Debate rages over value of JET program, assistant language teachers

Some readers’ responses to letters published in this column on July 10 (“Readers lament the ever-shrinking eikaiwa salary“) regarding Patrick Budmar’s July 3 Zeit Gist article, “The curious case of the eroding eikaiwa salary“:

ALTs a waste of boards’ money

I agree with much of what was written in Patrick Budmar’s article — except for the last part.

A theory is put forward that deteriorating pay and conditions for native-speaker English teachers is a cause of declining language education standards in Japan. I do not believe that language education standards in Japan are declining. They are rising continually as the ability of Japanese English teachers continues to rise. However, this improvement is very slow due to a number of problems in language education policy — one of which is wasting huge amounts of money on hiring native English teachers to work in Japanese schools.

Poor working conditions and salaries are not a cause of poor standards. On the contrary, said conditions are the result of atrociously bad standards that began in the so called “golden” era of eikaiwa (English conversation) schools and have persisted ever since both there and in public schools and universities.

People with less disposable income are much more choosy about where they spend their education dollar these days, and they are no longer prepared to waste that money on a native English speaker add-on service. Education boards would do well to adopt the same policy.


English teachers must speak lingo

I didn’t read the initial article, but it’s clear from the responses chosen for inclusion in the Have Your Say section that no one considered how Japan has changed demographically, spiritually and financially. Teaching salaries are declining because demand for English language instruction has and will continue to decline as Japan’s population ages and as it continues to turn further inward.

However, let me also say what has been said by countless others over the years who have taught in English in Japan. If the Ministry of Education was honestly interested in promoting English-language education (and why not Chinese, Korean, French and German as well?) it would not look to hired guns at the public school level (the assistant language teachers, or ALTs), but would reform how it educates English-language teachers produced in Japan. Filling these positions with, mostly, teachers who don’t really understand the language themselves assures failure in the secondary school classroom.

So until Japanese universities turn out English (or French or Chinese, etc.) majors who are fluent in the language (few are, since rarely do they spend any university time in a country using their target language) ALTs, eikaiwa and other crutches will be needed for those people hoping to gain greater fluency in the English language.

The second issue that hinders English fluency, again, something understood by everyone ever involved in English-language education in Japan, is the pointless English-language section in secondary and university entrance exams. Secondary school English teachers and the juku (cram school) system exist only to “teach to the test.” Rote memorization of arcane grammar points and low-level translation skills are paramount in the junior high and high school classroom ,while learning English for the purpose of actual communication is not even an afterthought.

Until these two things change, you can invite all the ALTs you want and even fill private eikaiwa with “qualified teachers,” but nothing will change and millions of Japanese will continue to waste countless hours and spend millions of yen with nothing to show for it.

Lake Forest Park, Washington

JET beats all other options

I’m an ALT with a tiny little company in Japan. This little company pays us less than two-thirds of what the JETs get paid. Because of this fact, I have noticed two huge problems with the current dispatch system.

The first problem is that there aren’t a lot of people who are willing to work for so little. Nearly a third of the people that my company employs aren’t native English speakers. In addition to that, my company re-contracts ALTs who are underperforming. They simply move them to a different school so they can get a fresh start. As I watch the salaries go down, it amazes me that BOEs (boards of education) think they can get quality ALTs for so little.

The second problem is that people who work for dispatch companies like mine have to teach additional private and juku lessons simply to make ends meet. We don’t have the money to explore Japan or be active in our community, unlike the JETs, who can afford cars and Japanese lessons. I don’t know any dispatch ALTs who don’t have to work extra in the evenings.

While people say the JET program is a dinosaur, it’s a lot better than the alternatives. With salaries dropping the way they are, the ALT is just going to keep falling.


Qualifications no guarantee

Thank goodness Ryan (“JET program is a dinosaur,” Have Your Say, July 10) wasn’t on the recruitment panel when I applied for the JET program back in 1995. In his eyes, my lack of any formal teaching qualifications would have instantly disqualified me from being considered for this program, and yet since my participation back in 1994, I have not only maintained but strengthened my engagement with Japan, including in the education field.

