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Interview with Rob Waring

rob_waring.jpgRob Waring has been teaching in Japan for 12 years and before that in Australia, China, France and the UK. He has travelled extensively both for work and pleasure and hopes to be able to do that again soon. His research interests inlude Extensive Reading and vocabulary acquisition. He lives in Okayama, 17m above sea level in a lovely house with an English garden (and a pond) with his wife Tomoko, daughter Mariko, and dog Dingo. He is currently an Associate Professor at Notre Dame Seishin Women's University In Okayama.

He spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in September 2002.

About your career in general

ELTNEWS
How and why did you get started in teaching EFL?
Rob
It all started when I got involved in helping Vietnamese refugees. The village where I was living in the UK accepted 2 Vietnamese refugees to help them settle in the UK. I met them and realized just how difficult it would have been for them to integrate both linguistically and culturally. So I started to teach them. I had no idea how to reach at the time.

Looking back now I can laugh but I was pointing at things in the room - curtain, table, book and so on giving them dozens of words they immediately forgot. My language learning theory was 'look and say'. Despite this, their enthusiasm was immense and their desire to learn English was almost scary. I decided I wasn't doing well because they weren't remembering the words and I knew something was wrong (lesson structure and recycling) but I enjoyed doing it and wanted to continue doing it as I travelled around the world.

Therefore I did my first training course in London and loved it. I went back to these two boys and was able to teach them better. I noticed my role changed and their perception of me changed too over the following weeks. I became a teacher rather than a friend because I was intent on honing my teaching skills, not seeing them so much as people. I didn't realize this till much later.

Anyway they left the village and I embarked on another long overland trip spending months in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and elsewhere getting teaching as I could. I found myself back in Western Australia and started teaching at a college there for 3 years before I took my RSA Diploma in Sydney. Then I came to Japan. After coming to Japan I became interested in the research and academic side of teaching, so now I have a foot in both camps, but my heart is still in the classroom.
ELTNEWS
You've been involved in English teaching for almost twenty years. What changes have you seen in the field during that time?
Rob
Not a lot. I still see a lot of new people coming in, but people tend to stay in EFL a bit longer now. There are fewer people who are just in it as a stop gap, or to pay off college debt. There are more older faces now with more experience. Teaching methods haven't changed much, although awareness of different teaching styles has increased. These things can take decades to change. Some people are just catching on to the Communicative Approach while others think it is all passe now.

There is a greater awareness now of the unnecessary separation of grammar and vocabulary and the need to teach more lexically. Text books are still basically the same but more of them are in colour now. Probably I have changed more than the field has, maybe because the questions we have to answer are so difficult.
ELTNEWS
What are your specific areas of interest within EFL and what projects are you currently involved in?
Rob
I have been interested in Extensive Reading for a number of years now. In 1997 I edited a special edition on Extensive Reading which served to stimulate interest in ER within the foreign community in Japan. Since that time, numerous people have become involved and there is a very active community of ER teachers. I'm also involved with a few publishers and their projects, which is fun but time consuming.
ELTNEWS
What prompted you to come and teach in Japan?
Rob
Money! Initially. When I was in travelling China and elsewhere my aim was to come to Japan to get some money to keep traveling and teaching. Then I met my wife...

About EFL In Japan

ELTNEWS
How did you find working in the Japanese university system when you first arrived?
Rob
It took some time to learn that just because you have a good idea that solves an immediate and long-term need does not necessarily mean everyone can see it. Or that everyone has an interest in making it happen. Now I have get used to not trying to overpower people with a billion reasons why XYZ is a good/bad idea, and am working more organically and with much better results. My colleagues tell me (I hope light-heartedly) that when I go grey I will get more respect.
ELTNEWS
You taught in Australia for several years in a multi-lingual environment, where developing English skills was presumably a significant part of the students' integration into society. How does that compare to teaching in Japan, where the need for English is far less defined?
Rob
In Australia, as the college fees were paid by the students themselves rather than their parents, there was a greater desire to learn and get value for money. Also because the students were in the community all the time, their exposure in class was a good balance between things they could understand in class and the, well, 'noise' of native talk outside. The multi-cultural classes and society makes a great environment for learning, and not only English.

In Japan, many college students believe that just sitting in the class is enough and that not doing homework is somehow 'getting one up' on the teacher who they know has to pass them anyway. The idea of learning English rather than studying it has yet to take off here. Luckily, in my college most of the students care about their English and want to try.
ELTNEWS
Do you have any feelings about the moves currently underway by the government to shake up the national universities?
Rob
There are good and bad. Unless tight controls are in place universities will, of course, go for courses and degrees that generate the most yen. They have to. They will try to attract businesses to sponsor courses and get grants for various research projects and have research deals with various organizations. This is fine for the sciences and engineering where there is a lot of money floating around. But it is not so good for the 'pure' sciences, whose road to financial fortune is less clear as their research rarely has a direct impact on consumer products.

