My life as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) is a pretty sweet one. I get to act like a teenage kid most days, I ‘teach’ on average 16 hours a weeks, I get around ten weeks holiday a year, my students treat me like a celebrity and every day I get to laugh at least once. I’d say 95% of the time I love my job. The other 5% of the time, however, is extremely testing…
Last Friday my students had their end of term tests. This in turn meant I had the day at school without classes…happily spending my time doing Japanese study, emailing friends, chatting to the other teachers and making posters for my first year students. At least that was until M Sensei, my main JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), asked the question all ALTs fear most…’Can you please help check the English test papers from third period?’.
I’m actually being kind to M Sensei here…of all three of my JTEs he has the lowest level of English ability, so the request was more like, ‘Today English test. Second period finish. Please check help.’ This kind of request can only mean one thing…I’m about to face that 5% of my job that I detest.
All ALTs detest marking exam papers. Come exam time, facebook is littered with the misery of ALTs embarking on this task, and the empathetic comments of fellow native speakers who know the pain all too well. Normally genki ALTs who love playing games with kids in class are forced to bleed red ink onto test papers like blood from their veins…draining them of life and all happiness.
So why it the task so detestable? Surely we should be excited to see the progress our students have made throughout the term? We should want to share in their joy as our students achieve wondrous marks after having absorbed all that English knowledge we imparted on them, shouldn’t we? If only we lived in a world…or more pointedly…a country, where that might be possible.
The truth is, marking tests is the time when ALTs feel like a complete failure as English teachers, as we see that despite our best efforts, our students seem to have learnt very little, if anything. It’s the time when the sad truth is revealed…it is really difficult for these kids to learn English in the Japanese education system.
The Japanese education system is one that hinges on testing. It is no exaggeration that Japanese people spend their entire childhood (and then some) studying for the next exam. Not only are they tested in all subjects repeatedly throughout their school life, they actually have to pass exams to get into school in the first place.
From the time they start kindergarten, a Japanese person’s life becomes focused on passing entrance exams. An exam to get into elementary school, followed by an exam to enter into junior high school, then if they choose to (which around 94% do) an exam for acceptance into high school then again for university. The better they do on the test, the better chance they have of getting into a good school.
The longer I live and teach in Japan, the more I appreciate the fact that I am Australian and went through the education system there. Seeing the strain and pressure my students suffer every day (at the ages of 13-15) actually makes me feel guilty for the charmed life I have led.
M Sensei mentioned the other day that on average in Japan, at least one student in every class will suffer some kind of breakdown from the pressures of school life. As ALTs we often talk of kids disappearing from school mid term without a trace…or some students appearing only for the first time on graduation day…and many students having to be taught in isolation from the other kids. Some of these kids have debilitating psychological issues that prevent them from participating in the stress of daily school life.
I’m really not surprised when I think about how different their school life is compared to the one I had. In high school (the equivalent of junior high here), I majored in six subjects total…all but two being elective subjects. By comparison, my students study Japanese, English, math, science, art, social studies, health and physical education, home economics, music, industrial arts and moral education. That’s 11 subjects all told…all compulsory.
How do they find the time and means to squeeze all that knowledge into their brains? Oh that’s right…while I was out terrorising the neighbourhood on my bike after school every day, these kids are going to cram school. A typical day for any one of my students looks something like this:
And this is just an average student…I know kids who also do other sports outside of school and most kids have sporting tournaments or more cram school on weekends too. Knowing all of this about my students, I am surprised only one student in every class has a breakdown from the pressures of school life…
All this evidence makes it clearer as to why my kids aren’t getting the sterling results on their English test papers that I had hoped for. For starters English is compulsory, which means about half of the class don’t want to be there. Then there is the reality that many of the kids are probably thinking about one of their other ten subjects while I’m reciting the textbook…trying to remember if they finished all their homework for the next lesson. If all of that isn’t distracting them from the joy of learning English, then maybe the pressure of the upcoming test is sending them into a pit of despair? Given the testing methods in Japan, it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not sure about other subjects, but certainly for English the system of learning is very clear:
Step 1. Swallow the textbook in it’s entirety.
Step 2. Memorise word for word said textbook.
Step 3. Regurgitate in the exam.
Step 4. Get perfect grades.
Step 5. Repeat for every exam.
Considering this is a language we are teaching, it seems rather counter productive to me that these kids are tested on reading, writing and listening in their English exams…but never speaking. I’ve never been a fan of the regurgitation method of learning and I certainly don’t think it has any place in language study, where the emphasis should be on communication. I am not insinuating the system here in Japan is flawed. I am screaming from the rooftops that it is.
