Features on ELTNEWS.com View All Features
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

Interview with Tom Merner

tom_merner.jpgTom Merner has been teaching in Japan for 18 years and owns a conversation school in Yokohama. He currently teaches a "Teaching English to Children" methods course at the Japan College of Foreign Languages. He has served as a member of the Ministry of Education's authoring committee on the Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities. He is co-editor of the "Teachers Learning with Children" newsletter of the JALT Teaching Children SIG. He is also involved in the production of the popular NHK childen's series "Eigorian" and "Super Eigorian".

Tom spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in October 2002.

About teaching in Japan

ELTNEWS
You have some 18 years experience of teaching in Japan. How and why did you get started?
Tom
I actually started as a part-time substitute teacher at a very small English conversation school when I was in college. Although being interested in teaching English, since my mother and grandparents were all English teachers in Japan, I had no intention of taking it up as a career. I guess the decision of starting to teach at home after my employer refused to give me a full time position kind of dragged me into where I am now. I have always loved teaching and have enjoyed watching the happy faces of kids having fun, discovering things, and learning. Over the years, I have enjoyed teaching students of all ages and can't think of having another job now.
ELTNEWS
What changes have you observed in English teaching since the early 1980s?
Tom
I started teaching when the audiolingual method was still popular. The school I first taught at used textbooks filled with sentence pattern drills and I remember watching the tired faces of students having to repeat and mechanically practice the sentences in the books. There weren't so many fun ideas for teaching kids either and a lot of copy and practice was being done in workbooks. Thanks to all the development in materials and methods, and the idea sharing among teachers, we currently have so much to choose from and I think many students can benefit from such developments. One thing that hasn't changed is the limited time we have with students and I feel there still are some students and parents out there thinking that just coming to an English conversation school with native instructors once a week will make them bilinguals.
ELTNEWS
You started your own school in Yokohama back in 1987. Was it a difficult process? How long did it take you to get the school established? What were some of the hurdles?
Tom
I started a year before at a different location after having to leave a school where I was teaching part-time. I had about 10 students and a company teaching position (and also worked part-time during the day at a construction site!). Then I took over what was supposed to be an established school from a person I knew. There were over 60 students until I started and then that number fell to something like 10 in the following two months. The lucky thing was it was spring time and I managed to gather about 20 new students.

I remember running around the neighborhood putting flyers in mailboxes (I still do it once in a while) and trying to find better ways of advertising. I guess I was fairly lucky and my school grew to a decent size in several years. Since then the school has gone up to somewhere around 200 students with several locations to teach but is currently steadily rolling down the hill. I've been through a lot of this and that and ups and downs along the way. One of the biggest difficulties I have had is hiring part-time teachers. With a small school like mine, it is so hard to find good teachers willing to stay. Then again, it could be due to my lack of managerial skills.

ELTNEWS
In addition to running your own school, you also teach future teachers at third-level institutions. Much has been said about the lack of motivation of Japan's college students and the colleges' failure to really address the issue. Are the students that you teach part of the problem or hopefully part of the solution?
Tom
I am not sure whether they are part of the solution, but I hope they can grow up to be so. Fortunately, I have a bunch of motivated students. It is probably because I teach a specialized course (teaching English to children) rather than a general English course where, many teachers are struggling with unmotivated students. Most of my students have clear hopes of becoming children's English teachers and they seem to understand how much effort it takes. The sad thing is that although there is a strong demand for English for children, many of the full time jobs go to native speakers and many of my students seem to have a hard time finding full time positions after all the efforts they go through. This is recently becoming a demotivating factor for our students.
ELTNEWS
You're also very involved in JALT and its Teaching Children Special Interest Group (SIG). Tell us about that.
Tom
I joined JALT about 10 years ago when I thought it would be a good place to learn about teaching and gather new ideas since I was kind of isolated in my own world at my school. The annual conferences have always been a good stimulation for me and they have been the place I meet new friends in the same field. I joined the Teaching Children SIG just after it was established. I volunteered as the newsletter co-editor thinking it would be a good way to pay back for all I had gotten from JALT. I guess that was when I got tangled up in the volunteering web J and have taken up several positions since. JALT Junior was a great success last year, and I hope we can see many people attend again this year in Shizuoka.

About educational reform

ELTNEWS
Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)? Was it a productive or a frustrating experience?
Tom
I was introduced to MEXT by Yuri Kuno, who I consider my mentor, and was added to the authoring committee of the Handbook for Elementary School English Activities. I must say it was quite a frustrating experience since we were told there was a limited amount of time and I personally didn't feel we had a real chance to discuss about the contents of the book or what English activities within the Sogo timeframe were to be like. I still think a much better job could have been done and hope they MEXT provides more forums for such discussions about what the needs of the teachers are and what is and should actually go on in the classrooms.

