Chatting with Joe about his career in Akita
Welcome to today’s Everyday Language Podcast Episode.
In today’s conversation, I’m talking to my friend Joe who is an English lecturer in Japan. Joe who is from Yorkshire in the UK, tells me about teaching in Japan, from his start as a Nova conversation school teacher to his present job at Akita International University (AIU).
Vocabulary and Expressions
it was pretty gruelling – it was pretty tiring.
claustrophobic – When you feel surrounded and it is hard to breathe; someone who has a fear of being in small enclosed spaces (lift, small rooms, crowded places).
exotic – originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country.
cv (UK)/resume (US) – short form of curriculum vitae a report that shows your education and work experience used when applying for jobs in the UK.
under my belt – a phrase meaning experience.
e.g. I have got ten years English study under my belt.
catastrophically – very badly.
bankrupt – when a business loses all of its money and can no longer continue.
scandal – An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.
to fix a job – to get a job; to sort a job out; to get hired.
it went down – another way to say went out of business/went bankrupt.
embezzlement – the theft of funds placed in one’s trust or belonging to one’s employer.
to rip off – to steal from; to cheat.
ripping off students – to steal from students; to cheat students.
to siphon (UK) syphon (US) – to steal; also a very different meaning is to use a tube to transfer water from one container to another.
siphoning money off the top – to steal money from the profits.
debacle – a complete disaster.
he did a runner – he ran away
grand – slang for a thousand
e.g. He lost 10 grand on a bet.
the catch is – the problem is.
eikaiwa – Japanese word in alphabet meaning English conversation school.
there are some big ifs – there are some big points that are not yet known.
but to be honest – a colloquial phrase used before saying something very frank.
counterproductive – the opposite of productive.
accountable – to be held responsible.
dithering – to shown hesitation and to be unsure of what to do.
aptitude – to show ability in doing something well.
quite apt – quite talented; seems good at.
e.g. Some people are quite apt at learning languages.
apathetic – having little or no interest or concern.
communicative methods – an aspect of language teaching that emphasises students ability to communicate and produce language rather than just understand.
affective barriers – mental barriers in language learning.
sloppy work – work that is full of mistakes.
Mark: How long have you been teaching in Japan?
Joe: I came in, at the end of 2001, so, er, most of this century.
M: How old were you then?
J: 20, I’d just turned 24, like the week before I came. So, er, yeah, it was a, it was a lifetime ago.
M: Has teaching changed much since then?
J: Well, my teaching has, erm, whether, and I think probably the industry or the field depending on how you look at it, that’s changed as well. Erm, well, from my perspective I began working in Nova, which, the notorious Nova, er, which as you probably know is the biggest English spea-, English teaching chain, a huge corporation I think it was the, er, I think there were four hundred thousand (400,000) students at one point, it’s probably more accurate to call them four hundred thousand (400,000) customers I think, really, (yeah, okay) I think it was the second biggest employer of foreigners as well, at its peak, I think it had a thousand (1000) branches, it was pretty gruelling so, I taught 40 lessons a week, yeah, so, 8 lessons a day.
M: Classes or one to one’s?
J: A mixture, at the beginning it was mostly classes of 4, 4 was the maximum then it upped to 5. And then as the, as the business started to go downhill we started to get a lot more man to mans which really is gruelling, it’s actually less tiring teaching groups.
Yeah, but it was like 40 minutes lesson, 10 minutes break, 40 minutes lesson, 10 minutes break, all day. And, erm, in the 10 minutes between classes write comments for all the students, and plan your next lesson, because you couldn’t really plan all your lessons in advance because, erm, you never knew who was going to sign into your class. And you were encouraged not to repeat lessons with the same students, so,
M: Oh, so that was here in Akita?
J: Yeah, so I did that for 3 and a half years then I went to New Zealand for a year, er, with the intention of staying there forever, but then after a year we came back.
M: Ok, was it not, er, how come you came back?
