Editorial on ELTNEWS.com
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"That was a disaster. The students knew more English before your lesson than after it."

The teacher trainer looked down pityingly at the anguished trainee. Our group circled the hapless initiate, readying more feedback. But not me. A bead of sweat formed on my forehead. It was the summer of 1990 and it was now my turn to teach...


How had I got into this? Go back another 4 years: I was 17 and known as a "literary type" having published a bunch of fanzines and magazines. Philosophy, politics and literature were regularly debated with a circle of friends. One particular discussion of Wordsworth turned into a lengthy and voluble denunciation of my opponent's position so effective that the whole pub burst into spontaneous applause at its dénouement. In revenge, my Wordsworth-loving friend introduced me to a language school owner who was looking for teachers over the forthcoming summer holidays. I was a bit young, but my friend was 23 and already teaching for the school, so the owner assumed I was the same age. The interview was held in the same pub at the same table:

"What tenses are there in English?"

"Umm...past... present... future...? Err..."

"Can you give me an example of the present perfect continuous tense?"

"I'm sorry... the present perf...?"

"Do you know the song Eleanor Rigby?"

"By the Beatles! Big fan."

"You'll do."

And so it was that I became an English teacher at the age of 17, instructing groups of German teenagers barely younger than myself in tenses continuous and perfect. A copy of Thomson and Martinet's A Practical English Grammar had been thrust into my hands and I was away... Each summer holiday I would teach the tenses of the English language, demonstrating with great authority the difference between the past simple and the present perfect and copying out the cool explanatory diagrams from a a great new book by some chap called Raymond Murphy...Oh and we played Beatles songs and analyzed their meaning: apparently Eleanor Rigby was lonely.

The students loved me. I got flowers and sweets and cards and watches and letters from students years after. I was the most popular teacher. I was a *great* teacher.... Or so I thought. (Looking back now, I remind myself of one of those deluded American Idol hopefuls: ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that they can sing because nobody has ever told them they can't...)

Your humble author had been captivating his students with questions on the past perfect continuous for about 30 minutes when this photo was taken in 1988.

Time moved on. I'd left college and wanted to travel. I knew that reputable schools in the UK and Europe required something people in the know called the RSA Cert. A four-week, massively intensive, teacher training course.

"You've got to teach in front of 6 other people-- and then they tear you apart."
"You can't go out for even one night or you'll fail."
"People who've been teaching in state schools for years take it and fail."
"That guy last year came all the way over from South Africa and had a nervous breakdown."
"It costs £700!"


Although I knew that I had never really investigated the skill of teaching seriously (I didn't have to) I was pretty sure that I would have no problems. After all, I'd been in the classroom every day for 4 summers, now. What could a grizzled veteran like me have to learn?


The trainer motioned for me to enter the class. The observers followed and sat at the back. My hands were trembling. The bead of sweat had worked its way down my nose. Be wary of Teacher Talking Time. Don't stand up all the time. Don't point at people. Don't put your back to the class. Elicit. Ask concept questions...Pair work. Group work. Information gaps. Suggestopedia. CLL. Communicative Approach. Audio-Lingual Method. Mind maps. Accuracy vs Fluency. Correction techniques. Total Physical Response...


"You mean you don't just make a long, confusing explanation, draw a dodgy diagram, tell a few jokes and then get them to fill in the gap-fill exercises before going around the class in the same order each time asking them for answers?"


The course reminded me that when I was studying linguistics at college we had two tutors -- but never knew which one would be teaching on the day. It would have been *really* good to know. The subject was the same, of course, and I believe the topic of the lesson was decided in advance. But one tutor's lesson was completely engaging: a fascinating intellectual adventure that would compel me to stay after class and bombard her with questions, comments and theories. The other teacher? Tears of boredom would well up in my eyes within the first 15 minutes and I had no choice but slip out of the lesson at the first opportunity.

Was the difference between the two tutors just a matter of charisma? No. As I was learning how to teach on the RSA Cert course, I realized the difference was *skill*. Skill that had been obtained through training and practice. Both tutors were experts in their field, but one actually knew *how to teach*. She had a lesson plan. She was prepared. She knew what she was doing and *why*. And the end result was astonishing. (That great teacher, of course, had an ELT background.)

