Why English teachers in Japan feel like frauds and what to do about it

An issue that is difficult to pinpoint within the English as a foreign language (EFL) teaching profession is about teachers who have joined the ranks without the proper training, and then continue to work. There are lots of people who find themselves teaching English as a default job, or it was an opportunity that arose, and they took it. After all, as the adage is thought, “if you can do something, you can teach it” and your language seems be an easy path to teach. But, this myth can quickly dissipate as the teacher finds himself or herself bored, and often not knowing what to do, leading to all sorts of problems-from disillusionment to other feelings of dissatisfaction.

Some commercial schools have taken their ‘teacher-training’ and minimalized it to the point where the new hires are given mostly instruction on how to fill out forms such as transportation and taxes in Japanese. For those that have more training, there are cases where the new trainee is to shadow a teacher who has been in the country longer. These trainers are often either new themselves, or just experienced in teaching, but have no idea how to train. This can lead to a situation where sometimes “the blind are leading the blind”. Many of the experienced teachers will think of this new mentoring obligation as a pain and will do the bare minimum to not get in trouble, which is not what a new hire really needs to start their career here.

Negligence is often due to cost savings and lack of resources, but these difficult starts are not only limited to privately run language schools either as it can also occur with government schools, private Jukus and post-secondary institutions. There are also a number of dispatch companies that range from extremely professional and competent all the way down to absolute basics for their new teachers.

Imposter Syndrome

Ever get that feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing?

A news report a decade ago highlighted the resulting difficulties for those serious about a career through EFL teachers in Europe becoming depressed from their work because of a number of different issues that arose from working as teachers. Those interviewed described feeling like they were ‘frauds’, and getting depressed. Students would complain that they were not learning and the lessons were always essentially the same – just ‘free conversation’ or reading from a book-without actually learning. These complaints created self-doubt and a loss of confidence and motivation for the teachers within their careers with many quitting.

For teachers who have been mistreated after getting hired (by not getting proper training) what is important is to ensure that they get themselves the required education. While credentials are vital for career advancement and an excellent way to show employers that the holder has taken the time and commitment to complete the requirements – it is the continued and motivated education about teaching that can be a career changer.

There are numerous cost-effective ways to reverse the knowledge gap and to start to learn about the industry. The education journey for many includes just starting to learn and talk with other professionals who are already well established. Books, magazines, seminars, and courses are available with different theories and techniques on how to apply methods to the classroom.

Once started, many are surprised at the sheer volume of materials that are available, and that they can be interesting and useful. The applicable pedagogical materials that are relevant for any English teaching setting will be refreshing, and breathe new life into any educator’s day. Another immediate impact is that there are also a variety of ways to gauge what a student needs and the best way to fill those needs. As students positively respond, and teaching improves, most will find the negative aspects of the job quickly begin to fade. And for educators with curiosity, these first steps can lead to a lifetime of further learning.

The options in Japan include attending courses (from short term to full graduate degrees), getting online (for webinars, YouTube and publications for lectures and lessons) and reading literature in the field (books, magazines and journal articles). Joining organizations such as JALT or ELT are great segues’ into professional seminars and other platforms (along with networking).

A few years ago Tom Peters gave the advice to workers that we should view ourselves as ‘independent contractors’, no matter what the employment was. This can be applied to everything from engineers to doctors but works particularly well if practiced by language professionals in Japan. Learn your skillset well, then be prepared to transfer it to other jobs (and even areas). Decades after working their first English teaching jobs (even teachers that had no training at all), if they took advantage of their time teaching they regularly found themselves as professors (or other professionals) who were better organized, and great communicators.

The first step to improvement is through your own self-driven education. If your company doesn’t teach you to do your job, teach yourself, so that not only will you be passionate about what you do but you will be good enough at it to say with pride, “I am a teacher”.

Richard Miller
Richard Miller
Richard Miller is currently the Job Information Centre (JIC) editor for the JALT Language Teacher. He has published numerous articles on employment issues, getting employment and improving resumes for teaching professionals. He holds a M.Ed and MBA and is an associate professor at Kobe Gakuin University in the Business Administration Department in Kobe.

