The Realities of Practice and Practices in Reality: A Critical Look at the Work Situation of English Teachers in a Japanese Setting

by Glenn Toh

Tamagawa University (Tokyo, Japan)

Keywords:      teacher subjectivity, teacher empowerment, institutional ideology



The article examines how institutional ideologies and practices can influence the work experiences of English teachers. It looks critically at a range of instances where institutional ideologies, philosophies and policies are perceived to be affecting the cultural and workrelated practices of English teachers, with implications for teacher subjectivity and teacher empowerment. The discussion draws on two main sources: (1) professional literature capturing the work situations of English teachers and issues pertaining to curriculum, methodology and teacher empowerment; (2) the findings of an inquiry on institutional ideologies and practices and how these impact on teachers’ work, as answered by teachers in the Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu regions of Japan. Specifically, matters to do with teacher employment and deployment as well as curriculum design, testing and assessment will be discussed with a view to engender wider spaces for teacher praxis. The observations in this article are generalizable to other situations where the English language is taught and learnt in the context of higher education.



The contents of this article arise from concerns with institutional beliefs and institutionalized work practices and how they create work-related challenges affecting teacher empowerment. On the surface, the daily work of an English teacher may appear to be about preparing for lessons and delivering them, assigning homework and grading assignments. Influencing the processes and practices of teachers’ daily routines, however, are deeper issues that affect the overall work experience of English teachers. The issues addressed in this article give recognition to the fact that, in most educational institutions, there are invariable concerns over work dynamics that affect how teachers and their colleagues engage the administration, each other, and very importantly, their students. Besides work dynamics, there are also concerns over micro-politics, which are shaped by institutional cultures and histories (Alderson, 2009). Differences in expectations among institution, administration and teachers can prove worrisome because they affect classroom performance, job satisfaction and even mental health (Falout, 2010; Grayson and Alvarez, 2007).

In this paper, the following are discussed: (1) published ethnographies addressing teacher employment, empowerment and professional development; (2) the findings of an inquiry administered to EFL teachers in the Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu regions of Japan, tapping on their perceptions and work experiences concerning institutional cultures and ideologies.

Specifically, issues having a direct effect on teachers’ work will be addressed. They include:

  • teacher employment and empowerment
  • space for the contribution of innovative or professional ideas
  • the different ways teachers are employed and deployed
  • conceptualizations of the nature of knowledge, meaning-making and how they affect approaches to curriculum and test design.



To contextualize the discussion, I examine literature on teacher employment, teacher empowerment and the nature of the language curriculum, and discuss their implications for teacher professional development.


Teacher employment and empowerment

This section looks at work conditions that determine whether teachers are able to function productively and creatively alongside their quest for job satisfaction. Determining factors like room for innovation, professional contribution, how university management bodies make decisions on teacher employment and deployment will be considered.


Matters to do with work situations, innovation and professional contribution

Concerns have been raised by ELT scholars about the challenges teachers encounter in their work situations. In general these scholars have taken an empathetic view of teachers’ work situations and expressed concerns. Specific issues raised include teacher motivation, empowerment and opportunities for career development (Falout 2010; Murray 2010); challenges teachers face with employment, discharge of duties and performance evaluation (Aldwinckle 1999; Fox, Shiozawa, & Aldwinckle 1999; McCrostie 2010); and opportunities for teachers to contribute to current knowledge and practices through further study, research and critical praxis (Murphey, 2004; Lin et al., 2005; Borg 2006). Two common motifs that run through these works are the issues of whether teachers can be efficacious as agents of change and innovation and whether teachers remain subjected to ideologies and power relations that prevail in the institutions they work for.


In many institutional contexts, change can be slow. Rivers (2010) relates how institutions may actually be resistant to change while purporting innovation, and how government initiatives to internationalize Japanese university campuses encounter opposition from conservative teaching and administrative staff members. Street (2003) suggests that such resistance to change is motivated by fear or insecurity. For example, resistance to change may come from the inner core of an institution where a ‘reactionary and self-interested elite’ becomes fearful of the disorder and uncertainty that come with creative and innovative thought (Street, 2003, p. 83). Teachers working in situations that stifle change may experience different degrees of demotivation (Falout, 2010) or disillusionment (Murphey, 2004), which ultimately affect their classroom teaching. Murphey (2004) recounts his experience working in a Japanese institution where changes in examination practices were firmly resisted. He argues that a lack of space for teacher contribution to positive change can result in ‘nonparticipation’ (p. 705) or ‘dis-identification’ (p. 701), both of which can result in premature resignation.


