Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Human Tape Recorder

Picture from "No, my nose does not need plastic surgery"
If you read any ALT forums or blogs you will be familiar with the idea of the human tape recorder. The Japanese teacher is compelled to bring the ALT to class but has no desire to use them/doesn’t know how to use them/can't communicate in English and so simply has them repeat words from the text book and nothing else. Some ALTs spend their entire time in Japan playing this soul-destroying role. I have been incredibly lucky to work with amazing teachers at both my junior high schools (and at my elementary and kindergarten classes are usually ALT led, with the Japanese teacher playing the assisting role). In my first two and a half years I had never suffered the cassette player treatment. That changed when one of my teachers had a health scare and had to retire suddenly. Her substitute, who is now a full-time teacher, fulfils all of the negative stereotypes about Japanese teachers of English. She does not know how to use me. I became a cassette player. It’s a mind bogglingly dull and stupid, and after those students spent two years with me as their main English teacher at elementary and then six months with a talented JTE with whom I had an excellent team teaching relationship in junior high, seeing me standing at the back of the classroom doing nothing contributed to what has become a complete breakdown of any kind of classroom discipline. Still, I decided to do what small tasks I had with all my heart. When it came time to “repeat after ALT”, I gave each word my all, trying to pronounce each word so evocatively that even without translation the kids could guess its meaning. It’s easy with adjectives like “soft”, but impossible with basic nouns like “pen”. I found it quite meditative. We rarely think about words alone, but English words are truly beautiful (no matter how hideous our grammar is). Try it now. Say “exquisite” aloud. Say it in the most exquisite way you can. Try to express every shade of meaning it has with your voice. Exquisite. Isn’t that lovely?

It seems that I went too far. After I finished my “model reading” and the JTE began to say the words the students rebelled. “You sound nothing like a native speaker” they yelled. “Your pronunciation is SHIT. Why are you even an English teacher?” She stopped having me pronounce words. She was still compelled to take me to class, but she began using the CD that comes with the text book. I lost even the small role of human tape player, and became a human classroom decoration. It didn’t help the situation with the students. The first thing they said was “why are you using the CD player when she’s right there? You’re embarrassed to be beside a real English speaker, that’s why.” 

Kids are smart.

This is a very old comedy sketch from Shimura Ken, but unfortunately I don't think much has changed in English education in Japan. The sketch is still as biting today as it was in the 1980s.

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  1. Omgoodness, this was such a great post! I want to reblog this!
    Human tape recorder = SOUL DESTROYING ROLE YESYESYES!

    That video is priceless~

    I hope things improve in your classes... any chance to talk things out with the teacher?

    1. At the moment I have my fingers crossed that she gets transferred in April. The other day she saw a student writing their name on a worksheet in English and MADE HIM ERASE IT and re-write it in kanji. Seriously. I am also not allowed to say "good morning" to the kids because "they need top practice their Japanese greetings". I think her interest in the students actually learning any English is non-existent.
      Thank you for your kind comment by the way :)

  2. That is one of the best videos I've seen. I've been in quite a few challenging situations but it definitely helps to talk things out with the teacher and make some gentle suggestions on how to improve the classes.

    1. My older sister did a high school exchange in Japan and her worst marks were for English ^_^
      I've had rocky starts with a few teachers but we've always been able to come together because we wanted the best outcome for the kids. Unfortunately for these students, after a year and a half of trying to improve things with this teacher I've come to the conclusion that she actively dislikes the kids and has no interest in improving things. They have been horrible to her from day one, so I have some empathy for her resenting them, but she is the adult in the situation so that empathy is definitely limited.

  3. It sounds like the students have at least gotten used to having you in the class... hopefully no more autographing their arms...
    Maybe you should try not being so awesome, then maybe the teacher would let you help again.
    You should really work on your pronunciation... Maybe sound more American :P

    1. You could always help translate documents on the side when you're bored in class:


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