Welcome incoming JETs! Placement decisions.

Congratulations and welcome to applicants of the JET Programme who have been placed in Fukui! You are coming to one of the most beautiful prefectures in Japan, with mountains, a ragged coastline and hidden villages on our doorstep. Best of all, there is a close-knit and active foreigner community that are looking forward to meeting you! 

Don’t be alarmed if all you can find about Fukui is power plants, suicide spots and daffodils. There is a lot more than that. If you’re interested in traditional crafts, century-old festivals and outdoor sports, this is the place for you. If you’re coming to Japan for the Cosplay, anime and J-pop scene, I’m afraid you may be disappointed, but Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka are only a train ride away!

Fukui JETS at Sado Island Earth Celebration Festival 2013

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Learning to snowboard at Ski Jam Katsuyama

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Enjoying Obon festivities in Echizen City

Two years ago I remember being in your position and not knowing where I’d like to be placed in Fukui, nor whether I’d like to be placed in a junior or senior high school. So I hope this helps you choose your preferences.

Big decision #1

If you are a ken-cho ALT, employed by Fukui Board of Education, you’ll be asked whether you want to teach in a senior or junior high school. I know JET forums are flooded with information on the differences between them, but here is my take on it.

Junior high schools

At the very formal graduation ceremony in March.

At the very formal graduation ceremony in March.

Junior high school ALTs teach three year groups of students from 12 to 15 year olds. Given that JHSs are smaller than senior high schools, there are more JHS ALTs than SHS ALTs. You will be teaching from the New Horizon textbooks, starting from teaching the alphabet to first graders to teaching reduced relative clauses to third graders. The textbook is pretty dull, so it’s your job to make English exciting for the students. In lessons you can tell them about your home country or give a presentation, quiz or game on something vaguely related to the text book. Yesterday I did a presentation all about kiwi birds and kiwi fruit, using funny pictures I found on the internet, and the students loved it!

Many students don’t know anything about the rest of the world, apart from that Americans eat hamburgers, so I focus a lot on the internationalisation part of our job description. I often give presentations and make display boards on different countries or current events.

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Giving a presentation on my village to second graders, using the target language “We call it…..”

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Porridge tasting as part of the ‘What do you have for breakfast?’ lesson

The World Cup is a great opportunity to introduce Brazil to students, especially as I have many Brazilian students at my school and Japanese students don’t know anything about their classmates’ country.

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New Zealand is part of the second grader’s textbook and is a good excuse to make a display board.

In junior high schools there are opportunities coach students for speech contests, run writing or drawing competitions and English Clubs, but you need your JTEs on-board for these extra-curricular events to work well. JHS ALTS will have two or three elementary school visits a term where you will learn what ‘being kanchoed’ means, how fast kids can down a bottle of milk and find out just how cute Japanese children are!

My weekly elementary class at my visiting school.

My weekly elementary class at my visiting school.

Senior high schools

Senior high schools teach students aged 15 to 18. Working in a high school as an ALT gives you more freedom to teach your own lessons and have the JTE there as a support. The level of high schools can differ a lot. Some run International Courses, where the students have more English lessons and often have a home-stay experience in an English-speaking country as part of the course. You may be asked to run lessons on current affairs, run debate teams and speech contests. 

English is on the curriculum for all high schools and ALTs can really motivate students to keep studying English through running communicative lessons. Unfortunately, many students do not have many opportunities to speak English in Fukui, nor do they have the motivation to go abroad. So ALTs offer a great opportunity to those students who want to speak English, not just pass the tests. 

My decision 

I remember choosing between JHS and SHS was a really hard decision for me. I wanted to be a JHS ALT as I knew the students would be really genki, and I knew I could have fun with the students. I also didn’t want to teach moody teenage boys in SHS or be out of my depth in terms of the English level being taught. Yet when I work with SHS students at English seminars I really appreciate their higher English ability that makes communication so much easier.

Looking back I would’ve been happy teaching at a senior high school, especially at an international course, as teaching higher English is more challenging. I could have transferred to a high school, a luxury we have in Fukui, but I was already settled at my school and decided to stay there and teach for just two years before leaving Japan.

You come to love your school and your students, so transferring schools would be hard.

You come to love your school and your students, so transferring schools would be hard, but it’s possible.