Deployment matters – native vs. non-native speaker teachers

Contested notions of native and non-native speakers

Matters concerning the deployment of native and non-native speaker teachers have come up for critique and commentary in relation to ELT in Japan. Despite the fact that they have been problematized in professional discussions, the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ continue to be contested in conversations across a spectrum of teaching and cultural contexts (Cook, 1999; Leung, Harris, and Rampton, 1997; Liu, 1999). Due to difficulties in defining them, these terms have unfortunately become labels for certain stereotypes (Liu, 1999). Attempts at defining them have resulted in inconsistencies that reveal the challenges of separating two supposedly distinct concepts. Liu (1999) describes how native speakers have been linked discursively to cultural affiliation, identification with the language, competence in the language and the order in which one learned English, among other languages, as a child. To this list, Cook (1999) adds the notions of intuition in grasping meanings and mono-lingualism as marks of a native speaker. However, it has also been argued that the ‘native speaker’ and

‘non-native speaker’ binary may no longer be useful professionally (Cook, 1999; Leung, Harris & Rampton, 1997; Liu, 1999), since attempts at defining these terms have not been fruitful. Acknowledging these difficulties, Davies (2003) argues that the distinction is perhaps not intended to invoke professional exactness per se, but rather, survives in day-today usage more as an appeal to common sense.


The native speaker and non-native speaker divide 

Concerning the day-to-day work of classroom teachers, two matters deserve attention:

  • How much a particular institution continues to have its English teachers conceived of as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ however commonsensically
  • What the possible consequences and outcomes are (not in the least for the livelihoods and career paths of teachers) should there be such a technical distinction

The issue is whether there exists a systemic or administrative divide between native and nonnative speakers institutionally, as is described by Stewart and Miyahara (2011) where such a divide is blatantly reflected in the differentiated work allocation of native and non-native speaker teachers at a prominent Japanese private university known for its law faculty. Such practices stem from stereotyping or particularized constructions of the ‘native speaker’ or ‘non-native speaker’, including reductionist constructions of race and color (Breckenridge & Erling, 2011; Kubota, 2002; Stewart & Miyahara, 2011). Carried too far, this might also involve a degree of racialization of the native-speaker construct, where preferential ideologies reify the native speaker as being White and speaking with American or British (not Australian) accents rather than non-Whites speaking with other accents (Kubota, 2002).

Thought to be an ‘exotic’ draw for potential students (Seargeant, 2009), native speakers may be featured in advertisements and road-shows for student recruitment or marketing purposes. They may, moreover, be regarded as stereotypical embodiments of a Western or foreign culture, rather than as professional facilitators of language learning (Breckenridge & Erling, 2011). Such particularized constructions of the native speaker may not be based on facts, but remain very much part of cultural narratives that reify native speakers as personifications of an exoticized ‘Western culture,’ as if one existed monolithically (Breckenridge & Erling, 2011; Kubota, 2002; Stewart & Miyahara, 2011). Needless to say, such discrimination can be demotivating for teachers (Falout, 2010) and needs to be considered seriously by teachers and administrators alike.


Issues pertaining to curriculum and evaluation

Apart from matters to do with employment and deployment, there are the ever-present issues of the way the curriculum is designed and delivered as well as the way students are assessed and evaluated. Such matters have a bearing on whether teachers get to work with students in an environment that encourages creativity and inquiry. This section examines literature addressing these areas.


The nature of knowledge and meaning and its links to the language curriculum

There is a body of literature critiquing narrow conceptualizations of practices, meanings and knowledge in ELT. This body of literature argues that ELT operates within a confined bandwidth of conceptualizations about language, curriculum, methodology, and testing, prompting scholars to argue for more imaginative ways of conceptualizing professional practice. Rivers (2011) speaks of the strictures of ‘English only’ classrooms as being part of prohibitive pedagogies that continue to promote stiff monolingual practices where L1 is banned, while Stewart and Miyahara (2011) note that ELT practices exist outside the realities and richness of the multilingual world. Kumaravadivelu (2006) criticizes ELT’s adherence to the concept of language teaching ‘method,’ debunking it as being contrived and ill-fitted to the realities of a broad diversity of classroom situations, while Holliday (2005) speaks of the 4-skills syllabus as being part of a regime of control of ELT planning and practice. Pennycook (2010) and Kubota (2011) highlight reductive testing practices epitomized by standardized tests like TOEFL and TOEIC. In all these instances, writers argue for more imaginative ways of conceptualizing knowledge and professional practice.

