English lessons on the cheap

Dear education minister Ryu Shionoya,

I came to Japan six months ago a qualified and experienced primary school teacher full of excitement, and a little concern. Would I be able to connect with the junior high school students I would be teaching in only a few days? Was I experienced enough to create exciting and relevant lessons for my new students?

I worked hard at my new position. I immediately set out to create lessons in which students had the opportunity to communicate in English as much as possible. I created fun games and activities to teach and reinforce the focus language. My new teaching partner fully supported the changes I wanted to make, and even expressed to me how much more interested the students seemed. This filled me with joy; teaching is my life, and the reason I teach is to make a difference, so to have someone comment on how my students had changed was the greatest encouragement I could receive.

Of course I had my difficulties as well. Less than a month had passed when I discovered that the company I worked for had lied about my salary, and I became heartbroken and homesick when I attempted to find an apartment only to be turned away time and time again simply because I was a foreigner. But throughout the difficulties I faced in my new country I kept working hard to build relationships with my students so that I could support those students who were interested and excited about learning English, and create interest among those who were not.

I think I did a good job. I am sure everyone who saw my classes would agree. As a result I had high hopes for my future at the school. I didn’t expect to earn more, but I did expect that my hard work would be acknowledged, and that I could continue to build upon the learning and relationships I had begun. So imagine my surprise when I found out a week from the end of the school year that I would not be returning to my school. The local Board of Education had changed the company that supplied assistant language teachers.

I was devastated. How could I accept that my work toward building a great program was just going to be tossed away? How could I live with the fact that many of my students who had finally started to talk to me would now likely go back to square one?

Supportive teachers advised me to talk to the BOE and ask for a direct hire — after all, they would not want to lose the only qualified foreign teacher they had, would they? This made sense, particularly since the current employment practice of the BOE was against the ministry of education’s advice. Therefore, I made my appointment with the local BOE, and clearly outlined the benefits for the BOE and school in my direct employment. Unfortunately none of this mattered: I received a response of “impossible” as soon as the words were out of my mouth. It was at this point I realized the truth: They were not the supporters of education I had imagined. The continuity of students’ learning was not important to them. The effort I had put in meant nothing. The fact that both the Japanese teacher of my class and myself were leaving did not matter, because they had a cheaper deal with their new company.

What expectations can Japan have from its English language programs when everything comes down to saving a few yen? The influx of “dispatch” companies, often breaking labor law by illegally dispatching temp workers to schools under the instruction of the BOE or principal, or breaking educational law if they are not, has created a situation where the pay is so low that those who will accept it are increasingly ill-equipped to teach, often with no experience, qualifications or even higher education, obtaining visas through marriage or working holidays. Many are from non-native English backgrounds with poor English ability and heavy accents.

It is time that the ministry of education opened its eyes to the practices of local boards of education. There are many qualified teachers who are willing to accept the amount paid to the third-party dispatch companies, but unless action is taken BOEs will continue to take the easy way out when hiring.

Niiza, Saitama

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp

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