I survived the RSA Cert -- just. It is now known as the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and is run by the University of Cambridge. I don't know whether it still has the army boot camp intensity, but I can tell you this:

It was without doubt the most important educational experience of my life.

I wasn't anywhere near being a perfect teacher after the course, but it gave me a frame of reference that showed me what I needed to do to become a better one. Unknown unknowns became known unknowns. And later, when I taught and was popular it was because I was teaching in ways that I believed were effective based on a good knowledge of theory and practice, not just because I could get on well with the class.

...And this all brings me back to Japan. A country where English teachers "knowing how to teach" is given scant regard. It saddens me greatly. The government sets the bar extremely low by importing JETs who (mostly) have no idea what they are doing to teach with Japanese teachers who (mostly) have no idea what they are doing. Given this, how can we blame the eikaiwa chains for low standards when they are only following the official lead?

It is my strong belief that the most effective thing that can be done to improve the standard of English in Japan is to provide proper training for teachers of English both Japanese and non-Japanese. Over the coming year, ELTNEWS.com will be looking at this issue (along with the others mentioned in the previous editorial) and will do what it can to foster positive change.

Next month: I will give more details on what I think needs to be done to bring about a teacher training revolution in Japan and why. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on teacher training and any experiences, good or bad, you've had on training courses.

« 5 Important Issues for ELT in Japan | Main | Doing What We Can... »


My CELTA was an eye-opener too. The Dip was a nightmare but far more rewarding. I learnt more about teaching from them than my M.Ed. Both set the context for ways to approach language teaching - something that the hit and miss method can't do. As you say Russell, unknown unknowns become known unknowns and then you can deal with them. When people say that they don't need training and that they can learn from experience they are talking about themselves, rarely others. But I wonder what quality teaching was going on before the 'experience' started to become useful ....

I remember choosing reported speech for my final observed lesson during the RSA TEFLA ....... because it was that or passive and I didn't know what either meant!! I followed the Headway teachers book with a snappy opening activity where the students discussed memories of strikes and industrial disputes in their home countries.

"er.... sorry. We don't have unions in my country" piped up one brave soul. This rippled round the room til all the students admitted to zero knowledge of strike action.

In the aftermath of the lesson I tore my own performance to shreds without any prompting, highlighting the assumptions I'd made. My tutor told me later that the only reason I passed the course was my ability to analyse my own uselessness. A girl who fared similarly, but tried to brazen out the feedback session failed.

The CELTA doesn't make you a good teacher, but it gives you an excellent starting point and guide to trying to become one. Or will do an excellent job of putting you back on the right track.

You say all the right things but I'm still (and I believe rightly) skeptical.

Do you have any studies that focus on "learning" and outcomes? To me, it sounds like you believe teachers are better because they are what we expect a teacher to be. That's a lot different than showing that so trained teachers help students learn better than teachers that are untrained.

There are studies over large groups that show that it doesn't make a big difference (I don't have a link but it was in Arizona, comparing teachers hired with a teaching degree to those without, over a long term and with the emphasis on how much the students learned.

Also, how do you account for the fact that millions around the world learn a language without the help of a teacher - untrained or trained?

I think there are important reasons that teachers should receive training - they are happier, more involved, less prone to jump ship, better classroom management, affective growth of students and more.. but not learning me thinks.

Now, if we trained teachers to stop "teaching" and get out of the way and just organize a learning environment, then I might agree.

The problem is that we expect untrained teachers to teach like a trained teacher when they should have smaller groups, provide input and cultural content and not stand at front and control and command.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Russell.

The theme for me this week has been hearing lots of different stories about how people come to teach EFL. The comments on a recent post of mine include a wide range of paths, and yours is yet another:


I'm looking forward to hearing your ideas next month!

It's a very well written article and you make your points very effectively. My own experiences with the RSA (CELTA) were not so different. I took the course in 1978!

Straight afterwards, I taught at a school that totally rejected the course. The school specialized in preparing students for the First Certificate and Proficiency exams. It was a very good school with excellent exam results, so it only goes to show that there are lots of different ways of teaching effectively. It wasn't until I came to Japan that I could start to put the things I'd learned on the course into practice.