In response, scholars in the area of academic literacies have sought for broader understandings of the nature of ELT knowledge and practice. These scholars treat knowledge as something that is negotiable and can be put together through discourse and real world practices. They look upon meaning not as something absolute but constructed through language mediated discourses and social interaction; knowledge and meaning can be constructed through dialog between teacher and student as well as negotiated through the medium of written text (Lillis, 2003).

In this connection, Lea and Street (2000) describe three types of writing curricula – the last of which illustrates how knowledge and meaning are seen as being negotiable rather than absolute. The first looks at writing as a technical skill breakable into components like spelling, punctuation and different parts of speech. The second looks at writing as requiring a mastery of, or an ability to approximate, specific genres, particularly generic text-types like narration, exposition or argument. The third looks upon writing as a negotiation between individual writers and the institutions and social realities that influence what is real and meaningful for them. The way writing is taught depends on which of the three views is dominant. Of course, teachers believing in one ‘tradition’ may find it difficult to follow syllabuses founded on another. Most textbooks in the market follow a combination of the first two syllabus types, which means that a teacher leaning to the third will find it hard to teach writing according to such textbooks.

Another example of such restriction can be found in Rivers’ (2011) description of ‘Englishonly’ classrooms. He argues that ‘English-only’ classroom regimes create undue tension for students from EFL situations and fail to tap on the value of their L1. He further reveals how an ‘English-only’ regime can be part of an institutional frontage for controls traceable to exclusionary beliefs in native speaker absolutes, myths about ‘authentic language,’ as well as positivistic ideals that do not consider the learning styles of students of different cultures. Similarly, a syllabus prescriptively organized into the “Four Skills” has been thought of as part of a regime of control of ELT practice (Holliday, 2005), hampering more imaginative or culture-specific approaches to course design and delivery. Strict separation of listening from speaking, for example, becomes very contrived and not always applicable in actual classroom situations.

The issue here is whether teachers are able to encourage divergent approaches to knowledge construction and pedagogy in the classroom, even in the presence of conservative but powerful institutional philosophies (Rivers, 2011; Stewart & Miyahara, 2011). Street’s (2003) reminder to view language as a living thing, ‘always contested, negotiated and employed in social interaction,’ enabling students and teachers to ‘take possession of language’ instead of staying as ‘passive victims of its entailments’ (Street, 2003, p. 82) is an important one to bear in mind.


Matters relating to testing and evaluation

Alongside the curriculum are matters concerning testing and evaluation. Writers in the area of critical applied linguistics have taken issue with what Pennycook (2010) describes as reductionist approaches to testing, where test items do not reflect the broad realities and practices of language use. Pennycook (2010) observes that language practices are rich and complex while approaches to testing tend to be convergent and reductive. For example, in the case of Japan, it is noticed that university entrance examination committees continue to set examination papers made up of atomized and decontextualized bit items testing grammar, structure and vocabulary while purporting to assess overall language ability (Stanlaw, 2004).

Attempts at changing the status quo may not be well received as is evident in Murphey’s (2004) recount, which describes his experience on a Japanese university examination committee. As a committee member, he highlighted to the administration the importance of monitoring test items for their Index of Facility or IF (which indicates the difficulty of an item by recording the percentage of correct answers) and index of discrimination or ID (which indicates whether an item is effective in separating high scorers from low scorers) in order to set fairer papers. He noticed then that many grammar and vocabulary items from previous exams did not qualify as being good items according to their IF and ID indices while listening questions scored much better (Murphey, 2004). Subsequently, he suggested that listening items be given more weightage. However, the administrators did not accept his suggestion.

There are also larger issues to do with the infiltration of business and commercial interests into language testing (Kubota, 2011). Proficiency testing has been linked to domains of business and commerce influencing educational language testing and also to powerful neoliberal discourses of commercialization, globalization and profit (Kubota, 2011). Such discourses promote instrumental ideologies of language learning through the idea that test results are the key to good employment and high salaries, a myth that Kubota (2011) problematizes and disproves.



Given the sorts of challenges that come with institutional beliefs and work practices and how they create work-related dilemmas affecting the curriculum, classroom teaching and teacher empowerment, I have sought a deeper understanding of how institutional policies and practices can affect the work experiences of English teachers. This section describes the design of an inquiry administered to teachers in the Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu areas of Japan.


