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Interview with Steven Gershon

steven_gershon.gifSteven Gershon had taught EFL in Britain, France, and China before arriving to Japan. He has been teaching in Japan for 13 years and is currently the Director of the English Language Program at Obirin University. Being a glutton for punishment, he also writes textbooks. When he is not teaching or writing, he is swimming at Tipness, scuba diving in the Philippines, wind surfing at Enoshima or slurping lattes at Starbucks. (Spring 2000)

On Japan

What brought you to Japan?
A job. I had taught for two years in China (1982-84) and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics in Britain (Reading University). Having just completed my MA, I was offered a job for the summer teaching foreign students on the Reading University pre-sessional program. It was during that time (1985) that the head of the Foreign Language Center of Tokai University came to Reading to recruit teachers. I was interested in returning to Asia and so I interviewed for a teaching job. I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history.
What advice would you give to prospective teachers thinking of teaching in Japan?
  • Don't expect a (good) job to fall into your lap immediately upon arrival. The competition is stiff these days and there are a lot of well-qualified teachers in Japan.
  • Remember that although the salaries are generally high compared to back home, the cost of living is also high.
  • Come with minimal expectations about the diligent, hardworking, educated Japanese students you've heard or read about.
  • Get involved with a local JALT chapter in order to network, learn more about the profession here and upgrade your skills.
  • Talk with lots of seemingly happy teachers and find out what they do in their classrooms that work.
  • Avoid teachers who are here only for the money and should have gone home ages ago. They'll drain your psyche.
  • When things go wrong and you blame your students for their inability to speak or understand the simplest of English utterances, remember...how much Spanish or French could you speak after all those years of lessons in junior and senior high school?
How does the working in the Japanese university system compare with those of other countries you have worked in?
The only other university systems I have worked in have been in China, Britain and France, so I am not an expert. However, in my limited experience, I have found that institutional structures are in many ways similar, with only slight cultural variations: there is a clear professorial pecking order, work loads are not always divided evenly, tenure is often awarded or refused based on less than transparent criteria, departments can be very protective of their turf, educational innovations tend to be a long time in discussion before implementation, the most eminent researchers and professors are not always the best teachers, students do want to learn something of value and are willing to work within reasonable limits to accomplish their goals, most teachers are more than willing to go out of their way to help motivated students make the most of their time and study.

On Japanese Students

It is generally acknowledged that the level of English proficiency among Japanese -- despite the amount of money spent on EFL in the country -- is below average compared to other countries. What are your views on this?
This is a tough one to answer without descending into gross generalizations. It is true that Japanese TOEFL scores are on average lower than in other developed countries as well as other Asian countries. This is probably due to the fact that more low-level Japanese learners take the TOEFL test as a matter of course than in other countries. This skews the national average to be sure. However, it's also true that certain conditions here in Japan -- cultural, social, educational -- may serve to inhibit learners from attaining a proficiency level more in sync with the number of hours/energy/money they spend on the study of English.

There seems to be a certain cultural ambivalence about foreign language study in general which often translates into governmental and institutional indecision. Teachers are often inadequately trained and overworked; students are often bundled into huge, anonymous, multi-leveled classes that have no chance of success whatsoever--no matter who the teacher might be; the topics, texts and exponents taught and tested often bear no resemblance to that which might be useful or interesting to the learners. Nonetheless, in my thirteen years here, I have also had a large number of excellent students who have attained a good solid proficiency level.
How do you compare Japanese students with those of other nationalities you have taught?
Once again, a blanket generalization is dangerous and misleading. However, it's probably fair to say that in my experience Japanese students, compared to others I have taught, do tend to be... more reticent to speak up in class, less likely to volunteer opinions in open discussion, less eager to shed the comfort of rote memorization for the risk of error, more likely to use Japanese instead of English in class when unsupervised on task. These 'tendencies', however, are not 'problems', as far as I'm concerned. They are simply fluid and changeable realities that I must consider when I am writing materials and structuring activities for my own classroom.
What activities or exercises do you do for a class you have met for the first time? Do you have a personal favorite?
I walk into class and don't say anything, I just stand in front of them. I then tell them my first name and ask them to just look at me carefully. I then ask them to write down three statements about me that they think are true, e.g., 'Steve likes Sports' or 'Steve is British'. I remind them not to write statements that are obvious facts, like 'Steve has brown hair." Students then compare their statements with a partner and select the ones they agree with. I then get various students to make the statements outloud to me and I tell them if they are correct or not.

Finally, I ask students to pair up with someone in class they don't know very well. They then make statements about their partner. Students usually have a lot of fun with this activity and they have the opportunity to learn something about their teacher and each other. It's also a good activity to drive home the point that you "can't always tell a book by its cover."

On Publications & Presenting

How did you get into writing course textbooks?
The usual way. I was teaching and having varying degrees of success with the published materials I was using, all the while supplementing with activities of my own. Eventually, I got the idea that I could write something at least as good as the stuff I was using. So a colleague (Chris Mares) and I tinkered a bit with some ideas, got some information about what publishers expect from a book proposal, cobbled together a proposal along with a sample unit, and took it to one of the major publishers at a JALT conference. Millions of hours, thousands of faxes, two different publishers, two bruised egos (ours), and countless drafts later we were given a contract to write Online for Heinemann (now Macmillan). Then the real work began.
What advice would you give to prospective textbook/material writers? What essential points must be covered before submitting proposals and ideas to publishers?
Though there is some variation between publishers on what format they require for a proposal, generally speaking all publishers will want a survey of the competition to show you have thought about where your book might fit in their list, a rationale for the book in terms of its approach and/or methodology, an overview of its distinctive features in terms of what will make it unique in relation to the competition, a syllabus of at least the first level of the book, and finally a sample unit.

