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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 08, 2010

Sending Japanese teachers abroad for English training- Does it make sense?

A little ditty in the Daily Yomiuri caught my attention last month.

The article tells of the government's mulling of a plan to send young Japanese English teachers to the U.S. to improve their English abilities. One thing immediately caught my attention- the estimation that it would cost 10 million yen annually for each teacher sent. As a result, sending just 1000 teachers would incur a total cost of 10 billion yen annually.

Wait a second. That's about $120,000 per person per year, right? So where exactly are they planning to house these young teachers? At the Four Seasons? One would expect that they would be housed at residences for foreign trainees connected to the institutions they'd be attending- which are invariably publicly subsidized. Add a per diem ($70 per day would be more than generous), air travel costs (150,000 Yen return) and study fees (variable) and you'd still be a long way from justifying a $120,000 package per person.

This is the kind of thing that generally passes over readers' heads, largely due to the 'stunned-by-numbers' phenomena. You know, where someone in the media states that there have been 'over 750 thermos-related deaths in Iowa in the past year'- until you realize that that means two thermos-related deaths per day in a single state! Or when you hear that the government has 'set aside 750,000 hectares for rutabagas experimentation at a cost of 6.8 billion dollars' but whether these numbers are realistic or not doesn't really register because they are so big as to become virtual abstractions.

Anyway, later in the article, something else a bit odd pops up.

The JET program is duly mentioned as being the current mode of English 'exchange'. But this is followed by the statement that the JET budget is being reviewed and, further, that the Ministry is requesting only 130 million yen- which appears to be the fiscal JET allotment- down 14% from last year's fiscal budget.

Say what?

So the JET program is to be allotted 130 million yen per year with which several thousand JET teachers are to be housed, provided a salary, paid travel costs etc. If we apply that to, say, 3000 JETs that comes to around 420,000 yen (about $5000) per year per JET. I know you can get some decent cardboard as walling for that price but...

Again, compare this with the $120,000 estimated for Japanese to study abroad. Consider also how cheap the U.S. is from a yen-earner's perspective right now. The numbers don't add up. Can somebody tell me what's missing here?

The article seems to be saying that sending Japanese teachers abroad might be a way of replacing the JET program, at least in terms of budgeting. So is this a good thing? Let's weigh it up:

If the numbers in the article are correct it would seem that hiring 3000 JETS is far far more cost-efficient than sending 1000 young Japanese teachers abroad. However, I suspect that the numbers are wrong. But by how much?

And what about the pedagogical side- the educational benefits? This is of greater interest to the Uni-files. Many (most) JETS are untrained, uncertified, and inexperienced as teachers. Most do not plan careers in teaching. The Japanese teachers are of course teachers by trade so it could well be argued that theirs is the better long-term investment.

One argument in favour of JETs though is that even if they don't bring teaching expertise into the classrooms, they introduce many young Japanese to foreigners and living English, which in fact has always been the stated purpose of the JET program.

It could also be argued that several JETs do in fact go on to become very good, qualified, professional teachers and that the JET experience provides training for them- which is later paid back into Japan's education system through their teaching skills.

On the other hand, young Japanese teachers going abroad to improve their skills has a certain obvious appeal. Although some JHS and HS English teachers do have a very sound grasp of English it is pretty clear (often by their own admission) that many struggle with dynamic, idiomatic English (and sometimes with anything beyond the textbooks they use). This is especially so given that the new Primary school English curriculum is about to be introduced as of next April.

I sense a few problems with this thinking though.

Although I would expect that their daily English skills would improve after a year abroad I'm wondering if and how this would improve actual classroom instruction in any tangible way. Textbooks in JHS and HSs are already set and I'm not sure that an improved ability to hear English more fully or having a more dynamic control over grammatical choice or vocabulary range would impact the type of things that the textbooks and curricula cover.