Despite not having a formal teaching qualification, but perhaps partly because of my other knowledge (I hold three tertiary qualifications, including a master’s degree) and experience, I have taught successfully in both Japan and my home country in a wide range of subjects and settings, including at primary, secondary and tertiary institutions, science centres, language schools, company classes and community seminars.

Right now, using curricula I developed myself, I teach at a university in Tokyo that is flexible and thoughtful enough to evaluate potential teachers on an individual, case-by-case basis that takes into account demonstrated ability and experience rather than dismissing them out of hand simply because they don’t have the “right” piece of paper. My students don’t know which degrees I have; all they care about is whether I can make English (and the other subjects I teach, in English) comprehensible, useful and enjoyable for them.

In making generalizations like “JET ALTs are not trained” and asserting that “TESL/TEFL qualification(s) should be the minimal (sic) requirement to work at any school,” Ryan not only defines “training” in an overly-narrow way, he reveals a very prejudiced view of what it is that makes someone a “successful” teacher.

Having a formal teaching qualification is no guarantee that a person is actually able to teach in an effective and relevant way, just as the absence of said qualification doesn’t mean a person cannot be a highly effective teacher.

While Ryan is correct in stating that the style of teaching in Japan is still too grammar and test-focused, resulting in students being poorly equipped to communicate in English, this is hardly the fault of ALTs nor within their ability to control, much less automatically correlated with the particular tertiary qualifications they hold. Conscientious, hard-working ALTS (yes, they do exist; I was one of them) do their best within the system, and drawing on their own education and experience, to teach English in a way that is enjoyable and motivating for students.

Moreover, with respect to the JET program in particular, being in the community in the fully-supported way that a JET ALT is (as opposed to a company-dispatched, relatively unsupported ALT) brings a greater sense of belonging that grants teachers the additional standing and opportunities to engage students in English conversation in a myriad of ways outside school, an environment where, arguably, English is far more likely to be useful and retained.

Where I do agree with Ryan is that Japanese schools deserve teachers, JETs or otherwise, who are professional about their job. Where I disagree is that it’s quite possible to be that without a formal teaching qualification.


Remember, ‘E’ is for ‘exchange’

As a current JET program participant, I only partially agree with Ryan’s criticisms. It is true that many ALTs are just looking for an easy job that pays well enough for them to visit Thailand every weekend, but the stagnant salary is part of the problem: You get what you pay for.

Ryan is a more established professional who can afford to take a big pay cut, but most ALTs are fresh out of college and have a lot of debt. Raising the salary of ALTs will attract higher-quality candidates and allow the system to be more selective in who gets hired.

Some blame for the low quality of ALTs also rests on their supervisors and teaching partners. The JET program has been around long enough that there should be a training course to teach JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) how to effectively use their ALTs, as well as guidance at higher levels to teach head teachers and principals how to manage their ALTs.

Eikaiwas can’t be reliably compared to public schools because public schooling (through junior high school) is compulsory. High achievers in eikaiwa are high achievers in their daytime school also. Public schools have to take all-comers, so part of the reason for the JET program is to foster cultural exchange with students who may never have the opportunity (for reasons related to skill or finance) to attend an eikaiwa or continue on to university.

Also, in comparing ALTs to eikaiwa, Ryan forgets exactly what the acronym JET stands for: Japan Exchange and Teaching — not “teaching and exchange.” A virtue of the “revolving door” of the JET program is that students are being exposed to foreigners with little practical experience of Japan, so they get practice in being cultural ambassadors.

Consider the process of making mochi together with students. Both the ALT and the students benefit more from that experience if the ALT has never done it before, as compared to an old veteran who has been in Japan for eight years.

Finally, I think the program has changed since 1997-2000 when Ryan was last an ALT. I too have heard horror stories about bad ALTs from years ago, but contracting organizations have much greater leeway to fire underperforming ALTs at the end of contract periods.

Even if underperforming ALTs just get “ignored,” as Ryan states, some of the blame lies with supervisors. What theory of management states that a boss should “ignore” an underperforming employee?


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