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Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010
HAVE YOUR SAY
Readers offer their thoughts on jettisoning JET
Following are a selection of readers' responses to the July 27 Zeit Gist column headlined "Ex-students don't want JET grounded" by Eric Johnston and Kanako Nakamura:
Program reaps myriad benefits
Grounding the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme would be a terrible mistake in this global era. As a former JET whose life was unexpectedly and positively transformed by this program, which has some flaws like any endeavor, I do think JET should remain and grow.
By developing a relationship with an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), Japanese students can and do gain competence in English and confidence when working in an international setting. They can improve their pronunciation and communicative English skills through the team teaching with JETs.
I have taught in South Korea and China, and have seen that their university students lag behind Japanese students who have had ALTs in secondary school. These students have the same awkward feelings that Japanese junior high first-graders possess.
Research in language acquisition reveals that confidence promotes successful language acquisition. Moreover, both Korea and China still only employ rote language learning, a system that requires lots of effort and nets little language fluency.
If Japan scraps the JET Programme, it's likely to lose this edge as Chinese students enroll in expensive cross-border college programs and the Koreans continue to educate their children overseas and in foreign-language high schools. Both countries know that English is the de facto world language and a means to expand economic opportunity.People copy good ideas, and JET is no exception. Hong Kong has a similar program and the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Program has added a variation in their English Teaching Assistant Program, which employs young college graduates to work as assistant language teachers throughout the world.The JET Programme has reaped several unintended yet wonderful benefits. Former JETs have written travel articles, stories and books on Japan. Former JETs return to Japan for travel, bringing family and friends. They read books by Japanese authors, eat at Japanese restaurants and watch Japanese movies after their time in Japan is over. Hundreds of former JETs speak at schools and for groups in their communities about Japanese culture. I know several loving families that would not be if it weren't for JET.
After JET, I have volunteered to interview prospective ALTs. My own JET interview and the interviews I have conducted are the most rigorous I have experienced, by far. It's not a perfect system, but it is more demanding than any language academy or university I have known. As a result, JET does draw some talented young college graduates.
Yes, the JET Programme isn't perfect and it's an investment, but its flaws can be fixed and the benefits far exceed the costs. By better utilizing JETs and perhaps hiring more experienced teachers, the program can become even better.
Japanese, head overseas
I think the JET program should change. At the moment the JET program is for foreigners, not for Japanese students.
JET teachers experience Japanese culture and the way of life. However, Japanese students learn little through the JET program.
Rather, we are spending a lot of money to call in foreigners. It is much better to send Japanese students overseas to study.
If you look at the number of students in American or English universities,there are more Chinese and Korean students than Japanese. If we are aiming to be global citizens, then send Japanese students overseas.
You can't substitute real experiences by calling in (foreigners) — you've got to go out!
Evaluation call went unheeded
For 10 years I was the interviewer and evaluator of the candidates from the U.S. to join the predecessor of this JET program, which was the MEF (Monbusho English Fellow) Program. I advocated strongly for the training and evaluation of the selectees' effectiveness. Hence, I am distressed to read that neither has ever been accomplished in so many years.
Now, the absence of such processes has resulted in this discussion of JET's pros and cons, but without any data. Administrators should be ashamed for missing such an opportunity to improve and validate the program, which has drawn a lot on Japan's treasury in the hope of success without being concerned for creating the evidence of its effectiveness.
Anecdotal evidence, such as you published, can only lead to debate, and then someone with the power will make a decision based on personal conviction rather than on research data with which no one can argue. This decision-making process is so traditional and nonscientific that it easily ends in a power move for personal reasons, rather than a logical move based on hard evidence through scientific research.
I could not be more disappointed if the JET program bites the dust.
JETs and the damage done
As a qualified English teacher, I truly find the inclusion of this worthless program to be a ridiculous waste of time.
I have had contact with several JET (so-called) teachers during my eight years in Japan. To be totally honest, I have never met one whom I thought was qualified to do more than recite the information provided to them at their orientation (and yes, I have seen one).
They have absolutely no training for the position, are chosen based on character and looks, and are overpaid with a substantial amount of paid vacation to boot. Who would not want a year's paid vacation? Most of them are educated but rarely in English and certainly not in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to people with very limited exposure to the language.
