Summer as a Second Year JET

I’ve heard many people complain that summer vacation is a special kind of hell for JETs. The students are gone (well, actually, a lot of them still come to school, but you aren’t teaching them), classes are over (except if your students are high level… then the poor kids have a few weeks of summer classes or testing), and it’s uncomfortably hot (there’s no getting around this one unless you live in Hokkaido).

Basically, we JETs report to our base schools (or B.O.E.s?) for six weeks in a row, despite the fact that most of us have very little work to be done. The break is a good opportunity to lesson plan for autumn classes and study Japanese, but… you just can’t do that for six weeks straight. As you can imagine, boredom often ensues.

Summer vacation just finished, and of course, I had a few dull days myself. However, for the most part, this summer has been satisfyingly busy for me. Summer as a second-year JET was 100x better than last summer: I was more comfortable here, I knew my colleagues better, and I had more work to be done. Here’s what I was up to:

Vacation and Business Trips

Family-in-Japan: My parents flew halfway around the world to meet me, so I figured the least I could do was take a few days off and be their tour guide and translator in the Tohoku region. Our trip through Yamagata, Akita, and Tokyo ate up 5 days of my paid vacation time and a week of desk-warming at my base school!

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Interactive Forum: This year, along with many other ALTs and JTEs, I was asked to be a judge for the Prefectural Interactive Forum competition. Junior High School division, of course (understandably, I’d be a little biased if evaluating my own students). The Jr. High Interactive Forum competition in Ibaraki is ridiculously intense: basically, three students are randomly selected, assigned a topic, and asked to discuss it for five minutes. They go through several rounds of this too, so it’s an all-day event.

Personally, I found pros and cons to this style of competition. The biggest pro, for me, is that a student can’t just memorize everything. We judges were evaluating the conversation, so students had to listen to each other and ask relevant questions or make comments about what the other students say. However, the biggest con is the time limit. These students have prepped for this competition and they want to score as many points as possible, which you can only do by talking as much as you can and showing off your language skills. But, since there are only five minutes per round, students get a bit cutthroat. During some of the rounds, students were interrupting each other, jumping in while another student paused to breathe in the middle of a sentence… that kind of thing. All in all, I loved being a judge, and I was simply amazed by how fluent these middle schoolers were, but it was a long day.

Daigo & Ushiku Business Trips:  These business trips were created by Ibaraki”s Board of Education to increase English usage outside of the classroom. Small groups of students from various public high schools in the prefecture meet for a day and are assigned to an ALT. Together, we are all bused to one of Ibaraki’s tourist attractions, and students must guide the ALT (who’s pretending to be a clueless foreigner) around the famous site, explaining the significance and answering questions in English. Including the bus rides to and from the attraction, it’s about 5 solid hours of English speaking practice for students, in a more relaxed, out-of-the-classroom environment. These trips are really fun, and it’s a rare opportunity to interact with students from other schools. However, they can be a little draining.

Last summer, I was sent to Fukuroda Falls in Daigo for this business trip. This year, I was sent on two such trips: for the first, I was back in Daigo, accompanied by a pair of hilarious students from a lower level school. My favorite moment from this trip occurred when a passing representative from the Ibaraki Board of Education told my two students to enjoy the waterfall. One of the girls took this to heart — she stood in front of the waterfall, raised her hands, and shouted “Enjoy!” soaking in the site.

For the second business trip, I had the opportunity to visit Ushiku Daibutsu, the 120-meter tall Buddha statue in Ibaraki (accompanied by an adorable group of 5 students whose English levels were much higher than I  am used to). With this group, our conversation went further than the usual surface-scraping talk of hobbies and favorite foods, and I really felt like I knew the students by the end. Also, there is a small zoo near the Daibutsu, and I really enjoyed seeing the students get so excited to see squirrels!! There seem to be no wild squirrels here in Ibaraki, but there are hundreds in my backyard back in the U.S.

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Professional Development Conference: One of my fellow ALTs in Ibaraki organized a professional development conference for JETs over the summer. It was a good opportunity to present demo lessons for constructive criticism, and to share lesson ideas. New ALTs fresh to Japan also joined, and I only wish this conference had existed last summer, because I would have felt more confident stepping into the classroom afterwards.

Of course, I didn’t have business trips every day this summer! These are a few things I did on the days I was…

 Base-school bound:

TEFL certification: I came into the JET Program with only six months’ experience of teaching ESL in a French technical college, and absolutely no training. After a year of teaching here, I wanted to be a little more qualified. Luckily, the JET Program offers grants for re-contracting ALTs who want to become TEFL certified. I applied, won the grant, and am currently working on a 120-hour online course! I know that online courses aren’t as well-respected in the education community because they lack a practical application component, but luckily my job is to teach! So I have plenty of time to implement the advice from the TEFL course during my classes.

Speech contests: one of my highest-level students is competing in a speech contest this fall, so I’ve been helping edit all of his drafts, and I’ve met up with him once or twice to go over pronunciation and pacing. He’s switched topics a few times now, but I’m really proud of where his speech is right now!

On that note, I’ve also had my voice recorded to help students practice for a different recitation-based speech contest. I have quite a few students from my Tuesday visit school competing in October, so after-school is going to be busy this fall!

Kimono class: I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but for the past year, I’ve been taking lessons at my base school, learning how to dress myself in kimono unaided. Now, I’m set to compete in a kimono-dressing competition in November (along with one of my students!). Practice didn’t stop just because it’s summer, so every Thursday, for two or three hours, we dress ourselves in too many heavy silk layers (our classroom is not air-conditioned) and time ourselves. I’ll write more about my experience of learning the art of kimono at a later date!

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Lunches out with colleagues: Some teachers are busy overseeing club activities and such, but overall, the office atmosphere has relaxed since classes ended. Time can be spared for some long lunches at local restaurants!

Drama Club Performance: My base school’s drama club had a big performance at a local competition, so myself and a few other teachers went to cheer them on. I had only seen them practice a certain dance scene, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my students were amazing! These students — normally so shy in class — came alive on stage, making the audience laugh, and performing their hearts out! I was so insanely proud of them, even though I didn’t quite understand what their performance was about. And after the show, they ran up to us (their teachers) so excited that all of us had come out to cheer them on!

Yep! So that’s what I was up to this summer! As much fun as it was, though, I’m glad classes have resumed. Back to teaching, back to learning!

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