Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - Introduction - Why Teach EFL?
Chapter 2 - In the Beginning
2.1 T.E.S.L. Certification
2.2 The Communicative Approach to L2 Instruction
2.3 Korea - Part I - Anxious in Anyang
Chapter 3 - Japan - Part I
3.1 Language schools
3.2 Public education system
Chapter 1 - Korea - Part II - Silenced in Seoul
Chapter 2 - Japan - Part II
2.1 Public School - Misunderstood and Mistreated in Miyagi
2.2 Dispatch Company Dangers
2.3 Private School - Confounded in Kamakura
Chapter 3 - Masters - Essays on Language, Culture and Identity
3.1 English as a Global Language; An Overview
3.2 Culture, Identity and Second Language Acquisition: An Article Review in an Eastern Canadian Context
3.3 Language Learning and Identity
3.4 Language Autobiography
3.5 The Importance of Language and Culture in the L2 Classroom
3.6 Mr. Takayama: A Case Study of Factors Affecting L2 Acquisition in the EFL Context of Japan
3.7 Maintaining/Increasing Student and Teacher Motivation in the L2 context of Japan
3.8 Is Mori Ogai’s The Wild Geese a hybrid literary artifact?
Chapter 4 - Vocational college/University Incidents
4.1 Vocational College - Sabotaged in Shibuya
4.2 University - Shafted in Shin-Urayasu
Chapter 5 - University Teaching Op-ed Articles
5.1 Japanese University English Language Administration
5.2 How Japanese University Classes are Allocated
5.3 Japanese Universities and Diversity
5.4 How foreign University English instructors are Hired
5.5 Possible Solutions
Chapter 6 - Improving Classroom Management and Teacher Quality/Training
6.3 Level/Time ;
6.7 Te acher Training
Chapter 1 - Japan - Part III - Current Trends and Conditions in EFL
1.1 Visa Sponsorship/ Benefits
1.2 Wages/ Compensation
1.4 Academic Publication
1.6 Language Requirements
Chapter 2 - Private School - Misinformed and Maligned in Moto-Yawata
Chapter 3 - Discrimination/Racism in EFL in Japan
Chapter 4 - Conclusion
To R.P. Ross, Word God, editor and friend; for lighting the fire and keeping me real.
Did this state of affairs happen because of what I did, what I didn’t do, who I am or, what I am?
This book was inspired by a few stories I had read over the years concerning young black men who basically described their frustration and disappointment about their inability to obtain gainful employment, allowing them to lead decent lives (i.e., raising a family, buying a nice home, etc.), despite making all the right moves (i.e., studying hard, working hard, etc.) and paying all their “black taxes”. These fellas were mostly North American; though I’m sure their experiences are not isolated ones. I myself had to leave North America and chose to work as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instructor in Asia, where, despite my aptitude, I’ve met with limited success due to the colour of my skin. But, to be clear, as an instructor, I’ve received far more compliments and testimonials in the form of letters and cards (even art) than negative experiences. (You win some, you lose some) I have successfully taught and produced material for businesses, jr. and sr. high schools, vocational colleges and universities. However, it’s the negatives that stick in your craw. This book describes what teaching EFL (mostly in Korea and Japan) has been like from a black, male perspective.
This book will discuss why I chose to teach EFL, my T.E.S.L. qualification, my experience teaching in language schools in Korea and my experience teaching in language schools, the public and private education systems in Japan, including vocational college and university, my M.A. in Applied Linguistics, my thoughts regarding university teaching and improving teacher quality/training, current employment trends and conditions and discrimination/racism as it pertains to teaching EFL in Japan. Events are listed in chronological order. This book provides samples of the worst you can expect and a guideline of how to be your best; it is my truth or honne based on my Western conception of morality, ethics and simple human decency. But, it is, no doubt, the truth of many other people of colour (i.e., black and brown males; though they face similar obstacles, the experiences of women and Asian EFL professionals are slightly different and beyond the scope of this book), whether they be teachers or not. It’s really nice to be able to choose your own battles, but sometimes your battles choose you.
To this day, the “system” (i.e., government and big business) does not offer a level playing field for success. In fact, the system usually works against men of colour. I know the system finds us terribly inconvenient, even troublesome; with all our whining and moaning about equal opportunity, equal rights and not having access to good education, housing and health care. I mean where does it end? Next, colored folk will want to be moving in next door to white folk. There goes the neighbourhood!
