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Tales from the birdcage

Thursday September 28, 2006

Don?t go to Japan if you lack a degree. That?s one of the first things anyone who?s thinking of teaching in the land of the rising sun is likely to hear. Most English language ?schools? ? certainly the larger ones such as Nova or GEOS ? won?t even consider you without one. You may still find work in one of the innumerable small schools that exist in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, although when it comes to foreign teaching staff, they do tend to have a high turnover rate. Make of that what you will.

I came to Japan in early May, without a degree but with a Trinity College TESOL qualification, obtained from a university in southwest London. Some teaching companies, and especially schools and colleges, will ask for just such a qualification (either from Trinity College or CELTA), in addition to a degree. But most places provide staff with ?in-house? training, which can last for as little as a day. (The Trinity course, incidentally, lasted five weeks, and included six hours of supervised teaching practice.)

As my wife is Japanese, I anticipated avoiding the usual pitfalls faced by newcomers without degrees. For example, with her assistance I could advertise for students privately, and teach from our apartment. I could start my own language school. To begin with, however, I attended an interview to teach at a juku. These are privately run ?cramming? centres for children and teenagers that run after school hours and during the holidays. As I speak reasonable, if at times slightly mangled, Japanese, I was able to have a friendly discussion with Takeshi-sensei, the juku ?head?, who assured me that a) my lack of a degree wasn?t a problem, but it was a good job I had the TESOL; b) he didn?t mind that I already had a couple of students of my own, so long as I didn?t get many more (don?t even think about moonlighting if you?re working for any of the larger teaching companies, however financially rewarding it may be; and c) that I could work full- or part-time: my choice.

?Great,? I said. ?Thanks very much.?

?Take a couple of days to think about what you want to do, and then give me a ring,? replied Takeshi-sensei as we exchanged bows and a handshake.

But the following day I was contacted by Takeshi-sensei?s ?assistant?, who informed me in imperious tones that I would be teaching a class of six-year-olds the following Wednesday evening, for half an hour. During this time I would be closely monitored, and if my performance was satisfactory I might (fingers crossed!) be allowed to teach another half-hour kids? class on Thursday evening. For which I would earn, in total, 2,000 ? about 10.

To cut a long story short, I kept proceedings polite while basically saying ?I don?t think so?. I then tried to contact Takeshi-sensei, but didn?t have much luck getting through to him. By now I could smell something distinctly rodent-like. So in went the advertisement into the Nagasaki newspaper, while I also started group lessons in the backroom of a nearby kissaten (coffee shop) that was owned by a friend of my mother-in-law. This was not a course of action I could have taken had I been on my own here. Japan can be something of a closed society to those who lack the necessary contacts.

Since then (taxation headaches aside) I?ve had only one hairy moment. It was when I was teaching one such group lesson, the theme of which was ?hobbies?.

?What?s everyone?s favourite hobby?? I asked in my friendliest teacher?s voice.

?I like looking after buddy car in my bad house,? replied Yamada-san immediately.

?I?m sorry?? I queried with my best I-didn?t-quite-catch-you-there expression.

?I like looking after buddy car in my bad house,? repeated my student. I seemed to have no alternative but to write this nonsense up on the board, though when I did my class immediately started laughing. They, at least, seemed to understand perfectly whatever it was that Yamada-san was trying to say. ?My bad house! My bad house!? cried Yamada-san, flapping his arms and turning purple. I was inching towards the door when realisation struck.

?That?s birdhouse, Yamada-san,? I informed him, breathing a sigh of relief at the same time. ?You like looking after budgerigars in your birdhouse.? Yamada-san grunted and muttered something in Japanese that I didn?t quite catch, and maybe that?s for the best.

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