The inquiry

The inquiry form bears a title that explains its aim: ‘Reflecting on Work-Related Practices, Beliefs and Encounters of Language Teachers’. It taps on what Freire (1985) calls ‘the humanistic and intuitive dimension of the act of knowing’ while drawing on the important dimension of the experience of teachers, including ‘commitment, feelings, fear, trust, and courage’ (Freire, 1985, p. 190). According to Freire (1985), it is important to draw from narratives reenacting the lived experience of practicing teachers with reference to his own experience as an educator:

… seemingly trivial incidents are, in fact, very important because they involve our whole lives, our cultures…Culture extends history to the praxis of people. These trivial incidents, then, have proven to be fundamental to me, and the more I experience them, the more they help me to keep in touch with myself, while learning and reflecting….We do not generalize without basing our generalizations on particulars. Before becoming universal, you are particular….Whatever universality there is…derives from the vigor and force of its locale’.     (Freire, 1985, p. 182)

The questions are designed to bring out teachers’ voices by engaging the respondents dialogically. Each question presents a scenario to which respondents provide an answer. The scenarios depicted in Items 1, 2, 3 and 4 concern matters relating to curriculum and testing while Items 5 and 6 concern matters to do with teacher employment and deployment (APPENDIX). The questions work like a written discussion or interview with the respondent, using each scenario as a starting point. The design of the inquiry is compatible with the aim of drawing on the praxis and narratives of colleagues in the profession (Alderson, 2009; Lin et al., 2005; Murphey, 2004; Stewart & Miyahara, 2011) to understand institutional realities from the eyes of insiders (Dornyei, 2007).


Administering the inquiry

The inquiry form was emailed to colleagues in universities in the Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu regions of Japan over a period of 4 weeks straddling the months of March and April 2013, who subsequently emailed their responses to me. The respondents were told that participation was strictly voluntary and the information provided would be used only for academic purposes. Provision of information like country of origin and years of teaching experience was made optional, following guidelines on elicitation and appropriation of personal information from my own university.



This section discusses the findings. Participant details are first summarized followed by a compilation and discussion of important issues highlighted in the responses. To aid in the compilation of findings, each completed sheet is given a code number starting from Completed Sheet One (CP1) to Completed Sheet Six (CP6).


The participants

Six teachers returned their sheets. Their details are provided in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Participant details.




Respondent’s No. of Years of Teaching Experience Courses      Taught      by



Country           of


Respondent’s Work


CP1 14 Communicative English United Kingdom Not provided
CP2 19 Intercultural


Academic             Writing,

Undergraduate Projects

United Kingdom Not provided
CP3 22 English,              Religion,


United States Kanagawa
CP4 11 4-Skills,               Business

English, Cultural Studies

Jamaica Tokyo
CP5 Not provided Academic English Japan Kanagawa
CP6 10 Academic             English,

Communication Studies,


United Kingdom Kanagawa


Findings from the inquiry

The responses reflect concerns over important matters relating to curriculum and testing as well as to employment and deployment. Both the responses and the issues they highlight are examined in the following discussion.


Matters concerning curriculum and testing

Teachers registered their concerns about curriculum and testing from their strongly emic perspective. Table 2 (Item 1) highlights the issue of student motivation (CP3) and how the curriculum needs to be more challenging beyond ‘rigid’ approaches (CP1) like traditional grammar and drills (CP3). At the same time, there is a concern about teachers needing the assurance that university management is equally keen to support more innovative conceptualizations of the curriculum (CP1).


Table 2. Summary of responses concerning curriculum, student motivation and support from management (Item 1).

  Response Relevant issues highlighted
CP3 Teachers need to remember that students have had six years of grammar and drills in high school. This also may have dampened their enthusiasm to learn. Using alternative approaches to what students have been used to can in fact lift motivation for learning. When teaching Academic Writing, I tend to focus on broad themes…Only a small part of their grade is based on

grammar…Teaching “therefore” and “nevertheless” is important, but should not be the main goal of the class.

•       Innovation to




•       Limitations of

Grammar and



CP1 I actually follow the rigid approach highlighted above. Why? I typically show the same level of investment in course(s) /

 Support from


materials as the university shows in the course and in me. When given curriculum guidance of two lines (from a committee) saying that in my academic writing classes I should focus on “academic writing” I take this as a sign that 1) the university and regular faculty have little interest in education 2) do not really care what I do in my classes and 3) have little interest in improvements or change. 


for Innovation  Inadequate

Description of


The responses also draw attention to the importance of management support for the implementation of sound assessment practices, as shown in Table 3 (Item 2), with concerns that there is undue emphasis on standardized testing (e.g. TOEIC). Teachers voice their reservations against the use of English lessons to prepare students for standardized tests at the expense of ‘broader cognitive and critical skills’ (CP3; CP2). Teachers also assert that rigid assessment practices and prioritization of standardized tests take away variety and flexibility from the curriculum (CP1; CP3) but at the same time concede that standardized test scores are what really matters for the students upon graduation after four years at university (CP5).


