English language teaching (ELT) as a profession has been criticized for a lack of professional standards as entry barriers to employment are often quite low (Rimmer, 2011). Many ELT instructors got their first job mainly by being a native speaker with little or no formal training (in my case on the JET Programme). A great deal about ELT can be learned on the job, and many successful teachers have learned this way and continue to teach effectively. Although the benefits of professional development and formal education cannot be denied, ELT practitioners have a litany of reasons for refraining from these activities. Andy Curtis (2006) lists several common reasons cited for not doing a program of professional development: lack of funding and institutional support, lack of time, lack of motivation and energy, reluctance to change, or belief in the disconnect between theory and practice. Despite these excuses, ELT is becoming more professional and requiring more qualifications than before, particularly in the Japanese market.
In general as you move up in the ELT hierarchy in Japan, from eikaiwa to business classes, or into the formal educational system of primary and secondary schools, most positions require at least a bachelor’s degree and preferably some formal ELT training, such as CELTA. That is the first barrier to entry. To teach in tertiary education, there is a further barrier, a master’s degree, preferably in applied linguistics or TESOL, but not always (e.g., my MA degree is in Latin American Studies). This requirement officially applies to both part-time and full-time positions (there are exceptions, employment through outsourcing companies or “grandfathering in” of previous staff). Previously, an MA backed up with research and teaching experience and Japanese ability, could be enough to secure a tenured university position. In recent years, the MA has ceased to be a terminal degree in ELT. Universities are searching for instructors with higher qualifications at all levels of employment and requiring more research publications than ever before. The recent Global 30 program encourages universities to hire more teaching staff with doctorates. As the number of university jobs shrinks abroad and in Japan, more highly qualified candidates are competing with those with only MAs for even limited-term contract jobs; causing an educational “arms race” and “degree inflation.”
It is clear that the market is changing in a direction that requires more formal education. Now to address some of the reasons given for not starting a program of professional development. The first is lack of time. Until recently, the opportunity cost of getting a respected higher degree was prohibitively high, requiring students to stop working to attend school full-time. Distance learning has become a respected and practical way to earn a degree, hundreds of universities offer advanced degrees online. Time management is still essential, but courses are modular, requiring as little as 10 hours per week. It is beyond the scope of this column to recommend any one program, but beware of diploma mills; verify that the school is approved by a respected accreditation body such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (US) or Accreditation Service for International Schools, Colleges and Universities (UK). If you prefer the physical classroom experience, Temple University offers master’s and doctoral programs at their Osaka and Tokyo campuses. Japanese universities are also an often-overlooked resource. They are conveniently located, affordable, and offer options in English. It also is easier for employers to verify the authenticity of a degree earned locally (though it may not be as valuable for tenured academic jobs outside Japan).
In addition to time, another scarce resource is money. The cost of a higher degree can be daunting, two to five million yen for a master’s and 5-10 million yen for a doctorate, but if you think about the increased earning potential (comparing a three million yen per year eikaiwa job to a five million yen university job), you can recoup your investment within the first year at a good job. Financial aid is typically available if you choose to pursue a degree in your home country. For example, the Australian government offers the Research Training Scheme to its citizens (and Kiwis, too) which pays tuition for students pursuing “research-based” higher degree programs.
If the monetary or time commitments of a full graduate degree are too much, short-term, lower-cost graduate certificate programs are also available. They offer certificates in specific areas, such as literacy or educational technology or management. If you feel you want to improve the practical side of your teaching the short-term, practicum-based programs such as CELTA and DELTA are perfect as they cram a great deal of practice (and theory) into a short, manageable course of study. A focused program may help potential students maintain motivation or give them a taste of graduate level study. Even though a certificate may not substitute for a gate-keeper degree, it can balance a CV or make a minimally qualified person more attractive (in my case earning a CELTA in addition to my MA outside TESOL made me more marketable). Although difficult to list on a CV, free online education through MOOCS is also available and of ever increasing quality and relevance. Some sites offer various certifications. In the end, as the ELT market increases in competition and professionalism, any kind of education can be very rewarding personally and professionally.
Curtis, A. (2006). Weighing the whys and why nots of professional development. Essential Teacher, 3 (1), 14-15.
Rimmer, W. (2011). Getting ahead in ELT. English Teaching Professional, 74(3), 4-6.