“A good teacher can get you to JLPT N2-level in a couple of years,” one friend told me. He also cautioned: “But if you get a teacher who isn’t serious, it could take a great many years more — if indeed it ever happens at all.”
What I’ve learned over my years of teaching in Japan is that public school students here can also face a similar lottery when it comes to learning English.
In the same way as I have worked with some brilliant ALTs — and conversely a number of freeloaders who shouldn’t be going anywhere near a classroom — I’ve noticed a similarly huge variation in the English communicative abilities of my Japanese teacher of English (JTE) colleagues.
But why is this the case? Surely there must be a uniform minimum standard across the board for those who wish to teach English in public schools in Japan.
Well, as is so often the case with Japan, things aren’t that simple.
One of the main issues lies in the prevailing methodology for teaching English as an academic subject in Japan. Despite overwhelming evidence that the method is far less effective than competing strategies, official guidelines on the teaching of English in Japanese public schools still lean towards a Confucian, teacher-centered approach, with an emphasis on rote memorization at the expense of communication practice.
However, it would be unfair to my colleagues to simply condemn their methods as out of date and lacking innovation. It’s not that simple. So what are some other factors that might be behind this problem?
1) Teachers don’t have much time to practice
Time is money as they say, and time is one thing that our JTEs and indeed most teachers in Japanese schools just don’t have enough of. On top of teaching 20-plus lessons a week, many teachers also have to contend with homeroom duties, organizing school clubs, departmental meetings, talking with parents and basically acting, to a certain extent, as surrogate parents to their students.
English, as indeed is the case with any foreign language, is a skill. To maintain it, you need to practice regularly. As the saying goes: “Use it or lose it.” Sadly, practicing English is something that our JTEs just don’t have the time — or the energy for. Occupational duties necessitate that it is very far down on their list of priorities.
2) Age plays a big part
I remember a school I worked at in Osaka. My head JTE was in her mid-20s and reasonably fluent if perhaps lacking in grammar. Two others were in their for40s and both of them had pretty good English levels as well. Then there was an another older lady, approaching retirement and barely able to put two sentences together.
Trying to adjust to these different ability levels of my coworkers was sometimes a challenge. These days, all of my colleagues have been trained to a high level and have studied abroad, — and coincidentally, they are all under 35.
3) There is little if any ongoing training
One of the main differences between my work in Hong Kong and my work in Japan has been in on-the-job-training.
In Hong Kong, we had seminars almost every week on elements such as IB certification, IELTS training, lesson planning and many other areas.
In Japan, once you qualify as a teacher, ongoing training is minimal. As I have already said, there simply isn’t time for training given the packed schedule of the average Japanese teacher.
4) Overseas training is expensive and getting time off is difficult
One of the key points about my current colleagues and their English abilities: each of them studied English abroad for an extended period.
In Japan, especially among the public sector, there is a great resistance to accepting help from the outside. Not just in the context of foreign countries, but even from outside agencies (training firms, etc.) within Japan.
As a result, teachers are often taught by senior staff who lack the necessary skills. Again in my time working in Osaka City, we were faced with the ridiculous scenario of being taught how to teach English phonics by a manager who could not speak English.
In this regard, I really believe that local governments need to bite the bullet and invest in sending their teachers overseas for a time to learn English properly. Even just a few weeks in an immersion environment would make a big difference.
If local governments can’t afford to send the teachers abroad, then why not employ their ALTs during the summer break to deliver intensive English courses to their JTEs?
I have the utmost respect for JTEs and the almost impossible task they undertake every day. Balancing teaching an English teacher while learning the language at the same time, being a secondary parent to about 30 kids and dealing with all manner of bureaucratic nonsense, is a huge load. I really don’t know how they do it.
I only hope that in the future, managers and bureaucrats can support them better in their jobs by providing them with the necessary tools they need to succeed.