But in all seriousness, to succeed in the present system, in all occupations, not only EFL, coloured folk need an open mind and a willingness to learn and adapt to changing circumstances. To facilitate this, support from friends, family, co-workers, superiors and organizations is essential and our contributions need to be trusted and valued. The importance of culture can also not be ignored, especially in EFL. Ultimately, success for people of colour in language teaching in a foreign context is tempered by our old friends: prejudice and unconscious bias. Coloured folk must always be on the lookout for these siblings. Though, as most of us have been dealing with these issues for the entirety of our lives, they are not difficult to spot.
This book covers a roughly 20 year period and includes anecdotal/autobiographical evidence, academic essays and op-ed articles in various tones. More recent experiences are, of course, fresher and, therefore, more detailed. Many assertions in this book are common knowledge and easily corroborated. The time period covered is perhaps a little longer than the famous Odyssey by Homer, but who’s counting? Unlike the Odyssey this book is not a work of fiction, in many cases the information contained below is a matter of public record or I am still in possession of supporting documentation (i.e., letters, emails, reports, evaluations and contracts). But, like the Odyssey, it does include accounts of trials, adventure and hardship. Odysseus searched for a way home, I’m still searching for a place where my participation is viewed as an asset, not an inconvenience. A longterm home, if you will. Naturally, some names have been changed or omitted in this book to protect the guilty and narrow-minded from accidental injury in frivolous litigation. Unbeknownst to them, redemption is simply not possible from the Underworld.
Chapter 1 - Introduction - Why teach ESL/EFL?
Why did I become an ESL/EFL instructor? Seemed a natural step for me as I’ve always been good at English, with above average comprehension and grammar from the age of 8 and placed in advanced English classes from the age of 13. I started teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) about 20 years ago in 1996. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich, but I like working with people, traveling and learning about other cultures. It’s good work, which doesn’t exploit people and helps alleviate ignorance and build understanding, if it’s allowed to (i.e., if the people using it, intend to use it for that purpose). I honestly thought I could make a living at it. However, 9/11 and the subsequent “financial crisis” (2008/2009) introduced a level of resistance, ignorance and bigotry that I didn’t expect. Man plans and God laughs, so they say.
My EFL journey was also fueled by extenuating circumstances, at the time of my graduation from the University of Toronto in 1994 (with a joint specialist and a major - in other words, 3 majors - even managed to make the dean’s list in my second year), a recession was on. I started university a little later than most, at the age of 24. But, despite 6 years of work experience before university and another 2 years during, I couldn’t manage to obtain gainful employment in Toronto. One of my degrees being in environmental studies, I then decided to try my luck out west of the Rockies, in Vancouver, again with as little success. In fact, I haven’t managed to get a decent job (outside of substitution) for almost 20 years in the “Great White North”. Joke’s on me, since I went back to university specifically so I could get better employment.
Around 1994, support for equal opportunity (a.k.a, affirmative action), in practice, started to dry up in Canada, which often occurs in hard economic times. (It is truly sad that intelligent, capable individuals have to rely on programs like this just to get a foot in the door; a telling sign of what some of us are up against) Unfortunately (?) for me, I’m Caribbean-Canadian, of Indo-Caribbean descent. My ethnicity is mixed. Most Caucasian-Canadians thought/think of me as black; this situation made obtaining decent employment even more trying. I tried for almost 2 years and sent out hundreds of (hard copy) letters with no success. Life on the slippery slope began when the bank hamstrung my credit rating a few months after graduation because I was unable to make my student loan payments. The Canadian government had sold its’ loan collection business to a private company.
Chapter 2 - In the Beginning
2.1 T.E.S.L. Certification
I started working with holiday/working visa students from Japan in Vancouver on a volunteer basis in 1995 at the age of 28. It was difficult to understand what the students were saying, due to their limited language ability. Having spent the last 4 years trying to find better and/or more sophisticated ways to express myself, I found it difficult to break down that habit. I, therefore, enrolled and graduated from a TE.S.L. certificate program (since defunct) 3 months later. I was quite surprised by the fact that one of the students in the program, a Korean woman, had higher grammar scores than I did. It was an introduction to how seriously some students took the mechanics of English. I then returned to work with the holiday/working visa students to complete my practicum.
The T.E.S.L. program was helpful in making me a better E.S.L./E.F.L. instructor by educating me about the importance of learning psychology, teaching and learning styles, as well as grammar and test taking strategies. I was educated in the communicative approach to language teaching. Three things really stick out about this experience; first, I was nearly kicked out of the program by the white, female instructor for politely asking (in private as not to embarrass) her to put page numbers on the stack of papers she gave us as it was often difficult to find what she was referring to. (overreaction, or what?!) I was chosen by the group to undertake this task. As British Columbia and Alberta have the highest concentration of white supremacist/white power groups in Canada, I guess I should have known better or at least "known my place”. If there are any people of colour reading this, I know you’re nodding your heads right now.
