The students who recently graduated from the Beautiful Mountain School meant a lot to me for many reasons. We entered the school together, me, fresh off the airplane, and them, in their brandspankin' new uniforms, straight out of their tiny mountain elementary schools, where they had only seen an ALT once or twice a year. I knew about as much about teaching English as they did about speaking it. At first they were shy, and it took a long time before they felt comfortable with me. During my first year I was sent to 16 different schools, mostly elementary schools, and had a very hard time getting to know the students, teachers, or understanding exactly what my job was supposed to be.
During my second year, I was blessed with a change. My schedule included only four different schools, with Ena Kita Chu as my base. I visited them about 90 times, and their cheerfulness, friendliness, and willingness to always do their best really endeared them to me. It was easy for me to learn all their names and identify their strong a week points, not only as a class, but as individuals. I gave them the opportunity to write to me about anything they wanted in English "journals", and to my suprise, almost everyone did at least once a week. They told me about their everyday lives, their families, their friends, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes and their culture. Slowly the gap betweeen sensei and student, foreigner and Japanese, began to close. I always wrote back to them, and was excited to see students rushing to collect their journals from the teacher to see what I had written. To me, they became more and more like little brothers and sisters, and to them, I became more and more like a friend.
In the time I had been visiting the school regularly (three days a week for a year), both the JTE and I were amazed at how quickly their English writing, listening, and speaking had improved, not to mention their confidence and participation in class. They had begun to love English, and it showed. Of the 36 students, 25 of them opted to take the national English standards test, and all passed.
Unfortunately, in my third year, the schedule changed again. My visits to Kita Chu were cut to 94, or twice a week if I was lucky. Instead I was placed at a much larger school where I stood silently in the classroom as the teachers droned on for ages in Japanese. This only made my time at Kita Chu more precious. When I did visit, the students and I often talked so much at lunch (in ENGLISH) that no one ever finished eating on time. During recess, students always came to talk to me, invited me to the library or asked me to play basketball or soccer with them.
The reason I am saying all this, and sharing these letters and comments from my students, is because I know that some people doubt that ALTs are making any contribution to English education in Japan. I know that some ALTs doubt it, too, but I want everyone to know that there are ALTs who are making a difference. Given the opportinity, ALTs can be an invaluable English teaching tool, a catalyst for change, and an open window to the world.
If you'd like to read the surveys, you can veiw a larger size by clicking on the pictures. I have translated the Japanese below.
Do you like English? Why? (Japanese)
Even when I become an adult, I will study English as a hobby.
What did you learn in English class (about yourself or the world)?
Everyone that has come as an ALT has spoken to us from their heart, called out to us. So I was able to speak from my heart, too.
Do you think it is important to have an ALT?
Thanks to Melissa, I came to love English!
What was your favorite thing about English class?
Do you think having an ALT is important?