Big decision #2

If the form is still the same as two years ago, it gives you a choice of whether you want to live somewhere urban, semi-urban or rural. What do these categories mean for Fukui? This may be geographically incorrect but it’s basically how many rice fields you are surrounded by! There sure are no shortages of tanbo around here.

P1070151 P1070177P1070176The most important factor for me was how close I wanted to be to other ALTs. If you want a full immersion experience into living Japan; to make Japanese friends and improve your Japanese, choose ‘rural’. If you want to easily hang out with other ALTs in the evenings, go for ‘urban’ or ‘semi-urban’.

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Sport practices take place in Fukui City, and there are many opportunities to join cultural groups, such as learning taiko and tea ceremony. There is also the most night-life there, although don’t get your hopes up too much as the going-out district consists of a few bars and a couple of disappointing nightclubs!

Every place has its own character and charm, and if you ask around there will usually be a group for what you want to do whether it’d be kyudo in Tsuruga City, aikido in the Sakae area or learning the koto or shamisen in Fukui City. Also, if you know you want to snowboard or ski every weekend in winter, choose Ono or Katsuyama!

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A popular taiko group in Fukui City

Most ALTs become reliant on their cars. Those who don’t have a car usually live in Fukui City, where it’s possible to get around my bike, on foot and using the public transport. ALTs placed in smaller towns who don’t have a car, survive by taking trains and catching rides from nearby ALTs!

Two years back when I was deliberating on these dilemmas, I ticked ‘junior high school’, ‘semi-urban’ and ‘within walking distance of other ALTs’ and was placed in an apartment block with other ALTs in Echizen City. Where ever you are placed, if you have a positive attitude and really want to enjoy teaching and living in Japan, you most definitely will.

If you have any questions, please comment below. Also, if you haven’t already, join the Fukui JET (FJET) Facebook group!

 

 

Into the mud: planting rice with students

“Squelch, sludge, squish” were the sounds of my feet being sucked into the muddy rice field. The grey-brown mud squeezed between my toes and held my foot under, before I could prized it away to take another step. The mud was warm; at some points a layer of murky water sat on top of the sludge, and worse of all I could feel unknown things in the mud. They could be explained by the small bubbles that emerged from a watery footprint next to me. As I moved on with haste a small frog jumped away from me! I managed to keep my cool, although I screamed a little inside, and with a line of students waiting behind me there was nothing to do but continue on into the muddy depths.

Every year in early May the second graders at my school plant kuromai (black rice) in a tanbo (rice field) near the school. I’ve seen students’ paintings of this activity and have eaten the black rice at the Cultural Festival, so when my supervisor asked me if I wanted to join the rice planting today, I immediately said yes!

Being a JET is all about being prepared for the unknown, like when you turn up looking a sleep deprived and are told it’s the school photograph day, or just as a class is starting the teacher turns to you and asks you if you have any activities. Gulp. But over the last nine months I’ve learnt to be prepared for everything, a make-up kit ready for a school photo, a list of games for classes and an ‘emergency’ PE kit for times like these. So luckily, I was able to join the students in this annual event.

Before the hundred-so students set off to the rice field, there was a briefing of how to plant the rice. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t really help me until I saw the demonstration in the actual rice field. First, a hexagonal contraption is rolled across the mud to create a grid pattern of where to plant the seedling, or ricelings as I like to call them. Then we were given a palette of closely grown ricelings which we had to lovingly poke into the mud on the joining points of the lines. It was as easy at that!

There were screams and shrieks as the girls got into the mud and I had to stop some of them running back out of the muddy field! Then we had about an hour of planting time. It went by quickly and with so many people planting the seeds, the field was soon covered in lines of green seedlings. Yet now I feel for the real farmers of rural Fukui who have to spend all day, for many weeks just planting rice fields. It must get a bit tiresome if you’re not surrounded by a hundred excited students who are singing songs and falling over in the mud!

I look forward to watching the ricelings sprout up and then being able to eat the rice we planted in September. Just another school experience which beats any school trip I did as a student! I wonder what else the school year has in store for me…

These boys were shrieking at this point!

These boys were shrieking at this point!

Making a grid pattern on the mud

Making a grid pattern on the mud

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!

It looks like this parent-helper was dancing, or maybe he was just stuck in the mud!

