Teaching English in Japan

Students on a school outing in Tokyo. (Asia Society)

Jeni Washeleski talks about her experiences in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).

What was your work like as part of the JET Program, and what you do now?

On the JET Program, I worked at an education center in Japan, where I led teacher training sessions, wrote and edited a book on teaching communicative English, and taught in the classroom with a Japanese English teacher. I also served as a resource on American society, spoke at various teaching conferences throughout the country, and was chosen as an orientation leader for new JETs.

I now work in the U.S. Foreign Service, which is similar in that I am representing America and American culture to a host country. My first experience was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as Public Affairs Officer and Consular Officer. I arranged cultural programs, oversaw U.S. Government exchange programs, wrote reports on the Tajik education system and developments in the media, organized the Central Asian Teachers of English Conference for over 180 teachers – every day brought new challenges. Now I work in Dubai, UAE as the General Services Officer.

Did you already know Japanese before you went to Japan? How did language affect your experience there?

One of the great things about the JET Program is that you don’t have to have a teaching degree or know Japanese -- you only need a bachelor’s degree in any subject and an interest in Japan. I had finished college a couple years before and had been taking Japanese classes at night for fun. My roommate suggested that I apply for the program. Knowing the language – which I continued to study after I arrived – significantly affected my experience. People were more open to me because I tried to communicate with them on their own level. By learning the language, I was showing an interest and respect in their culture and history.

What do you think is the best thing about a program like JET?

Ultimately, I think it’s the personal growth that occurs when you discover how you react to the unknown and how you deal with those aspects of another culture or society that you don’t agree with. What values are important to you? How do you maintain them, while respecting the values of another culture? How do you keep your sense of individuality, while also representing a nation? What compromises are you willing to make, and what will you stand firm on? When you’re living in a foreign culture, it’s very near impossible to ignore these questions.

What kind of skills do you need to get the most out of an experience like this?

You need to be inquisitive, open to whatever comes along, and able to think on your feet. Exploring another culture requires constant adaptation, and this can be tiring and stressful so you also have to figure out how to deal well with change.

What motivates you to continue teaching and working abroad?

To learn about other cultures, to make friends, to see the similarities between the people of the world, to help others, and to experience new things. Plus, to have great photos and stories to share with my friends!

How did college influence your career choices?

Going to a school with a large international population was definitely important to my cultural development and influenced my desire to travel abroad. And my language classes (Russian) made me want to learn more about the culture and history of that nation. If I were to change anything, maybe I would have taken more courses in international affairs and development or read the newspaper more. Sometimes you have to focus on topics that you don’t really like to reach your goals. I had no desire to study economics or statistics, but I realized later that I did need at least a basic knowledge of those subjects to better understand their affect on the educational and cultural life of a country. In the end though, I think the path I took (and the length of time it took) was how it was supposed to be.

What advice would you give to high school students interested in a similar careers?

Learn all you can about the larger world that surrounds you through programs and events at libraries, bookstores, community centers, local universities -- wherever available -- that will expand your knowledge of whatever it is you’re interested in. Talk to the program organizers or speakers afterwards; follow up with them if you make a connection and keep in touch. You never know who may be able to help you in the future. Explore your own community and the culture that is there; try to have a new experience every day or every week. Take advantage of opportunities that pop up, and be flexible when they do.

Where do you think you'll be ten years from now?

Ten years is a long time! When I was just starting my time in Japan 10 years ago, I could not have predicted that I would have just returned from Tajikistan and be living in Dubai. And when I was 15, I certainly wouldn’t have thought I would have my 25th birthday in Japan! But I can say with certainty that I will continue to be involved with cultural programming and exchange programs. I’ll continue to travel, perhaps living in other countries from time to time. In the U.S., I’ll continue to take advantage of the cultural breadth of experience we have in our own country, through friendships and neighbors, cultural festivals, books, movies and music, and anything else I can get my hands on!

Author: Interview coducted by Lawrence Dabney