It is with great pleasure to publish this month’s teacher interview with a great general ELT guy.  This monthly teacher’s interview is with a person from Japan called Jim George.  I have been following Jim on Twitter over the years and he does impart some wonderful experiences in ELT.
Apart from Twitter, you can find Jim on his school blog, Luna International, from time to time.  His school blog is wonderful and occasionally, his other teachers and/or students share their experiences of teaching and/or learning English and is well worth a visit.
I don’t know much more about Jim, and boy does he have some stories.  So let’s start with the interview without any further delay and hope you enjoy his background to ELT.
Tell us how you got into teaching.

Very much by financial & geographic necessity. Had run out of working visaes, hitch hiking/working around Australia & NZ. A trusted friend had earlier spent a year in Japan “shaking the money tree” (mid-80s) & it was that time in my travels to refill the coffers. Getting a job in Tokyo wearing fruit-picking clothes was not easy…so I got the job I deserved, which was dreadful!

Could you tell us what it is like teaching in Japan?

There are so many different kinds of “teaching” in Japan. The perception can be that it is easy, because to a certain extent any clown can still front up and call themselves a teacher (as I did) because we are native speakers. Some situations this is actually all that is needed – cheerful, fresh-faced, energetic, and the adoration that comes from students can be overwhelming – pop-star variety. Often-times the perception (students/parents/administrators) of the popularity of the teacher (entertainment) is all-important, and have very little to do with the quality of teaching (if any). In this, what the teacher looks like is also a far too important a factor. Japan is not racially diverse, and neither is the teaching gene-pool. There are also very few teachers of other foreign languages around, as the demand is just not there. It should be.

“Proper” teaching, for want of a better phrase, is a double-sided coin. You will never come across classroom management issues except with very young learners – and even then it will be enthusiasm/sugar rush rather than wanton bad behaviour. Students will always accept what the teacher says, and pretty much do as they are told. You will not be refereeing any in-class arguments or chairing a debate, be overwhelmed with over-eager learners or over-ambitious exam takers. You will see the same faces in your class week in week out and develop a bond of friendship & trust over time – in time the students will not want to change the teacher or class. Out of class/independent learning is a shock when it happens, and learners here are very reluctant to engage outside of the traditional EFL situation – table & chairs, pencil & paper (and electronic dictionary). You will have all the time in the world to consider what you will do next as the pace of classes will not be tiring. 

I wish more of my students had broader horizons – ambitions to travel & experience life beyond their school clubs or 9-5 plus overtime jobs. I wish more of my students had a bit more spark & were self-motivating learners, and not tested to death in school, taught by undertrained/unworldy teachers with dreadful materials. 
Can we read that as ‘frustrating/could be better?’

You have set up your own school in Japan.  Can you tell our readers about this experience.

I own my own school but I did not set it up; I bought it as a going concern, because at that time  a foreigner setting up a business in Japan would have been prohibitively hard, time consuming & expensive. Not sure it’s much easier now, and I still don’t think I’d like to try. Buying a business so dependent on personality & the personal touch is fraught with risk. It does not matter how good a teacher/manager/communicator you are…you are not the person who built up the student roll, charmed parents & built up word of mouth locally. Doubly so if you are not immediately local or less than very proficient in the local language. If you are confident in what you can do, do it yourself without buying somebody else`s cast offs. Buying classes is one thing – a limited risk – but a business? Beware.

Although the school I bought was in the next city, and I had even lived within half a mile of it, I did not know quite what the previous owner had been up to. I inherited staff who were not interested, and students who were used to a different style. It was a very big jump into an unknown pool, becoming a boss/DoS/ with no training & at that time PLN. Not something you really want to be doing on the job training.

Being your own boss can be extremely rewarding, but don’t delude yourself about getting rich. You are free to teach your own way, but your circle of friends will be limited to those who are not your competitors, and usually not your staff and their friends. Hiring the right people is vitally important and a minefield! Getting the wrong person can do a lot of damage that can take year(s) to recover from – organisationally & personally. The buck stops with you – are you emotionally big enough to wear that? 

Tell us a bit more about your school.

We are a small, one location business these days, providing teachers (myself & one colleague) to some local schools/businesses here & there. Our core business takes place at the school, which is not far from the city’s historic castle, in a nice quiet neighbourhood. Children can get here on foot/by bike, after school, which is nice. The building is an old bakery; we inherited mice. We have roomy, sunny classrooms – but the windows rattle when it’s windy & always make me think ‘earthquake’. We have far too many resources and not enough students to use them on; we are lucky, as we are very well looked after by publishers & are occassionally asked to pilot materials. We have also hosted a number of authors’ workshops & events over the years; I have always encouraged my staff to try to develop themselves & to not be satisfied with just doing enough to get by. I want them to be ambitious for our students, and to be pushing themselves in the process. 

