LOS ANGELES – The suit filed by two British language teachers against the operator of Shane English School Japan for unfair dismissal reveals a disturbing trend in education. Yet it is entirely predictable in light of the new realities in teaching.
Despite their membership in the Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union, Chris Beardshall and Adam Cleeve now find themselves without a paycheck and without unemployment benefits. They are not alone. For non-Japanese language teachers, low wages and unstable working conditions continue, with little hope for improvement on the near horizon.
The situation in the United States for teachers in charter schools and private schools is equally dismal. Although teaching students is supposed to be the core mission of education at all levels, the reality is that tenure for teachers, which protects creativity, is increasingly becoming an anachronism. At the same time, teachers’ unions are losing their clout. Virtually all charter schools are nonunion, as are almost all private and religious schools
The combination of these two factors is reflected in the language of the contract that teachers sign. Legally, it makes them essentially temporary workers and independent contractors who can be let go at the will of the school they work for. This contingent workforce, which is not limited to teaching by any means, has been growing for decades. According to the U.S. Government Accountability office, their numbers swelled from 35.3 percent of the employed from 2006 to 2010. Today, it stands at 40.4 percent.
The only hope for these teachers in Japan and the U.S. is that the courts in both countries will increasingly question the fairness and legality of contingent work in education. Teachers are not mercenaries, but neither are they missionaries. Modest salaries have long characterized the field. They have accepted that as a given.
But there was a time when low salaries were somewhat offset by job security. That is no longer the case, creating a worst-of-both-worlds situation. With new teachers having little control over their future, it’s little wonder that the best and the brightest college graduates are reluctant to enter the field. Who can blame them?
The picture is particularly troubling in Japan because of its determination to enhance instruction in English to prepare students for the demands of the global economy. Research has consistently shown that studying under native English-speaking teachers provides students with a distinct advantage over their peers who are assigned a non-native English-speaking teacher. When news leaks out about the dismal way such coveted teachers are treated, who will want to apply for a visa to teach in Japan?
If Japan wants to recruit and retain top English-speaking talent to the front of the classroom, it needs to hold the feet of Shane Corporation Ltd. to the fire by setting an example. Only when other school operators realize they have to rewrite their contracts to treat teachers as professionals, rather than as expendable workers, will the scandal disappear.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.
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