Teaching in Japan is neither a paid holiday nor an introduction to a culture of obedience. Daniel Hickey reports on the work of an exchange programme.
If you've ever ordered your pupils to put on their aprons and clean the school before taking part in the evening "tea ceremony club", you've probably taught in Japan. Each year, more than 600 young British graduates board club-class flights to Japan to become assistant language teachers cultural ambassadors - and, depending on the distance from the capital, minor celebrities.
For newly qualified teachers who balk at the prospect of induction or have a wanderlust, the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) could be just the ticket.
In the rural town of Toyama, on the north-east coast, the fair-haired, 6ft 2in Englishman riding a bicycle did not go unnoticed. "I was an object of curiosity," says Julian Paisley, former JET teacher and now chair of the alumni association. "I was one of only two foreigners in a town of 10,000 - the other was also 'a JET'.
"You may be the only foreigner they see. I used to get people looking in my shopping basket, and the town even made me honorary postman for the day. You are regarded as a cultural asset to the town."
JETs are also expected to do some work in the classroom. Most join the scheme as assistant language teachers (ALTs) and are placed at junior or senior high schools. The programme is also being piloted in primary education and the Japanese government plans to expand it significantly.
ALTs are expected to team-teach with Japanese English teachers. They also help prepare teaching materials, assist with the training of language teachers and take on extra-curricular language and exchange activities.
JETs sign an initial one-year contract which can be renewed for up to three years at a salary of pound;3.6m yen - about pound;21,800. In all but exceptional circumstances, applicants must be graduates below the age of 35 (see box for application procedure).
The programme has run in its present form since 1987 and seeks to intensify foreign language learning in Japan and promote international exchange.
Many candidates ask to be placed in Tokyo, but the answer is almost certainly "no" because the city has a separate system for hiring teachers. However, if candidates have good reason to request a certain area (because of family or friends, for example) they have a good chance of being accepted.
Former JET David Chandler has published a book which covers JETs' diverse experiences and dispels a few preconceptions. Those expecting to find obedient, enthusiastic pupils in high-tech schools may be shocked. "Many schools are poor," he says. "The stereotype of well-behaved pupils is a myth. Japanese society is changing fast and discipline problems can be as bad as in the UK."
The differences between schools in Britain and Japan are vast and JETs need to be prepared, he says. "There are difficulties in being understood. Language becomes a very blunt instrument. Also, students don't like to stand out."
For NQTs trained in communicative, pupil-centred teaching methods, the reticence of students is a challenge. Jennifer Staines has been working since July in a senior high school in Nora Prefecture. She says: "Here, pupils are not required to ask questions. They are lectured at and expected to take notes. As a result, they are very submissive and I have difficulty in getting them to speak.
"In Japan, there is a saying: 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.' This is very true."
Discipline can also be a problem, albeit in a relatively mild form. "Pupils often sleep in lessons or take out mirrors to do their hair. Sometimes they just chat. It is not easy for me to discipline them because their own teachers won't."
Japanese teachers take on a greater pastoral role than their British counterparts. The police will often call the school rather than the parents of any child they pick up. "If a pupils is caught smoking, the teacher is expected to make several visits to their home," says Staines. Although ALTs will not be handed such responsibility, they are expected to show willing and put in long hours.
"Appearance is all. Staff arrive early and stay late, but they don't usually do any work after the children have gone - they just have to be there. I only teach 12 50-minute lessons a week, but I have to be in school 35 hours."
She says her training has helped her plan and deliver lessons and set tests, but this also leaves her frustrated. "As a qualified teacher, I do not feel I have enough control in the classroom, despite the fact that I plan and lead all the lessons. Students don't need to speak English to get good jobs. Until they change the system and the way they test students, my job feels worthless."
This pessimistic view is not shared by Peter Jewel, of the Centre for English Language Teacher Education at the University of Warwick. He helps interview and vet JET applicants and sees value in previous teacher training and experience.
Jewel looks for more than qualifications. "Motivation is the most important thing. JETs have to survive in a very different society - adaptability is vital."
He also looks for cultural awareness - why an applicant is interested in Japan, for instance - and, as they are there partly as a representative of UK culture, they should have some understanding of the whole British cultural scene. Lastly, he says, "candidates need to think about what they can offer as a teacher".
Jewell is not impressed by those he suspects just want a paid holiday. "We don't expect an in-depth knowledge of Japan, but we do expect some real interest. Candidates should do more to prepare for an interview than just read a guide book. We try to weed out those just going for a ride."
* The JET Programme: Getting Both Feet Wet, edited by David Chandler and David Kootnikoff 1999, David Chandler
I worked in senior high school. In Japan, the teacher stands at the front and it is the child's responsibility to learn. Teachers talk at the kids and lessons are incredibly dry. A lot of them fall asleep - then the teachers slap them on the back.
The younger teachers were better to work with. Some of the older ones really didn't like team teaching - they were very stand-offish.
My PGCE has stood me in massively good stead. I trained as a German teacher, so I had a background in grammar and lots of fun activities for teaching it.
