting. He asked her, "Why do you think students should study English at school? You have to know the answer yourself so you can convince the students that English is a worthwhile subject and motivate them to study it." The student teacher thought about it for a bit and replied, "Well, I think that learning English is a practical skill for Japanese kids because there is English all around us, even in Japan, on signs, posters, product labels, etc." This is true, I never thought of it that way, there is a whole lot of "decorative" English in Japan, but plenty of people ignore it or can't read it anyway, all the content that matters is written in Japanese anyway. But I am sure that many students make the effort to study English just because it is required by the government and because it is part of entrance exams to high school and university. However, the things that are taught in schools are not and should not be limited to subjects with immediate, practical utility, or otherwise schools would just focus on the the basics of "readin', writin' and 'rithmetic."
Language learning has intrinsic value in itself. Language is the window into other cultures and other ways of looking at the world. The study of a foreign language also helps us to better understand our native tongues and to better understand the concept of language itself, as an abstract system of signs and symbols. It helps us to improve our ability for abstract thinking and cognition. Can you think of any more?