Thoughts on English Education in Japan

This is a lead up to larger post I intend to write on my experiences working within education in Japan and later Australia. Some of what I write here could be roughly applied to the education industry in most countries but I’m writing specifically about what I’ve observed in Japan. This is strictly anecdotal and like any normal person, I know there are always exceptions and this doesn’t need to be pointed out because you take personal offense to something I’ve written. In fact, if you do find what follows personally offensive, maybe try asking yourself if it is because it is true. As you shall see, I am being as hard on myself as I am anyone else and I’m certainly not offended.

Read on, it’s really not all that controversial.

Chances are if you meet a foreigner working in Japan that is not a tourist, they are working in some capacity teaching English. This is usually going to be for a English conversation school (common) which they may or may not own themselves. As an ALT (assistant language teacher) a very common and widely available job in the public school system. Or they are less likely to be working for either an International School or a University. The latter especially is a high demand job that used to be a “who you know” type deal but is increasingly that plus a post-graduate degree. Because there aren’t many jobs (especially cushy ones) outside of English education for foreigners; the field is naturally highly competitive for the higher-paid and more prestigious positions. Even people from non-English speaking backgrounds want these jobs and due to shortages in the lower positions, can often get them.

Most of these jobs aren’t particularly demanding with the exception of ones in corporate settings or the ones dealing in more formal education. ALTs for example, can make their jobs as hard as they like but it is more likely they are working around four classes a day with the afternoon left to look busy in the staff room. For me this at one time involved reading Anna Karenina which was at times arduous but not at all tedious. Had I stayed in this job for even another year, I would have done the same with War & Peace. While reading Tolstoy is a worthy use of your time, it was not at all what I was paid to do. In my defence, I had asked on multiple occasions for more work to do – even offering to do the gardening. Only after repeated rebuffs decided to make use of my afternoons this way. Further, I would often come into work only to find that my entire morning of classes had been wiped out for an event practice of some kind with nothing left for me but to watch them practice. English seems to be one of the most expensive and least valued areas of Japanese education.

When I admit to spending afternoons engaged in my own pursuits when not working, I can do so with a fairly clear conscience. In my three years in this position, my work reports were uniformly positive and I was one of the most reliable employees. I don’t say this with pride as it isn’t something that is hard for anyone who does the job with basic competency. And this is in very short supply with many using these positions for their own ends and not giving a fig about what they’re employed for in the first place. Some use it to add to their day income while running their own English schools in the late afternoon, others as a way to spend time in Japan and still more because it is just an easy job with very low standards and expectations. I was ready to move on shortly in to my second contract and was finally out a contract later though I sometimes daydream about going back for a year to read The Brothers Karamazov.

The same could be said more or less of the English conversation schools. These include a broad selection of schools catering from kindergarten to adult. Many are called International schools though they are not accredited or run as such. The more corporate the environment, the more expectations; so someone working for AEON or ECC, two of the larger conversation school corporations will have much stricter standards from dress to job performance. Even then, outside of gross incompetence, the worst that happens will be a totally insincere thank you letter after a one year contract.

Lastly, as mentioned earlier you have the more in-demand (and usually more demanding) positions are in International schools and Universities. I won’t get in to them as I only have real experience with the former but I understand the latter is much like the being an ALT in a more comfortable office, less hours and a lot more money. Naturally this is what people want, whether or not they have a background or interest in education.

So where else from here? Unless you speak very good Japanese and seriously want to submit yourself to Japanese working conditions, there isn’t much more on offer. You could start your own school, (which many do) and these may or may not become very successful but the market is flooded. Many will be happy plodding along as an ALT, perhaps with a few side-businesses and if you’re spouse works or you’re single, it can be a comfortable and easy living. The more ambitious though will not only go for the more competitive positions but also become caught up in the education biz.

From what I observe of the education biz, it seems to be to earn higher education qualifications, join education organisations, publish articles and do as little teaching as possible. Doing as little teaching as possible is quite frankly the unspoken goal and one that can be obtained even in corporate English schools and as an ALT if you can get yourself close to or to the top of a recruiting company. To be fair, it is usually the way with most businesses, the higher you are, the less likely it is you are doing what the business exists for. This is especially true of the public sector and large corporations which are bloated with people on very high salaries that do very little tangible work. But it is quite interesting to think that the highest reaches of English education in Japan are working in education but only sometimes (if ever), teaching.

From time to time I get emails at my job with people requesting positions as education “coordinator” (teacher who doesn’t teach but tells other teachers how they should). They perhaps don’t realise that where I work is not big enough to spare even the cleaning ladies from interacting with children but it is interesting they feel confident (or brazen) enough to apply for a position that has little to do with the schools purpose. This seems to be quite common in the United States and less so from my experience in Australia but that I get these emails suggests it is something becoming more common in Japan too. I have said to fellow staff that if such a position was available I would take half the salary and do it in addition to my current teaching duties. I technically already do coordinate and I don’t see how having someone above me with the official title would be of any use to any teaching position I might have. I can only seem teachers tolerating such positions if they either don’t think about it or crave the positions themselves and thus want to give them the validity they certainly don’t deserve.

This can probably be seen as more of a cynical overview than anything else. I have found as I wrote that I don’t have anything specific to rant about but it may go some way to explaining why I have become so disenchanted with education. When I decided to become a teacher, all I really thought about doing was teaching. I had an old fashioned view of schooling that had everybody except the tea lady doing the teaching. My primary and middle school principals also taught though in a more limited way and were generally older than the other teachers. And the secretary’s often doubled as nurses.

Today all sorts of positions have magically been discovered to be necessary (except the poor tea lady’s), at the same time as the quality of education has observably declined. I have personally witnessed decline in my ten years in the industry but it has been going longer. I see no real way to stop this decline with education in it’s current form. I will write further about the Japanese English education in a latter post but the short version would be that it’s a long running and very expensive joke. But then, so are most aspects of formal (particularly public) education almost everywhere.

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