This spring, the Fukuoka Board of Education suddenly informed the 120 “guest teachers” responsible for its elementary school English classes that they were no longer welcome.
According to a Fukuoka BOE spokesperson, with English becoming a required class in grades five and six throughout Japan by 2020, the city was switching to what it calls “native speaker” teachers (NTs) “for the purpose of enriching the classes and improving the teaching ability of teachers.”
“Daniel,” a 10-year veteran guest teacher (GT) at several Fukuoka elementary schools, says he didn’t find out about losing his classes until about a month before the end of the academic year. Daniel didn’t want his real name used because he still teaches a small number of classes in grades three and four.
Under the GT system, Fukuoka elementary schools directly hired their English teachers. The 120 teachers were a mixture of native English speakers and Japanese fluent in English. They also had varying degrees of teaching experience. But Daniel says most of the time he taught alone, with the homeroom teacher observing.
Upon receiving the news, Daniel describes feeling “shock and anger.”
“It was as if the years I’d been there meant nothing,” he says, “but it seems the city had no idea what was going on in the schools entirely, nor the actual consequences of their decisions.” Daniel says he lost his main source of income when he was dropped from the 13 classes a week he taught at three schools. Another teacher told the Nishinippon Shimbun, which broke the story May 17, he had been earning ¥3 million a year teaching at least 15 classes a week at three schools.
According to Chris Flynn of the Fukuoka General Union, 10 affected teachers contacted him, all long-term foreign residents of Japan, and the job was the main source of income for at least five of them.
Daniel ended up accepting an offer to teach English to grades three and four, but he had to take a 25 percent cut in hourly pay and now only teaches 12 to 15 days per year, depending on the school.
A Fukuoka BOE spokesperson told the Nishinippon Shimbun that the relationship between the schools and guest teachers “was never an employment relationship,” claiming “GTs were guests after all, just like having someone who experienced the war come give a talk for a peace studies lesson. The money was paid to them as a token of thanks.”
Flynn called the GTs employment relationship “a bit of a gray area”; some GTs worked with contracts but others didn’t, and the union does not dispute that the BOE was within its rights to let the teachers go. But he counters that in the end, “It doesn’t matter what spin the BOE wants to put on it, they are the same as employees and should be treated as such. You can’t call someone who teaches over 700 classes at primary school per year a ‘guest.'”
Bring in the dispatch firms
To fill the new NT positions, the city signed contracts with two dispatch companies, Interac and OWLS. The General Union has calculated that the city is paying close to ¥3,000 more in taxpayer money per lesson than it was under the GT system (see sidebar).
The city’s BOE has countered that experienced teachers will be specially trained for the NT job by their dispatch companies. The board also told the Nishinippon Shimbun that there had been cases of GTs returning to their home countries in the middle of the year for personal reasons, leaving schools scrambling to find replacements. Dispatch companies, on the other hand, should be able to send replacements at short notice in the event of illnesses or other problems.
According to Flynn, who has been using freedom of information laws for nearly a decade to obtain assistant language teacher (ALT) contracts from Fukuoka and Kitakyushu cities, the more expensive contracts show how Fukuoka and cities across Japan willingly pay a premium to dispatch companies to avoid the responsibilities and effort involved in directly hiring English teachers.
Takahiro Yokoyama, who studied ALTs as part of his Ph.D. thesis and is now a senior lecturer at New Zealand’s Ara Institute of Canterbury, agrees with Flynn. He says that introducing ALTs into Japanese schools “presents a range of cultural, administrative, political and linguistic issues between the ALTs and the individuals in the local office.” Thus, “the use of the dispatch company, despite the cost, will reduce those issues.”
But that’s not the only story, Yokoyama says. “At a deeper level, though, the practice derives from Japan’s reluctance to hire foreigners permanently.” The ALT, he believes, “is an artificial position which has been created in my view to allow foreign English speakers to enter English language education in schools on a temporary basis.”
Daniel believes the Japanese teachers he worked with since 2009 didn’t agree with the decision to replace him. “The teachers weren’t happy,” he says. “They wanted me to continue.”
As for the new system, “The teachers dislike it,” he says. “They want people who’re experienced and know what they’re doing. They don’t want to have to deal with randomly assigned new teachers who’ve never taught before, which is often the case. It’s not really about education at all.”
The Fukuoka BOE spokesperson says that the board changed all its fifth- and sixth-grade teachers to NTs and that it didn’t know if any schools had wanted to keep their GTs for these classes. However, they are aware some schools have their previous GTs now teaching third- and fourth-graders.
No more team teaching
According to the Fukuoka BOE spokesperson, the city selected the OWLS and Interac bids after “rigorous deliberations,” and the two winning companies happened to be the same as for junior high school ALTs.
However, it’s impossible to judge the quality of the companies’ bids. The proposals obtained by the Fukuoka General Union using freedom of information laws have been nearly completely blacked out.
While the stated goal for the NT program is “improving the teaching ability of teachers,” Japanese homeroom teachers won’t be allowed to give orders or make any requests of the NTs in their classrooms — something they could do with the directly hired GTs. Worker dispatch laws state that any orders or requests must be routed through the dispatch firm. This makes team teaching impossible. A homeroom teacher who tells the NT in their class to speak more slowly or write something on the board would be breaking the law.
Fukuoka city is apparently well aware of the ridiculousness of the situation. In 2015 the city applied to the central government for special economic zone status. Among other things, they asked for a special exemption from the law that prohibits Japanese teachers from giving instructions to dispatched instructors. However, the city never received approval for the change.
The case also demonstrates how seemingly stable teaching jobs can turn out to be terribly precarious in reality. Many of the guest teachers had been promised contract renewals by their elementary school principals, who then had to backtrack and break the news that the GTs were no longer required. Flynn advises all workers, “If you think your job is secure, then my advice is get it in writing — and join a union.”
As an epilogue, Katayama Gakuen in Toyama Prefecture, which owns junior and senior high schools, cram schools and plans to open an elementary school next year, contacted the Nishinippon Shimbun offering to hire five or six of the fired teachers. A school representative said it was willing to send someone to Fukuoka to interview teachers.
However, according to the paper, the former GTs they contacted said that while they appreciated the offer, because of long-standing ties to Fukuoka and having children in local schools, they would be unable to move to Toyama, which is a 12-hour round trip away.
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Paying a premium
To fill its new “native speaker” teacher positions, Fukuoka signed contracts with dispatch companies OWLS and Interac.
When directly hired, “guest teachers” received ¥3,800 per class. Contracts obtained by the Fukuoka General Union show the city is paying ¥6,575 per class to the OWLS dispatch company, which won the contract to provide teachers for 13,930 classes in 72 schools in Fukuoka’s East Block. Interac will receive ¥6,542 per class to provide teachers for 14,000 classes in 72 schools in Fukuoka’s West Block.
Fukuoka’s junior high school ALT contracts were already divided in the same pattern. OWLS dispatches ALTs to the east, Interac to the west.
The General Union has calculated that a dispatched instructor earning a monthly salary of ¥230,000 will get about ¥1,950 out of the ¥6,500 that the city pays per class, with the rest going to the company.