Reflections on Teaching English in Japan

I am David Chart, and I am an English teacher.

I have been teaching English in Japan since early 2004, so for about fourteen years now. Unlike many English teachers here, I have never taught English in an institutional setting. It has always been one-on-one, or possibly one-on-two, and I have always been freelance. Thus, this essay is about my reflections on the way I have done the job, and may not apply to other people who have done it. I also know that at least some of my current students will read this, and now you know that I know.

Let’s start by explaining why I opened the essay the way I did.

The Embarrassment

“English teacher” is an embarrassing profession to admit to for people in Japan who were born in English-speaking countries, at least when talking to other people in that group. Why?

Fundamentally, I think it is because you can get the job based on something that cost you no effort to acquire: your native grasp of the English language. What is more, a lot of people doing the job do get it based purely on that. The Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools will happily hire recent graduates (you need a degree to get the visa) in any subject to teach English. No experience required. No particular skill required, either.

That doesn’t mean that English teachers in Japan do not have skills going beyond their native ability; many of them do. It’s just that a large group do not, which creates a sense that, if you had other abilities, you would move beyond that role. “Translator”, for example, is much less embarrassing, because you have to be able to read Japanese. If you are still an English teacher after fourteen years in Japan, that seems to suggest a certain lack of ambition.

Another aspect to this is what people value about you. A lot of the time, I am valued for my English ability and foreign perspective, both of which I acquired simply by growing up in the UK. They are not characteristics that I feel any particular ownership of; I didn’t decide that I wanted those features and work to acquire them. Yes, I have them, and they are a part of my identity, but evaluating me in those terms feels reductive. I wonder whether this is similar to the reason that a lot of women do not like to be evaluated in terms of their looks; attractive women generally got that way naturally, after all. It’s not that I dislike my English ability or foreign perspective, or that I do not see their value. I would just like to be valued for the things I have chosen to learn and put effort into.

Being an English teacher is thus embarrassing from two directions, the social perception of the job, and my internal perception of what it values. Fortunately, that is not all there is to it.

I enjoy teaching English. One reason is that I get to teach a wide range of students. I might, for example, have a run of six hours of lessons on a Thursday afternoon. I would start by discussing the design of experiments in educational psychology, move on to the cultural issues behind Waley’s translation of the Tale of Genji, then explain J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, before finishing off with computer security. Friday is research into dental restoration materials in the morning, and politics in the afternoon. I certainly don’t have the problem of having to teach indirect speech yet again. (Although I do have to teach that fairly often, because it is difficult.)

The Relationships

I also get to teach the same students for a long time. My two longest-standing students have been having lessons with me since mid 2005, when I first moved to the Tokyo area. Someone I have been teaching for two or three years still feels like a new student. Since the lessons are almost all individual, I develop relationships with the students.

These relationships are often a little strange, at least from my perspective. I like all of my students, and I know quite a lot about most of them. (Some stay very focused on the lesson topics, but others choose aspects of their lives as the lesson topics.) But are we friends?

In some cases, the answer is easy. We have a very good working relationship, but that’s it. We are clearly not friends in the normal sense of the word. That’s fine, of course. It’s a good relationship to have with someone who is paying you.

Other cases are not so straightforward. These are people I have known for years, and who have known my daughter all her life. We talk about our lives in the lessons. The relationships do not feel like purely business relationships, and it feels impolite, at least, to those students to suggest that they are. It seems more personal than that, involving more concern for them as individual people, rather than just as students making requests for lessons.

On the other hand, the basis of the relationship is that they are paying me to provide a service. If they weren’t paying me, we wouldn’t be meeting. (I am still in occasional touch with one former student, but she moved to Malaysia, so we don’t meet.) Claiming to be friends with them feels presumptuous. They are hiring me to provide a service, so what grounds do I have to claim that they think of me as a friend? On the other side, if we were friends, would I be charging them for the lessons? But I can’t not charge them, because this is my job, and I need an income.

It’s not quite the same as most workplace relationships. We are not co-workers; they are paying me. On the other hand, they are not my boss, in the usual sense, because I could afford to lose any individual student. They do not have the sort of power over me that a conventional boss does. It’s also not the same, at all, as typical teacher-student relationships. Most of my students are older than I am, or at most a few years younger. I have no direct influence over their future, and no institution backing me up to provide coercive power. And, fundamentally, I’m not in charge.

The Purpose

Why, as the teacher, am I not in charge? Aren’t I taking the lead to teach the student English? Not really. Most of my students already have very good English. Some of them are English teachers, or English-Japanese translators. They do not need to be taught English in any straightforward sense.

The purpose of the lessons is to help the students achieve their goals. Within the time available, I do what I can to advance that. Obviously, the students normally want me to help with English-related goals, because I advertise as an English teacher. Those goals might be as specific as passing a particular examination or translating a 17th-century Japanese text for women, or a more general goal of improving English communication so that they can feel more comfortable at work. The goals can also change over time, and often do.

The connection between the issues raised in the lesson and English is sometimes no more than the fact that the student is asking me in English. I’ve been asked to advise on UK holidays, to interpret experimental results, or to explain nineteenth century philosophy. This is all fine, even if sometimes the topic of the question strays outside my primary areas of expertise. I’m being paid to support the student, and the student decides what kind of support they want.

That is why I am, fundamentally, not in charge. I do not get to decide what my students want to achieve. Once they have decided, and told me, I get to make suggestions as to how they should go about it, but they have the option to reject my suggestions on anything, including teaching methods. (Obviously, that is very rare. They are hiring me for that expertise, so they almost always choose to rely on it.) I am there to help the student fulfil their potential, nothing more and nothing less, and so I am extremely flexible about what they want to do with the time they are paying for.

I find it very satisfying to provide this support. It is easiest to feel this when the student achieves something, like the translation, that they could not have achieved without the support that I provided. Of course, other people could have provided the same support, but in this particular case, I did. I have helped make someone’s life better, and that is very fulfilling. In other cases, I am less sure how the lessons are useful to the student, but as long as they keep paying for them, I can be confident that they are a positive feature of the student’s life. The extent of my contribution varies; in some cases, I know it has been very important to a student’s career, while in other cases it is very peripheral. That is only to be expected. It isn’t my place to decide that I have to make either a central contribution to someone’s life, or none at all.

In my opinion, this makes the job important enough to be worth the embarrassment of having to tell people at parties that I’m an English teacher. I hope my students agree.

Posted in Japan.

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