Teaching English in the Japanese Countryside

Last March was the culmination of Mie Prefecture‘s three-year English program experiment.  This was the main reason I got hired as an English teacher in Tamaki.  For years, Tamaki has only had one ALT that they hire through the JET program.  Since the experiment would require more English classes even for the younger kids, they decided to hire another English teacher – that’s me.


I didn’t get a city placement but I was somewhat happy to be assigned in Tamaki (Ise) where there are lots of greeneries and it’s not too crowded.

So what was this program about?  Essentially, it’s like a test drive of the new system of English language education in Japan that will start in 2018.  The Mie Board of Education (BOE) decided to do this in preparation for the major change taking place in the English language education in Japan come 2020.  This is largely influenced by the fact that Japan will host the 2020 Olympics, which is expected to bring in a lot of visitors from foreign countries.  This is a good opportunity for Japan  to impress the guests and prove that the country is globally competitive.  Part of that is being able to speak in English.

Three municipalities in Mie – Tsu City, Suzuka City, and Tamaki signed up for this.  Interestingly, the first two are major cities in the prefecture while Tamaki, the small town I teach in is in the heart of the countryside.  In Suzuka, you can visit the Suzuka Circuit, one of the oldest tracks of the Formula One World Championship.


The Suzuka Circuit. Credit: Travelblog

There are also many fun activities you can do there with friends or family, since there’s a theme park as well.  In Tsu, you’ll find the main offices of government agencies like the Mie Prefectural Driver’s License Center.  The headquarters of Mie Board of Education is also located there.

As you can see, Tamaki is quite different from these two cities.  In fact, one common similarity of the elementary schools where I teach is they’re surrounded by rice fields.

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This is the view from the inside the school buildings in Tamaki.

There are about 15,000 people living in Tamaki and unlike many places in Japan, kids comprise a significant part of the town’s population.  The then-director of Tamaki’s local Board of Education volunteered for Tamaki to be included in the special English program.  He said “I want people to see that even if we live in the countryside, we can excel in English.”  I strongly approve.

In the current English education system in elementary schools, only the fifth and sixth graders are required to have English class and even then, the subject is not graded so most students don’t really take it seriously since it won’t affect their grades.  Some teachers doubt the importance of learning English for the kids who could find work even without being able to speak or understand English.

With the lackluster attitude about learning English, it’s not a surprise that Japan is ranked #35 out of 72 countries in English Proficiency.  This is why many have high expectations for the upcoming change in the English education in Japan.  While critics says it’s too little too late, it’s still better than leaving the current system as it is.  It’s also encouraging to see small towns like Tamaki are showing interest in learning English.

For three years, all grade levels in the town’s elementary schools had English classes.  During the first year, I taught all grade levels but focused on the third and fourth grade.  It was quite demanding in terms of energy, patience, and creativity.


Art Work Time. Kids love to see pictures so I spent a considerable amount of time drawing and making materials for class.

Most of the teachers didn’t have experience teaching English since it was the first time first through fourth graders had regular English classes.  When I first came, I only spoke a little Japanese, even though I learned how to read Hiragana and Katakana, and some kanji (their writing system derived from Chinese characters).  I didn’t really worry about this much because I assumed surely the teachers would know basic English words about classroom English.  But I guess I overestimated their English ability.

My initial meetings with the teachers were quite challenging because I only knew how to speak a few Japanese sentences and most teachers could barely understand simple English sentences.  There were only two or three teachers who could speak English comfortably. Suffice to say, gestures and a weird form of sign language became my friends.  Many times, I had to do all the teaching in class as requested by teachers so they could get an idea how to teach English to each grade level.  Since they also didn’t have much prior training in teaching English, I had to teach them several games and activities that would encourage kids to participate.

My co-worker mostly taught the fifth and sixth graders.  For the duration of the three-year English program, the Mie BOE asked us to administer a Phonics test to the sixth graders before the start of the school year and before its end.  It consisted of three parts – listening, reading simple words, and a bonus part that mostly involves reading.

We also received seven boxes of Lego sets to be used for English classes.