Table 3. Summary of responses concerning the use of standardized tests (Item 2).



Response                                                                            Relevant issues highlighted
CP2 We were asked to integrate TOEIC into a small number of classes for about 20-30 minutes of the available 90 minutes. I tried it but it didn’t work well and I stopped teaching it although students continued to take the TOEIC course in line with the curriculum. They had other TOEIC classes too. There was generally a lack of supervision in this regard.

However, in my 8 years at the university, I had integrated individual oral testing into most of my courses.

·        Support and Direction from Course Administrators

CP3 A standardized test… should not be the goal on the college level. I do not believe one can “teach” to a test and get good results…Improvement involves broader cognitive and critical skills that students internalize, as they are stimulated in many different ways. For me, variety, not standardization, is most productive for student improvement.  

·      Limitations of Teaching to Standardized Tests

CP5 Currently in our institution, 20% of the students’ final grade (in Academic English Courses) is based on TOEIC score. Some teachers are strongly against the policy of incorporating the TOEIC score, arguing that TOEIC scores do not necessarily show students’ efforts or improvement in class and want to use in-house tests instead, which I am not really sure whether they want to change it to written essays though. Other teachers who are supportive to the idea of using TOEIC is that incorporating the TOEIC score is necessary because that would emphasize the importance to study for TOEIC tests: it is difficult to get a fulltime job these days, and more and more companies value the score of TOEIC tests.  ·          Standardized

Testing for Instrumental Purposes

·          Limitations of

Teaching to Standardized Tests

·          Sound

Assessment Practices

CP6 Standardized tests have been prioritized by making a Test Coordinator one of the Co-directors of the English program.


·    Prioritizing of Standardized Tests by Management

CP1 My professional ideals are unimportant when working with an inflexible system designed not to produce the brightest and the best but rather to move students en masse through their 4 years with as little fuss as possible. The marking of entrance examination is one such instance where procedures are shambolic in terms of integrity. For example, imagine being given 750 papers to grade and the only guidance is “give a score between 1 and 10”. To think that an academic committee of “professors” can come up with and agree on such a procedure compounds the tragedy.

·               Support from Management  and Faculty for Sound Assessment Practices

Another matter highlighted by the teachers covers the ‘political’ dimension of their work at university, particularly the power differences between professorial faculty and English teachers, as shown in Table 4 (Item 3). The issue here is about the independence of English teachers including freedom from interference from faculty regarding expectations of what teachers must achieve with their students (CP1; CP3). Responses (in Table 4) suggest English teachers are sometimes viewed as having lower status than faculty professors (CP1; CP3).


Table 4. Summary of responses concerning expectations placed on teachers and teachers’ status (Item 3).



Response                                                                           Relevant issues highlighted
CP3 This describes exactly what I was faced with in my current job. And this scenario is tied to “political” and “power” issues within an institution… The Faculty professor, indeed, may feel to need to control. Language teachers, who usually are on the bottom rung politically, are coerced into the Faculty professor’s grab for control. A professor who does and says these things has no real understanding of how students learn. Are language teachers helpless to this harassment? The answer is “no”…The language teacher requires both wisdom and courage to stake out his or her territory of expertise and not to allow outside intimidation.  Support from Faculty Concerning Curriculum Implementation
CP1 Reality check for the professor as those in the less prestigious positions such as EAP are already working with their hands tied. This problem is symbolic of the wider issue of 1) poor interfaculty communication; 2) unrealistic demands; 3) fragmented course structures; and 4) a belief that the lowly EAP teacher can solve major language issues in a once weekly class. •       Inadequate Description of Curriculum

•       Expectations placed on Teachers Concerning Curriculum



Table 5 (Item 4) presents responses that demonstrate different views about room for creativity, change and innovation. There is a concern over the influence of hackneyed textbook content (CP3) and narrow interpretations of what English courses should do for students (see CP6). There is also the deeper concern over whether teachers were sufficiently empowered to encourage alternative views or whether there would be resistance to such freedom (CP1; CP5). In situations where there is resistance to change, introducing new ideas will require a certain amount of courage on the part of the teachers (CP1).


Table 5. Summary of responses concerning curriculum and innovation (Item 4).



Response                                                                            Relevant issues highlighted
CP1 I would be more surprised by the fact that some teachers were brave enough to try and change things…Those with power and position are always those who want things to stay the same even when the students get a raw deal. •       Inflexibility of Curriculum

•       Effect of Curriculum Inflexibility on Students

CP3 When it comes to English language education, however, encouraging students in their “creative” use of the language is of primary importance…I feel textbook themes reinforce commercial values and feel that they do harm. I feel a teacher’s fundamental responsibility is to “control” content, so students are learning about the world, global issues for example, as they are learning the language. Textbooks, for me, are another form of commercialization.

