A Day in the Life: Mountain School 2

A while back I had a particularly eventful lunchtime at my second mountain school which I thought earned the time to type, which I did, and then promptly forgot to edit and post. Shocking.

I get assigned to various classes for lunch time, to share around the ‘foreigner experience’ and to practice English in an informal setting. This only works well with some classes, as most of the time the older classes are too awkward to try and the younger classes don’t have nearly enough English to communicate much effectively. It’s hard to ask/explain everything you are trying to ask, and eat at the same time.

So a few months ago now, in MS2 (my favourite school for reasons I will link here later), I was assigned a second grade class for lunch.

There’s always the general milling about as everyone waits for the bell to go and everyone’s food is set up, then the kanshashite‘s and the itadakimasu‘s, and everyone tucks in. The principal always comes round with the surplus food, triggering a heated round of janken (janken – rock, paper, scissors – is law).

I had a particularly big portion (this fluctuates a lot, and I really prefer not to have so much to eat at lunchtime), and it was one of the few days where I wasn’t so keen on the food. While I was forcing it down, I also had to contend with the kids eating. If you’ve never seen a second grade Japanese student eat, let me tell you, it is not good for the appetite.

Most of the kids were messing about amongst themselves, but the little girl sat right next to me had taken it upon herself to stare blankly at me, while eating extremely slowly.

When the kids finish, they have to wait for the bell to go again before cleaning time starts. This time is generally filled with small productive activities that can be worked on intermittently.

It was at this point that things began to go downhill.

Several of the kids fetched out recorders and began playing random notes as well as one tune repetitively.
A couple of boys next to me were reading through a book on what looked like graphics of mythological creatures. Fairly inappropriately drawn mythological creatures.
Silent Girl next to me had resumed her staring routine in full force now that she no longer had to break it up with eating.
The homeroom teacher, who up until then had been practicing his golf swing(??) decided to join in with the recorders. Joy. Moments later, Silent Girl hopped up looking inspired, and came back with her own recorder. I watched with badly concealed fear as she raised the Devil Whistle with purpose – and began to play one single note over and over. Right in my ear.
Meanwhile, other kids had started arguing loudly with each other, and one boy had gotten hold of a flag bigger than he was and started waving it like he was auditioning for Enjorlas in Les Mis.
I actually started laughing in despair at how awful it all was. Silent Girl’s single blasts on the recorder were becoming shrill and my fear for my eardrums was real.

Then, slowly, the classroom fan turned towards me, wafting someone’s fart directly at my face. And that was the point at which my soul left my body.

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When is an ALT actually an ALT? Basic Differences between ES and JHS/HS Teaching

Here’s the sticking point. The role of an English teacher in Japanese schools is affected by so many factors that there isn’t really a catch-all term for the job (hence my disclaimer on my homepage). But in many cases ‘assistant language teacher’ is a complete mislabel.

At elementary school level, students have only one point of English contact – the ALT (me). I generally have complete control over my lessons: planning, preparing materials and conducting them. In class, the homeroom teacher occasionally helps me out by clarifying more difficult instructions in Japanese, but more often they act primarily as the disciplinarian.

The bulk of my classes are fifth and sixth grade, but when I do have lower years, sometimes the teachers will prepare the lesson and materials for me, but will still leave me to it in class.

Granted, the lessons cover basic English (e.g. the highest level lesson the 6th graders get to is ‘What do you want to be?‘/’I want to be…..‘) but rather than the language being hard, the challenge is more to teach the language while getting the students to have fun. The aim of an elementary school ALT is to get the students to enjoy English; to set the precedent that learning English isn’t awful (a lie), and that the students are capable of doing it (true). The kids really need this belief as they move up in school, because it will impact their motivation to learn, and get the grades they need to get into both high school and university.

[This is something that native English speaking countries take massively for granted, as our futures in education generally do not depend on learning a second language. We are extremely lazy in our second language learning.]