Nor have I seen much in these textbooks that is 'wrong' or unnatural English that 'improved' English teachers would be able to 'correct' (although many sections do seem a little stilted because everyone speaks too perfectly, with almost too much civility and without any evident personality). In short, I'm not sure how much idiomatic English would affect the teaching of foundational English or to help students prepare for university entrance exams. How would sensei's increased facility with the day-to-day lingo really benefit learners who have an existing, set curriculum to complete? JHSs and HSs don't exist to teach students daily conversation or 'how to do X' abroad.

My intuition is that poor class management skills, sloppy methodology, and/or inadequately developed curricula might be a greater factor in causing student motivation and skills to atrophy rather than a lack of native-like fluency. Perhaps then further teacher-skill training would have greater educational value than English study abroad.

Then, of course, as I blogged about recently in regard to Nobel Prizes and research, there is also the problem of having in-service teachers away from their workplaces so long. After all, only a small part of a teacher's work is bound up in teaching their main subject. In Japan, with the teacher-as-all-thing-to-all-people motif being what it is, having even one staff member away for a year could seriously impact the workload of others. Reducing teacher's extracurricular workload and using a budget to hire more clerical or specialist staff to carry out these extra duties would free up teachers to attend training sessions and become more competent at what they do.

Which is teaching English, not speaking it.

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I've no idea why they say it is going to cost so much to send those Japanese teachers overseas. Maybe somebody wants to idea to fail so they inflated the budget to the point they know it will get shot down.

Plus, CLAIR which runs JET, is an amakudari organization providing post-retirement gigs for bureaucrats. This inevitably leads to inflated budgets.

But, since it is one of the few amakudari spots that the Ministry of Education has available to them I don't think JET will ever die.

And as far as I know the idea of sending Japanese teachers overseas for a year is not new. When I was a JET a baker's dozen years ago I arrived shortly after a Japanese teacher in his 40's got back to Japan after a spending a sponsored year in the US.

We taught together at a middling high school which wasn't very academic. Ironically this allowed him the flexibility of trying new ideas in the classroom because not many of the kids went on to universities (at least not good ones). But all his ideas of helping the other teachers improve their English and teaching methods got shot down.

Then he got transferred to an academic oriented school. Other teachers forced him to abandon his new teaching conversation ideas for the tried and true grammar cramming method for entrance exams.

Sending him overseas and opening his thinking up to new ideas and methods ended up really frustrating him when he got back to Japan and couldn't do anything new.

I agree completely with your article. Especially on the point that even with the Japanese English teachers returning home with a much improved knowledge of dynamic and idiomatic English, the chances of the teacher using it in the classroom is going to be the same as before. There have been numurous studies on the amount of idiomatic english in set text books and it is usual scary actually how little there is repeatedly. The Japanese government needs to look hard at the system itself for English in schools for this exchange system to work. Otherwise I could see the teachers coming back, getting bored of teaching mindless English which they know is important but not the only important aspect of English and finally quiting.

A couple of things to think about:

1. While the Japanese teacher is abroad, he/she will still need to earn a salary (mortgage payments, to support family in Japan, etc) and/or someone will need to be paid to replace him/her at school. 10 million yen sounds about right.

2. While the teacher coming back from abroad may not be able to use any new techniques in the classroom, his/her English will be improved. The teacher will make fewer mistakes when, for example, writing or answering student questions about English. The teacher may even be able to teach oral communications classes.


Interesting points. I hadn't thought asbout replacement costs because the expense was expressed as being tied to 'sending' a teacher to the U.S. but you could be right.

The plan is to send younger teachers, which of course would not only have more long-term benefits but also avoid the trouble of sending those who have to support families, pay mortgages etc. And instad of theirt regular salary, I imagine a per diem would be paid- which I factored into the original post.

As for the Oral Communication classes, yeah. I can see that. Especially if a school wants a particular teacher to specialize in that area. The problem I see right now is not one of making mistakes per se but one of a lack of confidence simply because they MIGHT make mistakes. So, yes, it could work in terms of confidence development and even as stimulation to inspire their students further.