J: Well, I was kinda hoping to get into, like, the adventure sports, kind of, industry, so we went to Queenstown which is, er, kind of, the adventure capital of the southern hemisphere, basically, it’s a beautiful place, kind of, on this big lake and surrounded by ski resorts, and, brilliant mountain biking which is what I was into at the time, and still am. Brilliant snowboarding, erm, but just a really small town, and it just got too claustrophobic and Siaka my wife, she’s not into, that there was nothing for her there really.
And to be honest, I missed Japan (yeah?), yeah, New Zealand is a beautiful place. But in some ways quite an empty place. And the culture is pretty similar to British culture so it had less of the exotic feel that Japan had at the time.
M: You say that, like do you still feel on holiday here sometimes? Or is it…?
J: Nah, I think that’s pretty much finished, that feeling, nah, well maybe I do sometimes, yeah if we do go on holiday in Japan it does feel pretty exotic and growing up in Yorkshire anywhere that is regularly above 25C feels like a pretty foreign place. So through the summer, it’s nice to just to be able to rely on hot weather.
M: And then, er, so to bring it forward it, was three years in Nova…
J: And then Nova again, after I came back, well actually I came back and tried to find out what my other options were, and I went up to AIU in my suit, and my cv in hand, and was told you need a masters to get into there, minimum, so I ended up working for Nova again, and I decided to get my masters so I signed up for an online masters course with, er, Sheffield Hallam University.
M: I went to Sheffield Hallam (did you) yeah, I did my undergraduate there.
J: Oh really on campus? (yeah) Right
M: So you were in Japan?
J: Yeah I never even visited the campus, but I was born in Sheffield, so it seemed like an interesting coincidence. Yeah, yeah, I, I thought it was good, I learned the basics of erm language teaching. So I had 3 and a ½ years of teaching under my belt already, erm, but yeah it gave me a good kind of basis for the theory and a little introduction to research as well. So it took my around 3 and a ½ years and er, in which time Nova went catastrophically wrong. And er, in 2007 they went bankrupt. And, yeah lots of scandals surrounding the demise of Nova. Erm,
M: Where you OK in that?
J: I was lucky, erm I kind of erm I managed to fix a job, it was pretty obvious it was going down, and I managed to fix a job in James eikaiwa 「英会話」, before it went down, well in like the last week.
M: Were people getting paid or not getting paid?
J: No it took me, about 3 years to get the last couple of months pay, while it went all through the courts, and some people were stuck on, until even later they were owed quite a lot of money, in the end. But now the president is in prison for embezzlement, and I take some comfort in that. Yeah, it was just a mess.
M: Was it, was it quite publicised? On TV and stuff?
J: Yeah it was even on the international news. It was on the BBC at some points. Erm, but yeah it was just one thing after another for a few months, the first thing was six Nova teachers were arrested on drugs charges, (oh right) yeah, and then a couple of weeks later a British female teacher was found dead on someone’s balcony in like a bathtub full of sand. (I heard about that)
Yeah, that was a student. A Nova student and they had arranged private lessons. Then, and then the, er, The Ministry of Business, The Ministry of Finance they levelled they charges against Nova for breaking various laws and basically ripping off students. So that didn’t do their reputation much good and er, then, in the end, they had to pay out lots of money, which bankrupted them in the end. (OK) It turned out that the president had been siphoning money off the top for quite a long time as well. (Haha)
Erm, yeah so, a bit of a debacle. And then James, James eikaiwa, erm, similar in Nova in some ways but then very different in others.
M: Yeah, I worked with someone from James he ended up running away. Well, I think he just wanted to go home so he did a runner. (Right) Well, he didn’t tell them he just left.
J: Right really? Ha!
M: Is it like run by James? Or is it?
J: No, there’s no James.
M: Some people mention to me, oh your teaching in Japan I heard it’s like the golden place to teach English, what do you think about that?
