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Young entrepreneur out to change education

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

The Global Shapers are highly motivated young people between the ages of 20 and 30 with the potential to be society’s future leaders, according to the World Economic Forum, which selects them based on several factors, such as their initiative, commitment and potential to “make a difference.”

There are more than 3,000 members around the world in the Global Shapers community, which was created in September 2011, with about 50 of them hailing from Japan.

Yusuke Matsuda, founder and CEO of Teach For Japan, is a Tokyo-based shaper. Matsuda is eager to make a difference in the field of education by dispatching talented and trained personnel to address issues confronting children and schools.

Matsuda said education being offered in Japanese schools is behind the changing times, and issues involving classrooms and society are becoming diversified and complicated, making him realize that personnel who can resolve those challenges are sorely needed.

This is where the non-profit organization Matsuda founded in January 2012 comes in.

“I think people with leadership abilities who can offer solutions to various problems and who could be role models for children should be in classrooms,” said the 30-year-old. Matsuda and his colleagues at TFJ select, train and dispatch “TFJ fellows,” who are motivated and passionate about bringing change to Japanese education.

Matsuda and the organization have set themselves a lofty goal, wanting “to realize a society where all children can receive high-quality education.” Matsuda added, “High-quality education means providing children with the ability to use (what they learned in class), communication skills and independence. It’s not cramming or knowledge-centric education.”

What is unique about TFJ is that it sets out to reach children who are in “the most difficult circumstances,” including those suffering from classroom breakdowns or economic hardship.

“I don’t think we can realize our goal if we set our sights on (the elite),” who are the typical focus of traditional government policies, Matsuda added.

“We’d like to provide the other children with the best education. If we can accomplish that, we would be able to apply the measures to children in less severe situations as well,” Matsuda said.

The TFJ fellows are generally sent to public elementary schools or English classes at public junior high schools for two-year terms, according to Matsuda. They are given opportunities to experience personal growth through experiencing difficult teaching environments, where they can acquire communication, leadership and management skills, Matsuda said.

What Matsuda expects from the TFJ fellows is not only the reform they could possibly achieve, but also the impact they could have on society after they leave the schools and move onto other jobs.

“I believe the fellows can help improve the situation for children in the short term, but that’s not enough to overcome the growing issues,” he said, pointing out the need for society’s involvement in providing a better educational environment.

Matsuda hopes the TFJ program will produce personnel with knowledge of hands-on education, who could go on to contribute to educational reforms from various positions in both the private and public sectors.

“Some may remain in schools, while others may prefer to work in other fields, but they retain the passion to change education from the outside. One may want to create a system to ease the burden on busy teachers; another may see the necessity to change politics; while others may want to join the education ministry to create concrete policies. Eventually, we’d like to improve education and nurture children by involving society,” Matsuda said.

TFJ dispatched the first batch of 11 fellows last April to schools in the Kanto and Kansai regions, and the second group is expected to start their two-year assignments from April, according to Matsuda.

Matsuda, himself a former junior high school physical education teacher in Tokyo, had a difficult road before he launched TFJ in 2012. His story started when he was a junior high school student and was bullied by classmates.

“I was saved by a teacher who saw the bullying and he led the way to get through it. I think I was able to change myself thanks to him,” recalled Matsuda, who became a teacher in 2006 after graduating from college. Matsuda was determined to repay the favor and paid careful attention to students who were in situations similar to his.

However, Matsuda’s life as a teacher ended in 2008 after he lost his confidence to stay motivated in front of his students.

“I saw colleagues who faced the blackboard, not the students, during class or who blamed students for classroom breakdowns. I heard they used to have passion for teaching, but after seeing them I wasn’t sure I could stay motivated,” Matsuda said.

As he believed he shouldn’t stand in front of students any more, Matsuda thought about how to increase the number of adults who can give their all to children. Matsuda at that time considered creating a school, which led him to study management and leadership.

“I couldn’t find any Japanese graduate schools that suited my interests, so I searched for programs at schools abroad,” Matsuda noted.

It was an encounter with an organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the United States, where Matsuda had enrolled in 2008, which changed his future.

“I was greatly inspired by the activities of Teach For America, which was achieving through the involvement of society what I hoped to do through a school. I thought I must develop such an effort in Japan,” he said.

The non-profit Teach For America was founded by Wendy Kopp in 1989 with a mission to ensure “kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education” by recruiting “a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.”

Under the global network of Teach For All, there are currently 32 similar organizations in the world, including in Australia, Bangladesh, Chile, Malaysia, Spain and Thailand.

Matsuda noted that about a quarter of his classmates at the School Leadership Program were TFA alumni, and he was impressed with their strong motivation to bring about education reform.

He studied the American organization for his masters’ thesis and went to work on creating the Japanese group upon graduating in 2009.

After a brief stint at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers Japan, Matsuda began full-scale preparations, which led to the launch of TFJ in 2012.

Matsuda said there are some challenges facing the organization that need to be overcome.

Firstly, securing financial resources to run the organization is difficult and Matsuda noted it’s necessary to find partners who are willing to invest as soon as possible.

“If we had enough funds to run the organization for a couple of years, then we could focus on strategy and building the organization. It’s often said Japan lacks a donation culture, so we’d like to work with partners to create such a culture,” Matsuda said.

Teaching licenses pose a second challenge as TFJ currently can only recruit personnel with teaching licenses, which are required to work in classrooms.

“We think diverse people should be able to teach in schools. We hope to create a system enabling qualified personnel with various backgrounds to teach, even if they don’t have licenses. I’d like to see this happen in the next three to five years.”

Lastly, Matsuda would like to see a change in Japan’s employment practices, under which new graduates are typically hired and where a lack of mid-career employment exists.

“We’d like to create an environment where ‘alumni’ of our program will be hired to play active roles as leaders in society. We hope to work together with companies to create an employment culture that makes the most of personnel diversity.”

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