A few months into the JET experience and I have learnt that this project is not for the faint of heart.
Now, I'm reflecting on the intensive application process. It was nearly as thorough as getting admitted to the bar to practice law—and I now understand why. The ability to persevere is the single most important characteristic to be successful in this program.
By way of advice, two important points to consider:
1. You should anticipate some issues in your transition abroad.
2. When you face these issues, other JETs are the best support.
First, you will be paddling upstream. Teaching in Japan requires grit, both in school and on a cultural level. Through JET, you could be placed in a city such as Tokyo or a rural area. Regardless, there are a variety of schools, styles of teaching and cultural norms, and you are bound to run into some difficulties. The true test of your endurance will be how well you handle these issues. Here's what to expect.
You will likely begin your role midway through the term
Some of the resistance in school makes sense. JETs enter the Japanese system as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT). They are asked to team teach with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs). However, the majority of JETs enter the school year in late July or early August. This is in the second semester of the Japanese academic year. Halfway through the year, teachers and students have already developed a particular rhythm and are preparing for exams. Since the Japanese education system highly favours testing, teachers are under immense pressure to prepare their students for regular exams. Thus, a new addition to the classroom can be challenging.
You will be team teaching with someone from an entirely different cultural background
Though JETs are hired to add native language speakers into English classrooms, interactive styles of teaching and English intensive classes are not the norm. The repetition of sentences and rote memorization are the standard modus operandi. Some JETs joke that they are essentially a human tape recorder. Team teaching itself can be difficult. It requires mutual respect and a willingness to cooperate with someone from an entirely different culture. From my relatively limited experience, there appear to be discrepancies between how JETs are trained and how their JTEs view language education.
If there are issues, they have to be addressed in the chain of command
Though the program is run through a national level, the contracting organization for each JET is the local Board of Education (BOE). When things do not work well at school, the BOE structure can be slow and bureaucratic.
The JET program offers several trainings and resources to reach out if there are problems with your life in Japan
The amount of training varies based on assignment. However, it seems that Tokyo public school JETs get the longest official training. Upon arrival, all JETs are housed at the glamorous Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. After two days there, the majority of JETs are dispersed to their assignments within Japan. The Tokyo JETs stay in the city and get another week of training. Subjects covered include: how to be a good neighbour, how to take the subway and how to work with your Japanese Teachers of English (JTE). Some of this was helpful. A lot of it is geared towards recent college graduates. Many JETs, with careers prior to the program, found the Tokyo training to be redundant. Interestingly, the Board of Education actually outsources the training to a private company.
Teaching in Japan requires grit, both in school and on a cultural level.
In November, another round of training, called “professional development” is a requirement for all Tokyo public school JETs. After attempting to integrate into school life for a few months, this training was much more relevant to the actual job of teaching. During the three days of training sessions, older JETs are grouped with newer JETs. Some of the subjects raised include: how to convince your JTE to use more English and carving out a role for yourself at school or within your community. The most relevant portion was comparing lesson plans with similar level schools.
Your network of fellow JETs will be your best asset
Among other "teach English abroad" programs, JET is renowned for its quality. The most important element of this quality is the network of other JETs. As you prepare for and research this program, you will quickly learn that the other JET participants really are the best part of the program. While the official JET program organizers may feel distant and bureaucratic, the network of JET participants is large and well-dispersed. Those that have looked into the program will notice the number of website, forums and groups to learn more about being a JET.
A committee of Tokyo JETS, TJET, have created their own volunteer network for improving the JET program. They liaison with the Board of Education and discuss issues relevant to JETs at large. Within TJET, an information subcommittee, has created and continue to update the JET community wiki page. There is a database to share lesson plans and it is open to all who would like to contribute. Through Facebook, there are JET groups for regional JETs. The goal is to create a community of participants throughout Japan. The AJET community sponsors a network similar to CouchSurfing where JETs can host JETs visiting another part of Japan. AJET also shares job postings for those who are looking for work after the JET program.
As you prepare to apply and research the JET program, you will quickly learn that fellow JETs are an invaluable resource. For me, they have been the single best thing about the JET program. Socializing with older JETs has provided me with a series of important strategies in my transition to Japan. I learned early on that I would need to develop a community of friends outside of school. Through the altruism of older JETs, I was able to hit the ground running with lesson plans.
Finally, as I have dealt with problems with workplace dynamics, the more experienced JETs have provided insight from similar situations. I have good training and an accessible group of more experienced JET friends. For the future hiccups, I can keep faith someone else has probably dealt with the same kind of situation before. Though the transition to working in Japan is difficult, I am confident that I have a good support network. In this way, I know I can preserve.Add this article to your reading list