Since they are created for a “mass audience” the topics are often: My Dream Vacation, My New Mobile Phone, and My Trip To A Theme Park. Because students are bombarded with commercial messages all the time, I feel that teachers should not be involved in supporting it.

Indeed, teachers should show alternative views.

•       Innovation to Encourage Creativity and Alternative Views

•       Limitations of Textbook-based Teaching

CP5 There are teachers who are not very open to new teaching styles and there are also teachers who like incorporating internet technology to motivate students…Changing the tradition of the school might not be that easy
  • Support from Management for Innovation
CP6 The overall direction of management has focused on the narrowest of definitions of language teaching. Narrowest definitions of language teaching concern the teaching of

English so that students can get a job or meet the test

•       Inflexibility of curriculum

•       Support from Management for Innovation

requirements demanded of companies so they can answer the telephone or deal with enquiries.


Limitations of Teaching to

Standardized Tests


 Matters concerning employment and deployment

The responses from the teachers concerning conditions of their employment and deployment, presented in Table 6 (Item 5), reflect the stark realities of challenging work conditions. A dominant theme that runs through the responses is the desire among teachers for fair treatment, particularly in situations where there are both foreign and local teachers on staff (CP2; CP3; CP5). In particular, the perception that foreign and local teachers are treated differently in terms of work allocation (CP2; CP5) comes up as a matter for worry, not in the least because such matters have a way of affecting teacher morale (CP1).


Table 6. Summary of responses concerning native and non-native speakers (Item 5).



Response Relevant issues highlighted
CP1 Whilst the issues described are complex and create different victims at different junctures in time I am quite resigned to the fact that within Japan things will never change…The native speaker issue is too messy for most people to get involved with and so they simply accept the situation no matter what. When the native speaker is also a non-Japanese then you are always treated with contempt and hostility when trying, in the most passive terms, to broach the subject. ·       Employment and Status of Native  Speaker Teachers
CP2 Classes were allocated unfairly as NS teachers were given more classes to compensate for their lack of Japanese language ability regardless of their actual ability…I was employed on a 5 year renewable contract. Only the teachers employed as native-speakers were untenured in this way among the teaching staff. •       Workload

Differences between Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers

•       Employment (Contractual) Issues

CP3 A University of XXX professor (a Japanese) once told me:

“Japanese Universities compete to pay as little as possible to foreign teachers and to squeeze as much as possible out of them”. The greatest challenge…is the expectation to “stay in your place.” Foreigners are often not considered equal members of a department and Japanese administrators keep control, with democratic procedures on paper only.

·       Employment, Status and Workload of Native Speaker Teachers
CP5 There is workload difference between native speakers and local non-native speakers in my institution. Non local people usually will not come to campus during the break, always going back to their own countries, thus administrative-wise, local non-native speakers cannot rely on them for administrative work. Further, due to cultural differences, some native-speakers never show up on time, cannot speak the local language and what they can do is very limited. I believe both native speakers and local non-native speakers are strongly feeling things are unfair to them, but at the same time not sure how to solve the situation. ·      Workload Differences between Native and Non-native  Speaker Teachers

·      Cultural Differences between Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers

Table 7 shows findings pertaining to the question of terms of employment, especially the question of tenure (CP3, Item 3). The responses suggest that terms of employment (CP1, Item 1) as well as recognition given to good teachers (CP1, Item 6) do hold implications for teacher commitment and the willingness to put in the extra effort for students (CP1, Item 1). The responses in Table 7 are a reminder that teachers, while being professionals, are also human.


Table 7. Summary of responses concerning employment status of teachers.




Relevant issues highlighted

Item 1

As I am a terminally contracted worker… I find it hard to invest beyond the minimum level – although I do aim to create worthwhile classes for the students. ·      Employment (Contractual)

·      Issues and Effect on Teacher Commitment


Item 3

The most important thing is for teachers to recognize the reality and to oppose the “power-games”. This can be difficult, because in Japanese universities, “not making waves” is often crucial for promotion and for tenure.  ·      Employment (Tenure) Issues

Item 6

Language teaching for non-Japanese is more about popularity than ability…Those teachers who bring in birthday cakes for students, hold parties in class time and set no homework get positive evaluations whereas those teachers who teach are then cast as strict and boring. I have noticed that private universities where word of mouth is vital for PR let such practices happen and even go as far to encourage teachers to socialize and have fun with their students. Again, this is all part of the tragic comedy that is language teaching in Japan. ·      Employment and Status of Native Speaker Teachers



The findings presented in the last section indicate both commitment and candidness on the part of the teachers who responded to the inquiry. The following section is a commentary on these findings.


