I got a letter from a Korean teacher back in July. I was up to my eyeballs in work, and knew that the response would be long. I wrote him back today. Here is a copy of what he wrote and how I answered his questions.
I'm interested in knowing about the level of training and ability that non-Japanese (foreign) EFL instructors have in Japan. Are they mostly experienced? Or is the profession characterized by a yearly turnover, with many amateur EFL instructors filling positions for a short time then moving on?
In Korea, most programs have fairly amateur instructors and very high turnover, with the biggest universities being the only ones that can attract experienced instructors with a few years under their belt and a degree in EFL education.
I also get the impression that Japan and Korea are very similar in their struggle with large class sizes, the lack of Japanese/Korean teachers who are able to speak English well enough to use it in their English class (classroom English), and the system of student evaluation that emphasizes grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension, not communicative ability. ...not to mention the extreme work culture and focus on worldly success
What can you tell me about that?
This is how I would characterize English language education in Japan. I'll follow it up in the order that you asked about it.
As for non-Japanese teachers' training, I would guess, and this is purely a guess, that something like a third of them come from teaching backgrounds. This is the reason I say that. Many of the teachers who are teaching in universities and professional schools have degrees in education and several years of experience in the field. Some of course do not. A few teaches who teach in conversation schools probably do too, but my guess is that a majority of them do not. There is also the Japanese English Teachers (JET) scheme that hires about 2,500 teachers every year for two to three-year appointments assisting English teachers in public schools. My guess is that a minority of those teachers are professional English teachers.
Now why would that be, J? I don't want to be too long winded here, because I want to get back to your original questions, but there may be several reasons. Some teachers want to come to Japan/Korea for an extended paid vacation. They want to experience these exotic places, and who can blame them? Japanese schools/companies pay them a salary to do it. Some of these jobs give them that opportunity without having to commit huge somes of money and time to the effort. But as you might have seen in my blog from time to time, there is another force at work here, at least in Japan. It is the "Kokusaika" (internationalization) force versus the "Nihonjin ron" (the nationalistic Japanese) force. Yes, there is a voice in this collective that says, "Resistance is futile. We must be assimilated with the rest of the world." The other voice says, "We are special. We cannot be understood. We do not trust the outside." People who listen to the xenophobic voice hire teachers on one year contracts, because they don't really care if people learn English or not, and they don't want outsiders to stay here very long. English learning is not the goal. People who hire teachers who are committed to Japan and their profession are listening to the first voice.
As for your impression that Japan and Korea are similar in their struggles with large class sizes, you are exactly right. As the Japanese population of school aged children shrinks dramatically, the state is busy closing schools and cutting teaching staff. Instead of offering a better situation for children so that they grow up with pleasant school experiences that they want their own kids to have, they keep up with the dwindling population by maintaining class sizes of 40 or more in fewer and fewer schools, which also means that children have to travel further to get to school. The case for small class sizes leading to higher test scores has not been made. But I have not seen numbers showing that large class sizes lead to a better quality of education in other ways. Unfortunately legislators and tax payers want to see numbers, and testing seems to be the quick and dirty way to give it to them.
English teachers' language ability, focus off of communicative ability, focus on worldly success... wow, big topics. I think it is time to point out that the emperor has no clothes. If school English programs were about teaching young people to communicate in English, then schools would historically have been a huge failure. I have heard that confession from a former curriculum developer for the Education Ministry. I have seen it in my classrooms, and I have heard it from countless parents. They are not, and my conclusion is that formal education in this country or maybe any other, cannot help the huge majority of young people to communicate in English. If formal English education were actually Formal English Education, Inc., the board of directors would have been fired along with the CEO, and the stockholders would be in revolt. Unfortunately, the stockholders in this case are the average Joe who has been told all their lives that they know nothing about education, and that only people with degrees in the subject can know anything. Children aren't getting what they need to become happy and well educated, because that is not what the agenda seems to be. The message that I hear/see in formal education here is, "Shut up. Obey, and do the things we tell you to. If you do, maybe you can have a privileged position in society (doctor, lawyer, public servant, politician). Sacrifice huge chunks of your childhood to the almost futile task of achieving 'good grades,' so that you can get into a 'good school,' and get into a 'good job.'"
Is that different elsewhere? I don't think so. Give a look at John Holt's work.
So how do I feel about people who end up being English teachers? This is a group of very hardworking, sincere, brilliant people who are really out to help their students. If any of the young people come out of this education system with anything like an understanding of English, it is due to their hard work and care. These teachers fulfill all kinds of rolls. They are coaches, personal secretaries, nurses, psychologists, counselors, baby sitters, cops, and teachers. They work at least six days each week, and get paid crap. Society puts on a front of respecting them, but how can they respect people who have gotten themselves involved with Formal Education, Inc. Face it. If someone told you they were at Enron, what would you think? And if some of them are English teachers who can't utter a sentence, so what? No one in the Education Ministry cares if anyone can speak English or not. Are there some unsavory types in the bunch? You bet, but they are everywhere.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to get some of these ideas on screen, J.