The students' English can be superb when they are reading or writing, but they can't hold a conversation. And neither can their English teachers - I was amazed. But the situation has been improving since spoken English was made part of the curriculum in 1997.
Teachers work incredibly long hours and come into school during school holidays to plan. But often they seem to be there for the sake of it.
It's disrespectful to go home before the boss, so they sit around until 6pm. I would teach a maximum of two hours, but stay in school all day. It became quite dull, even lonely. I read the complete works of the Bronte sisters.
People were welcoming and there are lots of after-school clubs such as the tea ceremony clubs, with rituals concerning how to sit correctly, and also kendo, baseball and school bands. There were lots of invitations to go out. It's very trendy in Japan to have foreign friends.
People often have no English, so you do lots of nodding and smiling, and you are rarely allowed to pay.
But there was a lack of privacy. People would tell you they'd seen you in the supermarket and what you had in your basket. It was like living in a goldfish bowl.
Because I lived so close to Nagoya, there was a big foreign network. We organised social events through the JET scheme. It was a big relief just to be able to sound off and be yourself.
You do have to assume a kind of ambassadorial role. People seemed to think that, if you're English, you're practically related to the Queen. They love anything British, and the accent.
People are interested in everything: the education system, facts about your own life, where you went to university. It's a good idea to take information about your local area, pictures and history, and lots of little gifts (omiyagi).
It's common to take colleagues back a present when you've been on a trip, to show that you've been thinking of them. This is why Japanese people buy so many souvenirs.
You have to assume a very demure role: stand, watch and follow. At the after-school parties, you can't take a drink until everyone has said the speeches.
Just go open-minded and with a shed-load of patience. It's fascinating but it can also be frustrating. Also, learn some Japanese. I had a few private lessons and JET also provide classes. As long as you learn a little - hello, goodbye - and you make an effort, you will get by.
I got a lot out of the experience. Back in England, my first position was at a school where 98 per cent of the students were Asian. The skills I'd learnt in Japan were useful because it was almost like stepping back into a foreign culture.
Ruth Shaw taught in Kasugai outside Nagoya city, 1995 - 1997. She now teaches at the Mount preparatory school, Huddersfield.
I taught in Nagano Prefecture at a senior high school. It was equivalent to a top grammar school, full of hardworking students trying to get into university - the school is completely geared towards this.
Although my students were top-notch, they still weren't good enough to get into the best universities (Tokyo and Kyoto). The classes were very large. I taught the equivalent of 50 sixth-form students, which is standard. The pupils were obedient and well-behaved, although there are schools where this is not the case.
The buildings were quite grotty. In Japan, they are cleaned by the kids every day, and kids are very bad at things they don't like doing. I spent my gap year teaching at an African bush school in Zimbabwe, so I had some experience.
Sometimes, the team-teaching went really well, other times the teacher would just introduce you to the staff and step backwards - there was no involvement, preparation or feedback. They don't expect very much.
To get into university, the kids must take the most fiendish exams. Part of my job was teacher-training and examinations. I was based in the prefecture's education centre where I would check the papers and do the listening part. The level of detail was a real eye-opener. The pupils were obsessed with detail like, "Is it correct to say plane or aeroplane?" Until recently, English was taught like Latin was in Britain in the 1950s. It is learnt like an academic discipline rather than for practical use in, say, a multinational company.
You are well supported when you go out there. Your supervisor helps sort out accommodation, a bank account and shows you where to shop. There's also a well developed network of foreigners through the JET programme.
Despite all this, it's the worst place for culture shock I've ever been to. It's very Western on the surface and you expect things to be easy. But then you realise you can't read station signs or even work out which toilet to use.
Now that I'm teaching back in England, I feel I've a depth of perspective on our problems. For example, average class sizes.
Your real role is as a status symbol. It's very prestigious for the school. You are expected to turn up at functions and bow. You are guaranteed to make a faux pas, it's expected - but just show willing. I would advise new JETs to jump in with both feet and try to do and learn everything they can.
Damien Hayes taught as a JET between 1996-97. He is now an NQT at Chiswick Community School, west London, specialising in history.
Statistics for 19992000
* There were 1,591 applications; 48 were qualified teachers, 84 with TEFL qualifications.
* 1,050 candidates were interviewed for ALT positions
* 623 were successful (around 200 were kept on reserve list in case other countries couldn't fill quotas).
Applicants are usually interviewed by a panel of three, comprising an academic, a former JET and a Japanese national.
Applicants with a functional command of Japanese may become Co-ordinators for International Relations. Duties involve helping in the international activities of local governments.
* There is a separate teaching project run in China. Candidates should contact the CIEE (see right for details).
* Contact the Council for International Education Exchange (CIEE) , 52 Poland Street, London W1V 4JQ. Tel: 020 7478 2010 * In principle, applicants must be under 35 with a degree or equivalent.
* Deadline: early December; interviews from late January, results in April.
* orientation: end of June, with 2 12 days Japanese.
* departure: mid-July with post-arrival orientation.