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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.