Seminars help teachers survive tough times

by Alan Watson

There are an estimated 30,000 people teaching English in Japan, including those on the government’s widely recognized JET program. But with the craze for language learning fading fast, the English conversation industry is facing a crisis and many teachers, fearing for their livelihoods, are taking courses and getting qualifications that they hope will help them secure their jobs.

One organization that offers English-language educators a chance to hone their professional skills is English Teachers in Japan, which boasts 7,000 registered members, half of them Japanese. ETJ holds regular one-day seminars offering a “Certificate in Teaching Japanese Students,” one of which took place in Fukuoka earlier this month.

Enormous changes

Seminar leader David Paul, who established the David English House in an apartment in Hiroshima in 1982 and has overseen its development into a respected center for English-language education, said that although attaining the certificate “is not going to immediately get someone a job, it is a sign that they’re taking their job seriously.”

Paul says that he has seen enormous changes in the industry since he first arrived. “At that time, as a non-Japanese person, you could roll up and get a job, it was no problem. Now, that is maybe partly true in some of the big chain schools. But one of the biggest changes was the recession. That knocked out most of the middle-sized schools and they were the most professionally run.”

Paul was the last of the day’s speakers at the recent seminar, and had been preceded by Dr. Rob Waring, associate professor of English at Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama; Maurice Jamall, associate professor of English at Seikei University in Tokyo and Dr. Tim Murphy, Professor at Dokkyo University in Saitama.

Room for improvement

After the seminar had wound down, the four discussed the current state of English-language teaching — and learning — in Japan. All agreed that there was a lot of room for improvement, or at the very least, professional development.

“There is a debate on when you should start,” said Waring. “Some people think that lots of English nice and early will help kids become native speakers, as in the case of Singapore or Hong Kong,” said Waring, noting that the subject is introduced in elementary schools there, and that in the Philippines it is taught from an even earlier age. “In Japan,” he points out, “there isn’t a perceived need for English.”

Jamall, watching his words, pointed to problems within the Education Ministry, claiming that it is “a bit optimistic about what is happening in the classrooms. They have these lofty aims but are not giving teachers the tools.”

English as a fashion

Jamall would love to see more critical, ongoing examination of teaching techniques and theories. “This kind of creative criticism helps teachers become better. That culture doesn’t exist here. It’s almost like the superior handing down pearls of wisdom, and that’s not what teaching is.” He added that teachers are taught to regard their classrooms as their “personal fiefdoms,” thus preventing change or improvement in their teaching abilities.

Both Jamall and Paul also made note of another huge change in English-language learning in Japan in the past decade, with Jamall observing that “English as a fashion is dying out as well. A lot of language schools survived on the fashionable aspect of English. It was trendy and hip to say ‘I can’t meet you tonight because I have an English class, I’m so international.’ “

Incredible shift

Paul, linking this development to the recession a decade ago, has noticed “an incredible shift” from adults wanting to learn to parents wanting their children to learn English. You can walk into any language school and you will find that a very high percentage of the students are children whereas 10 years ago, a pretty high percentage were adults.”

Murphy, who gave a talk titled “Effective Use of Songs for Japanese Learners” with an enthusiasm as contagious as a chart-topping pop song, pointed out to the gathering that they were more than just teachers. “Teachers can potentially have a lot of beneficial or harmful influence on students because of their privileged position in front of a group of young people. Teachers who only lecture are communicating that some people know, and you don’t, and you need to listen to know. However, most kids in Japanese schools end up falling asleep from the drone of input. Teachers should ask for student output — let students know that their thoughts, too, can be valuable.”