In this issue’s Teaching Assistance I interview Nathaniel Reed, a veteran Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). ALTs work in schools all over Japan, in locations that range from quite rural to heavily urban. At times they may be required to act as a main teacher in the classroom or assist a Japanese teacher to help teach English pronunciation, vocabulary and communication skills. I ask him about the changes he has seen take place since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) Course of Study for senior high schools was enacted in April 2012. That change requires English classes to be conducted in English to create locations for real communication to take place. Reed claims that recently there has been a significant rise in direct hire and private company ALTs.
When I checked on what skills ALTs needed with Meron Mesfin, a recruiter for a private company (personal communication, January 17, 2017), he suggested that ALTs need to be “friendly, outgoing, adventurous individuals, who are patient, personable and open minded. They need to be independent workers capable of living in a full immersion Japanese environment with little supervision, and able to diplomatically handle daily work and life challenges with a cool, customer-service type attitude.” ALTs are also expected to take part in various aspects of school life, including school cleaning, eating lunch with the students, sports events and cultural activities.
To meet employer expectations, Reed suggests that current ALT training practices could be more efficient. He claims that an online training and professional development system for ALTs would improve the quality of language education in public schools and foster better relationships among teachers. He has already started to enact his idea by developing a MOOC, a massive open online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. Figure 1 reveals an introductory page to the course. Reed also intends to offer interactive user forums as part of the MOOC, which could be extremely useful in building a community of ALTs around Japan. When well-designed, MOOCs with such user forums can enable the participation of large numbers of geographically dispersed teachers and students and create virtual locations for real communication to take place.
An Interview with Nathaniel Reed on ALT Training Systems
David McMurray: Lately, I haven’t heard too much about what ALTs are doing these days in Japan. What’s new with ALTs this year?
Nathaniel Reed: Good question, and my answer is: Nothing much is new. The hiring procedures and training of ALTs, as well as our position and influence has largely gone unchanged since 1987. This year has been no different: The same decades old issues of role confusion, reliance on yakudoku (grammar translation methodology), one-shot recruitment and short training are as widely discussed as they always have been. However, in view of emerging research (e.g., Kano, Sonoda, Schultz, Usukura, Suga, & Yasu, 2016) that shows increasing numbers of ALTs actively seeking professionalism, some proactive change looks to be bubbling up.
DM: With an eye on curriculum changes suggested by MEXT to create all-in-English junior high school classes by 2020, university majors in education are gearing up for tougher Ministry of Education examinations over the next 4 years. What do ALTs think about the new curriculum proposals?
NR: Well yes, it’s an exciting time to be teaching in Japan. There is a lot going on in the ever-stepping-up Courses of Study, and some real potential for the future of youth in the Japanese education system and the wider society. A response to what ALTs think about policies is not so straightforward though, being the mixed bunch that we are.
Of the 16,000 or so ALTs currently working in Japan, we all stand somewhere along a spectrum of interest in and knowledge of policy evolution. In general some ALTs may be in Japan for a kind of gap year, have no background or interest in teaching, and are here to soak up some culture and travel or maybe to learn a little bit of the language. On the other side are professional teachers: ALTs with backgrounds and qualifications in something ELT related, some level of Japanese fluency, and who have been an ALT for decades and have a house, family or some other roots in Japan. Obviously the ones at this end of the spectrum will have more views, opinions and insight than others.
DM: Please introduce your ALT online training system.
NR: The ALT Training Online (ALTTO) system was born in 2015 following research I conducted as part of my MA in Applied Linguistics. I concluded, like many others, that the potential of ALTs is often unrecognised, but this could be rectified through ongoing in-service training, as previous initiatives have shown (e.g., Crooks, 2001; K. Hill, personal communication, October 20, 2016; Kushima, Obari, & Nishihori, 2011).
ALTTO is an open-ended MOOC, meaning it can be started/completed at any time. There are 22 modules divided into three categories: Contextual, Teaching, and Professional Development. The course brings together successful elements from previous ALT training initiatives and ideas from the wealth of research-based recommendations specific to training ALTs with online learning data and adult learning theories. The primary aims are to help ALTs to teach the Course of Studies effectively, improve team-teaching partnerships, and build a community of ALTs (Reed, 2016). The training is linked to social networks and supplemented by accessible resources that we have been permitted to use by various organizations, including JALT.
