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December 17, 2008

Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job?

I know the image. We have only a handful of contact hours (or ‘koma’) per week. We often get our own offices, decent budgets for research, and nobody is checking to see when we punched the clock in our out, in fact there is no clock at all. Sounds good, doesn’t it- and that’s even without mentioning the professors’ Jacuzzi, the helicopter transportation, the Terence Conran-designed office furniture, and the kinds of salaries that investment bankers would kill for.

I hope you know I’m kidding about the last bit but I’m serious that when I say that university teaching has its obvious perks, it might not be the Life of Riley that some seem to imagine. You may be aware of the difficulty of securing long-time status at a university in Japan, so job security is often an issue (more on that in this blog in the near future) but let’s assume for the moment that you have a reasonably secure job at a Japanese university. With only six 90-minute classes a week what could possibly make it difficult? OK- I’m not going to pretend that it is as physically taxing and teaching children or as intensive as 20 classes at a JHS per week, and I know that teachers at other levels face some of the items listed below, but regardless, what follows is a point-by-point summary of what you might NOT have known about a university teacher’s duties:

1. Your time off from class is not really a ‘time off’:
I hate it when people (including students and fellow teachers) assume that if you are not in class then you have no other duties and are probably just watching South Park re-runs on Youtube (or writing blogs- ahem). Wrong. There is class prep. There is marking. Materials making (both pedagogical and promotional). Student consultation, orientation and extracurricular events. Meetings. Often endless, pointless meetings (possibly designed so that people DON’T watch South Park re-runs when not in class). Of course this is true for most full-time teachers at any level. But at universities…

2. You are supposed to be PRODUCTIVE with that free time:
Every year you have to provide a list of publications for the past year that are then rated. Presentations must be listed and will then be rated. After all, you are expected to be a researcher. Active involvement, including leadership, in professional societies and organizations is crucial (you are expected to be a big face in the community), not to mention active collaboration and liaison with those in other universities. All these things go into a rating system. If you are producing nothing but your grades at the end of the semester it will not look good when contract renewal time comes up (this will also, by the way, be the topic of a future blog entry). And you don’t just teach programs, you are usually called on to develop and maintain them. But at least these are things that you can choose and have some control over but you can’t really control…

3. Participation in committees:
Some committees seem to have been made up purely for the purpose of having a committee but you still have to produce. An ‘International Affairs’ committee will have to produce reports and newsletters. Various overseeing and organizing committees have to produce reports. Entrance exam committees… well, you know. International exchange, liaison and other special programs will often take up the dinner hours or weekends. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because if you are a native English speaker you will also be…

4. A de facto English secretary:
I know that most NS teachers at every level get ‘help’ requests from students, teachers and administration all but I think I’m safe in saying that it reaches new heights at the university level. The administration needs its English translations (which can often be very technical, opaque, or arcane) to be picture perfect. There are hundreds of researchers at different departments who are expected to publish outside Japan and who see an NS teacher as a handy resource. And you are expected to have seminars, one-to-one consultations and other extra-classroom connections with your students (grad student thesis guidance being one).

5. Song and dance:
Many teachers at all levels have to participate in promotion and recruitment for their particular schools but there is one item that is more or less unique to universities. That is fundraising through grants. Over the past decade, even national universities have been weaned off the public teat and have to engage in raising funds by producing and promoting programs that can win grants and awards. This includes the infamous kaken-hi research grants which involve a monstrously bureaucratic application and follow-up reports.

So, it university teaching a piece of cake? No. Would I trade it for another position at another level of teaching? No. Would it be easy for a person like me to slide into a position teaching children and think “Wow! This is a breeze!”? No. But more on that in the next entry.

Mike G.

December 30, 2008

Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)?

A lot of people seem to think you have to be smarter, more qualified, or have more savvy as a teacher to teach in universities than you do for teaching children. And while it’s true that university positions will invariably require more academic qualifications I certainly don’t see why there is an association between the age or level of the students you are teaching and the qualifications or experience you are expected to have. In fact, given the influence that teachers might have on kids in the early stages of their L2 acquisition, it is arguable that the better teachers should be teaching children, not 18-22 year olds. “Oh, you don’t have experience or qualifications, so you’d better teach beginners, children would be best for you!”. Bizarre. Do we treat pediatricians as if they need fewer qualifications or re less competent than other doctors?

Although I did teach children for a short time several years ago, I would have to admit that after almost 18 years of teaching almost exclusively young adults I might be out of place at first if I suddenly returned to a classroom full of kids. I’d probably find it pretty exhausting and my instincts about what activities are likely to work and how they will go over with the kids would be noticeably rusty at the start. In fact, watching a skilful teacher of children doing his or her thing can impress me in ways that I no longer feel when hearing about new methods or approaches or materials for university-aged learners. And I can imagine that someone going in the other direction, from children to university students, might have trouble at first adjusting to the mood, the ebb and flow, of the uni classroom.

But let’s not take this ‘out of one’s element’ motif too far. Back in the 50’s and 60’s it used to be considered funny to watch Lucy on TV trying to do something that was supposedly for men with the comedy centered around watching her make a complete hash of it. The tables turned in the 70’s and 80’s with movies like Mr. Mom and Three Men and A Baby, where the men were (at first) completely clueless when it came to doing the most rudimentary of ‘women’s’ work. Likewise, there are some in the EFL business who would like to believe that someone who specializes in children’s education would be completely out of their element in a uni class, while someone like myself would be too much of an egg-headed boob to connect with young uns. Like I’d be presented with a group of pre-schoolers and try to explain the subjunctive mood to them or argue that “have” is a matter of aspect rather than tense (as if that sort of stuff would/should even take place at a university EFL class!).

Nah- any teacher worth his or her salt (meaning someone who is already competent as an EFL teacher at any level) could make the shift after a small adjustment period. All you need are the 5 following basic EFL teacher skills:
1. The ability to read the level and responses of the learners quickly and make necessary adjustments (often on the spot)
2. The ability to use the appropriate level of teacher talk and style of interaction with the learners.
3. The ability to devise suitable materials and tasks and have reasonable expectations about the learners’ ability to complete them.
4. A reasonable knowledge as to how people acquire a second language.
5. A real knowledge of the language you’re teaching, knowing how it is organized, how it works as discourse, how it might appear from ‘outside’, a detached understanding. It doesn’t mean you mean have to be a grammar boffin or a linguistics major to succeed, in fact you don’t have to be an academic at all, but you MUST have an awareness of how the language works that goes beyond mere native speaker ‘instinct’.

True, there are university teachers who have academic qualifications but who may still lack some of the skills mentioned above. And there are teachers at other levels who assume that merely being a native speaker will make them a competent teacher. Both sides are fooling themselves. Could anyone who teaches English at a university succeed in teaching children? No. Could anyone who teaches kids function at a university? No. Not “anyone”. But anyone who is a real EFL TEACHER, and when I say that I mean that they have the five skills above, sure, give them a few days in the ‘room, and- yeah- they could make the jump.


About December 2008

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in December 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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