We are one of very few Cambridge English Language Assessment (aka ESOL) Centres in the country. Candidature in Japan is woefully low, though educationally Japan is an exam-oriented nation. Just not in the right way. Too many of them; fixation on results; inappropriate materials/tasks; not well-recognised outside Japan; grammar laden/translation heavy…At Luna we aim to teach our learners in a fun, friendly environment – giving them the brain space to see how they can learn, interact with each other meaningfully. We try to choose coursebooks which are relevant & useful for them – and I do think coursebooks still have a very important role to play in the EFL classroom. Our classes are small, so we can adapt quickly. We like to encourage our learners to be creative, and I enjoy using iOS apps to enhance their enjoyment – be it cataloguing something they have done (catching a song or a project), reviewing again in a new way, or building their own version of a page eg labelling a picture of themselves. 

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of a school blog?

We use our school blog in two ways. 

Firstly, for the teachers to reflect on their work. The physical act of sitting down & setting down your feelings about a lesson or an activity is a powerful tool. I try to read a lot of teachers’ blogs and am inspired/in awe of the care & detail many involve. I often find the best lessons end up coming out of an abandoned lesson plan; my lesson plans are mostly sketches in any case. I like to be reactive to the students and go with them on their journey – I have an idea where we are going, but they are driving. So my postings tend to be along the lines of a mutual discovery & the surprise outcomes. I think some teachers would be in fear for their jobs if they blogged thus; I think a smart approach for a school is to ask teachers to produce A posting every once in a while (monthly?) about something positive – a project with a class, an exam result, game or a role play…as long as the author knows what the parameters are & that it is part of their professional development. So, my blog postings could really be my portfolio?

I like to encourage our students to post to the blog as well. This does take a lot of cajolling, and only really works with classes who have something to write about; graded readers are my preferred tool, and we try to get all of classes (children, as well as adults) reading as much as possible outside the classroom. The after reading exercises within are ‘enough’. Posting to the blog makes them consider their audience, and gives them enormous satisfaction when there is any kind of response (even if it is just me). We have occassionally had an author respond, which has really rocked their world! A downside can be errors – the casual reader would be worried about Jim’s sudden lack of coherence – or stage fright. With less confident or younger learners I often post ‘on their behalf’, recording their work in some way to share & show off. 

Downsides? A blog is not just for Christmas – your pet needs feeding regularly! Be consistent, include useful links, reach out to other bloggers (as you do) and cite your sources/inspiration. DO be careful with privacy issues, and don’t use your blog to slag other people off. And use Twitter to connect with a much larger & engaged audience.

Can you tell me a memorable experience from your teaching career?

My most meaningful & memorable teaching experiences actually happened in Thailand, working in a refugee camp for six months. The whole experience changed me, and really re-arranged my teaching antenna. I had previously spent a year and a half with mostly unmotivated, unexcited, unambitious but comparatively wealthy students. To see just how much any English skills at all could mean to these people from Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos was humbling in the extreme. I had no resources to use at all, apart from a gestetner and a serious rationing thereof, great colleagues, and overcrowded classes (no rooms – an outdoor bamboo lean to at best) with the most amazing students you could ever hope to meet. Being treated to lunch by a refugee in a camp is the biggest privilige I think I will ever enjoy. I still have the first homework my first class gave me – ‘tell me about yourself’…possibly the dumbest question I have ever asked.

It is already April and IATEFL is currently the big thing this month.  Are you going to and what sort of thing will you be following at IATEFL via the internet, Twitter, etc?

One of the reasons I am late with my homework for you, Martin is all IATEFL‘s fault! I followed it as best I could on twitter, after getting hooked on it last year – listening to Fish’s plenary as a Marillion fan of yonks ago! Not a very scientific approach – especially with the time difference, but looking for cool ‘new’ people to follow & engage with, as well as checking out my “twitter crushes”. Additionally, wanted to look for connections that will be relevant to conferences I am involved with promoting here in Japan this year –  JALT PAN-SIG in Nagoya in May, JALTCALL & ER in Matsumoto in June, and the big daddy JALT Conference in Kobe in October.

My particular interest in apps & teaching younger learners – and sharing these through Scoop it, Livebinders etc.

I have found Asian students naturally quiet in the language classroom.  How do you go about developing student confidence and speaking?