When I started David English House, I looked for a Pass B on the RSA (CELTA) from applicants for teaching positions for many years, and was never disappointed with the teaching ability of anybody who had that grade. This system began to break down when we needed teachers with more Japanese ability and experience in Japan or who were specialists in teaching children. There was a distinct shortage of teachers in Japan with a Pass B - which proves your point about the bar in Japan being too low.

The biggest problem in English teaching in Japan is that
ESL/EFL degree or teaching experience is not always required.
This causes the eikaiwa chains for low standards.

In the past I found job advertisements (as English teacher)
of some famous Eikaiwa schools on websites in English.
The common point was:
applicants must be native speaker. ESL/EFL degree, teaching
experiences, Japanese skills not needed.

I know that they can learn teaching method by gaining
experiences but HOW can they teach English as a foreign
language without knowledge of structure of their mother tongue?
The basic grammar is necessary to learn to speak a foreign

By the way, the situation of the French teaching is reliable.
The degree equal to ESL/EFL is always required at least
to teach at universities, languages schools. This is common
not only in Japan but also other countries.

How very interesting to share feelings and very similar educational/professional experiences with people from all over the world.

My doing the RSA Diploma in 1992 - about 12 years after my initial training at the British Council in Athens (Greece) - is one of my most cherished experiences! I learnt so much and my teaching developed into a totally different form!

The Objective of Education is Learning, Not Teaching

I am sorry, but I strongly disagree with the idea that a language is learned in the classroom. Any JET who learned Japanese during their stay will mostly tell you that they learned the language through interpersonal interaction. Talking with friends, shopping, going to the bank, etc.

Regardless of how great and sophisticated your teaching program is, JET teachers spend at maximum 4 hours a week per class. That is not enough time to teach a language. Even children who interact with their parents daily take at least 2 years before they are able to communicate on a basic level.

The most we can do as JETs is provide our students with a bridge to a foreign culture and stimulate their interest. Our job is to spark their interestes in the outside world. If your focus is on teaching English, then you have missed the point of the JET program.

The purpose of the JET programme has many subtle and often unspoken objectives, many of which actually have little to do with teaching. Remember the programme is coordinated by three ministries with the Ministry of Education having one the weakest voices.

Additionally, as a former JET participant and soon to be certified teacher, I can honestly say university courses definitely aid in becoming a good teacher, or least being informed in the last pedagogy, assessment techniques and theory. However that being stated, practical experience, character, attitude and the ability to interact with others are some of the most important qualities in being a good teacher. That is not to say being competent is not to be included. Remember teaching is 80% art and 20% science.

An enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree that CELTA courses are highly beneficial, especially given the intensity of practice, observation and feedback provided. However, I also think that Jason Little presents a strong counterpoint to this argument.

I guess it's important to consider not only how we want to teach, but how the Japanese teachers and learners want us to teach. CELTA courses, heavily grounded in the principles of CLT, have been criticised (rightly or wrongly) for attempting to impose a Western paradigm to pedagogy, one that may at times lack ecological validity. Given these concerns and others, perhaps improvements to local education may best be achieved by working closely with the locals, rather than by adopting a generic approach.

An attempt to marry Western with Eastern approaches (for the Chinese market), can be seen in The Fusion Model developed by Fracis Doogan & Maria Bjorning Gyde.

No comments on your article. Actually, I could do with some counselling.

I am very interested in teaching the english language. But I know english as just another subject that i learnt in school. And i really agree that one should learn how to teach in order to be able to teach. one needs to be organised, make lesson plans etc. and there is a technique for all this. it just cannot be a do it yourself thing, with trials and errors.

I know i am way below any of the native speakers when it comes to my english language skills, yet i have the confidence that if i receive the right training i will succeed.

So how do i go about it. what should i study and at which institute. could someone please furnish me with the details. i would be so grateful.

Thank you.