J: Erm I think from a business perspective that time probably, that time died with Nova, I think. But there’s certainly a lot of people teaching English in Japan. And I think a lot of people’s careers begin in Japan, erm, but no, I don’t think it’s the golden place to teach, well maybe it is, I don’t really know, I think there are, erm, kind of reasonably well paid, respectable jobs to be had in Japan, erm, perhaps more so than in other countries. Well in terms of money, I think Dubai is probably more lucrative, but, er, mmm,
M: Apparently for nurses they, I saw one advert, it was like 70 grand a year, for, and I think it was just giving someone’s medicine to them. (in Dubai?) Yeah, I think the catch is it’s 24 hours 7 days a week, so you know you have to commit to it for a year. If you don’t mind, then that’s cool but,
J: I suppose it would be good for somebody whose young and between jobs and needs a leg up financially.
M: Just don’t get your passport taken off you.
J: Yeah, yeah well we stopped in Abu Dabhi, on the way to England last year and had a few days on the way there and on the way back. And erm, it felt very kind of westernised and I think Dubai is the same, I think the UAE is pretty westernised and I don’t get the feeling there is any oppressive regime there, really. Although there might be things lurking below the surface that I wasn’t aware of.
M: Did you go out, did you go outside? Like yeah, I had one student through the internet and he was like yeah it’s like, 50 degrees outside.
J: Yeah, it wasn’t that hot while we were there. We were there in January both times and, erm, it was hot but it wasn’t 50 degrees, erm, it’s on the coast so I think the temperature is relatively stable. It was humid, it felt kind of a little bit like Japan. Erm, and presumably it was winter in January. Erm, so it wasn’t, wasn’t too hot, probably in some seasons it’s pretty hellish though ‘cos it is humid and I think the temperatures do soar.
M: So getting back to teaching. Nova the second time, then James.
J: So, when I finished my masters I went looking around for university jobs. And almost as soon as I graduated a position opened up at Akita University, and erm,
So I got a job there, fortunately, and erm, it was, er, I was one of the only foreigners when I started working there, and it was, er, a new position. And, er, I was teaching pretty much all of the first years. So they all have to do English, (right) whether it’s related to what they’re going to later or not.
So, it was good, I had a good time, and er, I got used to teaching large classes. Which was a big difference from eikaiwa teaching, like language school teaching.
M: Are you talking about hundreds?
J: No, fortunately just before I started there they had, like, classes of 90 but they had they’d gone to small, small classes of 40 went which from language teaching perspective that’s not, not a small class.
M: So what were you doing? Lecturing or?
J: No, erm, basically, just setting up group activities and, er, kind of task-based learning, where you give them a little project, and they use English to communicate about what they’re going to do, and a little bit kind of grammar instruction, and kind of, er, drill practice that kind of thing, but, er, I kind of try to make it as communicative as possible.
Erm, but with the bigger classes you just kind of have to structure it quite closely. (OK) And if you framework it properly and if everyone is motivated enough to do actually do the tasks that you set then, yeah, you can, you can make some decent progress. But there are some big ifs, specially the motivation part,
M: When you are preparing how detailed do you do a class plan? For lessons like?
J: Er, at first pretty detailed probably, as far as I can remember, yeah but to be honest, so working at Nova which is where I began my teaching career, yeah, it was basically impossible, and almost counterproductive, to plan much in advance because you never knew who you were to going to be faced with, when you went into the classroom, until like minutes before you went in.
So you, you kind of had to have a kind of loose plan but then you had to be ready to improvise and I’ve kind of carried that attitude through, erm, throughout my career to some extent obviously with larger classes you have to prepare but I still believe, that you have to be ready to improvise because student needs vary.
Erm, so yeah, but I think in the beginning, yeah, fairly detailed plans, and then I’d try and come up with little contingencies for various situations. So if this happens I might ask this question, and If this happens I might ask this question, so you’re kind of mentally preparing for various scenarios erm, yeah, so I suppose initially I planned, in quite a lot of detail.
M: And nowadays, how is it?
J: Yeah again same really, I yeah, er you have to plan it’s, it’s as much about materials as anything because I don’t use textbooks, erm, so a lot of the planning time is about making materials.
