In Morioka, there are about twenty public junior high schools. As an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), our job is to work at one of those junior high schools for an entire year as an assistant/team teacher. During that time, the job also requires that we visit several elementary schools once or twice each. Our contract is for two years, and at the end of our first year (next July), we will switch to another junior high school.
Thus, Catherine, Paul, Sara, and I do not work together, but rather separately at individual schools. There are also three other ALTs on the Earlham program in Morioka in the same situation (they arrived last year).
There are a few major differences between Japanese and US junior high schools. First, all Japanese junior high schools include seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. There are no 6-7-8 or 7-8 schools.
Second, all of the students are required to wear uniforms. This does not mean they have to wear a certain kind of clothes like a dress code, but rather they must all wear the exact same shirt, dress, etc. This includes shoes, which are color-coded to the year of the student. It follows that jewelery and such are also not permitted.
Teachers, however, can dress fairly casually. In fact, as long as you show up looking somewhat decent, you can get away with changing into gym clothes and wearing shorts and a tshirt for the rest of the day.
Third, and perhaps the largest difference and the one most important to understanding our jobs, is that students stay in the same room with the same group every day and teachers move from room to room. So, the same group of students are with each other all day. This is called a homeroom. Each teacher is responsible for one homeroom, and they meet together at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. This is a chance for the teachers to really bond with a specific group of students. Of course, as assistant teachers, we do not have a homeroom of our own that we are responsible for, but we can visit other homerooms.
In addition to their daily meetings, students eat lunch in their homeroom. Some schools have a (very healthy) school lunch, while other schools require all students to bring their lunch and provide only milk. But since there is no cafeteria and there is one teacher eating with thirty students or so, there is not such an opportunity for delinquency that a cafeteria allows.
Further, students are responsible for cleaning their own homeroom. This generally means they are maybe a bit more careful to avoid causing a mess.
Because teachers rotate rather than students, and students all have the same classes, it allows for very flexible schedules. Students often have different classes in a different order each week. This simplifies taking field trips and doing special activities, since all classes can be rescheduled and one need not worry about penalizing one class consistently if the activity is late in the day, or early in the morning.
In the teachers' room, all teachers have their desks. Teachers are grouped by the grade they teach, and they sit in order of the length of time they have spent at the school. Many teachers transfer (or are forced to transfer) from school to school after four years.
Also, there is a national curriculum. This means that all the schools use similar textbooks and are covering basically the same material within a week or so of any other given school. Further, textbooks then need only include what will be taught, and since there are no optional materials, the textbooks are a good deal thinner and lighter than their US counterparts.
Lastly, the Japanese school year begins in April, and the first term ends sometime in July. Summer vacation stretches from July to August; thus, as we begin teaching at our schools, we are fortunate to be able to join them at the beginning of the second semester, a logical entry point.