@ Kavita Patil: Despite the above criticisms of certificate courses, I would like to add that I do believe that they provide a solid foundation and should give you the tools and confidence you need to get started. So doing a CELTA (Cambridge) or CertTESOL (Trinity) at a reputable school in your area would be a good start, but doing a DELTA or DipTESOL would be better, and doing both would be ideal, as the intensive course will give you a generally accepted technique and the longer course will give you a greater understanding of how best to adapt your technique to the context you teach.

Kavita, if you want to both improve your English and learn how to teach English, I would suggest studying abroad at a university in the US/UK/etc. Which one depends on your finances, what kind of city you'd like to live in, etc. If you have a bachelor's degree already, then you can apply to the MATESOL programs at places like San Francisco State University, California State University Long Beach, etc. Read the websites, contact people there, ask if you can e-mail current students, etc. Good luck!

Hi Russell,

Thanx for your article on teachers and teaching.

As a late-comer to the teaching game, getting my PGCE at Sheffield in the mid-80s as a mature student (and what an exemplary course that was/is), with 20 years' experience teaching in Japan ( including two years in my early twenties, when I, like you, had no idea what I was doing either), I have lots to say on the topic. But l'll keep it brief by leaning on the shoulders of others.

On the JET program, of which I have no direct experience, although I have talked to dozens of current and ex-JET teachers, please read Arudou Debito's piece and the comments:

"... the “E” in JET does not stand for “English”; it stands for “exchange.” So ... just putting people together — regardless of whether there is any measurable outcome (e.g., test scores, pen pals, babies) — is an “exchange.” Seat youths next to each other and watch them stare. Goal accomplished.

Under a mandate this vague, what are JET teachers here to do? Teach a language? The majority of JETs aren’t formally trained to be language teachers, and even if they were, it’s unclear what they should be doing in class ...

But the bigger point is that Japan’s low English level is not the JET program’s fault. So whose fault is it? Well, after more than two decades’ experience in the industry, I posit that language teaching in Japan suffers from a severe case of group psychosis..."


On the "Why is the teaching of English in Japan so bad?" debate, I feel that most of it is taking place in the wrong paradigm, one that assumes that Japan's rulers WANT English taught well and widely as a means of communication. On the contrary, when I look at Japan's social leaders, top bureaucrats, and politicians, I see mostly reactionary guardians at the ramparts.

It is important that the vast majority of the population be literate and numerate -- that's true of every modern technological society. Japanese schools, being social institutions, achieve those goals.

It is also important the majority of the population does NOT master English as a means of communication. Schools by and large achieve that goal, too.

Although it's a little too long and heavy with Marxist jargon, "Japanese Higher Education as Myth" by Brian McVeigh is full of evidence that supports this view.


Chris Pitts

, just as they do not learn a sense of entitlement to rights (esp. women), to be social critics,

Thanks for all the comments and "Likes" everyone, most gratifying. I will be posting replies end of next week and the second part of this editorial will be published on March 17th.

Had a great interview with Tim Murphey the other day (in relation to his The Tale That Wags book), and many of his concerns about the university entrance exam system impact the things discussed here.

The interview with Tim will be published towards the end of March, after our interview with Robert Murphy goes live next week.

That's right. We only interview people now if their last name sounds like "Murphy".

I find this editorial's point of view to be very common among the postivists/essentialists out there (i.e. people who will only regard what is right in front of them, and what can be quantified, as important). The JET Programme is about three things, in this order:

1) Trade surplus/exchange rate compensator.
2) Anti-xenophobia.
3) A bit of motivation and internationalization for those students who would probably be good at foreign languages anyway.

JET participants send back *billions* of yen to their home countries, every year. This is actually a very important balance to the value-added exports Japan has.

In the little rural town where I was a JET ALT, there were only two foreigners and I was one of them. Without a JET around, most of my students would have gone months or even *years* without seeing a non-ethnic-Japanese face in the flesh, let alone having the courage to speak to that person. JET is about *removing the fear* that so easily morphs into ingrained and very harmful xenophobia. Such a population is extremely easily manipulated into beliefs of nationalism and ethnic superiority, hmmm, haven't seen that before, have we? A population where 95% of kids have grown up with weekly contact with a foreigner, is simply going to not be afraid and not be as easily manipulated.