Second, I came to learn that it’s important for second language learners to have an open mind and a willingness to adapt and change to suit circumstances, but here I was with an instructor who had anything but. The instructor was definitely not student centered, but provided a realistic example of the hypocrisy in the industry I was about to enter into. Third, despite graduating at the top of the class, I was passed over for a full-time job in favour of the instructor’s brother-in-law! The people looking for a teacher were from Korea and some of them can be quite “discriminating”. Naturally, the brother-in-law was Caucasian and nepotism is quite common in Western Canada. However, despite these circumstances, I eventually managed to get my first teaching contract, in Korea, through the T.E.S.L. program at the age of 29.
2.2 The Communicative Approach to L2 Instruction
In this section, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to the elements of the communicative approach through an essay I submitted in the T.E.S.L. program I attended.
Abstract: The communicative approach to teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language is a very positive, flexible, and practical way of teaching and learning a second or foreign language. The teacher is, primarily, a facilitator; his/her role is supportive. Teachers also utilize positive reinforcement and thus serve to motivate his/her students. Students enjoy the benefit of a safe environment in which to learn cooperatively, with attention being paid to their backgrounds, interests and goals (B.I.G.), and receive meaningful instruction in practical situations and uses of the second/foreign language.
Within this paper, the communicative approach to teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language will be examined. Accordingly, what the communicative approach is and the importance of the approach will be presented, the role of the teacher and the student will be assessed, the implications of these roles will be discussed and major elements of one possible methodology for this approach will be presented. The reader will discover that this approach is, essentially, a very positive, flexible, and practical way of teaching and learning a second or foreign language.
The communicative approach focuses, primarily, on the student’s ability to communicate with other speakers of the second/foreign language. This approach focuses on speaking and listening skills, writing for specific situations and the use of realistic materials. Communicative competence is an important theoretical principal underlying the communicative method. Communicative competence refers to the ability to convey and interpret messages and to negotiate meanings interpersonally within specific contexts.
The teacher, in the communicative approach is, essentially, a facilitator. Students are encouraged to deal with situations under the guidance, not control, of a teacher. However, the teacher is also an independent participant within the learning environment. He/She organizes resources, is a resource themselves, and assesses needs and performances. Feedback is one of the important functions a teacher performs. The nature of feedback determines the criteria for success, depending on what is stressed, e.g., stress on linguistic form or stress on conveying meaning. Feedback is generally positive. Therefore, criticism and correction are not excessive, since this lessens student’s motivation in learning a second/foreign language. At all times, students and teachers know what to expect from one another. In the communicative approach this condition is referred to as Bias-for-Best, meaning, no surprises.
Of equal importance is the fact that this approach is student-centered. Students are actively involved in cooperative learning, e.g., conversation. This form of learning implies full participation of both teacher and student in the planning and making of effective choices; students help each other and the teacher (and vice versa) with small and large group activities, and the sharing of discoveries. In cooperative learning, students are given responsibility for their own learning. Students also learn to express themselves in front of each other and are able to contribute with their own personalities to learning exercises. Furthermore, students are given safe learning environments where they are free from threats and ridicule from others. The rationale being, if the student is comfortable it is easier for them to engage in conversation.
Since the focus of this approach is on communication, not accuracy or pronunciation, mistakes are allowed and the language is basically learned by trial and error. Errors are positively corrected. However, it is important to mention, that improper pronunciation of a second language may offend some speakers of that language, making interaction with such individuals/groups especially problematic. All skills are addressed simultaneously, i.e., reading, writing, speaking, listening.
Positive correction builds the student’s self-esteem, confidence and therefore motivation in learning the language. Careful attention is also paid to learning what the student’s background, interests and goals (B.I.G.) are. With this focus on B.I.G., the designs of methods are sure to reflect student’s needs. Since the classroom is not the only setting for the communicative approach, activities and/or excursions must consider B.I.G. Thus, a certain amount of flexibility in the methods used in this approach is ensured.
Students especially receive guidance in practical situations where the student will need to use the language, e.g., banking or social functions, describing something, requesting, etc. This may be accomplished through comparing sets of pictures, noting similarities and differences, discovering features on a map, solving problems from clues, discussion, debates, role playing, etc. When utilizing excursions as part of a class or lesson, the excursions should be meaningful, a condition which promotes learning. Students also receive guidance in the use of non-verbal communication, e.g., body language, gestures, facial expressions. For example, topic shifting and termination of certain subjects are sometimes done through non-verbal signals. Furthermore, they must be informed as to which gestures might be acceptable and which are not. For example, prolonged eye contact is acceptable in North America, but considered rude in Japan. Moreover, they must be aware that there are different styles for different situations, e.g., formal, casual. Some non-North Americans tend to be overly formal and must get used to the informality of North Americans. Since there are so many uses/functions to be learning in the second language, variety is structured in order to make sure the student is competent in all skill and functional areas of the second language. Thus, the second language and the culture of that language are learned.