DM: How do you know it is actually helping ALTs?
NR: Well, teacher training is hardly a new idea, even for ALTs. Since the website’s inception in 2015 the challenge has been to make content relevant to all ALTs. It’s been a case of reading and re-reading the wealth of research on ALTs, whilst using a number of means to understand who the ALTs are, in order to deliver a course that will be actively used. This can be seen in the categories of modules. The Contextual modules exist because a high number of ALTs are in the job for a limited number of years; these modules provide an understanding of the teaching context that would otherwise take a lot longer to realise. The Teaching modules are a result of data that show a high number of ALTs are more interested in practical teaching advice they can use in their classrooms immediately. Lastly the Professional Development modules cater to ALTs wishing to further their career, providing the tools to research, write, and publish. In the midst of this, I have been assembling a team of writers that are professionals in their field to prepare modules. As the ALTTO is completely free, maintaining a high standard has been challenging. If there are any writers out there interested in joining and supporting ALTs please email (firstname.lastname@example.org). It would be great to have more writers on board.
DM: Can you share an interesting anecdote about what someone wrote on your site?
NR: As the course is being developed I’ll just share an email that is representative of the kind of messages I receive, and how a large percentage of ALTs feel: “I am a first year ALT rotating around seven schools. I had the unfortunate luck of being placed with a difficult JTE with high expectations and very little time to talk to me. Any training I could receive would be great. I have no idea where to begin or what to even do. I feel very helpless at the moment.”
DM: What are other important issues you’d like to raise about your MOOC training?
NR: I’ve mainly talked about educational factors, but of course the ALT system is a policy and so it is connected and orchestrated by wider sociocultural factors, such as the economy. One result of this is the ongoing fluidity of the types of ALTs that are hired. There are three main types: direct hire, private company and JET; the boards of education make decisions on the number and types of ALTs they hire. A mix of economic factors and teaching experience has, for example, resulted in a significant rise in direct hire and private company ALTs and a reduction in JET-hired ALTs.
Year JET Non-JET Source
2006 5,057 5,067 Kashihara, 2008
2013 4,089 11,343 Kano et al, 2016
This development not only signals unsystematic and unstandardized hiring and training practices, but also brings to the forefront humanistic factors of connectivity. A primary aim, as mentioned, is to bring all ALTs together, not only for professional growth and to improve standards of education, but also for human relations, peer support, and to provide a listening ear.
DM: Will your training MOOC be operating in 2020? How do you see it regenerating?
NR: Yes, ALTTO will absolutely be operating in 2020. In fact, the course will be complete by the 2017/18 academic year in time for the 20,000 ALTs that are due to be employed for the 2019/20 academic year. Currently modules are being put together that have been tried out by ALTs and readers before going online. The website is continually being updated, supplementary materials are regularly being researched, authors are being contacted, and other behind the scenes activities are taking place.
During this start-up time, and from 2020 onwards, ALTTO aims to grow organically through comments and discussions by ALTs themselves on the forum, in their responses to reflection questions in the modules and social media. Other plans include forming a writing circle and possibly to make the course accredited. Regeneration to continually improve the course and site will ultimately come from how the site is used and from feedback by users.
DM: How can TA readers gain access to your site?
NR: Go to http://alttrainingonline.com and have a look around, it won’t cost them anything.
Crooks, A. (2001). Professional development and the JET program: Insights and solutions based on the Sendai city program. JALT Journal, 23, 31–46.
Kano, A., Sonoda, A., Schultz, D., Usukura, A., Suga, K., & Yasu, Y. (2016). Barriers to effective team teaching with ALTs. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds), Focus on the learner. Tokyo: JALT.
Kashihara, T. (2008). English education and policy in Japan. Globalization and linguistic competencies: Responding to diversity in language environments. 12th OECD-Japan Seminar. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/41521944.pdf
Kushima, C., Obari, H., & Nishihori, Y. (2011). Global teacher training based on a multiple perspective assessment: A knowledge building community for future Assistant Language Teachers. International Journal of Information Systems and Social Change, 2(1), 5-8. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2440090
Reed, N. (2016). Pedagogical teacher training for ALTs in Japanese public schools. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H, Brown (Eds), Focus on the learner. Tokyo: JALT.