Kids brighten up when they see me carrying several boxes of this to class.

At first, the teachers were apprehensive about it as they weren’t sure how to make use of the Lego blocks.  Among ourselves, we thought of how to better use the blocks so the kids would find learning English more enjoyable.


Before the Fun Begins. Me explaining the Lego rules to the kids and what they’re about to build. [Apologies for the grainy picture. This poster was attached to the glass door entrance of the BOE.]

Some of the things we came up with were:

  1. Having them count the number of blocks they used to build a particular set.
  2. Asking them what color(s) their creation was.
  3. Having an “English Only” rule while they’re building things.
  4. Using the key English phrases (for example, What vehicle is this?) we’ve learned in class, with the builder asking questions and a volunteer answering.
  5. Setting up a competition by asking kids to build the biggest structure.  This works well for teaching superlatives.
  6. Asking kids to create and compare two similar things.  (Which is smaller: A or B?)
  7. Telling a story or a fairy tale in English with the Lego blocks as visual aide.

It took a while for many teachers to gain the confidence to lead the class so for the most part, I had to do the teaching by myself while some teachers focused on disciplining the kids and explaining things when they seemed clueless.

Compared to fifth and sixth graders, third and fourth graders have a shorter attention span so I often had to be have several activities in reserve just in case one or two didn’t work.  Having practiced this for more than three years, it has become easier to determine which sets of activities will work well for any of the 20-30 classes I could teach in any given week.

From the first year, up to the last month of the final year of the program, we’ve had countless class observations where top Board of Education and school officials and teachers from all over the prefecture visited our classes.  Most of the time, they carried video cameras, and regular cameras to document the event.


A Write Up About Our Special English Class in Tamaki. A Japanese co-teacher gave me this newspaper clipping where my class was featured.

Every single time I would attend a meeting with other foreign English teachers, my fellow teachers would find it hard to believe I teach elementary school students everyday.  They would be sympathetic, saying it must be very tiring for me.  Most of them teach junior high or high school students most days where they don’t have to do much planning since the Japanese teacher takes care of most things.  A new co-worker who goes to junior high school everyday and visits elementary schools once or twice a month said that when the elementary school teachers asked her to teach, she almost died.

Thank God for school breaks!  However, not all of us spend all our vacation traveling or resting.  For two straight years, I’ve been part of the pioneering team of the Mie English Winter Camp that several students from elementary, junior high, and high schools all over Mie joined.


My First English Winter Camp as a Head Teacher – Junior High School Level. Can you find me? [Only the high school students are here since the junior high and elementary students finished early].

It was a totally different from our regular classes because students had a chance to talk to us as if we’re peers.  Everyone, from the students to the Japanese teachers had to speak English.


Don’t laugh. Here we are showing the kids how to do the chicken dance.

Aside from that, together with a friend, we were able to start the first community class in Tamaki for (adult) beginners in English.


Never a dull moment with this bunch. Adult Class for beginners in Tamaki.

Before coming to Japan, I wanted to be assigned to Tokyo or Osaka for the simple reason that I have more friends in those two cities and there won’t be a shortage of things to do in both.  However, I got assigned to Ise.  While I contemplated moving to a bigger city, every time I would pray, the signs would point to staying in Ise.  As I stayed, I discovered that it’s easy to come to love Ise.

Honestly, I’ve never heard of this city before coming to Japan.  But I must admit that the fact that the 2016 G7 Summit was held in Shima, which is part of Mie Prefecture and is about an hour away from Ise, has become one of our bragging rights.


The Ise Shima Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rakuten Travel

If you had asked me on my first year, I never would have thought I’d stay here for three years.  I’m on my fourth year now, and at the start of this school year, we had one more teacher join us.


Me & My American Co-workers

So many things have happened over the past three years.  It gives me great joy to see the kids grow up and be able to communicate in English better, and with more confidence.  I’ve met dozens of teachers, Vice Principals, and Principals.  Some of them have taught me a lot about what it means to lead and to serve.

I may never fully understand why God allowed me to work here for this long.  Imagine what I would have missed had I decided to leave too early.