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Interview with Thom Simmons

thom_simmons.gifThom Simmons has been teaching in Japan for over 13 years and is currently a lecturer at Nihon University. Simmons has been very active in JALT at both local and national level and was elected as JALT President in January this year. (February 2000. Simmons served as JALT President until July 2002.)

On Japan

ELTNEWS
What brought you to Japan?
Thom
Big airplane. I had a clinical doctorate and I wanted to practice in Asia and that was that.
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to prospective educators thinking of teaching in Japan?
Thom
Look before you leap. There are lots of success stories, people with good positions, but I also see a lot of horror stories. People get here and find it is not what they wanted or what they agreed on and they are then bullied and threatened into working under the impossible situation they find themselves in. It doesn't matter whether it is a public or private agency - it happens. Others find the atmosphere fine but the pay so niggardly when it is used here in Japan they have little money to do anything. Others are worked to a frazzle and on and on it goes. Usually, what are basically bad employer practices in the UK or USA are going to be true here as well. A deal is a deal, indentured servitude is outlawed. Employers can not unilaterally fire you, heap more work on you, cut your pay, throw you out of company sponsored housing, seize wages etc, without permission from a court and the proper due process -- unless they are acting outside the law. It is very important to get in touch with the Labor Administration here so that you are aware of your rights and responsibilities. You are covered under the Labor Standards Law or Labor Union Law and those laws need to be employed to prevent abuses.

Second, don't show up broke. You may end up getting backed into a corner and forced to accept poor working conditions. When you leave you may end up hating the place and that is no good either. Teaching in Japan is deteriorating in many areas. Teachers are being laid off, job markets are shrinking. There are many situations where Japanese women and non-Japanese are singled out for abusive practices. We hear the encouraging story occasionally and we need more of them documented but recent events at a number of schools, public and private, indicate that the courts are divided over what the law means and the resultant confusion is being exploited by unscrupulous employers. Not a good time to come to work in Japan.
ELTNEWS
How does working in the Japanese university system compare with those of other countries you have worked in?
Thom
Lots of similarities. There is a major shift to temporary or limited employment. It is causing a lot of folks to give education in any field a miss and I can not blame them.

There are also some very big differences. Tenure is earned in the States and terminating employment according to age is illegal. Permanent employment, not tenure, is the norm in Japan, with little critical peer review or research required for most Japanese males. But the assumption of permanent employment is markedly restricted for Japanese women and non-Japanese. Research overall seems to be a very minor priority in Japan unlike the States. It must be pointed out though that there are research universities and education schools so the emphasis on research is a function of the type of institution. However, it does not seem that the billions of dollars spent every year in the States at tertiary institutions will ever be matched here in Japan. For that reason, the huge industries that have been born at tertiary institutions in the States (biological, chemical and telecommunications-based industries for example) are not part of the academic landscape here in Japan.

Degrees are usually done at separate institutions in the States. Most degrees are done at the same institution here. My professors in the States might have, say, a BA from Rutgers, an MA from Cornell and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, and yet they were teaching at another university. As far as I know, this is also true of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Britain. Here in Japan it is often the case that faculty have received all their degrees in one school and may be teaching at that same school -- no cross-fertilization, no mix, just tepid stew. It is a big problem that places emphasis on politics and not education and research.

Another difference, publications are usually juried and open to anyone who qualifies in the States and Britain. There are a lot of internal publications in Britain but there is a good balance between the publications that are usually no more than internal bulletins and good juried publications. It is quite the opposite here. Internal-only publications are the norm. Blind peer review juries are unusual. Getting a paper published from outside the university is usually only done with a faculty member at that university. It is not the same thing at all. Another big difference that I see is the very low priority placed on libraries.

These observations are pretty much well known and widely shared.

On Japanese Students

ELTNEWS
How are Japanese students different to the other nationalities you have taught?
Thom
Not what the political propaganda machine and the press would have us believe. Thirty to forty years ago their parents and grandparents were hungry, they wanted to learn, they studied. Now the students are pampered. They go through the exam driven nonsense at secondary schools and below and then they hit the four-year vacation. They are meeting schools that care nothing for their education and the employers return the favor by not hiring them, or they are confronted with faculties that will flunk them. They may wake up if given ample warning. Usually the first harsh year will do it for many students but most just muddle through and if the schools stand by passively, automatically graduating them -- the job market will have its own pitiless answer for this sloth. Employers are less and less willing to pay for their employee's education if they show up clueless the first day.
ELTNEWS
It is generally acknowledged that the level of English proficiency among Japanese -- despite the amount of money spent on ELT in the country -- is below average compared to other countries. What are your views on this?
Thom
They can not read it, speak it or write it. I might put first year university students somewhere between the 1st and 8th grade reading levels in the States, speaking below 1st grade and writing somewhere between kindergarten and 3rd grade. How it compares to other countries? You'd have to delineate the countries. I know high school students who speak a foreign language fluently in the States and then many who don't. You need to stipulate the school and the country. Here it seems pretty uniform.

