With the early end of the 2012-2013 school year at my old school, I’ve had an extra long period this summer without work. I decided to use my time (and savings) to pay a visit to my old schools in Japan, and spend a couple of weeks visiting friends in the cities of Osaka, Kobe, as well as the rural prefecture of Wakayama.
Over the course of my stay, I spent a full day at each of my schools: one junior high school and two elementary schools, for a total of three full-day visits. I spent each day following around the current JET Program ALT (assistant language teacher) to all of his classes.
Being in Japan and visiting the schools where I used to work is an important reminder of the greatest lesson that I took away from my two years on JET: the most important thing that a teacher can do is to get students to love a subject. Helping students to achieve and grow at that subject is a key part of this effort, as people enjoy what they are good at, but test scores alone do not fully capture a teacher’s success at inspiring lasting interest.
The JET Program was formed in 1987 with one of its aims being the improvement of foreign language education, but it is instructive that its primary stated goal was and remains “to promote internationalization of Japan’s local communities.” The primary goal of the program was not to send in teachers who would necessarily make a direct impact on test scores, but who would provide students with an additional reason to see why learning English could be useful and exciting. More than being instructors, JETs were expected to be cultural ambassadors. From my own experiences, I know that I have only been able to get excited about learning a language when I felt that I had a reason to use it. I was never much interested in learning Spanish, for example, until I travelled to Spain in high school and visited my father’s family members in Barcelona. The desire to learn Spanish and the sense that I was part of a larger community where speaking it was important went hand in hand.
With my formation as an educator coming at the height of the ed reform movement’s power, I accepted many of its assumptions, and it was hard for me at first to adapt to my role as being a cultural ambassador more than a “real” teacher. When teachers told me that they wanted me to come into their classes and help get students excited about English, my first panicked reaction in my head was something along the lines of, “but that’s neither rigorous nor measurable!” Even though I had already developed a deep distrust of many of the ed reform movement’s tenets by that point, I was still tempted to regard my role as an ALT as something Michelle Rhee might refer to as “touchy-feely.” I honestly wasn’t that comfortable in a role where the results couldn’t be easily quantified.
In all likelihood, this conflicted attitude did not make me the best ALT that I could have been for the first few months. Eventually though, I came around. The Kobe board of education had started placing its ALTs in elementary schools a couple of years before I arrived in order to get children enthusiastic about learning English early in their educations. The elementary students were almost always thrilled to be learning English and delighted to get a chance to speak with a foreigner. Many junior high students were also eager to speak with me, but their enthusiasm for the subject was more muted. They would speak to me after class if prompted, but were very reluctant to participate in class. Part of this, I believe, came from the curriculum’s emphasis on learning grammar points over communicating. Seeing the contrast between the elementary school students’ excitement and the junior high students’ reluctance to use the language impressed upon me how important the goal of getting students to enjoy English really was. All of the grammar points in the English language didn’t amount to a whole lot if the students didn’t feel comfortable using them.
The junior high English teachers with whom I worked made a big effort to help their students enjoy class, and the Kobe board of education was simultaneously making an effort to move away from its heavy emphasis on grammar translation. Being less constrained by the pressures of curriculum and testing than the Japanese English teachers were, I was able to bolster this effort by bringing in games, presentations about my own life, and conversation opportunities with a native speaker between class. None of these things probably correlated directly with test score gains, but once I got in the groove of doing them I do believe that they added another reason for the students to want to learn the language and improve at it. Ultimately, I was judged and evaluated on how well I could generate and sustain this interest.
My ability to focus on non-quantatative aspects of teaching was eased by the fact that I bore less responsibility than the Japanese English teachers, but I have no doubt that it improved my teaching. I recently met with Gary Rubinstein, and as a math enthusiast he told me that he loved quantifying things and looking for trends in data. Nevertheless, he told me that to him, the most valuable measure of his success as a teacher would be to track how many times former students had sent him letters telling him that he made them enjoy math. Doing well on a test once is good, but only if the students learn to love a subject will it have much long term benefit for them.
Thanks to Facebook, I’ve already received messages from a few students telling me that they enjoyed English because of our classes together. I’ll start keeping a tally now. At my new school I will work harder than ever to make sure my students achieve the most excellent results that they are capable of, while keeping in mind that the strongest measure of my success as a teacher is how well I can help them love to learn. If they write to me later telling me that I did, I will consider myself a success.