Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Warning: This is my second attempt at a post that originally included a lot of venting, some whining, and self-pity. This one will likely have more, seeing as my computer ate the first one. It will probably be boring, self-indulgent and poorly expressed. And that's what the internet was made for.

I am an ALT. An Assistant Language (English) Teacher. My job description includes providing the voice of a native English speaker in the classroom and the perspective of a non-Japanese person outside of the classroom. Anything and everything to do with English in my town will cross my path. I am here to internationalize within my small town, and make the dream for all the children of the world to join hands and sing a bit less of a joke. I may be idealistic and naive (don't worry, I'm still young, there's time for it to be beaten out of me), but I want the best for my students and for the people in this small town.

One of the small ways I have to improve English language education here is by putting students in the Hokkaido ALT-run English Challenge Cup. Better known in these parts as ECC. It stresses communicative English as opposed to the rote memorization method favoured by the Japanese educational system. It uses the same grammar used by the textbook. It isn't expensive to enter (roughly $30 dollars per student, but that drops as you enter more students), and last year a third of the students were invited to attend ECC Camp -- a free, five-day English camp. The winner gets a free homestay in the English speaking country of their choice. It's great -- your students get to practice English for the contest, and if they are chosen to go to camp, it's practically like going to stay in another country. What's not to love?

I have been trying to get my students to do ECC this year. I am really excited to do it, my JTEs are interested, we just need approval from the kocho-sensei (the principal).

Today was finally the day of the meeting between myself, the JTEs and the kocho-sensei. We have had to put it off for several weeks for various reasons. It was the most difficult meeting I have ever been to. For one, I don't speak Japanese. I was relying on my JTEs to translate my arguments and kocho-sensei's responses. I also do not have the cultural background to argue in the Japanese style. I may have understood all of the words, but I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the meanings behind the words. I don't know the best way to get something done in Japan. And I don't understand why you would say no to something as basic as an English competition.

That's right, I was shot down.

The last time I wrote this post, I went through all the reasons that I heard in the meeting as to why we can't do ECC. There were a lot of them. It was a really long post. It has since been suggested to me that I write it as a Monty Python absurdist comedy sketch -- that should give you an idea of how random the reasons against doing ECC were. I had a counter-argument to go with all of them except one:

We can't do ECC because it isn't an official school or Board of Education sponsored event.

In Japan, Elementary and Junior High School education is compulsory. Students at this stage are the responsibility of the teachers and the school. If a student cuts classes and gets into trouble, it is the school's problem to deal with. Not the parents. By that rationale, for a student to do ECC, there has to be full teacher support. Unluckily for me, both of my JTEs will be leaving this year.

The thing that upsets me the most about this decision is that I was probably turned down because I didn't go through the proper channels. Having only been working in Japan for six months, I don't know the "correct" way to do things. Should I have gone to my supervisor at the Board of Education first? Should I have approached my JTEs differently? Should I have started earlier? I don't know. I just hate to think that if I had done something that a Japanese person would have known to do instinctively, my kids would be allowed to participate in this program. I don't want to see them punished for my* lack of knowledge.

It also worries me, because it may foreshadow what I will have to deal with if I want to implement any other events in my town. Adult English class? Beginner and Advanced? A Ukrainian "Spring"/Easter (can't call it Easter, people might think I'm looking to convert them) festival with pysanky making? Even just a pysanky class? Setting up a camp for the kids in my town? I'm hoping that because my Board of Education loves me for recontracting, these things will be easier to set in motion. But I'm still worried.

To end on a positive note, it's not all bad. I made sure to emphasize that I want to do eikaiwa with any students that are interested. ECC is just a means to encourage students to attend. This is fine with kocho-sensei. So I will be doing the same eikaiwa that I would have done for ECC, asking my JTEs to try the same activities that I would have had them try for ECC, but I am not allowed to enter them in ECC. And if it goes well, next year I will probably be able to enter students into ECC.

As my friend put it, coming up against the complete and utter lack of logic that is the Japanese school system, I have truly become an ALT.

* Or anyone else's. It came up in our meeting that my predecessor's predecessor's predecessor (three years ago) got approval to do ECC. Students signed up, couldn't or didn't attend the practices, and nobody actually did the test. From my sparse Japanese and between the lines understanding, I gathered that she had gotten frustrated by not having students show up, the students were frustrated by not being able to communicate with the ALT and nobody was happy. She may have showed her frustration and gotten upset about it, which is the biggest no-no in Japan. You do not show your feelings. The first person to strike has already lost the fight. This may be an even more important reason why I am not allowed to do ECC. Because if it didn't work out the first time, it will never work.

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