It makes my job as a private English teacher even more difficult. For instance, I have assisted over 20 students in Japan in passing the Grade 1 Eiken examination. However, helping them over the obstacle of being given poor advice by ALTs and JETs has been a much greater task.
Sometimes I cannot help a student because the nonsense they have been told by some of these people was relayed to them at a young and impressionable age, and they simply have a difficult time accepting the actual truth. It is a battle that should never have to be waged to begin with. I am an advocate of reforming English education in Japan or tossing it out completely. For pretending to teach someone a language is a rather poor substitute for the genuine article. I know; I deal with it every day, and I constantly challenge myself to be a more diligent instructor.
The JETs and the ALTs (who are actually only slightly better) along with their programs should be completely abandoned. Teaching English properly is extremely important in the initial stages, and these people confuse and confound more than aid or facilitate the learning process.
Has anyone considered the residual effect that this poor substitute for instruction may actually be having on other content areas in these students' educations? I believe that might be a topic worth exploring.
Forget about accents
It is not only about the JET program as such; there is an attitude problem.
It has been more than 60 years (since the end of the war) and still the number of people who can speak English in Japan is very low.
Languages are for communication and not for changing nationalities. So wake up for good and start with learning first — later on, there will be enough time for accents.
Even in America there are many accents. Therefore remember: Accent is not English; English is a language for communication.
Impact far beyond teaching
Thanks for the article on trying to find measurable impacts of the JET program.
I was in Ishikawa Prefecture for three years under JET, from 1993 to 1996, and I have to say that at the time I really misunderstood the real impact of the program.
I went there and taught for three years under the assumption that we were there primarily to help students get better communicative English skills.
In my case, I was kind of the traveling gaijin show in my area — I taught in 12 different junior high schools — so it's tough to gauge a measurable impact. I do know that there were several schools I would go back to after months and have teachers use something I'd brought to the class, and be able to notice a greater ability to actually speak the language. I was pretty involved in my small community too — I'd venture to say that for most of the people in my taiko group or shorinji kempo group, they would never have had any exposure to or involvement with anyone from outside the country if a couple of us hadn't made the effort to get out and meet them.
But since coming back and having some perspective, I really think JET has a greater role. If it weren't for the JET program, realistically, it never would have occurred to me to go to Japan. It would just have been mixed in with the other Asian countries "over there," and frankly, Japan doesn't get the press in North America that China does.
Having gone on JET, I developed a strong emotional connection to the country. I still have Japanese friends there from my JET days 15 years ago. I've been back three times since, twice for business, and led a team of professionals there through Rotary International in 2005. I know a network of people back here in Canada who have a very strong connection to the country that never would have been fostered without a program like JET — a network of grass roots ambassadors for Japan that wouldn't exist without the program.
And hopefully, some of my students learned a few things along the way.
Let the teachers teach
The Japanese schools should let the native English teachers teach. As a former ALT (not a JET), I can tell you that most of the Japanese teachers I worked with did not allow me to do much teaching at all. I'm good enough to teach for major Japanese corporations, and for high-priced language schools, but when I taught in the public schools I was mostly used as a human CD player. There is really no point in having a native speaker in the classroom if they are just going to read from the textbook.
Most of the teachers had me stand at the front of the class and smile, or walk up and down the aisles while the students did writing assignments for most of the class. What a waste of your tax money!
Two of the teachers I worked with, both part-timers, did let me create and present activities in the classroom. It made a huge difference in my morale and the morale of the students, and I'd like to think that making the students interact with each other, and with me, in English might have helped them learn English.
It's true that inexperienced teachers are less effective. But if you want to attract and keep good, experienced foreign teachers, you can't hire them on temporary contracts and pay them ¥2,000 per hour, with no paid holidays, no paid vacation, no paid sick leave, no health insurance, no unemployment insurance, and no pension.
I was hired from May 15 to July 16. After a long break without pay, my second contract was from Sept. 2 to Dec. 18. Then after an unpaid winter holiday, the third contract ran from Jan. 8 to Feb. 12. There is no comparison between the JET program and private dispatch companies regarding pay and benefits.
JETs paying for themselves
Your article "Ex-students don't want JET grounded" hits on some valid points on both sides of the issue in this seemingly endless debate on the continued funding of the JET program. However, I think an even more pertinent point has been missed.
