A community of fear

For the past fourteen years, ten of them in Kumamoto and four of them here, I have been involved in English teacher development. I have been a part of two different programs, very similar in content, where English teachers have attended weekend classes over a period of weeks or months or intensive summer programs with the goals of developing their language and teaching skills. This academic year is new for me. I am not engaged in any teacher development program. It isn’t that we canceled the program. It is just that teachers aren’t attending, and when I ask questions about why they aren’t attending, how we can reschedule the courses for a more convenient time, season, or place, the same specter appears. Fear.

One blow came some time ago when the prefecture decided that since teachers were not teaching six days a week now, they would have to come to work every day during the summer to make up the extra days. That meant that in effect, teachers could not attend intensive courses that we had organized. In a recent discussion with the local prefectural board of education about the issue, we were told that teachers could not attend courses other than those pre-approved by the prefecture, and those were all organized by the prefecture and/or the Education Ministry. Also, teachers who are responsible for clubs were all expected to be present on weekends when their teams had practice or matches. This meant that any teacher that was going to attend our workshops would have to attend them during their free time, read family time, and that no other time would be made available for teachers to do professional development.

Another blow to our program in Yokkaichi came when the prefecture cut off funding to teachers for participating in training programs. This money, far from extravagant, paid for transportation or course fees. It would not cover much else, like lunch or materials. This means that the only programs that teachers can attend now and receive some kind of financial support are programs by the prefecture or the country.

When one considers the reasons for these policies, there are very few. One may be money, but my guess is that all of the teacher development fees that the prefecture paid for over the entire course of the program would not even come close to the cost of one span of bridge on the new highway that is being built through the area that may never see a car.

Another reason is that the prefecture does not want to have their teachers exposed to ideas other the Education Ministry’s or theirs, plain and simple fear. They must not want their teachers and, by extension, their students to be exposed to ideas other than those of the people who administrate this already failed system. In 2002 the ministry delivered its “Developing a strategic plan to cultivate “Japanese With English Abilities” report. In 2003 they came out with their new “Course of Study” that is supposed to make all of the dreams in the report come true.

It all sounds great on paper, but if there is no support, no opportunities for teachers to develop over the span of their careers, then the programs have already failed. The ministry and prefecture may say that there are training programs available (in the teachers first, sixth, and eleventh years of service), but they are hardly developmental or sufficient to train teachers to teach in new ways.

I haven’t given up. I’m working on some new methods to provide teacher development opportunities to teachers in another way. It is, however, frustrating when the products of this education system show up at this university’s door step without the basic tools to build their own language skills. It isn’t their fault. It isn’t their teachers’. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the people who built the system.

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