That was the question the mother of a son about my age asked me this weekend. Her son has been going to school and then teaching English in China for the past couple of years, but he’s thinking maybe he wants to go to Japan next. Why would his mother think it less safe to teach in Japan than China?
Because last week NOVA, one of Japan’s largest private language school franchises, shut down due to financial crisis. This made big headlines around the world because many of the company’s foreign teachers found themselves stranded in Japan, having not been paid for a month or more. Some foreign embassies wound up offering aid to stranded teachers. A quick recap of the company’s collapse:
The firm, which mainly offers English classes, has more than 800 schools and 400,000 students across Japan.
But in June, it was ordered to suspend part of its operations, after a court ruled it had misled customers in advertisements about some services.
Since then, student enrolment has fallen sharply and Nova has accumulated debts of up to JPY50bn ($437m, £213m).
Its 2,000 Japanese staff have not been paid since July and some 4,000 non-Japanese instructors have not been paid their salary for October, union officials said.
Nova has now closed all its schools, Kyodo news agency said.
I can certainly see why this kind of news would concern parents of adult children who are off to the other side of the world to teach English. But as I wrote before, in a post at my old blog last February, I’m concerned about all non-regulated foreign English teaching programs. The post, “Foreign English Teachers: Products or People?,” actually started out with a reference to NOVA. I was reposting an evaluation of the probably future of English teachers in Japan, written by a friend, which ended thus:
There are some private company teachers [contracted to public schools] 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.
So it now appears that the only big stable teaching option left in Japan is JET, which is stable precisely because it isn’t private. I don’t actually think it is any more dangerous for a person to work for a private English teaching program in Japan than it is to work for one anywhere else in the world. Which is to say, doing so anywhere in the world puts the teacher at risk of poor pay, unstable work conditions, bait-and-switch tactics to get them in country, and the possibility of being unemployed far away from a support network. As I pointed out later in that post, it happened to me in Taiwan. It happened to another former JET I know when she went to Russia. It isn’t country-specific. It’s beginning to seem like there isn’t a way for a person going abroad to teach to confirm their program won’t be a scam, without them moving to the country first, and then looking for a job, which rather limits the job market to people who have outside means of support while looking for said reputable job.
I do still recommend the JET program to many people, and I did to the mother who asked me the question. As I said before,
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.
But unfortunately, I also have to say that my final conclusions about private programs only appear to be made stronger by the collapse of NOVA:
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.
If you know of a truly well-run, professional foreign English teaching program, in any country, and would like to spread the word, please leave a comment. Certainly we are in need of some good news.