The ALT dynamic completely changes at the junior high level. At this point students begin to have English lessons taught by a Japanese teacher of English (JTE), and the lessons with the ALT act more to reinforce these lessons through conversation practice and the example of a native speaker. Ditto for high school. Increasing numbers of students at this point will be also be taking extra English classes outside school, at English language schools (eikaiwa).

One very important difference, and one that is set to change soon, is that elementary students are not graded on their English. It is seen more, as Nelson puts it, as: ‘Super English activity fun now time! (screaming Japanese accent)’.

In the Japanese education system, school is only compulsory up until age 16. At which point students can leave school and begin working. To get into high school, students must take exams – the better the high school, the harder the exams (go figure). The same goes for high school students hoping to go to university. So ALTs for these levels have that much more pressure to help the students through that, and there are a number of other things they might be responsible for, like marking written work, assessing spoken English tests, and judging speaking competitions.

So, here’s the problem that lies at the root of many bad reviews from ALTs. In some junior high schools and high schools, JTEs are reluctant to give ALTs the opportunity to prove their abilities. Some JTEs simply use their ALTs as ‘human tape-recorders’ while they teach the lesson. If you want this to change, it means working hard to get the JTE to trust your ability to come up with good lesson ideas and teach a high quality lesson. This might mean a building up from a small suggestion every now and then; the more of which are successful, the more input the teacher will afford you. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and yes, it is incredibly frustrating. Being put on a placement like this is a risk all ALTs take because it is completely luck of the draw, and depends on the impression the previous ALT made (which may have been someone from another company as the contract with the Board of Education in each area is renewed or changed frequently).

The number of lessons a day is also quite different between the junior high/high school and elementary levels. Teaching at elementary you can expect between four and six lessons a day, whereas for the others this is much lower, leaving a lot of free time in which you need to occupy yourself usefully. This often has the result of dramatic downward spirals of keitai data.

Meeting the Rabble

I was back in the office the day after the move (Saturday), leaving my apartment in the barely-moved-in shambles you might expect (or just expect anyway if you know me).

All the Seto ALTs had been called in for a refresher training day, as we were mid-way through term, which gave me the perfect chance to get to know a few people in my area right off the bat.

The training was focused on getting an experience of each other’s teaching styles and bouncing around ideas for activities. The main focus was geared towards helping us experience how it feels to be the student in an immersive language context, and to learn to put aside awkwardness in front of the students: learning to ‘stay in character’.

Seeing the others in character was excellent – especially the way Macky (Jamaica) switched between her very blunt (and wonderful) natural delivery, to the hyper-enthusiastic fun-generator needed for class. It was magical, not to mention funny, to watch.

A lot of the others were pretty annoyed at having to go into the office on a weekend, especially as many of them live way out in the Seto ward, so it’s a bit of a trek (it takes me 2 trains and just over 30 mins and I live mid-way!). Once we were finished, spirits were much improved by the decision to go for sushi afterwards.

There are some really good kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) places here, good quality and much more reasonably priced than the sushi-ya (sushi restaurants).

This one was unfortunately not one of the better ones.

The staff, no doubt mightily alarmed by the huge group of gaijins that traipsed in, decided it was for the best that we were seated in two groups on opposite sides of the restaurant…can’t blame them all that much to be honest.

Despite the so-so sushi and the division of the group, it was nice to get to know the others, and to be surrounded by such a variety of people: American, Egyptian-Canadian, Australian, Jamaican, Filipino, Irish – quite the mix!

After sushi we split up, and I headed into Sakae accompanied by Nelson (America) and Mai (Canada/Egypt). Phone was once more spectacularly not sorted. But we did do some wandering in Osu and found a fantastic okonomiyaki place!

IMG_0812The road we generally take into Osu from Sakae.

IMG_0821Okonomiyaki arrives!

IMG_0826After six years of okonomiyaki deprivation, this was the perfect reunion!

IMG_0828The staff here were incredibly nice and gave us little booklets about the area (weirdly narrated by the local idol group). 

I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but I will find out and update here when I do!