In the communicative approach, the teacher isolates specific elements of knowledge or skill which compose communicative ability and provides the learners with opportunities to practice them separately, e.g., through textbooks. This part of a lesson or class would be referred to as pre- communicative activity, activity which gives the learner control over linguistic forms. Communicative activities, which allow the learner to convey meaning effectively, are those in which the learner must activate and integrate his pre-communicative knowledge and skills to use them for the communication of meanings, e.g., getting meaning across, speech appropriate to certain situations, etc. Pre- communicative activities should lead into communicative activities, but this process may also be reversed, e.g., role playing before reading about the grocery store. Materials used for these activities are always meaningful and realistic and may include: films, videos, tapes, texts for pair work, dialogue texts, signs, magazines, newspapers, maps, pictures, models, etc. Again, the use of authentic, realistic materials promotes learning.
The communicative approach is a very positive, creative and flexible approach to learning a second/foreign language. Of paramount importance is the facilitation role played by the teacher and the fact that this approach is student centered. Since the teacher is, primarily, a facilitator, his/her role is a supportive one and since the focus of this approach is that of communication, not accuracy or grammar, learners are not being constantly corrected and therefore feel free to make mistakes and gain opportunities to learn from them. The teacher also utilizes positive reinforcement and thus serves to motivate his/her students. Both students and teacher know what to expect from one another. Students enjoy the benefit of a safe environment in which to learn, learn cooperatively, attention being paid to their backgrounds, interests and goals (B.I.G.), and receive meaningful instruction in practical situations and uses of the second/foreign language. Taken, all in all, the factors embedded in the communicative approach contribute to a very comfortable atmosphere in which students may learn a second or a foreign language.
2.3 Korea - Part I - Anxious in Anyang
Throughout my career as an EFL instructor, I have only met a handful of coloured EFL instructors. I have often been the first teacher the school has ever had or the only person of color in the school; sometimes the only person of color for miles. This was the case in Korea. But, for most students my skin colour has never been an issue. For me, Korean students were great. They were forthright, earnest, interrogative and not afraid to make mistakes or admit when they didn’t understand. I worked for a hogwon (i.e., a language school) and was the only native English teacher there. I got the impression that they weren’t exactly prepared to have me there.
I was housed in the Korean version of a love hotel for 2 weeks. The first week they brought water and changed the sheets; the second week, I was on my own. For those of you not familiar with the term, “love hotels” are basically a place for romantic assignations; usually by the hour, sometimes by the night. Love hotels come in a variety of styles and qualities. The one I was in was on the low end of the scale.
The third week, I was lead to a hole in the wall located on a dirt road (Surprise!). I was working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a 2 hour break in the afternoon, 45 minutes from Seoul (felt like I was one of those indentured servants working in Singapore, Hong Kong or the Middle East). On top of all this, as I came to realize, in Korea working visas tie an individual to a particular company. Therefore, if you’re unhappy with working conditions you have to find another company and start the visa process from step 1. Needless to say, it wasn’t ideal. I got out of there, fast. I contacted a couple of Japanese people who I’d met in Toronto and they encouraged me to come to Japan.
Chapter 3 - Japan - Part I
3.1 Language schools
My first 3 years in Japan (1996 - 1999) were pretty good. Let’s call it the honeymoon period. I had lots of work, a decent income, a decent social life and started to learn the language. I worked in eikaiwa (i.e., language school), Japanese elementary and jr. high schools and at companies teaching Business English and conversation. I was the only person of colour at those institutions. Professionally, I came to realize that language schools were not really the place for me. Language schools are primarily concerned with making money, not education; they are businesses, after all. For the second language school I worked for, I wrote 88 lesson plans in conjunction with the school text, along with supporting/supplementary material for which I received $100 in bonus. The all-American boy, who was very popular with students, but could barely spell, received $1000. I was told by another Japanese English teacher that I would, more likely than not, never receive a fair shake from the management for my efforts (as the management was not student centered). He was one of the few Japanese people who was ever straight with me. (Maybe because he spent some time living and working in the American South) Just before I left I was tasked with training a new instructor, who subsequently became the new head teacher of the school. It was his first teaching position and he had no previous qualification. But, he was Caucasian.