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The rice field was filling up with water as we were planting the ricelings

Washing off the mud in the so-called 'gaijin traps'

Washing off the mud in the so-called ‘gaijin traps’

Teaching pronunciation from behind a mask

It was a usual Friday afternoon in January when I walked into my favourite ichinen sei classexpecting to see their smiling faces. Instead I was met with thirty white-masked faces looking back at me. I looked at my teacher and realised that I was the only one in the room without a mask. To stop feeling like I was in a horror movie, I ran back to the staff room and grabbed a mask. This was the start of flu season.

Influenza hit my schools, and the whole of Fukui prefecture with vengeance. In my school, infected students’ names were marked in red ink on the attendance whiteboard, and every break the teachers would gather round it and discuss the worsening situation. In the first week there were only five known infected students, but teachers were already taking precautions like our school could be the epicentre of a global epidemic! In fact we were part of the annual influenza season that sweeps the northern hemisphere in the coldest months of the year.

In Japan, preventing the spread of flu is taken very seriously. When there were over three infected students in one class, an emergency teachers’ meeting was held and we were told that three whole ichinen sei classes would be banned from school for the three days. At my visiting school, all 32 students, were told not to come to school for a week to prevent the spread of flu! When I asked if the students were happy about having ‘flu days’, they told me they’d been given so much homework that they’d have to work as hard as they did at school to finish it! Their teachers also had to phone them each day to check that they were doing the work set and not just watching anime all day. Most students were wise enough to get on with their homework, or lie to say they were doing it, except one student who told his teacher he’d just woken up, at 11am!

Apart from sending students home, there are other precautions schools take to stop a flu epidemic. Firstly, all students and teachers have to wear masks. These white, cotton masks are usually worn when someone has a cold, yet during flu season the also act as a vise against other people’s germs. In England these masks are worn in health-care settings, but in Japan it’s common to see people wearing them in schools, businesses and public places. Even very young children wear them! In a strange way, it’s the Japanese equivalent of the burka, as girls who have long fringes, about 90% of junior high school girls, all that shows of their face is their eyes!

For the first few days when I wore a mask, I felt like I had a nappy on my face. It is horrible, especially if you are wearing glasses and every time you breathe out deeply your glasses steam up! Secondly, when you speak the mask moves up-and-down and is totally annoying. Thirdly, how am I meant to teach pronunciation when I have a mask covering my mouth? (I actually took it off at moments like those and stood far enough back from students not to be contaminated or contaminate them.) And then there’s the question of what to do when you sneeze! Surely this is the reason for wearing them, to catch the explosive sneeze, but I don’t want my own germs against my face for the rest of the day! So I always have a tissue at the ready to pull down the mask, sneeze into a tissue, dispose of it, wash my hands and then pull up the mask again. What a hassle, just for a small ‘Ah chuu’! In the teachers’ room, I copied other teachers in wearing the mask under my chin, but then it just feels like an ill-fitting nappy. There’s no comfortable solution. Yet I did like wearing it on the walk to and from school as it prevented my nose from freezing. That was the only plus-point. That, and I didn’t catch the flu!

Walking home from work

In Japan, it’s not just schools that take influenza serious, but the government too. “The  IDSC (Infectious Disease Surveillance Center) said that it expects infections to continue to increase and has called on the public to wash their hands regularly, to gargle when arriving home and to receive vaccination shots in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.” To gargle when getting home! I’ve never heard that one before! Yet many teachers at school did this in the sink where they brush their teeth after lunch. Even more strange noises to put up with…

Two of the forty teachers in my main school caught the flu. When I asked them how it was, it didn’t seem particularly serious and they got over the fever in two days, but they are healthy adults. The reason schools take an influenza outbreak so seriously is because a student could pass it on to vulnerable family members. In Fukui prefecture there is a high percentage of three-generations in a family living together, so students have to be careful not to pass it on to their elderly grandparents or younger brothers and sisters. I saw the effects of this in my host family where three out of five members caught the flu and are still suffering from colds and coughs a month later.

Yet at my school flu season went as quickly as it came. About two weeks after mask-wearing became compulsory, I walked into school to see smiling faces again. I’d almost forgotten what people looked like without the masks! I myself I had just got used to wearing a mask, well that’s what I thought. A genki special needs girl found it hilarious when she saw me wearing a mask and couldn’t stop laughing! Maybe it’s something to do with foreigners having long noses that make us look comical wearing a mask! After that, I was happy to take it off.