Monday, May 19, 2008

Let's Ecology! 3: Teaching English

In order to support myself while I was going to school, I had begun teaching at English schools in Tokyo. Most of the other students in the International Division at Waseda also taught a few English classes to earn spending money; I was one of very few, only two or three that I knew of in my cohort of about a hundred people, who had to support himself by working while going to school there. The pay for English teaching wasn't bad -- the hourly rate was about twice what most Japanese students could make doing part-time jobs -- but job satisfaction was non-existent.

My students had almost all had six years of English in high school; some of the ones who were college graduates had taken another four years after that. Rote memorization was a specialty of the Japanese education system, so students often had very large English vocabularies. But the national curriculum, designed by the Ministry of Education, was so pathetic that most of them could not speak English at all. They couldn't understand natural-speed pronunciation, and their own poor grammar and pronunciation left them unable to speak English except at the most basic level. Their six to ten years of classes were mostly a waste of time.

Into this gap, supposedly, would step the private English school, emphasizing conversation and communication and thus making up for the deficiencies of the school system. There were hundreds of these English schools in Japan in the late 1980s, running the gamut from major international chains like Berlitz to classes given by illegal aliens in their living rooms. With some exceptions, English schools in Japan were just a big money-making scheme designed to take the students for all they could get. Depending on the school, students could be any kind of person: schoolchildren, housewives, teenagers and college students, business people. There were classes for almost any category you can imagine, and for almost any purpose.

The schools worked hard, milking the students for all they could get. Most places charged big fees to join the school, with long-term contracts and additional fees for each class attended. Some schools hired only qualified, well-trained teachers, but others were willing to hire any native English speaker they could get (or any non-native speaker, as long as they were white), regardless of experience, qualifications, aptitude, intelligence, or visa status. Others were slightly choosier: they only hired people who had visas allowing them to work legally in Japan. The better schools, if they were unable to find qualified teachers, at least provided training, but many schools just gave their teachers a selection of textbooks to use and said, "Go to it."

Not surprisingly, few students learned much English. Sometimes it was at least as much the student's fault as the school's. I always asked my own students during our first class together "Why do you want to learn English?" Many offered practical reasons: "I like to travel," or "It will help me at work." Others, despite the hefty sums they were paying, gave vague or unrealistic reasons. One young woman told me, for example, "I think it would be cool if someday when I have kids I could talk to them in English." Another woman was married to a Japanese-speaking American, and, by coming to English class for one hour per week for four months, wanted to "surprise" him by suddenly speaking to him in fluent English. Many just seemed to think it would be cool if they could speak English. Most students were extremely passive; they seemed to expect to just come to class for one hour a week and have the teacher somehow insert English into their heads. Few of them seemed to have any idea of the hard study involved in learning a foreign language, and even fewer showed any inclination to work at it.

After I finished my year at Waseda, I stayed on in Japan. I continued teaching English, working at two schools, one in the morning and the other in the evening. My morning school was a mom-and-pop operation run by a couple in their mid-thirties. "Pop" was a Waseda graduate who had left his secure but boring job at some major company to follow the dream of running his own business and, never quite able to make ends meet, also worked part-time at some other English related jobs; "Mom" spent most of her days working at the school as secretary and generally running things. The teachers were mainly students from Waseda's International Division, and the owners were unusual in being sincerely interested in their students. They didn't offer extravagant false promises of instant fluency at high prices, but rather an opportunity for cross-cultural communication and modest increases in English ability at a relatively low price. No formal training was given to the teachers, but an effort was made to match the proper teacher and the proper textbook with each student or class. The atmosphere was friendly and sincere.

My evening school, though, was something else.

Next week: Ginza English Conversation School.

More "Let's Ecology!" posts are here.

"Let's Ecology!" is the story of my stint with a Japanese environmental group (or sort of an environmental group -- it's "complicated"). Look for new posts every Monday. The names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits. Everything else really happened.

1 comment:

  1. Gets stranger and stranger, Kuri. The coincidences, I mean. I taught English for a while in Korea in the late 80's and had experience with a lot of the same attitudes you found in Japan.


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