40 Things That Working in Over 40 Different Japanese Private Schools Has Taught Me Part 2




 The first 5 things that I learned. (Part 2)

1-5 of 40

Here are the first five things that I learned.

1) Japanese English teachers are generally very good at their jobs.   

One very interesting thing about the way a Japanese private school works is that the fundamental unit of organization is the homeroom.  (American schools are much more top-down, with misbehaving kids regularly being sent “to the principal’s office.”) In the Japanese context, the higher-level administrators are only involved in cases where general order is in danger of breaking down or in cases where there is a serious possibility of a child being expelled or suspended.

The finer points of disciplinary policy are worked out amongst the homeroom teachers.  And since education effectively IS discipline (you don’t have to travel to Japan to learn this), the real decision-making power tends to devolve to 1-3 senior faculty members, with no particular titles, who usually have no interest at all in becoming administrators.

So when getting to know a new school, my first order of business was always to figure who these key power players were, and then once I had them in a conversation, the next question was something along the lines of, “if you could have everything be exactly the way you like it, what would change, what would you improve, and what would be trying to preserve?”  What you discover, as a native speaker, when you get into conversations like this with Japanese English teachers is not only that they know YOUR language inside and out, but that they got into teaching for all the right reasons and are willing to devote a tremendous amount of their time and energy to teaching better.


2) Native English teachers are generally very bad at their jobs.  

They tend not to understand what pedagogical principles drive the decisions they make.  They tend not to know fundamental principles of grammar, phonology, and etymology that underlie their subject matter.  They have no concept of being part of a larger team. No curiosity at all about the culture of a Japanese workplace. And when a native English teacher’s Japanese colleagues seem to justify her/his position simply based upon the fact that s/he is a “real live English speaker” (I mean, how else can they), the native ignoramus accepts that without a hint of irony.

(That’s right.  Everyone else in the working world holds his or her position based upon expertise amassed over a number of years, but you hold your position due to your having been born in an English-speaking country.)

This I am afraid I learned WATCHING MYSELF in my first bumbling year, and then as I later joined other teacher teams, I became annoyed at how little was expected of me and my native colleagues.  But of course, the reason why so little is expected of foreign teachers is that experiments in putting more on their plates tend to fail spectacularly.  

You will often hear foreign teachers complain that if Japan were willing to pay its foreign teachers more, it might attract better talent.  Arguably … but talk to anyone that worked here as a foreign teacher in the boom years of the 1980s, and they will tell you that the quality of teaching was even worse.  

What really will cultivate a higher quality pool of foreign teachers is if we present them with more meaningful work, if we train them into, and involve them in a project with meaningful and tangible pedagogical objectives.  

This is actually what makes AIC such a powerful program.  We recruit highly motivated teachers, train them into an existing program with clear objectives, and then involve them in constantly upgrading and perfecting that curriculum.


3) The biggest problem with English education in Japan is that Japanese schools don’t know how to make effective use of foreign teachers.  

It is not, as many foreigners like to think, that Japanese English teachers can’t talk like Barack Obama.  

When I work with Japanese business people, the conversation often begins with a complaint that their English education by Japanese English teachers had failed them.  

No … what failed them was growing up in a prosperous industrialized, highly literate island nation.  It is possible to grow up, build a career, and get everything you want out of life in Japan without being able to speak any language other than Japanese.  America has the same problem to a much greater degree.  

Compare the situation of a language learner in Japan to someone in India where getting anywhere in life generally requires navigating one or two local languages plus Hindi, Urdu, and English.  Or Denmark where not only do you have to know languages other than Danish to get anywhere, but those languages are languages like Frisian, English, Dutch, and Norwegian, which share so much more grammar than Japanese does with any of its neighborhood languages.

Japanese English teachers do a masterful job of teaching the logic of English, helping young learners to discover the beauty of the language.  And so many of the teachers that I have worked with have been heroic in seeking to discover ways to make English real and relevant to the lives of kids who rarely are confronted with situations where they actually have to use it.

The value of a native English teacher is that s/he can make the language relevant.  When a Japanese person speaks English to another Japanese person, it’s a parlour game; when a native English speaker speaks English he or she is really talking.  That is, the foreign English teacher has the power to validate the work that the Japanese English teacher is doing.  

I like to advocate for something that I call “harmonizing English curriculum.”  

Too often, foreign teachers that are “given their own class” come to see themselves as “teaching real English” while the Japanese English teachers are teaching … something else.  

The other thing that happens is that one teacher’s pedagogy subsumes the other’s.  The Japanese teacher serves as a translator for the native teacher, or the native teacher serves as a human tape recorder.

It’s fine for there to be classes where the foreigner takes the lead or classes where the Japanese English teacher takes the lead or classes where there is no foreigner, but what is essential is that there be something that links them, a theme or a grammar or language point.  This way the work of the native teacher validates what the Japanese teacher is doing by making it “real,” and the work of the Japanese teacher validates what the native teacher is doing by drilling down and deepening the learner’s understanding of key language points that emerge in the foreign teacher’s lessons.

4) Japanese teachers are generally liberal, open-minded, and interested in making the world a better place.  

I don’t have much to say about this, but I am tired of hearing foreigners refer to the school where they work as “very conservative.”  By this, what they mean is “different from what I am familiar with in my home country.”  

Japanese teachers, like teachers everywhere, are progressives, and generally speaking, idealistic.  Some of them might be jaded. But ask any one of them a simple question like “what do you think we could be doing better as a school,” and you can expect a very interesting conversation.  

Nobody became a teacher to “get rich kids into Todai.”


5) The most important principles in good teaching, good management, good sales, and good customer service are the same:  learn as much as you can about the person that you are dealing with.  

My grandfather, a probate lawyer, who lived and worked in New Canaan, Connecticut — outside of New York City — once told me, “if you want to know if you are a good listener, ask yourself, ‘how much do I care about whether or not people understand me?’”  If you care more about being understood than you care about understanding, then probably, you are not much of a listener.  

And as someone that works with people, if you are not listening … watching, measuring, inquiring into the wants, the needs, the interests, and the personal resources of the other person, then you can never serve him or her.  And you can certainly never hope to get what you want — be that customer satisfaction (in the case of customer service), a business relationship (in the case of sales), productivity (in the case of management), or personal growth and the experience of success (in the case of teaching).

As teachers, we are primarily gatherers and synthesizers of information.  It is the learner’s job actively to seek a point of connection with that information.  When begin to act as mere dispensers of information, then we are losing our touch.




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