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Changing the system starts by challenging it

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

Just seven years after first participating in the JET program in Osaka, Matthew Cook from Danville, Virginia, is making great strides as a pioneer of English-language education reform in Japan. Having never previously been to an Asian country, Cook is now one of seven members of Osaka’s groundbreaking English Reformation Project Team, having been appointed by Osaka superintendent Toru Nakahara in 2013. With an unswerving commitment to English-language education and a little luck, Cook’s efforts may pave the path for Japan’s next generation of global leaders.

Cook applied to the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program because it was “the most lucrative, stable and safe way to get to Japan.” Having run his own karate dojo in the United States, he felt the need to gain a deeper understanding of the Japanese culture behind it. However, Cook was waitlisted and needed to make a snap decision when he was offered a position within a month of the JET start date. “I had totally assumed that I wasn’t going to get in,” he says.

Cook’s initial placement was less than ideal, though. He was forewarned that the Osaka junior high school to which he was assigned might be challenging, but he was not prepared for the “few students who were stopping class altogether, violence in the classroom or kids getting up and leaving.”

“I was completely crushed, and I wanted to be here so badly,” he recalls. “It was an absolutely miserable situation.”

He approached the Board of Education and asked for a transfer, and when it was granted, “things changed overnight,” he says. “People in the new school knew what they were doing with the kids, knew how to handle the classes and gave me room to grow as a teacher and to learn how to actually teach classes.”

This experience led Cook to become an advocate for those in similar situations, and he began running peer-to-peer seminars for fellow JETs.

“I could see that half the audience was in the situation I was in before,” he explains. “And I wanted to support them and find a way to help them get to the point I was at because it’s such a total waste of their talent and desire to not be able to give something to Japan and to not have something positive to take back with them.”

Cook then went on to become Chairman of AJET (Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching) and start the online magazine AJET Connect, to “try to find an inspirational story or message for JETs.”

During this period, he had a fortuitous meeting-of-minds encounter with education innovator Toru Nakahara, at the time principal of Osaka’s Izumi High School. When Nakahara was appointed superintendent of the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education in 2013, he promptly asked Cook to work full time as a member of his English Reformation Project Team. Between his position as a JET (his five-year term ended in 2012) and appointment to the team, Cook was Osaka’s Board of Education Native English Teacher (NET) Program Coordinator and an English Teacher at Yuhigaoka High School.

In his new post, Cook says he “misses the classroom more than you can imagine. … I love the feeling of walking away from students and knowing they have changed.” However, being deeply dedicated to improving the state of English-language education in Japan, Cook explains that his current position affords him the opportunity to be a part of the reform on a far larger scale — the entire Osaka Prefecture.

Of the greater implications, Cook says: “When those in Osaka take our message and share it, it’s like the ripple in the pond. If MEXT (Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) and the Diet feel the pressure from areas like Osaka, they will not want to be behind the wave — they will want to be ahead of it.”

As the first foreign full-time civil servant to be employed by the Osaka Board of Education, Cook may prove to be just the antidote necessary to shake up Japan’s stagnant English-language education system.

  • AmplerPlateau

    “As the first foreign full-time civil servant to be employed by the Osaka
    Board of Education, Cook may prove to be just the antidote necessary to
    shake up Japan’s stagnant English-language education system.” This article should have started here.

    Here we have another fluff piece in the category of “look
    at what the JET programme produces”. This should have been a piece on
    how Japan needs to seriously consider the foreign talent that lives in
    this country, and discuss what Japan can do to facilitate the entry
    of this much needed perspective into the workforce. English education reform being a natural starting point for this conversation, this was a wasted opportunity to talk about the real issues facing Japan’s attempts at globalization.

  • Lawrence B Goodman

    Really interesting article illustrating serious progress in English language instruction in Japan.

  • AsianReaper

    As an experienced ESL teacher( 10 years ) I will never be hired in Jp due to appearance and the conservative nature of the country. Kinda sucks as I will be buying my second house there soon.

    • Michael Darmousseh

      Why wouldn’t you be hired as an ESL teacher?

      • AsianReaper

        Full sleeve and torso tattoos.

  • Justin Tedaldi

    @paulalemparte:disqus : We posted an interview with Matthew in our JET Alumni publication JQ magazine last month. http://bit.ly/MnKpIb
    It seems he echoes your sentiment about carefully examining foreign talent as future teachers:

    “In my opinion, to give the JET Programme the “teeth” to change English education, the Ministry of Education needs to seriously recruit teachers with ESL experience and backgrounds. These teachers need to have a desire to teach English as a career, be given special licenses to teach by the ministry and be given real responsibilities in schools, instead of being peripheral staff that are often left feeling like long-term guests.”

  • AsianReaper

    I am rather insulated from what is happening in the world of pro prima donnas but I get your point.