When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Hooper, asked her students to create and decorate small, construction-paper placards to hang around our necks with the initials IALAC written on them. When I arrived home, my mother saw my new jewelry and asked, “What does IALAC mean?” I replied proudly, “It means ‘I Am Lovable And Capable.’” My mother recalls this moment fondly to this day. Looking back, although IALAC may have been effective in boosting the self-esteem of 12-year-olds, it failed to sufficiently explain exactly how students were lovable and capable. In language teaching, we may all feel we are ‘IALAC’; nevertheless, we need to find ways to articulate our unique, special qualities in concrete, demonstrable ways. Sometimes we also need to prove to ourselves as well as our students that what we are doing on a daily basis is meaningful and worthwhile.
At this time of year, many of us are starting new jobs and meeting new colleagues. A common ice-breaker is, “What’s your specialty?” My answer (and perhaps yours) used to be simply, “I’m an English teacher.” From the beginning, this reply understated what we have accomplished and what we are doing. At one point or another, we have all realized the importance of building a professional identity and reputation in order to be taken seriously by our colleagues in Japan, and among academics in general. A further impetus for developing a specialty is the movement towards content-based teaching, where the focus is less on the linguistic aspects of a foreign language (typically English in Japan) than it is on using a language as a medium through which one teaches another subject. In practical terms, we are often forced to be generalists in language teaching. An increasing number of universities across Japan, however, are offering non-language related courses (such as sociology, history, culture, or even an entire MBA program) in English. It is therefore likely that we may be given the opportunity to teach such content courses at some point in our career. The question that begs to be asked is, “How can this be done, given my current situation?”
One can find an area of specialty in any of the following areas: personal interests, professional or educational experiences, or research interests (activities). First, I have colleagues who have turned their passion for beer making into seminar courses, including experiential learning (making beer), historical research, and local business market research. Second, many current instructors had already begun to develop other careers before coming to Japan; these experiences were certainly useful in informing and enriching their language teaching. Among many examples, one of my colleagues now uses the knowledge and experiences she gained as a professional librarian to deepen her academic writing classes and general English classes, enabling her students to be more astute information users. In terms of educational practice, it is helpful to define any special methodology or approaches that one utilizes (e.g., task-based learning). Third, specific research interests also help to set one apart from one's colleagues. Ongoing research is not only a professional requirement but also a personal, professional must. Research informs one's current teaching practice and demonstrates your vitality and competence as an educator to both onesself and one's colleagues.
To improve one's marketability as an educator seeking a position suiting one's qualifications, it is helpful to document your knowledge and abilities through official certifications, qualifications, or accredited advanced study. In an increasingly competitive job market, language instructors must be more than just "lovable and capable," but must also actively find ways to positively differentiate themselves from the pack, prove attractiveness to current and future employers, and take the initiative to make themselves indispensable over the long haul.
For more about the IALAC exercise, see J. Canfield and H. Wells, Eds. (1994) 100 ways to enhance self-concept in the classroom, 2nd edition, Upper Saddlebrook, NJ: Pearson Education.