Matters concerning curriculum and testing

The findings reveal that language teachers in higher education situations do have a need to feel supported by both faculty and management. The fairly sharp and incisive tone that appears to come across in some of the responses (e.g. CP1, Item 6; CP3, Item 5; CP6, Item 4), while rather unexpected, raises the concern of whether frustrated teachers might simply compromise on their ideals and settle for more convenient but less inspiring approaches to teaching (CP1, Item 1; CP1, Item 6).


A number of responses suggest that teachers are not entirely free to explore and innovate and would welcome the space to implement different approaches in order to better enthuse and motivate their students. Reasons cited for such a lack of freedom include a perceived lack of support from management for more innovative approaches to curriculum design and testing (CP1, Item 1; CP1, Item 2; CP2, Item 2) or unrealistic expectations of what English teachers should achieve with their students from faculty professorial staff (CP1, Item 3; CP3, Item 3). The responses also highlight the serious limitations of teaching to bit Item standardized tests (CP3, Item 2) predominated by grammar and structure, narrow curricular conceptualizations (CP1, Item 1; CP3, Item 1), and stereotyped portrayals in textbook materials (CP3, Item 4). The findings bring to mind an earlier point raised by Street (2003) that language is something alive and that students and teachers need to take hold of language instead of being ‘victims of its entailments’ (p. 83).


Matters concerning employment and deployment

While native speaker teachers have been acknowledged to be in demand, especially those who are white and speak with American accents (Breckenridge & Erling, 2011; Kubota, 2002), the responses show that the employment conditions of native speaker teachers may not be entirely positive. Fixed-term employment and differential treatment in terms of workload (CP1, Item 1; CP2, Item 5) are reasons for concern. For instance, native speaker teachers can be given more classes to make up for their perceived or assumed lack of ability to do administrative work in the local language (CP2, Item 5). The responses concerning native and non-native speaker teachers are a timely reminder to university management bodies and decision makers that teachers should be employed solely on the basis of their professional track record, not on their nationality or skin color, as is so starkly described in Kubota (2002).

Two other concerns from the findings should also be commented on. In CP1, Item 6, a point was raised about teachers who bought birthday cakes for students and systems that continue to give credit to the theatrics of fun and friendships at the expense of challenging students to hard work. The response shows concern that teaching should not be about popularity but about sound pedagogy (CP1, Item 6). Indeed, teaching skills, sound content and strong research should be the criteria for tenured positions. The granting of tenure should not be about ‘not making waves’ (CP3, Item 3) or superficial notions of popularity (CP1, Item 6).



As noted in the beginning of the article, this discussion has sought to examine how institutional ideologies and practices influence the work experiences of teachers. Instances where institutional ideologies, philosophies and policies are perceived to affect work practices and experiences of teachers are reflected in the findings. Demonstrating a gallant willingness to air and share work-related challenges, these findings cover ‘hot spots’ of contention including conditions of employment, differential treatment of teachers on the basis of their perceived native or non-native speaker status as well as leeway for creativity and innovation. The insightful comments in the teachers’ responses over the way work dynamics can be strongly influenced by institutional cultures and practices go beyond the relatively mild and measured tones in the published literature (e.g. Falout, 2010; Lin et al., 2005; McCrostic, 2010; Murphey, 2004). The responses also clearly suggest an expansiveness of view and a willingness to ‘think out of the box’ when challenged, especially where the subject positioning and empowerment of teachers are concerned.

 Finally, whether it is curriculum, assessment or overall policies governing employment and deployment, the findings indicate that system-wide changes do not happen so quickly or easily. Nevertheless, such matters that weigh on human dignity and subjectivity deserve a fair airing. One hopes that professional space for such discussions will engender greater awareness of the forces that affect teacher empowerment, professionalism and work performance.



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Reflecting on Work-Related Practices, Beliefs and Encounters of Language Teachers.



This inquiry aims to better understand the work situation of English teachers. Participation is voluntary and your answers will only be used for academic and professional discussions with a view to empowering teachers and improving their work situation through a better understanding of their realities and struggles. You need not write your name and provision of any other details like years of experience, home country, location of workplace or courses taught is not compulsory. The inquiry comprises 4 pages and takes about 20 minutes to complete. The actual time taken to complete it will depend on the amount of information you wish to provide.