That is a headbanger of a question, Martin, and no silver bullet – but I am finding more “apps for that”. Young children, generally no problem at all with production, but as they progress through school, all the personality & spark seems to be literally worn away – and this is a crime! But that’s not your question…

I like to use any of a number of “Talking” apps – sound recorders with an animal character that repeats the speaker’s words, with a different ‘voice’. The app will start to repeat when there is a break in speaking. This makes students very aware of pausing, going too slowly etc and makes them determined to ‘beat the app’ ie get through their whole phrase or sentence in one go. No teacher interference at all! Students are their own best critics & direct all their ire at the iPod touch on the table. The free versions are enough – the paid ones allow you to save/upload to FB or YouTube etc. Students enjoy having their voices disguised, loosen up a lot.

Sock Puppets is another voice recorder type app (Thank you @shellterrell for this & many other discoveries) that I love with YL classes. I like my 30 second time limit of this app, as it makes learners really hurry up! Failing to beat the time limit again means the learners not the teacher, want to do it again – whatever it is; saying a tongue twister, acting out a mini-dialogue or story, asking & answering a mini-questionnaire eg “Can you x,y,z?”

Fotobabble works a treat with transferring written homework into speaking – I used this especially with a returnee who loved drawing & kept a diary. I’d take a picture of his art, then we’d talk about it for a minute (limit). Great portfolio builder too.

Audioboo I like to record songs, interviews, stories with. It has a longer (5 minutes) limit & you can save these recordings online/share, tag & comment on. 

Tech is not the be all & end all, but the above are examples of finding a solution that looks/sounds.

The other very useful tool I have up my sleeve is my experience as a Cambridge English examiner, and the many teachers I have come across as an examiner trainer. Not so useful in getting reluctant students to talk (though you do learn not to leap in to the rescue at the first sign of a premature stop), but a fabulous eye-openner on how important my daily in-class job is to help my learners be capable of functioning outside my classroom – one where their teacher will not know what their idiosyncratic micro-gestures mean, what their L1 discourse management means etc. Very important to be aware of the bigger picture. 

How would you describe your perfect teacher?

Wow. So many different answers, depending on your view point. Mums want an attractive young man with nice hair. Businessman want their manga fantasy girl. Children want someone goofy that has an endless stash of games or will let them play Uno for an hour. Managers want someone who turns up on time, already has a visa & won’t upset the neighbours. How come so many Irish teachers don’t have a driving licence? I want a CELTA with European experience who kids love & scrubs up nicely for a business class; fab colleague to share ideas with & be inspired by. Must be able to dance (summer festival), shovel snow, fix the photocopier, read a map, use social media purely for the benefit of my school. Be able to understand enough Japanese to get by but not use any in class. Not be on medication but enjoy a pint, have external interests but be willing to teach any/every class at the drop of a hat. Be charming, bright and engaging, and teach classes I can be jealous of. Be sensitive to the learners, listen to them, and pick up my vibes!

I’ve been very lucky – sometimes – we have enjoyed some really fine people with an eclectic blend of the above ‘teaching’ faculties! As with any other school owner though, plenty of misses too.

What advice would you give teachers who are starting on their teaching career?

Get a CELTA. 

After that, do your homework & use social media to find horror stories (if there are any) about employers/countries/agents. Take your time & use a reputable website eg to find a job. Ask difficult questions before you go anywhere. Be bothered to write a proper cover letter for each job application.

And use to twitter to start building a network of ideas/resources/people. Your own staff room.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?

I really wanted to go & see the British & Irish Lions play at least one test in Australia again – saw the 3rd test in Sydney 12 years ago, brillant sea of red put the cousins firmly in their place. That won’t be happening!

Will be working through conference programme scheds (see above) to deliver a barage of targetted/timed tweets; going to use Tagxedo for that. Hopefully Foursquare & other web 2.0 tools to enhance the venues, & run live twitter feeds within the venues.

June 1-2 Shinshu Chapter of JALT (my local) hosting the JALT CALL/ER Conference & very excited about the unique welcome party we are planning at the castle.

Other than that, examiner training in Nagoya this weekend, and beautiful Yamagata city in July. Hoping we can welcome back some colleagues from the Tohoku region, after the various experiences they have been through since March 11th 2011.

Big issue looming for us is moving the school at the end of the year. We have a miserable landlord – not a reader, I trust – who has made the last two and a half years pretty grim. Looking forward to finding cheery new premises, but not the actual shift! Anyone want to help shift all our books & furniture?

Jim George
Luna International (owner)

Cambridge ESOL Centre JP004
Team Leader

Shinshu JALTPR Chair

Kyuboshi BldgMetoba 2-3-5Matsumoto cityNagano prefJapan 390-0806
Tel/fax 81 + (0)263-34-4481