I watch the rice paddies and steep mountains drift past me. The peaceful scenery calms my wild mind. What does the year have in store for me? I wonder as I near my new home.
I’m en route to Fukui City, Japan, in a bus filled with English teachers from all overnthe world. Behind me, Stephanie from Chicago excitedly points at every picturesque river and house she sees. Beside me, Leon from Jamaica sleeps – as we are all jetlagged from our journey.
Last week, I arrived in Tokyo with about 200 teachers from Southern California and Arizona. We – along with 1800 others – are brand-new ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) here to teach English in Japan. We are working for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program, also known as JET.
As soon as we stepped off of the 10-hour flight, we were greeted by dozens of enthusiastic Japanese volunteers in bright green shirts. Following them, we lugged our overstuffed suitcases down escalators towards buses that would take us into the city.
Every single person selected to participate on the JET Program is fascinating. Last year there were 8000 applicants worldwide, and 2000 were selected. All ALTs have a college degree, and many of us have traveled extensively or have lived abroad. Some of us have teaching experience or already speak Japanese. Another necessity of a ALT is to be outgoing and friendly, so there are many a conversation to be had with my hundreds of new friends.
After an 80 minute bus ride, we arrived at our fancy hotel in Tokyo and met our roommates. I was paired with two girls from Arizona, who were sent to different prefectures but whom I plan to keep in touch with.
The next few days were jam-packed with lectures and workshops from Japanese Government Officials, experienced ALTs, and Japanese teachers.
We learned some valuable lessons from Horonobu Suzuki, the Vice Principal at Saitama Prefectural Uruwa High School. He started teaching English in 1986, and the JET program started the following year. In his 30 years of teaching, he has worked with dozens of ALTs.
Suzuki’s most memorable story was about Japanese girl in his class who excelled at English but was too shy to speak very often. He remembers the exact moment when an American ALT told her that she spoke very well, and sounded just like a native speaker. He saw a spark in her eye and smile on her face, and pinpointed this compliment as a life-changing moment for her. She went on to study English in university, and eventually moved to Australia and became a teacher.
He told us that in a recent survey, 93% of Japanese schoolteachers reported that their students’ motivation to learn English increased when there was an ALT in the classroom.
Teachers have the power to change lives. I know this for a fact, because I can still recall some of the positive things my 3rd grade teacher said to me. Genuine, thoughtful praise is not easily forgotten. It can even change the course of someone’s life. I hope that my words of praise will inspire my students.
We made it! I’m currently writing this from my air-conditioned apartment. It’s 10:30 at night and 81 degrees outside!