On Professionalism

ELTNEWS
A significant number of schools in Japan don't require teaching job applicants to have any formal teaching qualifications. What are your views on this?
Thom
Well, what do the conversation schools sell their clients? Do they say their clients will be taught how to speak and use English or be entertained by a gaijin? My information thus far is that there is a lot of subterfuge taking place. The agreement between the client and the agent here must be the deciding factor. After that, the national Labor Standards Law and the immigration laws and policies are to be obeyed. On the other hand, in an actual school that is concerned with education and research, the teaching credentials are paramount at the undergraduate level to be sure. Once the students can communicate in the foreign language, then the issue shifts to credentials in the specific area being studied. So if you study French, you need qualified teachers who can teach you how to communicate in French before you move on to 14th century French literature.
ELTNEWS
What resources have been beneficial to your professional development as an educator?
Thom
Tremendously varied with the classes I teach. JALT in Japan is a good place for language teachers and others interested in related disciplines. TESOL has branches in other countries as does IATEFL. JALT is an affiliate of both here and we promote their activities since they are actively involved in the same goals as JALT

On JALT

ELTNEWS
How and when did you get involved with JALT? How has JALT helped you as a language teaching professional?
Thom
Back in 1988 I was working with a group of teachers who had a group membership. We went to the conference in Kobe and that was all she wrote. Great weekend. The conference was good then and they have improved.

JALT is a college really. You will find your peers there and they will provide the interaction needed to improve professionally. You will also get to stretch your self and learn different things. Taking jobs administering JALT's affairs is a great way to get a more rounded perspective on what the education systems entail. Rather than simply being an employee who clocks in and clocks out or a member of the audience who pays their fee and sits in the bleachers, you see the other side of the issue.
ELTNEWS
What prompted you to get involved in JALT at a national level? What are your goals for JALT in your term as President?
Thom
I have friends in JALT who were working at the national level. I am very team oriented. Joining them was the natural thing to do.

We have to get JALT up to speed on the responsibilities and the opportunities this new NPO law has brought to the table. We also need greater visibility and to increase membership - that is always a priority. For these two reasons, the chapters and the SIGs (Special Interest Groups) and the publications are day-to-day concerns for the Directors. It is a big job and the logistics are very complicated at times. The conference is a major part of any Director's life as well. With all this in mind, keeping people focused and making sure they get the support they need to do their work is a primary aspect of the President's job.
ELTNEWS
A lot of teachers, even those who have been in Japan for many years, have never heard of JALT. What's being done to make JALT more known?
Thom
We have advertisements for book fairs, regional conferences, chapter meetings and the annual conference, the publications are sold in bookstores, there is word of mouth and there is the occasional article in an English daily but by and large, that sort of exposure, especially in a population that changes quite a bit, would require an advertising budget that is not really within our grasp at present.
ELTNEWS
What do you say to those who comment that they are not getting 'value for money' from the 10,000 yen annual membership fee?
Thom
Nonsense. The publications alone are worth two and a half times the entire membership fee at the very least. In JALT, you get far more than what you pay for. On the other hand, if they want something that JALT does not promise, then the question can not really be answered.

JALT is a volunteer organization. Folks who pay their money and expect to be entertained are missing the point. JALT gives its best value for those who get involved. Onlookers who have come to be entertained are not going to get the most for their money.
ELTNEWS
How far do you think should JALT get involved in labor dispute cases such as the current Gallagher .v. Asahikawa University case?
Thom
Involved? That is very ambiguous. I have a question that is more grounded in the context here: How does this and similar cases concern JALT? JALT can provide, therefore it must provide a balanced research and debate forum for these issues. There are two sides at the very least to every issue. We need to be aware of these perspectives and how they affect language education. The issues are relevant to JALT's mission because they have a profound effect on the quality as well as the future of language education. It is also important in that they effect the welfare of Japan -- we are a public interest Non Profit Organization. This all places it squarely in any professional's portfolio.

Why does it have a profound effect? Simple. If anyone entering the field in Japan is expected to have an advanced degree and can only expect temporary employment, then the whole system shuts down. Why enter a field wherein the only professional track is the boot? Second, temporary laborers who are just picking up a few extra yen to pose as teachers can not be expected to teach nearly as effectively as those prepared to do so. Japan's government agencies, families and courts must be committed to a genuine effort to educate their children and to make sure that there are qualified personnel for continued education throughout life. Treating these people as unskilled labor good only for hourly wages or piecework is a tragedy that must not continue. The damage this will do to any nation is magnified in a small country with few natural resources. Japan's primary resource is its people -- neglect their education and training and Japan is imperiled. It is essential that these cases like Asahikawa be discussed openly. Discussion and research into these matters is within our purview. Beyond that, the matter lies with the courts and the unions.



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