This all seems very daunting to the budding writer, especially when he or she has a full-time (or many part-time) jobs impinging on their time. However, it is important to do this groundwork, as it shows the publisher that you are serious and willing to make a commitment -- and it is a serious time commitment. That said, most publishers, if they see a spark of something they like or something that may fit well with their upcoming publishing plans, are more than willing to work with the prospective author to bring the proposal up to the required standard for submission.
What resources (e.g. books, web sites, teacher organizations) have been beneficial to your professional development as an educator? What resources would you strongly recommend to a teacher?
It's difficult for me to pinpoint just a few, as I've been teaching for more than twenty years now. However, a few of the books that have had an impact on my view of language teaching have been: "Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching" by H.H. Stern; "Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching" by Richards and Rogers; "The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching" by Brumfit and Johnson; "Communicative language Teaching" by W. Littlewood; "Foreign and Second Language Learning" by W. Littlewood; "Exploring Spoken Language" by Carter and McCarthy.

I also belong to JALT and TESOL, and keep up with what's going on both in research and in the professional aspects of our field through their monthly and quarterly publications. These days as well I find myself logging on more and more to excellent ELT web sites such as TESOL, ELT News, etc. All in all, there are so many good and useful publications, web sites and resources, it can all be a bit daunting to the busy teacher looking for ways to stay tuned with developments in ELT. Nonetheless, I do keep trying.
How many presentations do you give every year? How do you select the theme of your presentations? What themes are you going to cover in future events and conferences?
This past year I gave somewhere around 20 presentations, which was rather a lot. Normally, I'd say I do around 10-15 presentations a year, mainly at conferences like JALT, TEL, Korea TESOL, Thai TESOL and ETAROC (Taiwan TESOL). However, I also sometimes do workshops at colleges or schools for teachers who are using one of my textbooks, and this past year I was fortunate to be able to join in the English Educators' Professional Development lecture tour and the Yomiuri--Macmillan Language House Seminar series.

The themes I cover in my workshops and presentations generally concern either my work at Obirin University or my textbooks, areas such as curriculum design, oral language testing, teaching conversation skills, developing listening skills and teaching about culture. Whatever I present on, I try to aim for a good balance of principles, theory and practice.

On the Profession

A significant number of schools in Japan, particularly in the conversation school sector, don't require teaching job applicants to have any formal teaching qualifications. What are your views on this?
I certainly would not myself like to be paying good money to a school and be expending countless hours of energy trying to learn at a school that doesn't make sure their teachers are professionally qualified. That said, I also don't think one has to have an MA to be an effective, successful classroom teacher. The key for me is the role the teacher is expected to play in the design of the curriculum, the development of the materials and the assessment of the learning outcomes.

If a teacher is expected to simply implement a pre-designed curriculum and use a prescribed text, then I would say that what is most important is for the teacher to have ample training in the classroom skills appropriate for the particular teaching situation, and enough professional knowledge to understand why a particular curriculum or syllabus is being used. If, however, a teacher is expected to make a contribution to the overall planning of the program's goals, curriculum and material, then he or she must have a strong grounding in EFL methodology.
Finally. What major changes have you seen in the ELT field since you entered the profession?
I entered the profession around 1978, which is not quite as long ago as Mario Rinvolucri, the last interviewee, but still long enough, I suppose, to have seen a few changes.

In general, I guess the biggest change, as Mario pointed out last month, is the explosive growth in the ELT field itself. Indeed, ELT, with its publishing , teacher training, conferences, internet technology and such, has become a major world import and export. Great for all of us in the profession, to be sure, though one may question whether students these days are learning English any quicker or better than they were before. I'd like to think they are, but...

When I entered the ELT field, it was via the RSA certificate course in London and then, soon after, the MA in Applied Linguistics in Britain (Reading University). At that time, if I remember correctly, the notional functional syllabus was being presented as 'the way forward', and its proponents were providing learners and teachers with lots of new, interesting materials to choose from, and providing MA students like myself with lots of fodder for thesis work. Moreover, at that time, I seem to remember, a prominent feature of (heated) ELT discussions was the relationship, if any, of (applied) linguistics and language teaching.

Of course, the functional syllabus, or at least some variation of it, is still being used a great deal today all over the world, as is the traditional grammar-based syllabus (and the discussions about the relationship, if any, between linguistics and ELT). However, what is a more recent development is the corpus-based approach to language teaching and, related to that, the work done on spoken grammar. Though I'm not sure what kind of prevalence this work has had yet in the ELT field world-wide, I find it exciting and important, and imagine that its impact will increase. The key will be to link the data and findings with classroom methodology that can work with large numbers of students.

Perhaps another obvious development in ELT has been the increased emphasis on learner autonomy and content-based teaching approaches. We see most new textbooks these days including more 'content', instead of just functions and situations, as well as more and more work on developing transferable learning strategies, in other words, helping students learn how to learn.

I think all of the changes I've mentioned are positive and necessary for the development of ELT. However, as Mario hinted last month, in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I agree that methodological change continues to be uneven. Here in Japan, for example, one usually only has to walk a few steps down the corridor from one classroom to another to see the gamut of new and old approaches being used. As change tends to be cyclic, I'm sure this will always be the case. Nonetheless, cyclic or not, life is change and change always brings new possibilities for further growth.

Amidst it all, I am happy to be in the ELT profession and still find that I have lots to learn.

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