Thank you for taking the time to respond to this inquiry. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to write to me at _________.


Years of Experience: __________________________________

Courses Taught: ________________________________________________________

Home Country: ______________________________________

Location of Workplace: ________________________________



Please read the following scenarios and if they ‘ring a bell’ or are similar to situations you have come across, please describe them in the spaces provided.

  1. Teacher A believes that the teaching of academic writing involves exposing students to a wide range of cultural resources including television, newspapers, the internet, museums, personal experiences and encounters with different people, as opposed to the teaching of grammar, topic sentences, paragraph construction, academic genres and text-types like argumentation and exposition. However, Teacher A works in a department where there is a strong culture of teaching writing through exercises on topic sentences, paragraph development including ‘elaboration’, ‘exemplification’, ‘explanation’ and the like, sentence and paragraph connectors like ‘Hence’, ‘Therefore’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘Given the above’, and through modeling different academic genres, text-types and sentence types. Teacher A feels uncomfortable and does a lot of soul-searching about what to do about the situation.


  1. Teacher B believes that the best way to test students’ proficiency is to stay away from standardized tests using short discrete items like multiple-choice questions because they do not test a student’s productive and creative skills. Teacher B believes that the best way to test students’ proficiency is through reading their written essays and through oral interviews. However, the institution that Teacher B works in uses discrete item standardized tests to assess students’ proficiency. Teacher B and her colleagues are obliged to drill and rehearse students in these standardized test items during class time.

Teacher B thinks that this is unproductive.

  1. Teacher C belongs to an English language teaching unit that supports a larger Faculty of Humanities in a situation where English is a foreign language to the students. Teacher C’s job is to teach English for Academic Purposes to help students follow lectures, participate in tutorials and write term papers. One day, a professor of philosophy approaches Teacher C and complains about how students are unable to follow lectures, write good term papers and participate in tutorials. The professor says that the students are very weak in English and tells Teacher C to: (1) go over important philosophy vocabulary with the students before the start of each lecture; (2) guide the students through the philosophy course website which is written in English; (3) read through journal articles prescribed for the philosophy course with the students in order to help them understand these articles; (4) read, edit and proof-read drafts of students’ term papers before they are handed in to the professor.


  1. Teacher D and E feel that the institution they work at seems to be bound in old ways of teaching and testing language. For example, the tradition of dividing the curriculum into the 4 skills of Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening is punctiliously followed. Moreover, lessons are very textbook-based and teachers are expected to carefully follow the order of chapters and exercises in the prescribed textbook. They try to introduce new ways of helping students including encouraging students to logon to interesting websites and to participate in online blogs in class. However, when they share their teaching approaches with colleagues, they encounter a lot of resistance to their suggestions.


  1. Teacher F is foreign native-speaker teacher working in an EFL situation. Teacher F notices that the work situation regarding native and non-native speaker teachers is quite complicated. Teacher F observes unfairness in the way native-speaker teachers and nonnative speaker teachers are treated and deployed differentially. Native speaker teachers are routinely asked to do a lot of proof reading for the department. Native speaker teachers, especially White native speaker teachers, are asked to deliver ‘special lectures’ to parents and public because they are seen to embody a Western culture that will attract more enrolments. Native speaker teachers are given a lot more paid extra work. However, native speaker teachers are not encouraged to be innovative. Their expertise in various fields is not properly tapped because they are mostly channeled towards teaching oral English and conversation classes while local non-native speaker teachers are given grammar and reading classes. Also, native speaker teachers are not given permanent contracts nor are they given administrative positions. Local non-native speaker teachers control important areas such as course administration and planning of examination papers. Teacher F is beginning to feel the presence of forms of discrimination in the workplace based on native and non-native speaker differences. Such discrimination may sometimes work to the advantage of the native speakers and sometimes to the non-native speakers.


  1. Teachers G and H notice that the administration at the university they work for uses unusual ways of evaluating the work of its teachers. Of late, they notice that administrators have been speaking to students about the teaching of various teachers. Although there is an official end-of-course evaluation questionnaire used for course evaluations, the university administration has also been asking other teachers about the performance of their colleagues. There is a general sense of worry among teachers that the administration has been using unofficial channels of feedback. Moreover, the administration is not transparent about how official end-of-course questionnaires are used and whether they are used for helping teachers in their planning and delivery or whether they are also taken into account for salary increments, promotion or tenure considerations.


About the author

Glenn Toh teaches English for Academic Purposes and English as a Foreign Language at the Faculty of Humanities in Tamagawa University in Tokyo, Japan. He has taught EAP, ESP, as well as courses in TESOL teacher training in Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

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