The teaching, if it happens, is nice. Most ALTs see their classes once a week - so you should be blaming the JTEs who more often than not have zero motivation. The JTEs have the final world on curriculum, questioning, activities, etc, and are in total control 4 days out of 5.

I read your editoral and comments on your website with fear. After just being accepted into the JET program, i am preparing (today) to uproot my family and move to Japan. Do i really want to do this??
I have completed CELTA, taught in Eikawas in Japan for two years, come back to OZ, done a degree in primary teaching and have 2 years teaching experience in ESL.
Seems like a waste to me... Is there another way to teach english in Japan without having to work for a little english school?

Maybe if japanese schools and companies decided to pay half decent rates, then "REAL" teachers would be around a bit more. I left after 6 years, bugger all in the way of a pay increase... what a waste of time. I must say that the experience I gained was invaluable, however.

But as is the way in Japan, the price they pay will always be more important than the quality of service they receive. Until that changes, don't expect any big changes in the ESL industry.

Unless you can get a job at a decent university of course.

CELTA vs MAs and PGCEs
I've met a number of teachers who have done both post-graduate teaching degrees (such as an MA or PGCE) and a CELTA, and feel that the CELTA was the more effective course in terms of improving their teaching skill. I think it is the combination of theory and practice that really tells.

It's important to remember that the CELTA (and to a greater extent the DELTA) tries to encourage a general awareness of WAYS to teach, including the classroom skills needed and the theory behind those ways. It is not prescribing any infallible method.

Behind courses like the CELTA is an an approach to teaching that is generalizable to any subject. For my money, every teacher of every subject could learn something from a course like the CELTA. I wish all my teachers at college had taken something like it and not forced me to suffer!

There's a worthwhile (but potentially misleading) analogy to the skills of public speaking. Those who do it really badly are often untrained. Those who can do it decently have learnt about some of theory behind making a good speech and can entertain and inform a room, where before they simply couldn't. Naturally good public speakers will be made even better by training and naturally bad public speakers will be made bearable and sometimes useful.

Whenever I go to conferences and too many of the presentations by teachers are bad -- I mean, really bad -- I realize I'm probably looking at people who have never learnt how to teach and are just bumbling along, many with an MA, but clearly with no idea about teaching in the classroom.

Teaching and Learning
In the case of teaching (and I think this teaching vs learning sematic dichotomy is past its sell-by date) the skills needed are even more complex of course, including those necessary to create a "learning environment".

When Jason Little says that it's wrong to believe that learning takes place in the classroom I can only assume that he's been taking classes with an untrained teacher or has just seen the results of his own. Clearly learning takes place in lots of situations but in Japan, where there are few natural English-learning situations one would hope that some learning is taking place in the classroom. My simple point is that more learning would take place if teachers were properly trained to help facilitate it.

The JET programme is a whole area that needs to be discussed. I've already acknowledged the arguments concerning its purpose in a previous editorial:


I will go into this further next time, but just as people are fond of saying that the E in JET is for Exchange, I would point out that the T stands for Teaching.

Trained Teachers
As to whether trained teachers make a difference, I would go back to the top of this comment and say it depends on the training. There are bunch of scam TEFL courses out there that should be avoided, and there are courses that purport to train teachers, but really just provide a theoretical background to the subject.

If I want to learn a subject I'd go for someone who has been (properly) trained to help me learn it than someone who is just an expert in it.

This begs the question of what "proper" training is, but that's for next time.

But I would also love to see more proper research on this. Rigourous research into "what works" is another thing that I raised as an important issues in the editorial mentioned above.

Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil if you'd like to check for comments.

Please feel free to post there when you have anything you'd like to share.



Hi Russell;

Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you'd like to check for comments.



Thank you thank you thank you!

Thank you for bringing out to light how important it is to actually get teacher training. I think that really, some of it comes down to actual talent and personality . . . but, I appreciate someone who addresses the fact that just because you speak English doesn't make you qualified to enter a classroom (no offense to your first teaching stint!)

I totally agree with you and studied education in my undergrad as well as got my CELTA last summer.

Hope things are going well for you!

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