I worry more about the arts side of things. It's just not sexy to sponsor an English class, or a comparative culture class. Universities will soon realize that there is no money to be made from these courses other than from fees and will see them as somewhat of a necessary evil.

The good side of this is that universities will realize that some courses should not exist (and have never existed) and will start to see the students as customers who need to be satisfied. But I hope tight controls will exist not to turn universities into the free-wheeling, irresponsible, untethered companies about which we hear so much in Japan nowadays.
ELTNEWS
You're actively involved with both JALT and ETJ. How important do you think it is for teachers to get involved in such organizations?
Rob
Even if teachers know they will be in the industry a short time, they have a responsibility to their students and themselves to know what they are doing in class. Getting involved in these organizations is really important even only as a lurker.

ETJ is much more focused at teachers outside the university system - the ordinary conversation school, high school, cram school, private school, school owner types. The focus is on teaching issues and teaching advice. JALT by contrast, is a bit like a university professors club. Its focus used to be on teaching but is growing more and more academic and this is reflected in the types of presentations one gets at JALT conferences. This is less so at the Chapter level. Both organizations have their roles to play and both are good places to network, find that better job and meet people.
ELTNEWS
You've acquired several postgraduate-level qualifications since coming to Japan. What advice would you offer to any readers who might be considering that path?
Rob
Think why you want to do it first. Is it for vocational reasons, or just personal interest? Would you prefer face-to-face exchanges or can distance learning be an adequate substitute? I'd advise going to a few conferences to get a feel for what type of work you will be expected to produce after the course. For example, if you go to JALT you will see many people present their MA papers and you can see whether you want to be part of that world. Then read up a bit in your chosen areas and choose a course that suits your needs.

When you write your dissertation, it is very important to remember that it does not have to be a world-class piece of work. 'Good enough' is a very important concept. Also, keep plugging away at the thesis and all will work out well. When you get lost, or bored, or scared what the dissertation will look like, and if you're going in the right direction (we all do!), read a bit more and talk to people to get ideas. And talk to your supervisor. S/he is being paid to help, not to leave you alone.
ELTNEWS
I believe you're a fan of the Manchester United soccer team. So no doubt you're familiar with the David Beckham craze that started in Japan during the World Cup and has only recently cooled off. The young women unashamedly swooning over the English star form the very core of the English conversation school market. Do you see a relationship between the attraction of such foreign "idols" and the unfaltering demand to learn English?
Rob
I certainly hope not. I see the two as co-incidental because there are millions who swoon over David Beckham who can hardly say hello and would never even step foot in a conversation class if you paid them. And I certainly hope that the swooning girls do not come to my class just so they can dream of David Beckham. I'd prefer they had a more positive reason for learning English. After all he is already married!

Although most Japanese people do not need English, and 20 years from now they will not need English in their daily lives, I have met very few Japanese who would not like to be able to speak it. But the vast, vast majority are not willing to invest time, effort and energy to do so. Mostly because they don't need to. The unfaltering demand to learn English comes mostly from need or dreams.

Most people need English to pass a test, get a license, get a better job and to dream of one day being able to have conversations with people in English and understand movies in the original. Others feel that learning English gives them a form of escapism from their ordinary lives and gives them hope they will be able to leave Japan one day.

On a more personal level

ELTNEWS
Many of our readers are no doubt unfamiliar with Okayama, the area where you live and teach. Tell us a little about the area and life there.
Rob
I have lived in Osaka, Kobe and Okayama. By far and away I prefer Okayama. The roads are clearer, the sea, the mountains are nearby (at the back of my house actually which is 10 minutes from the Shinkansen) and the pace more relaxed and less frenetic than Tokyo or Kansai. No, the food isn't any fresher out in the countryside! That said I'm lucky enough to travel every month or so out of Okayama and if I need the 'big city excitement' I can get it then.
ELTNEWS
You have a young child. Do you have any qualms about putting her through the Japanese education system?
Rob
My 8 year old daughter is doing well at school here. We have no great ambitions for her to follow me into academia, but to let her find her own way. Today she said she wants to be an English Garden Designer like her mum. But tomorrow ...

We have a house rule that my Japanese wife, myself and Mariko all speak English when daddy is home. This is good for her English, but not so good for her acculturation to Western things and ways of thinking. For example I doubt she could name one famous non-Japanese singer, know who the Queen of England is, or have any idea about the capital of Australia. Her thought patterns are very strongly Japanese, too. So I hope in a year's time or so we can send her to the UK or Australia for a year. She had a year in the UK when she was 4 which was great for her.

I'm not particularly worried about the Japanese education system if she has the right attitude. And if she has the right teacher who can manage the troublesome kids and expand her mind. She has yet to find anything that sets her on fire (apart from Harry Potter which we listen to in the car everyday), but she is still only 8.
ELTNEWS
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Rob
Sitting at this same computer.



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