Large and mid-size language school companies are only interested in one thing: your money. Accordingly, Japanese language students need to get rid of the middleman. With technology today, it’s just as easy for an individual to find or advertise for an instructor as it is for a school. Meet in a public place, ask for a resume and references, check that the instructor has a registration card (i.e., has the legal right to work in the country). And, above all, make sure you’re comfortable with the ability of the instructor to help you with your goals: have a trial lesson. This process is also a great way to improve your English reading, speaking and vocabulary skills. With the internet and email it’s quite easy to check a teacher ’s background and quality as a teacher. Just takes a little time and effort; if you’re serious. Most teachers have references or a list of companies they used to work for and where they went to school on their resumes. Paying a teacher directly is usually much cheaper (even with transportation costs) than paying any company, as there is no sign up fee and payment does not have to be made in advance (get a receipt for tax purposes). Of course there is usually a same day cancellation fee, but that’s standard for companies as well.
3.2 Japanese public education system
I then moved on to work in the Japanese public school system, where education was more emphasized. But, despite the fact that many school teachers couldn’t speak English, they were really keen on English teacher ’s speaking Japanese (but, not in the classroom). Many Japanese English teachers have a complex about their lack of English speaking ability, so if a native English speaker can communicate in Japanese the natives feel more comfortable. In other words, instead of trying to improve their English (in Japanese English - level up), they want you to improve your Japanese. Naturally, this provides a terrible model for the students, who should be the primary concern of both Japanese and native English teachers. Improved Japanese speaking skills often leak into the English classroom, altering natural English into “Japanese English”; a condition known as English to “Japanese taste”. I know this for a fact, as I took Japanese language classes for 6 months and often found myself interjecting Japanese words into English conversation unnecessarily. Of course, in the interests oftime, it is sometimes useful to use the native language to explain difficult or complicated concepts. But, as a rule use of the native language should be avoided in the classroom.
Japanese English features katakana (i.e., a phonetic alphabet used for foreign words) which is a bane for Western standards of English pronunciation. For example:
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Chapter 1 - Korea - Part II - Silenced in Seoul
Went back to Korea in 2000 and worked for a large international language company, thinking working hours would be more 9 to 5; that was not the case. Teachers worked from morning ‘til night, with a couple of hours off in the afternoon. The company could have easily made 2 shifts, but chose not to. To facilitate this, the company had bunk beds in the teacher’s room. It wasn’t that it was
unhygienic (if any location up to 10 people sleeping in street clothes could be said to be hygienic), it was knowing that you were chained to your employer through the visa system particular to Korea and you didn’t have to be. And, that basically, they didn’t trust you to be faithful to the company (as if that kind of treatment could earn loyalty). Again, this was not what I was looking for and so stayed for less than a year.
I was interested in working with the Korean Airlines (KAL) pilots since I had previously worked with Japan Airlines personnel. However, the Canadian manager didn’t seem to think that was a good idea, despite my familiarity (again, not student centered) with the airline industry. The fully stuffed shirt even went so far as to accuse me of being “American” in my determination to obtain this position; a statement that was, of course, meant as an insult. That assignment was taught exclusively by the white teaching staff, one of whom was a former meth head from Vancouver (albeit, a pretty one). Of course, as we all know, if she were a person of colour, she’d have already been locked up somewhere in a hell hole, not instructing pilots on their English so they don’t accidentally injure or kill passengers through misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
I did work with another black man, a retired administrator from the University of Saskatchewan, who was basically out there satisfying his wanderlust before it was too late. This guy was old enough to be my father. For him, it was just a job and he took what they threw at him. For me, my career in ESL/EFL was still in its’ infancy. I expected to learn and grow, with a view to being accorded more responsibility based on the quality of my work. This conception turned out to be an idealistic fantasy and obviously much too simplistic.
What I did notice about living in Seoul was that I wouldn’t be permitted to enter certain restaurants, despite having money in my pocket. Most black people were Africans, who had a less than savoury reputation involving drugs. As opposed to Tokyo at the time, where mixed couples were not so unusual, I saw perhaps two mixed couples in Seoul the entire time I was there. Apparently these liaisons (I’m sure there were many more; ain’t love grand!) were considered taboo and best conducted clandestinely.
To underscore the societal preference for Caucasian instructors, I was put in charge of mentoring a young, white South African guy. He was a good guy: intelligent and sincere about learning about teaching. One day, when we were having coffee, an older Korean guy walked up and mentioned that he was interested in learning English. He was addressing the South African, who then looked at me. I nodded my head and told him to, of course, go for it. ‘Nuff said?
