The Longer I’m On JET, The Worse ALT I Become

At least my whiteboard quick anime art continues to improve.

At least my whiteboard quick anime art continues to improve.

日本に住んでいるなら、長ければ長いほど、よりだめなALTになる

Acronyms. Can’t live with them, CLWT?

JET. ALT. Meanings.

The JET Program (or Programme) is probably the most luxurious English teaching job to get in Japan. JET stands for the “Japan Exchange Teaching” program, and most of the people employed by JET (actually, employed by their own local board of education or other town office), refer to themselves as JETs.

Many of the foreigners you find in Japan are ALTs. Assistant Language Teachers. Not full teachers, but rather assistants in the classroom.

Most JETs are ALTs, but the reverse isn’t true. ALTs are employed by many other companies, the biggest in my area being Interac.

I should also mention the other acronym that everyone uses: JTE, or Japanese Teacher of English. Basically, the teacher from Japan whose job it is to be an English teacher. Some teachers aren’t necessarily from Japan (In Kobe they call them OTEs (Other Teacher of English)), but in general they were born, raised, and learned English in Japan, and they teach it in the same way they were taught. As ALTs are assistants, they tend to assist their JTEs.

The Problems

ALTs who live and teach in Japan are utilized usually for both helping to teach English and for being a “cultural ambassador”. Not only are you helping with the education, you’re there to give Japanese students first-hand experience with foreigners and foreign cultures.

In regards to the teaching of English, every situation is different—and certainly what you make of it. In the middle school and high school, some JTEs want nothing more than to have you follow their every command, while others will ask for you to make lessons and present them by yourself. My JTE is somewhere in between, where he often has his own plan, but will let me inject my own five minutes of knowledge in the middle of a lesson. In my time at the middle school, I feel like my teaching ability hasn’t improved much. I have learned some things—especially the ways of explaining English grammar in Japanese—but my skills have stagnated and worsened in some ways.

How many ALTs unfortunately see their job.

How many ALTs unfortunately see their job.

In the elementary school however, I’m given more-or-less complete control. Admittedly, the longer I’m there, the less effort I put in, which has led to problems. That’s my fault. The problem is that while people want more English in the elementary school in theory, many don’t care about it in practice. I don’t necessary blame them, but it does make my job feel nigh inconsequential at times.

Teaching skills diminishing aside, the biggest problem actually relates the culture element of my ALT role. Two problems: I’m less and less new every day, and I’m hybridizing.

Newness

The newness itself is a multifaceted problem. Basically, whenever a new ALT comes in, the students are very interested. Where are they from? Why did they come to Japan? Is there any food they can’t eat? What kind of crazy hijinks will they bring to the school? All of that is great.

The interest in a new person often breeds increased interest in English, especially if that ALT can’t speak Japanese. They need English to find out about this new person. If you get a new person every year, then you can legitimately practice those same basic phrases over-and-over, which is important for learning any language.

The other advantage (and therefore disadvantage to someone like me staying) is that new ALTs give students exposure to multiple cultures and multiple styles of English. The longer I stay, the longer they’re just being exposed to my American culture. Yes, I can introduce other cultures to them, but they’ll always be through my American cultural lens.

In a town as small as my own, they need as many different people and different views as they can get. In my own selfish desire to stay here, I deprive them of those. Combatting that, I artificially expose them to new things, but it can only go so far. Showing them that in Singapore they “do this one thing like that” is only a stopgap. It’s not nearly as good as an actual Singaporian teaching them.

My only solace is that perhaps the next person wouldn’t even try. I’m better than that made-up person. But that’s not a good way of going forward.

Hybridization

The other issue compounds the first one. Hybridization. Being a triangle. The fact that the longer you spend in another country, the longer you absorb more and more of the culture, the more you fail to be a “real foreigner”.

To some, this might seem like a moot point. “Well, you’re more foreign than any Japanese person around you,” they’d say. Which is true. But in being the token American, I’m somewhat of a liar. I’m not the average American you see on the street. I know some of the finer details of Japanese culture. Things don’t surprise me as much.

And the longer I’m here, the less I can say that I’m even…a foreigner. I live here. I don’t travel much. I eat natto and read manga and watch Japanese television. And I’m not doing any of these things as a novelty—it’s just what my life here is like.

This doesn’t even get to the Japanese-speaking point. Since I can speak Japanese, most of my students know that I understand them when they speak to me. I will ignore some of them when they speak Japanese, but it’s a halfway measure. Like a parent who doesn’t let you do something until you say “please”. There’s a fakeness there. You’ll change your behavior, but you won’t really internalize it because you know that the person understood without it. As the purpose of a language is to communicate information, when Japanese is better for communicating between us, why use English except as a parlor trick?

