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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

 
Foreign English Teachers: Products or People?
Earlier this week, a friend currently on the JET program wrote the following:
I believe that the JET program is on it's way out. It won't happen for a couple years, but the beginnings of this are already evident in my city. JETs are hired by the national government, but then contracted out to local cities. Thus, the Board of Education (BOE) for each city pays our salary, which is determined by the national government. It is roughly 25K, in US dollars, before taxes.

In recent years, however, private companies have popped up which effectively do the same thing as the JET program: they provide native English speakers who can be contracted out to local BOEs. However, unlike the government contracts, the private company salary for these teachers is much lower. It is about 18-20K per year. Furthermore, these poor folk do not get paid time off, health insurance, or subsidized housing. In other words, it is much cheaper for the city government BOEs to hire teachers from the private companies. Like in America, the education budget is tight in Japan too.

This is exactly what my city is doing next year. They are not firing any of the current JETs. However, those JETs who do not renew their contract are not being replaced next year. So, there are 17 JETs in Sakai this year, but next year there will only be 9, because 8 of us are going home. To replace the 8 JETs who are not recontracting, the city will be hiring people from private companies.

There are some private company teachers around already. I have met a few of these folks, and they have it really rough. I am quite comfortable on my JET salary, but would not be without the subsidized housing, the paid vacations or if my salary was much lower. It is difficult to live in Japan on that kind of salary. It would be better to work for NOVA than one of the companies that contracts out to BOEs.
This makes me both frustratedly angry and sad. The JET program has long been the best-run major EFL teaching program out there. They know their stuff; the teachers don't have to worry about getting lost on the way to orientation in a country where they don't speak the language, or that their schools will forget them if there's a typhoon. Certainly, every JET has a different experience, with some better than others in terms of coworkers or housing or whatever, but there is still a mandate from the national governmental level that they will be taken care of. It's interesting that JET actually stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching, founded on the idea that the foreign teachers were there both as teachers and as citizens of other countries that Japan might like to give a favorable impression to.

Perhaps the JET program was able to do this because it was conceived during the boom time of the 80s. In addition, they were ahead of the curve, as far as countries dedicating themselves to nationwide English learning goes. They were, and are, a flagship program. Unfortunately, it now seems that as more and more countries become interested in English education, they have no interest in following the JET model; instead, private teaching recruitment companies have sprung up like mushrooms, eager to fill the gap, while making as much money as possible.

The private contracting companies my friend describes above are just like the one I was supposed to be working for in Taiwan. It was quite clear, from my time there, that the recruitment service only wanted to supply the private schools it contracted to with an expensive product: a foreign, exotic, (preferably white,) native English speaker with some sort of veneer of qualification. (When my Taiwanese-American friend was looking for a job there as well, the recruiter told him it'd be difficult, because he didn't look the part. How about at a preschool? He was a licensed secondary history and economics teacher in the US...) They had absolutely no interest in making sure their teachers were comfortable, taken care of, or looked after. In fact, the impression given off by our so-called boss was that it was entirely to his advantage if we were kept as helpless and ignorant as possible, so as to be made reliant entirely on their company, regardless of how bad things were. ("Is there anywhere I can take Chinese classes?" "Oh, why would you want to do that? I mean, I guess there are places, somewhere...")

There is a lot of danger in these kinds of programs. From all the research I could do from the US, the agency I was supposed to work for in Taiwan looked quite reputable. I had taught abroad before, I screened for ads to teach at good schools, I was put in contact with these people by a different States-side company that claimed to have screened all its potential teacher placements for quality. I recently heard from another of my friends who had been on JET at the same time as me. She had also decided to try to pursue overseas teaching again after JET, and had gone through a similar cheerful job-searching process, eventually getting a job in Russia. After 3 weeks, she returned home to England, having found that the promises made before she got there did not hold true in reality. Because these programs are private, there is no accountability nor quality control. Those of us with the wherewithal and sense to leave are easily replaced by perhaps less prepared, more trusting people, and in the meantime, the company hasn't lost much, because they didn't pay for anything they didn't have to, including decent lodging, food, or plane fare.

Teachers are rarely respected. It is something of a boost to teach abroad, where you gain some measure of automatic respect just due to speaking your native tongue. But if countries around the world are so keen to import genuine, exotic, native English speakers to lend an air of legitimacy and prestige to their efforts at English education, they need to decide if they are looking for actual teachers, or whether they just want pretty parrots who end up living in a cage of semi-legal status, poor pay, and no available support network. If it's the latter, I have to say, I wouldn't suggest foreign teaching as a worthwhile experience for anyone anymore. If it's the former, then the school systems themselves need to get involved in the hiring and hosting of the teachers, and treat them with the respect they deserve as professionals, rather than as commodities to be displayed when convenient.

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