Teaching English in Kasumigaura-machi


Japan probably hosts the greatest number of expatriate foreign language teachers of any country in the world. Most universities, colleges, high schools and even many junior high schools have foreign language teachers on staff. English is by far the second language most taught in Japan.

Japan has a 6-3-3-4 system of schooling similar to the United States. This means that elementary school is six years, junior high three years and senior high three years. The school year in Japan starts at the beginning of April. Compulsory education finishes after the third year of junior high school although most students continue on to a high school. Japan is notorious for its rigorous systems of testing that permeate all aspects of Japanese life. Public junior high students are required to take entrance exams at the high school of their choice. For many students it is very important to get into a good high school as the caliber of high school will very much determine which universities they can enter later. Besides creating quite a bit of stress for students towards the end of their junior high years, this system has spawned a huge system of 'jukus' or cram schools which operate at nights and on weekends. Most Japanese students attend a cram school at one time or another during their school years.

I am involved mainly in the public school education system in a small town called Kasumigaura-machi. Kasumigaura is a rural community of about 20,000. It lies nestled on a wide peninsula surrounded by Lake Kasumigaura. Our town is located about 70 kilometers north of Tokyo. I and one other foreign teacher alternate between two junior high schools, Minami (South) and Kita (North), on a monthly basis. Minami has about 370 students this year (1998/1999) and Kita about 280. Class sizes range from 30 to 40 students. These two junior highs are fed by seven elementary schools.

I teach mostly at the junior high level, but occasionally visit elementary schools. At this level, the preferred method for teaching English all across Japan is in teams of two, one Japanese English teacher and one foreign Assistant Language Teacher or ALT. There are several thousand ALTs in Japan most of whom teach English and are therefore called AETs. English is taught in each class during four 50 minute periods per week. Since I have to visit all the classes I usually only attend two of these classes per week for first and second grades and one class per week for third grade. My teaching schedule averages about 18 hours per week.

I work with five different teachers and my teaching style varies greatly according to the experience and personal philosophy of the Japanese team teacher. Since the textbooks are grammar based, most teachers basically teach grammar. Personally, I prefer a grammar based approach at this level, but we also try to come up with communicative activities to give the students a better appreciation of the spoken language.

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