I'm unaware of any proper research done on the true economic impact of hosting this community here, but after having been in and around the JET community myself for a three-year period, something entirely relevant though often ignored is the actual amount of money the JETs kick back into the economy.
From my own casual observations, I'd be surprised if more than 50 percent of that tax money that is used for their bloated salaries isn't returned back into the economy by them. And that doesn't even take into account the amount they contribute through taxes (i.e., the consumption tax). In some ways, it could be argued that the JETs are actually paying for themselves!
Hardly very international
I was surprised to read the percentage of English Language Teachers from America, Canada and other countries in your popular newspaper dated July 27, under the heading "Ex-students don't want JET grounded."
I believe the core aim of the government's English language programs is "internationalizing Japan through language and cultures." If teachers are only hired from the above countries, can Japanese learn cultures of various countries?
I hope Japanese wouldn't want to learn only about American culture. Technically, Americans have no one culture. Whatever they have, everyone in the world is well familiar with.
Next, English has varieties. Now English is everyone's language — not just the Americans and British. Now, for Japanese people, the probability of meeting non-native speakers of English over native is 20 times higher and non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers three to one.
Radical overhaul needed
I am married to a Japanese national who I met in Canada and have a number of friends there who have been in Japan for 10 to 20 years. I was a JET from 2001 to 2003. I was older and had some ESL training and experience.
After completion of the program, I took the time to write to the leadership of the program to make suggestions on how it could be improved, but received a defensive reply without any acknowledgment of my suggestions.
This resistance to change is in fact one of the many problems with the program. But the deep roots of the problems lie in the inadequacy of the Japanese teachers and their training as well as the system that forces them to engage in many noninstructional activities, thus providing no time for proper curriculum development or lesson planning.
I worked in both junior high and elementary schools and found most teachers in the junior high schools had a very poor command of the language and were deeply resistant to trying new things because they were too busy planning sports days, club activities and other noneducational baby-sitting activities.
The vast majority of the JETs were unqualified to provide any meaningful assistance but smart enough to realize that as long as they did what they were told they could be paid well and do virtually nothing.
In the case of elementary schools, teachers viewed this as fun time and didn't care if the lessons were structured to teach anything of value. As long as the students had fun and had a positive attitude to English they were happy.
It is no wonder then that you could see students happy at the start of grade 7 because they think English means party time, and within three months they hate it because in truth it means hours of pointless grammar practice with no success for them in being able to communicate something meaningful to a native English speaker.
It doesn't need to be this way, but you need staff who understand ESL and EFL if you want to do something meaningful. There were a few cases where JETs were qualified and had supportive teachers and thus were able to do things that seemed amazing in comparison to the vast majority of other schools' English language activities.
Now if the government is really interested in doing something meaningful I would recommend the following:
1. Abolish the ALT program outright.
2. Redirect a portion of the ALT program funds to hiring Master's- and Ph.D.-trained persons in ESL and EFL to act as resources and trainers for Japanese English teachers. and institute regular professional development activities for Japanese English teachers. In addition, introduce class audits and personalized teaching development coaching from the aforementioned staff ESL/EFL professionals.
3. Keep the non-ALT aspect of the JET program with the staff who have a good spoken command of Japanese. Alter this program to recruit staff from all over the world and get these staff to come to social studies classrooms and work with teachers on units about their respective countries. This would enable meaningful cultural exchange.
4. Use the remainder of the ALT program funds to support out-of-country visits for social studies and English teachers to have work-related study trips so they can improve their knowledge of the world outside Japan, which would enable them to make their classes more alive with stories of real places they had been.
This may sound idealistic, but if this can't be done it would be better to use those funds to help cut the huge deficit and debt that threatens the entire future of the country instead of providing international young people with paid holidays at the Japanese taxpayers' expense.
The program in its current configuration really brings a pretty low caliber of people to Japan because most people know it is a paid holiday. I had run a consulting business for over 10 years before coming to Japan and when there I couldn't believe how little was expected for what I was paid. Most staff at the local convenience stores have more demanding jobs for considerably less pay. Given this it is no wonder that most JET ALTs are resented by their Japanesecolleagues for being seen as overpaid and lazy.