M: How much have you got in your head? That you can bring out, like, on the spot?
J: Quite a lot, yeah I think I can kind of yeah you could throw me in a classroom full of people I don’t know, and I could probably pull something off. But I think in the university environment because you need to kind of, you have a curriculum, and you need to kind of say in advance, what you expect you, students, to learn. And you need to have ways of erm, measuring whether they have learned it or not. Basically, you’re accountable, you’re accountable to the administration, and you’re accountable to the students, their parents.
So you kind of need to prove that what your doing is working, (mm) and to do that there needs to be some assessment in there, and also, if your unprepared the students can see it. And, er, and yeah they can lose respect for you if you seem like you’re dithering and not preparing properly.
M: What do you think makes the difference? Between, er, people that get really good?
J: Erm, well a mixture of things, so between the people that plateau at a fairly low level and people that excel? Motivation is just a massive part of it I think.
And, erm, I think some people just do have a greater aptitude, erm, but I, I don’t, that is certainly not the be all, and end all. Because I see students that properly had less aptitude than others but were really motivated and they…well they have a passion for it, and that’s what they want to do in their free time, so they read and they practice and they get out there and they use it and they do, they do well.
On the other hand, some people who seem quite apt at learning languages, but are a bit lazy or apathetic, erm, or complacent they tend to plateau where they are.
Erm, I think just the methods that teachers use and the student uses to advance their own languages I think that makes a difference. Because in, erm, Japan generally speaking in classrooms of schools, they are taught about English rather than how to use English, so they kind of taught the rules of the grammar, and, er, and I don’t think that leads to mastery of a language to be honest.
M: Do you mean like I’ve seen teachers they explain a lot about the different ins and outs of everything like it seems like there’s a lot of explanation that goes in, so they’re just listening to that, which is in Japanese.
J: I think I think that does have value, if it is combined with, like more, communicative methods as well, because I think that knowledge of how the language is structured, I don’t know if it essential, but I think it’s definitely useful. And, erm, you can tell quite a lot of the students come in with an excellent knowledge of the grammar but very little kind of communicative experience. (mm)
The ones who have done well at school and have a mind for remembering the grammar rules and things like that, er, they do, they do advance more quickly I find, once put in that communicative situation, erm, if they can get over the, er, emotional or affective barriers quite a lot of them have this fear of making mistakes, and er, fear of talking to people that they don’t know, and a fear, basically a fear of looking a fool, er, and I think, if they’re not willing to take those risks, then that’s another barrier. But if they can overcome that, then I think that the knowledge that they’ve gained in school does help.
M: I’ve seen that in my old workplace, just men running away from you, they don’t want to speak, or they don’t want to speak badly.
J: Yeah, and I think that’s the way it’s taught in school, it’s about perfection, it’s about accuracy, perfect sentences, erm, and if that’s the emphasis then people are going to come away with this idea that you have to speak it perfectly.
M: Doesn’t that permeate into other, just into Japanese culture? Doesn’t it like? People just want to do great at whatever they do?
J: Yeah, you probably could say that there’s a tendency for that, but I certainly don’t think it’s universal in Japan, I see, as anywhere, I see pretty sloppy work as well. Certainly, that’s something that’s a stereotype of Japanese people that they like to do things well and, er, focus on it 100% and erm, yeah probably some truth to that but I see, a lot of, a lot of situations that don’t fit that stereotype.
Nova is an English conversation school company in Japan. Joe talks about events which happened under the previous management of Nova. The present owners are not related to those that were in charge when Joe was working there.
Jobs in Japan
For more information about teaching in Japan you can check out this jobs website:
It is aimed at non-Japanese who want to find jobs in Japan. There are also sections on studying in Japan and travel in Japan. It is a very useful website if you plan to come to Japan.
Thanks for checking this podcast out. Please leave a comment in the comments section below if you have anything you want to add or ask me about this episode. Thanks again, bye!
Episode 15: Amy interviews me about teaching