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School Levels

The progression of the Japanese educational system reflects the manner in which children are socialized and integrated into Japanese society.

From preschool to sixth grade the teachers are lax and the environment is designed to foster the children’s happiness and enthusiasm. ALTs applying for this level of education should be ready to play a lot of games, get grabbed a lot, and be prepared for the occasional dog pile. Every day is a zoo at the elementary school, which can be great, depending on what you're looking for in your experience. Sending ALTs to elementary schools is becoming more common in Japan.
A game of musical chairs in a local elementary school

If your regular schools are junior high schools or high schools you still might be sent to the elementary schools if you have a free day during test time and your school wants to keep you busy. If you wouldn't mind visiting some of these schools now and then, your board of education will most likely be able to make some kind of arrangement with local schools.

When students finish their sixth year of elementary school and enter into the first grade of junior high school the environment changes dramatically. Stark crisp uniforms are mandatory. There is a sharp contrast in material students are required to learn between 6th and 7th grade and a marked increase in pressure to learn it well. The scholastic program changes pace as they are prepped for the dreaded high school entrance examinations. Emphasis is on memorization of concepts and patterns instead of flexibility and adaptability. The pressure builds on the students for the three years they are in junior high school, cumulating in the examinations. In determining admissions to high schools and colleges/universities, the entrance examination is weighed far more heavily than the scores or grades they earned in classes. For many, seventh grade is the demaracation line between being a child and being forced to grow up.

This is my favorite level to teach. Many of the students are still enthusiastic or at least interested in learning about foreign cultures and English and have not yet been beaten down by "The System". The better students become able to hold conversations in English, which makes those students a lot of fun. But for the lower-strata of students, this is the give-up point. They are pressured to complete assignments and do well, but are still passed on to the next grade if they receive failing marks. Junior high school is the last level of compulsory education in Japan.

In high school, because an entrance exam is required for admission, you find a much higher degree of academic separation than you see in junior high schools. In the high schools, the good students are under even more pressure to do well, and in their third year, they must take the entrance examinations for colleges and universities. If the student passes the entrance exam for the college of their choice, they don’t have to worry about anything else. Japanese friends have told me that classes in college are very easy and the pressure to perform well in university is far less than that of high school. What is important is where you graduated from, not what grades you received.

At any rate, asking to teach for high schools with JET is a crap shoot. You could get a really good school, or a really bad school, with a smaller chance of getting an average school. If you were guaranteed a position at a private high school, that would be terrific, but since you're not, teaching at a JHS, in my opinion, is a more well-rounded experience.


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