When Stevie Lim, 30, started singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with gestures, the first-graders at Minami Elementary School in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, started singing together and mimicking his movements.

As the assistant language teacher (ALT) from Britain started speeding up, the children’s excitement boiled over, and some started screaming.

The children kept asking Lim questions in Japanese while gluing together a Christmas out of colored pieces of paper. The homeroom teacher and another assistant teacher — both Japanese — paid attention to each student’s needs and helped Lim answer their questions using the simplest English words possible.

“Our role, first and foremost, is to make students interested in other languages and other cultures. That’s the most important thing in learning a new language, or learning any subject really,” said Lim, a native of Worcestershire who came to Japan fresh out of university in 2005 and has spent most of his time as an assistant language teacher.

Having an ALT in class does a lot to make children excited about learning English, teachers at the school said. The assistants are the embodiment of Western culture, and because each class gets an ALT-taught lesson only once or twice a semester, it’s special for the children, they said.

“Stevie is really good with kids. While some past ALTs have declined our request to eat lunch together with the children, Stevie eats together with the students and interacts with them,” Minami Elementary Principal Susumu Ichikawa said.

Lim is the kind of ALT many schools hope for. Because his mother used to run a language school, Lim has experience teaching English to Japanese and other Asian students and is passionate about teaching the language to children.

However, ALT quality varies from person to person, and the different ways they are hired also makes it difficult for teachers to work with ALTs the way they want to, according to experts.

This could turn out to be a major issue when the curriculum for English education is expected to enter a new phase in 2020, the year Japan will host the Summer Olympics.

At that time, English could become a formal subject, whereas it is currently treated as “Foreign Language Activities” under which fifth- and sixth-grade elementary school students are exposed to foreign people and languages.

“Some ALTs have a background in education, while some studied completely unrelated subjects at universities and never even studied a foreign language before,” said Kensaku Yoshida, a professor of English at Sophia University.

“They also have different attitudes. Some are doing it just to earn money, while other ALTs are working because they really want to teach the language,” he added.

The less responsible ALTs just quit in the middle of their contracts, he said.

“The education ministry is responsible for ensuring the quality of ALTs,” Yoshida said. “But if English becomes a proper subject (in 2020) and the education ministry doesn’t provide some kind of training, it may cause confusion (with the teachers).”Currently, native English speakers are involved in the public education system as ALTs only. But their employers often differ. Some are brought in through the government-backed Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, some are dispatched by private companies and others are directly hired by the schools themselves.

The education ministry recommends “team teaching” when conducting a class with ALTs. The ministry says the ALTs’ role in this system is to support the homeroom teachers, such as by advising on pronunciation and grammar, and by meeting with them before and after the class to discuss the teaching plans.

The worker dispatch law, however, makes team teaching impossible for subcontracted ALTs because their contracts are made between municipalities and their companies. This means homeroom teachers can’t give orders to or make requests of such ALTs and instead have to route any such demands to their companies.

Due to such restrictions, elementary schools with subcontracted ALTs sometimes have no choice but to throw the English class completely into their hands, experts said. On the other hand, there are also homeroom teachers who are reluctant to teach English and ask the ALTs to do all the work, they said.

As the training of subcontracted ALTs is entirely dependent on their companies, the teaching quality varies. Big companies generally provide good training while small agencies tend to just send them out without any support, experts said.

“For someone without a lot of experience teaching, it can be a bit of a daunting task,” said ALT Jamey Fukunaga, 42.

With nine years of experience under his belt, the Boston native works at five elementary and junior high schools in Tokyo as an assistant teacher subcontracted by Interac, a major ALT provider.

Fukunaga said the company he worked at before Interac was small and did not provide enough support before sending the teachers out.

Describing the situation, he said it was like, “If you don’t know what you are doing, tough luck.”

In terms of ability, there is no difference between ALTs dispatched by the JET program and subcontracted ALTs, but experts say JET-sponsored ALTs are preferable because the local board of education is responsible for them and the schools can control them directly.

But an increasing number of local governments are choosing to hire subcontracted ALTs because they cost less.

“When it comes to JET ALTs, the boards of education are responsible for training them. The boards must also look after their daily lives, whereas those things are taken care of by private companies for subcontracted ALTs. Also, municipalities must pay (JET ALTs) salaries even during the summer vacation, when the ALTs have no classes to teach,” said Yuko Naoyama, a researcher at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research who formerly taught English in junior high school.

As of December 2012, a total of 8,505 ALTs were teaching at elementary and junior high schools, according to the education ministry. Of them, about 30 percent, or 2,560, were brought in by the JET program.

The remaining 5,945 were not JETs, with ALTs dispatched by private subcontractors accounting for 2,298. ALTs hired directly by municipalities or other routes accounted for the rest.

Fukunaga suggests ALTs should not play a leading role in English classes because they are paid to provide a supplementary role.

“We are not really even full-time ALTs, I think. We aren’t quite paid full-time, really,” he said.

“We have a limited chunk of time to be working there, and a lot of preparation time in there. Then you go home and (you are) expected to do more preparation. It’s kind of a little bit annoying. Especially when you are new at it,” he said.

Meanwhile, more homeroom teachers are taking the lead in their English classes and asking ALTs to support them.

Koyamadai Elementary School in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, is one of the public elementary schools where homeroom teachers play a central role in English classes. From first through sixth grades, homeroom teachers give their lessons almost completely in English.

Because most Japanese elementary school teachers have no professional English-teaching skills, many struggle to learn it when they first come to Koyamadai, Principal Sanae Saito said.

“Teachers are basically serious people. I guess some have a hard time getting used to the system at first, but as they learn more, and as they see children’s growth, teachers become more active in making the English lesson a better one,” she said.

Yoshida of Sophia University said homeroom teachers are indeed crucial in elementary school, because they are the ones who know each student’s background, ability and personality and can provide the support for each student’s needs.

Fukunaga, who works there, said Koyamadai Elementary is “the cream of the crop.”

“I think why Koyamadai works so well is they got licensed teachers, and our job as ALTs is not to come here to be a licensed teacher. I’m here to help create a complete English environment with the language. And part of our job is to bring our culture and just a different way of thinking.”

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