One Size Does Not Fit All

I’m now into my fourteenth year here in Japan. Over this fourteen year journey I have become something that I never had any desire to be, a teacher. I didn’t always have the best relationship with many of my own teachers so I was never inspired to emulate them. Looking back now though there were teachers over the years that did inspire me and it can be seen in how I now approach education.

Since being in Japan I have taught six month olds and eighty year olds, housewives and robotic engineers. I’ve helped kids learn their ABCs and helped get scientific reports on the affects of alternative anti-foulants on Hiroshima Bay get published. I’ve worked for two of the biggest language schools in the country, international corporations, colleges, and private individuals.

Working for language schools was very beneficial to getting me started. I was a nervous college student with no experience and no idea where to start. Woefully under qualified to be entrusted with the education of another human being. I was fortunate to have some good trainers and the blueprint set out by the materials at the school. Each school has their system and their own approach to language learning and how each lesson should be structured. This formulaic approach was beneficial to a rookie instructor.

Each school – I use school when really it’s a business, and a big business at that – has a degree of success with their system/curriculum. They were all put together by very clever people who spent much time devising them. Even today I occasionally borrow from the different systems I have been trained in.

Over time though the flaws with each one became clear. They helped a few but they were far too structured and rigid to accomadate all. I viewed this as giving up. Why blindly adhere to something that you know has only limited success? It does take more effort but a flexible system tailor-made to each student gives everyone who pays a lot of money to learn a better chance of success. This is of course if your primary aim is the education of your students. A corporation selling their way as the best way also makes sense from a business perspective because you’re in competitive environment with other schools offering the same services. You get more customers and more money the better you sell your unique and effective system. A system isn’t designed to work for all but designed to work for enough that an argument can be made for it.

Each system was also compromised by the fact they are business and in business you’re judged on the results. Students are in no position to judge their own ability so it the teachers at the school who decide whether or not a student goes up a level. What would it say about the system if after following the textbooks and lesson structures that a large portion of the students failed? It wouldn’t look good for the thousands of dollars that are shelled out for “guaranteed” results. Let’s say as assessors we were encouraged to be very generous in passing everyone once they completed the textbook for that level.

It is perfect for kids because generally the parents have no proficiency in the language so they can’t tell how their children are progressing a part from reports from the school itself. Adults though it’s a little more tricky because they when stepping up to the new level can be more honest in their self-appraisal. For this reason, a 70% retention rate of students at the end of their yearly contracts is considered exceptional. The pressure put on the Japanese sales staff to not only sign new students but re-sign current ones is immense. They in turn expect the teachers to do whatever it takes to make signing on as attractive as possible for the students which extends beyond the merit of the system.

Some schools are better than others but it was an industry that was unsatisfying to be in and one that I couldn’t buy into. Around nine years ago I took the gamble to go it alone. I relied on word of mouth and connections built to build up my own student pool and consultancy work. My philosophy is one built on openness and flexibility. It has taken a lot of mistakes and hiccups along the way but through it all I believe I have a good understanding of education and development.

The biggest challenge I face in my job is making the students believe in themselves and see the benefits that English can bring them. It is not the textbook or the curriculum but first fostering the motivation and interest to allow whatever you do introduce to the student to be accepted. Teaching a motivated person whether they’re a kindergarten student or a director of a billion dollar company is the key. Finding what motivates them is the skill one needs as a teacher or coach.

Everyone has their own reasons for studying whether their parents are making them, they need it for work, it’s a hobby, or for school. Whatever the reason it’s crucial to turn that need into a want. When it becomes a “want” it makes the job of educator infinitely easier.

It is easy to just pick a system and stick to that and yes you will have a fair amount of success with that if you’re at least competent. However everyone deserves the same chance to an education and it is this reason I believe in working with the individual student to find what works for them.

One must be honest too. Honesty is telling the student that it is not you the teacher who is the be all and end all but them, the student. As the teacher, we are just the facilitator or a guide. The real work is done by them and outside of that 40 minute to one hour lesson. What they do in their own time is far more important for real progress. The lessons and sessions with the teacher are all about direction and maintaining that motivation level. It is though up to the student themselves how far they go on their journey.


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