Chapter 2 - Japan - Part II
2.1 Public School - Misunderstood and Mistreated in Miyagi
I was recruited directly from Toronto by a Board of Education (all expenses paid) and arrived in Miyagi on July 20, 2001 to teach English in one junior high school and six elementary schools as an A.L.T. (Assistant Language Teacher). The town was located by the ocean in one of the three most popular places for Japanese travelers in the country. I was to be the only foreigner in the town and the only black person for miles. My thinking was that since I’d had such a good experience the first time I was in Japan, I could build on that and being in a small town would give me an opportunity to improve my Japanese. I grossly miscalculated. My error was based on ignorance and circumstance. Small towns in Miyagi are not like small towns in Canada, where people would talk to you, find out about you and extend friendship and/or hospitality to you (they showed the same amount of disinterest in their own people too, so it wasn’t just about me).
The Board people, a guy named Abe and some other guy, picked me up in Sendai. They then took me to my apartment in Ishinomaki, the most easterly point in Honshu. They informed me as to where the supermarket was and then left me. In the apartment was a microwave, a washing machine, a gas heater and a T.V. Since I didn’t read kanji, I couldn’t really operate the microwave or the washing machine and no instructions were provided, I had to figure things out through trial and error. The same went for the gas heater when it began to get cold in October. As for the T.V., it was a little dinky 14” job, which, of course, couldn’t be switched to English. I asked Abe to help me to pick up some equipment that would enable me to watch T.V. in English (hardware was available). They made and appointment with me and then the next week cancelled it. A week went by and I contacted them. Ultimately, nothing was done. English, and myself, were obviously not high priorities for these folks. Actually, the situation started reminding me of my first time in Korea. They had brought me half way around the world, they now had me there and their attitude seemed to be: deal with it.
I had expected to live in the same town in which I worked, the way accommodation is commonly assigned to ALT’s. But, the accommodation was located 35 minutes by train from the actual work place. The Board expected me to pay for the transportation to and from work, when I was not the one who decided on the housing location. In addition, no foreign teacher pays for transportation to and from work. I, of course, refused and they eventually came to see things my way.
One thing that really caught my attention was that even though the same people took the same train at the same time from various small towns, no one, and I mean no one spoke to each other or even made eye contact. (WTF!)
In Japan it is the usual custom when a new foreign teacher comes to a school to have a kangekai, or a welcome party, where the teacher is introduced to coworkers in an informal setting. This type of party provides an important acclimating function. But, I didn’t receive one; either from my co-workers or the Board. The reason I was given by my co-workers was that one of the teacher’s parents had died. The vice-principal did take me to lunch at a nearby restaurant on my first day though.
Team teaching is the usual approach in the Japanese public junior high school system (i.e., one Japanese and one native teacher in the classroom). The Japanese teacher leads, in theory. But, in practice, the native speaker usually does. Public senior high schools are usually taught by a single Japanese English teacher as students must be prepared for English tests which are part of the Japanese university entrance examination. Private jr. and sr. high schools, which usually have more funds, can have a native English speaker and a Japanese English teacher in classes at both levels. But, this is not a hard and fast rule; it varies from institution to institution. At international schools, it is more likely that a native English speaker will be in high school classes as some students may be attending post-secondary institutions abroad in the future.
The Japanese English teacher I worked with in jr. high school was just a rude, hostile bitch. This woman would actually insult me in the classroom. An example that comes to mind is when we did a lesson on superlatives and I mentioned that I was the oldest child in my family, the tallest, etc. She then turned around and said, “Are you the stupidest too?” (Passive-aggressive, much?!) I, of course, ignored her. (She even managed to bungle the grammar; -est for 1 syllable adjectives, most for 2 syllables or more).
Why did she disrespect me? Was it because I was a foreigner? Because I was a man? Because I was older? (most ALT’s are in their mid-twenties, I was in my mid-thirties) Or, because I was black?
(Hierarchy and age/seniority are still very important in Japan; but, perhaps didn’t apply to me since I wasn’t Japanese) Perhaps, she meant her words as a joke and I was just too thick to appreciate her high context (i.e., many things implied, but not explicitly spoken), rapier wit. Take your pick.
The other Japanese English teacher was actually a science teacher. He was quite a nice guy, but spoke at the same level as the students (terrible model for the students). I came to understand that though I had the responsibility of teaching lessons (i.e., planning and implementation) - which due to my training in the TESL program was no problem - I had no real authority in the classroom (responsibility without authority). I also came to realize that standards for Japanese English teachers were incredibly lax.
It was completely normal for other teachers not to utter so much as a “good morning” to me. I got the impression that the effort itself was beneath them. One teacher I did have regular interaction with said to me one day that it was important for me to cultivate an atmosphere, where people would feel comfortable being friendly to me. In all the countries I’ve been to, this has never been the case. I’m invited into your house (or country, in this case) and I have to make you feel comfortable?