Case in point, one of my students Ms.Tsuji (test pictured above). She attains at least 98% on every single English exam because she can follow Steps 1-5 of the Japanese gastrointestinal system of learning. Yet in the whole two years that I have been teaching this girl, she has never once spoken a single word of English to me. Satisfactory way of learning a language? You tell me…
Much like these kids are instructed to swallow their textbooks, I have to swallow the knowledge that this is how things are done in Japan. It has been this way forever and so it will stay this way forever more. As an ALT in Japan I am completely powerless to change the system…and so it will continue to perpetuate in this ineffectual way.
Proof of this sad truth is the fact that M Sensei went through this same system my students are going through and most days I am astounded and appalled that he is permitted to teach English. Yes, he knows the junior high school textbooks word for word and can teach the students the required grammar and vocab from those textbooks. But I’m often left wondering if he got his English teaching degree from a vending machine, as he simply cannot hold a conversation with me and he rarely understands even the most basic of queries I pose to him in English. Some days, our neighbour H Sensei (the social science teacher, who lived in London for several years) has to step in and translate for M Sensei when I become too stubborn and annoyed to speak in Japanese.
So yes, 95% of the time I love my job, when I can somehow push this knowledge to the back of my mind and try to reach my students and extract some kind of creative response from them that doesn’t come directly from the dreaded pages of a New Horizon textbook. But that other 5% of the time can make you question ‘why do I bother?’…especially when I have to mark M Sensei’s test answer sheet before I even start on the kids’ test papers…
It is an incredible phenomenon, which perhaps is born from the five step system of learning…but my students are infallibly consistent in their error making. Other ALTs profess the same problem and I wasn’t kidding in my previous post ‘30 Japanese School Truths‘…it really doesn’t seem to matter if you are right or wrong…as long as your answer is the same as everyone else’s. Every time it comes to marking test papers I come across the exact same suspects for most common mistakes…and the top three contests are:
1. Miscapitalisation. Weekdays will be missing capitals at their start, random capitals will appear in the middle of words and the most irritating and painfully persistent one…97% of my students blatantly refuse to capitalise ‘k’s’. This is enough to drive me crazy on any normal day…Friday I had to mark test papers where one of the answers had ‘King Kong’ in it. I started to understand how a completely sane human being can just snap one day…
2. Spelling mistakes of the most common words. ‘Went’ will be written as ‘want’, ‘r’s’ will be replaced by ‘l’s’, ‘th’s’ become ‘s’s’ and don’t even get me started on plurals…or the lack of…
3. Copying an error. Again, rather than be different (and correct), my students will copy an error from the exam rather than challenge it. M Sensei spelt ‘friend’ incorrectly on Friday’s exam…a word these kids have known for two years…and all but a handful of students copied the mistake. Only one student actually questioned the error in the comments section of the test paper…this kid is my new best friend (not freind).
For all the depression test marking brings down on an ALT, I always find at least one little gem that makes me smile through the pain. The errors literally do reduce me to tears sometimes, but every now and then they bring on tears of laughter. Those times when an innocent child forgets to leave that rather essential space between the words ‘pen’ and ‘is’ or ‘work’ is written as ‘wank’. Friday I came across this nice little surprise…misspelt, but it elicited a giggle none the less…
Despite the detestable time I had checking the kids’ test papers on Friday, one paper left an impression on me. Yuuki Kaneko’s. This student is painfully shy and rarely speaks to me in class, but I often catch him watching me, especially when I am reading from the text…seemingly mesmerised. I always assumed it was just because he was bored or somewhat awestruck, like some of the other kids get about my blonde hair and blue eyes. Friday’s test revealed otherwise.
Yuuki does not have a natural English ability and because he prefers to speak to M Sensei during activity time, I have had very little to do with him. On the test last Friday, students had space to do ‘free writing’…a chance to write five or so sentences of their own. Most students wrote about their favourite sport, comic book or singer…all cookie cutter responses copied straight from the textbook. Yuuki’s sentences were are little more considered though and certainly had a lasting impact…
What gave his words more value was that he achieved well in this section of the test, where he could exhibit his creativity and free thought. The rest of the paper…where he was supposed to regurgitate the textbook, he failed miserably.
Even with his overall poor result on the test, Yuuki’s words give me hope that at least some of these kids will fight to be creative and emerge as individuals from this education system. His words remind me to focus on the 95% of the time I love my job and remember that despite the testing times, sometimes what I do can make a difference.