6 Comments

  1. Takeshi says:

    It’s shocking that you don’t admonish the companies that hire these people without giving them proper training. Those companies don’t deserve any profit if they do nothing and it’s grossly irresponsible of them to conduct business that way. It’s not the teachers that are the frauds, it’s the companies behaving so unethically!

  2. Jack Frost says:

    Personally, I have left no stone unturned in trying to do this job well and still only get slightly better results than a newbie teacher. Finally, I have to conclude this fact: It is the students who are at fault. They have an awful attitude to us foreigners and our language. They give the shortest response possible or evade giving answers at all, or show shock and give some kind of rude reaction when you ask them a simple question…”eeehhh?”…”muzukashii”…”we are shy”….”most Japanese are not interested in such thing.” They think English should be easy because it only has 26 letters and is not like Japanese, the world’s hardest language, and blame their (I think excellent) education system for their failure-blame everything but themselves. And Kids classes are beyond ridiculous.

    It is not that hard to learn half-decent English, really. But the idea of becoming a master by virtue of sharing air with a native speaker who is acting like a goat is not cutting it.

  3. Michail Paraskevas says:

    The English language and the native obsession issue in Japan.

    Before starting this article, I am Greek and I would like to talk about my educational level which has an impact on the way I see things and would like to state that this article is my personal opinion.
    I am a chemist, MSc, PhD and I am fluent in English, German and Italian and now I restarted studying Japanese from zero (after 17 years). I was lucky enough to be raised bilingual in English from my mother who studied English literature in London and later on became an English teacher. I started talking English at the age of 3 and I started learning German at the age of 5, while later on I attended the German School of Athens. I studied for my degree in Italy, where I became fluent in Italian.
    Before coming into contact with the Japanese language and people, I was completely unaware of the difficulty that Japanese face with learning English. The more I got information about Japan, the more I found it unbelievable that such an easy language (which was rendered international communication language) was at a low level in that country.
    Although I have never been to Japan yet, I researched about English and the way it is being taught. I found out how it was being taught at school and how the Japanese government tried with a variety of programs like JET etc to enforce studying of English with the addition of native speakers (not actual teachers).
    After all these years it seems that the English level is still low and only a few people who never gave up on studying or had the chance to study abroad were able to learn the language.
    So many questions came in mind and the biggest one was why nothing seems to have changed so far?
    I tried to compare my country’s educational system and way of thinking and I found out that although at school at least one foreign language is taught between English, French and German, it is actually the Greek parent that considers foreign languages as education and a skill for further career advancement so he pays large funds at private language schools for their kids to master a second or even a third language. Actually I am also paying a private school to learn Japanese.
    On the other hand I always thought that we have an advantage due to our language which has many spoken sounds and a complicated grammar. Also most language schools don’t pay attention only to having native teachers, but mostly qualified teachers. Many studied literature, are bilingual, studied or even lived abroad and always paid attention not just to have a good pronunciation but also the way of thinking of each particular language. Obviously due to the geographical position it is easier for foreign teachers to come here, live and teach.
    Languages boomed especially after the 70s and this was done, because by knowing that our language is difficult, it should be us to learn foreign languages.
    Now let’s get back to Japan and try to analyze some crucial differences:
    1. It seems that English is taught more as a subject to get a grade rather than a tool of communication. Everyone is only after a good grade, English ends up being hated and until a few years ago teachers were Japanese with no actual ties to the language.
    2. Katakana English which most Japanese are used in talking has absolutely nothing to do with English or pronunciation and leads to basic spelling errors.
    3. As I said in the start, the Japanese language is a language which misses some basic sounds and it is crucial to learn how to pronounce.
    4. The culture of perfectionism in Japan has a negative effect on learning a language, because people want to speak flawlessly from scratch.
    5. Unfortunately there seems to be a certain feeling of pessimism around English ( a Japanese person called it a complex of inferiority, but I don’t want to go there).
    So what seemed to be the cure to learning English? Native speakers, but not just any speakers. Specific programs required at least a Bachelors in any discipline.
    With Japan having such a huge issue with English, teaching it became a huge business and many started creating language schools and doing lessons. The next big thing after completing a JET program was to go to a private school or get hired by a language school or start their own business, from classes to private tutoring.
    As any business, using NATIVE as an advertisement was the best way to attract customers and it became so overrated, that people stopped looking about other basic requirements as experience, effectiveness and actual good command of English.
    Unfortunately the problem is that being native doesn’t mean that you have a good command of the language. Many countries have people with high skill in many foreign languages so anyone could be teaching a language other than his own. A key factor of good command of the language is the high level of education. As an example a native who only uses slang is not qualified to be a teacher due to the fact that he cannot answer a purely philological question. This is why programs like JET require at least a Bachelors, thinking that English knowledge will be more advanced after University. Let us not forget that various sciences and disciplines require advanced English to describe subjects and phenomena.
    Some may ask: Why not slang? Is slang important? Yes for movies and certain situations where you might need to be able to understand what is going on. Do you need to talk slang? NO! A foreigner talking slang seems just as retarded as a westerner talking anime Japanese. And let’s conclude with a fact about slang. In its earliest attested use (1756), the word slang referred to the vocabulary of “low or disreputable” people. By the early nineteenth century, it was no longer exclusively associated with disreputable people, but continued to be applied to language use below the level of standard educated speech. Let’s repeat: “below the level of standard educated speech.” Slang is full of grammar errors, because the people creating it were … “below the level of standard educated speech.”
    A second thing that makes native an irrelevant factor of learning good English is the whole pronunciation issue. Some people confuse accent with pronunciation. Pronunciation is the ability to reproduce the right sounds of letters while talking. This means that especially for Japanese a training of the mouth and tongue is required to say those sounds. It is like adding more chords to your musical instrument. Then it is like trying to play music with those extra chords.
    But what is accent? Accent is a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class or a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch. In other words the way the same music is played with different pauses, octaves and extra notes. In English, there are so many accents which in the end makes them irrelevant to English learning. If you decide to live somewhere abroad, it is your ear that will pick up an accent and at first you might find it difficult to understand an accent until your ear gets used to it.
    Because just as in music, also in learning a language a good ear matters. Some people no matter how much will try they will never pick up a good accent.
    I remember the first time I visited my sister in Scotland. Everything at first sounded gibberish until I got used to it.
    To conclude this small article I would like to emphasize on the fact that native is not a skill or qualification. The advanced knowledge is the real qualification and what matters more than that is the ability to pass that knowledge and be effective.