Boiled Down

Essentially, the longer I’m here, the less I am like the person that I was when I was hired. Instead of butting heads with the Japanese education system, I’ve blended into it. Instead of being a new face with an interesting worldview, I’m a quirky guy who lives down the street from the middle school.

Taking all this into mind, I do my best to be what they want me to be. To do the job. They don’t complain either; they could have it a lot worse.

But it does make me think that maybe they’d be better off with a new foreigner. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there’s not much else new.

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5 thoughts on “The Longer I’m On JET, The Worse ALT I Become

  1. Very though provoking post. I considered JET program and others several years ago, but ended up staying in the USA and living a lifestyle that has many elements of Japanese culture – for example I speak Japanese at home (with my wife) most of the time. I’ve managed to increase my Japanese abilities to a certain point, but there is still much cultural stuff I’m missing that I would have to actually live there to experience and learn about.

    My understanding of things like the JET program is that they are not really for people who want to teach English, rather they are a convenient opportunity for an American to live in Japan without having to worry about Visa stuff, and while making enough money to survive (not much more than that, from what I’ve heard).

    Regardless of how your day-to-day experience is, you are getting alot of cultural stuff and also upping your Japanese ability (though this depends on how much you speak outside of class). This is very valuable and as I said above hard to get unless you actually live there.

    But if you really interested in the teaching element itself, rather than just a gateway to Japan, I would consider trying to find another program that is less popular and more to your liking. I don’t remember all the stuff I researched but I think someone said that 1-on-1 tutors in some places have better experience with students in some places (maybe 英会話 schools) because they have to pay a good bit of money to go to them, so they are generally more motivated.

    Or, if you are determined to stay in your current position (or can’t leave for awhile), then I would focus on building a relationship with the JTE so you have more power and can drive the lessons more to your liking. This will allow you to keep your students busier and you can be more strict.

    I don’t know how long you have lived there, but I feel that the whole “becoming-Japanese” thing (hybridization) would take many years, and if I was there I would hope I can make a continuous stream of ネタ to keep my students happy and interested. Choosing material and means that fit your students is one of the most important parts of teaching, though without much power you can’t really do that effectively.

    • The truth is, a lot of people who come on JET aren’t in it for the teaching. Which means that those of us who were/are teachers sometimes get overly frustrated with the ones who see JET as a ticket to Japan. That said, the longer I’m on JET, the more accepting I’ve become of those who just wanted to get over here. After all, with JET’s mission to have foreigners come here and bring Japanese culture abroad (a kind of “soft power” initiative), the more people, the better.

      But yeah, I’m thinking about continuing on a more teaching-focused program. I just need to make sure I find something that fits my needs. I’ve just heard too many horror stories to not be cautious.

      And I’ve also considered coming back to the states because, while I can make games anywhere in the world, it would be nice to go to conferences and compare notes with other developers. Japan’s indie game development scene isn’t really booming, which is ironic, since the birth of indies can probably be traced back to 洞窟物語 (Cave Story).

      Hybridization actually happens faster than most people give it credit, if you let it happen. People leave Japan after a year and they feel awkward going back home. It really depends on how involved you get, how many families and friends you join the circles of, and how good your Japanese is, so you can really let Japanese people speak to you with their heart. If your wife is Japanese, I wonder if you’ve done any hybridizing yourself. Although, to really be affected, you probably do need some of that “on the ground” experience. Feel what it’s like for those people who don’t have good English, who have resigned themselves to a paper-pushing desk job because “that’s the way it works”. Only contacting with those who understand American culture, even if they speak Japanese, means it’s impossible to really get the whole Japanese picture.

      Have you come to Japan? Even for a short stay? I presume your wife is Japanese, but perhaps that’s a stretch. :p

      • Yes, my wife is Japanese. I am not sure if I am “hybridized” at all, although sometimes words come to me in my head in Japanese instead of English (when I am speaking English), so maybe thats a sign part of me is “turning Japanese” (:

        I’ve been to Japan twice, only a week or two each time, and hope to go again sometime soon.

        Too bad about the game scene in Japan, thats a bit of a disappointment. Though personally I wouldn’t move just so I can go to conferences. Conferences are cool and all, but I think besides the personal element (making friends and such) you can get all the other content just via chat/forums, etc.

  2. Very interesting piece. The JET program is an odd animal; I did it for three years, some fifteen years ago (!) but it sounds like nothing has changed at all. You’re welcome to read about my experences here if you wish: https://pastdepartures.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/jet-1-2/

    I also wrote a paper about the JET program, which you’ll find here, if you’re interested:
    https://librariesconnectcommunities.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/the-jet-program-educational-reform-in-japan-college-assignment-2010/

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Part of that is the nature of the JET program. If we think of it as a means of improving English education, it’s a failure. If we think of it as getting more foreigners in Japan and more people abroad thinking about Japan, then it’s probably been a success.

      Thanks for those links. They’ve been good reads so far. 🙂

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