Working in Japan

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

A controversial issue in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) profession is about people who teach English in Japan without any real training. This isn’t only an issue for the students with unqualified teachers,

A controversial issue in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) profession is about people who teach English in Japan without any real training. This isn’t only an issue for the students with unqualified teachers, but for the teachers themselves feeling like they don’t know how to do the job.

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. People say “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 often not knowing what to do, leading to all sorts of problems from disillusionment to other feelings of dissatisfaction with teaching in Japan.

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”.

Written by Richard Miller

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