  4. Tony Leon says:

    Spot on!

    Before moving to Japan, I used to be a Spanish and English instructor for the City University of New York’s immigrant division in Inwood. I myself am an EFL student who, by any means available to me back then, tried to learn as much as possible by listening to music and singing, reading books and trying to pronounce words that were new to me, afterburn my knowledge by teaching someone just hours after learning it, etc. I was a very inspired 12-year-old. Even though I have never even for a day stopped practicing English, I also found myself frustrated for the lack of guidance and information in all private schools I visited. All those schools only want the person who does not look Asian to be standing in front of the kids, regardless of their skills or lack thereof. I saw Northamerican ‘teachers’ (and I use that word vaguely) with great pronunciation skills yet no grasp of where their North was. I also had to instruct them out of good will because otherwise they were going to leave within weeks.

    Add to that how many of those schools make contracts with nearby landlord and end up charging over 50% of those instructors’ salaries for a third-world-styled room with improper insulation and no air conditioner. It’s a nightmare.

    Long story short, 99% of those teachers ended up returning to the US/UK.

  5. Charlie says:

    You’re totally missing the point Fresh Sawdust, and it’s really quite sad that grammar takes precedence for you over a message that resonates with a lot of foreigners here.

  6. Vincent says:

    Media like books and YouTube as the way to establish oneself as a valuable (which would include marketable) EFL teacher? There are certainly useful bits of information to be had from those media, but anybody who is serious about TEFL should pursue formal education. If it’s a short-term job, a recognized certificate is the way to go. For somebody who wants to make a long-term career of it, a masters in TESOL, applied linguistics, or other relevant discipline is the only serious choice. I don’t have an MA in a relevant field, because I didn’t think it was the right investment for me. That’s why I left Japan and TESOL. If a career in TESOL was important to me, a relevant MA would have been non-negotiable.

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