In other words I was to overcome their preconceptions, judgments and stereotypical thinking as it concerned me when they were not apparently willing to accept the evidence of their senses (i.e., my actions and interactions with staff and students). The textbook definition of racism.
The nitty-gritty is this: my co-workers made no attempt, beyond the facile, to understand me; even though I did my best to try to understand them. I tried to engage most of them in small talk, in order to determine if we had anything in common with each other, to forge stronger bonds. But, they didn’t seem particularly interested or were just too busy. And, I’m not the pushy sort. I think they believed that it was my responsibility to understand them but they were exempted from the enterprise because Japan was their country. They were ambivalent. Perhaps I just represented education in an unappealing package (i.e., the education would have been more appealing if I were Caucasian?)
They wanted to improve the curriculum, but failed to ask the one person who would know how to accomplish this. (Nemawashi -building group cohesion and limiting any possibility of disagreement - ensuring things are done “their way”,). I was the only native English speaker around for miles with a TESL certificate. I was also never consulted on the implementation of the curriculum for the elementary school level, which was strange since the program revolved around me. I had developed an elementary school program for the students, involving the 4 skills of language (i.e., reading, writing, speaking, listening) with games, activities and songs.
The kids were great though. Hey, they were just kids. Think my best lesson with them was one on directions. After modeling a small conversation and then writing down and going through the phrases for giving directions, I divided the class into 2 groups and by moving the desks around remodeled the classroom into a cityscape with a bank, supermarket, post office, etc. Each group then chose a representative and blindfolded them. The students then had to give directions to their representative, making sure they didn’t touch any desks until they reached their destination. As you can imagine, it got pretty loud. The students seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, a real crowd pleaser. The other teachers?; Not so much. They seemed to object more to the fact that students were enjoying themselves in the English class than the noise. It is also possible that they objected to my approach to learning-by-doing rather than their approach of lecturing, seeing it as antithetical.
Life in General
Perhaps the most telling thing about my experience in Miyagi was in the fall; in October, I believe, there was a series of typhoons. So, there was heavy wind and it was pissing rain. Now all the people I worked with knew that I lived 35 minutes away by train, but not one person offered to take me to the train station and they all drove. It would have taken only 5 minutes of their time. Not one person offered. So I had to walk or take the bicycle. Of course by the time I arrived at the station I was soaked to the bone. That’s when I knew beyond a doubt that I didn’t belong in the countryside. And, I would try to get the hell out of there at the first opportunity.
I did, however, learn a fair bit about Japanese culture. I found that people I met, both native and foreign would almost never tell me the truth. They would simply tell me what they thought I wanted to hear and then go off and do what they really intended to do (tatemaej. Of course, I’m not saying that there is not some form of tatemae everywhere because there is. Me, being a straight shooter, I’m not into tatemae as it makes trust difficult. And, as we all know, trust is the basis of all human relationships.
From the get go, the school employees in Miyagi treated me as an outsider, like I didn’t belong or as though I wasn’t part of their organization, much less a member. I’m sure that I’m not the only person to experience this. By their actions (or inactions) the Board did not seem to care about my health or my welfare. They seemed to think I should understand what they were thinking and their behaviour since I had been in Japan before or that I was just a piece of English speaking furniture, who wasn’t worthy of consideration or respect. (I mean, who really respects their furniture?)
Basically, through all this time, I received no help, no kindness and no consideration from the Board of Education. I mean, it actually took over a year for the school staff to tell me where the teacher’s washroom was; up until then I was using the student facilities where I could comfortably rest my ding- a-ling on top of the urinals. On resigning, the school even pressured me into writing a total fabrication regarding a family illness as my reason for leaving as not to “lose face” (i.e., kao о tsubusu). In my mind, that ship had already sailed.
Most interactions with people outside school were also one-sided. Basically, people in the town wanted something for nothing. They wanted English lessons for free or wanted to do “language exchange” that was more biased in their favour. I definitely had an easier time forming relationships in Tokyo. People in Tokyo tend to be more cosmopolitan and well-travelled. Accordingly, they are more likely to be open-minded and understanding of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. I was told by one teacher that people in the Tohoku region are generally unfriendly to strangers. Well, he was absolutely right. I didn’t doubt him at the time and from the benefit of hindsight, I certainly don’t doubt him now.