However, I must also say that I learned a lot from the experience and it let me meet many people I hadn't known before then. It also let me see what was actually going on at public elementary schools and I have learned a lot since. I also served as a teacher trainer for the MEXT teacher training seminars last year. This was another learning experience and I also thought more discussions and preparations could have led to a better program.

ELTNEWS
How hopeful are you that recent changes in the education system, in particular the introduction of English classes in public elementary schools, will bring about real improvement in the English level of Japan's students?
Tom
As one involved in the field, I hope a lot is done in the near future. Many teachers are still struggling without decent support. The aims and teaching methodologies have not been made clear and I hope a lot of research is done in this area. I can't really say whether this change will lead to a big change in the overall level of English among Japanese students, but I know it does have a potential. It would all depend on how things develop and how much support can be provided to the teachers. With a rumor saying that English will become a formal subject of elementary schools in the near future, I hope more discussions will take place, including seeking ways of linking elementary school English and junior high. Unless these take place, there may be no changes at all.
ELTNEWS
Are there any reforms that are not being implemented that you think should be?
Tom
Well, this may not answer your question, but I personally feel that the newly implemented Sogotekina Gakushu no Jikan, where English is placed as one of the options, has a great potential in changing education in Japan all together. I am not saying this only for English being included. I believe the basic concepts of Sogo aim to change the Japanese education system from a system that tries to produce diligent passive learners to a system that aims to develop children who can reach out and seek for answers and solutions for queries they have based on their own interests. The cut of instructional contents also aims to provide more space and time for children to digest the incoming information rather than trying to cram them with more information.

Unfortunately, many in Japan do not seem to understand this intention and you hear about cram schools and others criticizing MEXT for lowering the educational standards of the Japanese children. Some teachers are also reluctant to implement such changes.

We are seeing so many problems in Japanese schools from elementary all the way up to the university level and I truly hope more discussions and research can be seen to improve the current situation.

About material development

ELTNEWS
You're a co-author of the "English Time 1" Teacher's Manual and an advising editor for two other works. Do you see yourself getting further involved in publishing?
Tom
To tell you the truth I personally feel I am better a teacher than a writer. I was so glad to be able to share my ideas and it was a great experience working on such projects but I must say they are demanding in time and energy especially when having a full teaching load at the same time. Another thing I have learned is the limits of textbooks and teacher manuals. Although textbooks and manuals are often essential for teachers, especially for those who are new to the field, it is the teacher and his / her ideas and beliefs in teaching that creates the lessons.

I believe it is extremely important for teachers to hone their skills to use the material they have as springboards and to devise them to cater the needs of the students they have. I must say that teacher training is important along with the experience teachers accumulate in the classroom and this is the area I am currently interested in.

ELTNEWS
I took a look at NHK's web site for "Eigorian" and "Super Eigorian", which you've been involved in. Having been involved in edutainment software development, I can say that it's very well done, though difficult to navigate without Japanese ability. How successful has it been? How widely used is it?
Tom
I think I can say the programs themselves are a revolutionary development for English education programs, especially in Japan. The original concept was to provide supporting material for the Japanese elementary school teachers who have no English teaching backgrounds and a lack of confidence and competence in speaking English. Fortunately, the programs have become very popular among children watching them in elementary school classrooms and also younger ones watching at home. I have also heard there are some older fans, too. Many teachers have started using the programs to teach English. This may explain why it may be difficult for non-Japanese to navigate through the sites. They are basically there to support the Japanese teachers, providing them with extra material and teaching ideas.

The children's section is also popular with the games linked to the programs. I only have old figures but the Eigorian site receives over 2 million hits per month and has kept the second most popular position among all NHK websites, following the NHK News site. I can also add that the program and site recently received the Italian Grand Prix as the best program linked with a website.

On a more personal level

ELTNEWS
How do you find living and working in Yokohama? Is seems a slightly more relaxed and cosmopolitan place than the neighboring Tokyo. Is that true?
Tom
I am not sure about Yokohama being more relaxed since it is getting more and more crowded year after year. I can say that you don't really need to go into Tokyo for shopping or other needs since Yokohama has almost everything Tokyo provides. I do love Yokohama since it is where I have lived for almost 15 years and also for several years as a child. However, after visiting some of the local cities last year for presentations, I now feel there are many nice places to live around Japan. It could be just my impression, but I did feel that life in such cities is more relaxed and human without the rush and pressure you find in major cities like Tokyo and Yokohama.
ELTNEWS
Where do you see yourself in five years' time?
Tom
An early retirement allowing me to enjoy my free time sounds nice, but I think I will still be in a classroom having fun with kids.



« Interview with Rob Waring | Main | Interview with Jared Bernstein »


Recent Entries

Recent Comments

Comments

Events

World Today