I taught 2 years at JHS from 2008-2010 and worked with 2 teachers whose experience may be of interest. Both had lived and studied abroad. Both spoke very fluent English.

One of the teachers insisted on translating everything I said into Japanese before students had the chance to try and process it. My general approach is to throw unfamiliar language into a class where it's natural and help the students figure it out. This teacher would shut the class down and give a detailed grammatical description of any new utterance I made. The class were very teacher dependent and made little obvious improvement in spoken communication.

The other teacher conducts his classes at around 70% English to 30% Japanese. He asks students to try and guess the Japanese equivalent of utterances, then acknowledges correct attempts and expands on them using Japanese to ensure students are on the right track. The students are (on the whole, but not 100%!) very receptive, more confident and tellingly, score higher on school and external tests.

The key difference seems to be that while both studied English abroad, the second teacher spent his time obtaining a TESOL Dip in addition to his Japanese teaching qualification.

I worked at a high school for a couple years and in that school most, if not all, of the J English teahcers could speak English extremely well. I asked many of them the question "How much of your class do you conduct in English", to which all of them replied "None" or "very little". Their focus is to prepare their students for the Center Shiken (which is discussed in this blog's newest post), which comprises discrete, grammar point type questions (Guest, the Uni Files, 2010). So if the Shiken don't change to a more comunicative based test then there really isn't much of a need to send teachers abroad, presumably to beef up their speaking skills. How about taking all the JET teachers who are losing their jobs, train them to be interviewers, and then make a serious attempt at achieving the goal of enhancing the communicative ability of HS school students?

It's interesting that many teachers see more problems arising from poor methodology than lack of fluency. I wish there were a more quantifiable way of showing this.

There is certainly no single problem we could fix to get every student speaking English.

But, I think poor teacher training is a root cause that is often ignored and the washback effect from uni entrance exams overstated.

The process for qualifying as a teacher (but especially as an English teacher) in Japan is a complete and utter mess. The whole system is designed to produce as many license holders as possible. For example in 2006 there were 73,458 NEW secondary school teacher license holders churned out by schools but only 2,563 new hires. Is it any wonder every school seems to have its share of bad apples that managed to slip through the hiring process.

In terms of English teacher training, 80% of universities have no minimum English level for students taking a TEFL course. And TEFL courses are only legally mandated to have 30 classroom hours.

Plus, a practicum of only 2-4 weeks is much to short.

I could go on, but I believe a fundamental overhaul in teacher training (along with a cut in class sizes while we are dreaming) could overcome any washback from entrance exams.

Not sure how practical this would be, but perhaps one way of quantifying such a thing would be to give some kind of communicative ability test to a large sample of J English teachers throughout the country. My guess is they'd perform fairly well for the most part. Once it has been established that yes, indeed, many J English teachers can in fact use English as a communicative tool then that will beg the question as to why so few high school students end up graduating without being able to hold a simple conversation in English, but are able to tell you what a little used word like "nefarious" means in Japanese.

I realize a much more in depth study than that would need to be carried out, but you get the point.

I can't tell you how many times a J English teacher approached me at the high school I worked at and asked me the difference between Sentence A and Sentence B (unfortunately I can't think of a specfic example at the moment). But 9 times out of 10 my response would be "they both seem fine to me" (like many NJ English teahcers I am not an expert on the finer points of grammar, I just know a good sentence when I see one). The point is they'd be looking for explanations to extremely discrete grammar points which really had no bearing on overall meaning in a communicative situation. No wonder the kids develop such a distaste for English by the time they reach uni.

Is it a coincidence that this is happening as the country seems to be stuck in a rut which has echoes of the Bakumatsu and the TV is full of dramas about the Japanese learning from foreigners for the first time. Probably, but still an interesting echo...

In Korea the government is concentrating on training their teachers how to teach, e.g. getting them taking the Cambridge TKT, Cambridge ICELT and equivalents. Makes a lot more sense to me.

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