The 9/11 thing didn’t help either. I think that was when the ignorance and fear really kicked in. I was in the teacher’s room of the school when the planes hit the World Trade Center. A couple of weeks later, when I was buying a small snack, the shop owner said to me that I look like I could be from the Middle East. I said that was true, I look I could be from many places a man, over 6 foot (185 cm), weighing 200 lbs. (90 kg) and is brown-skinned, comes from. I had only been working at the school 1 month at that time. Even though I was in Japan at the time, people began to look at me as an Arab and then when the Israeli-Palestinian thing erupted, like I was some kind of suicide bomber. Wow! My relationship with the Japanese English teacher I usually worked with was never what I would refer to as good or professional. To this day, I have no idea just how much her dismissive and disrespectful attitude (and, my entire experience there in general) was influenced by 9/11. The next month I started looking for a job in Tokyo.
2.2 Dispatch Company Dangers
It is common to teach Business English to companies through dispatch companies (similar to a temp agency), in Japan known as hakken gaisha. The hourly rate is decent and the work is part-time; usually in the evenings, sometimes mornings. I started doing this kind of work in 1997. However, in 20 years my compensation hasn’t increased despite obtaining a Master ’s degree and gaining two decades of experience. Dispatch companies also dispatch instructors to universities, with lower hourly rates being paid than working for the university directly and no school holiday pay (i.e., approximately 2 months off at the secondary level and 4 months at the post-secondary level). In other words, during summer and winter periods when there are no classes, instructors don’t get paid. Dispatch to private jr./sr. high schools is a little better, with payment being offered for summer and winter student holidays. Generally, working for a dispatch company is better for shortterm, part-time rather than long-term, full-time work. It shouldn’t need to be said, but instructors are trying to make a living, for themselves and their families, periods with no income are not conducive to that.
In the West, temporary, contract employees make more per hour than full-time employees to compensate for the lack of benefits and security. In Japan, the dispatch company system absorbs most of that extra compensation on a continuous basis; anywhere from 25% to 40% that schools pay dispatch companies on a monthly basis stays with the dispatch company. Nowadays, in the internet age, there is hardly any reason for companies to use the services of dispatch companies as they can just as easily put out ads and interview candidates. The only reason companies continue to use these services seems to be laziness and as salves for their consciences (i.e., for giving substandard wages and no job security, enabling organizations to skirt, bend and break established labour laws designed to protect workers). Working for a dispatch company means that your negotiating/bargaining position with your school will be severely limited. It will also mean that you can be summarily dismissed for almost any misstep, real or perceived, no matter how small (i.e., they don’t like you). An instructor working directly for the school, making the same error, could not be dismissed. Learned this the hard way, twice My experiences with dispatch companies on long term assignments demonstrated behaviour on their part that was either partly or completely out of line, with no respect for me as a person or a teacher.
I was treated as a pawn. Decisions were made regarding my life and livelihood without my participation. There was no effort to work with me or to try to smooth out issues until it was far too late and the individuals involved couldn’t backtrack for fear of “losing face”. Dispatch companies, in addition to the reasons mentioned above, embody the classic 3-way (not the good kind)
communication format very popular in Japan, which is, supposedly, designed to promote harmony (wa). But, in truth, makes it much easier to avoid responsibility for one’s actions (or inactions).
2.3 Private School - Confounded in Kamakura
In April 2013, after over a year of preparation and coming to Tokyo from Miyagi for interviews, I managed to get a position at a private girl’s jr./sr. high school, which was part of a bigger “escalator” school (i.e., schooling provided from the elementary to undergraduate levels at the same school). I got the job through a dispatch company. It was basically a test position. I learned I was the first native English speaking teacher the school had ever had (and the first teacher of colour). My immediate superior spoke English very well, so I imagined things would be honky dory. It was a few of the part-time teachers who warned me that if I was a good teacher, I wouldn’t last long there. (Spider sense tingling! No disrespect Stan) Apparently, there were 2 schools of the same name in the area and the one I was working at was not the higher level one; it was mainly used to instill discipline and comportment in the young ladies. Teachers were known to slap students or make them stand for the entire class period for not wearing their skirts long enough. (I shit you not) Definitely not a safe learning environment.
Well, I did manage to last 6 months before the shit hit the fan. Team teaching, again, was the norm at the school. However, in this particular class, I was left alone because the Japanese teacher was busy (doing what? something other than his job?). As it was a Monday, I asked about the weekend: a question/answer structure that had been practiced many times before. There was a certain amount of resistance. So, I modeled the answer, encouraged the students and eventually we got past it. A week or so later, I noticed my superior (the guy I should have been teaching the class with), interviewing a small group of girls from the same class.
The following week, I was summoned to a meeting, which was unusual since I wasn’t required to attend meetings or work past 5 pm. But, I am a curious person by nature and always keen to learn. I wasn’t told what the meeting was about.
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