My Perfectly Imperfect Academic Journey

Writer(s): 
Chiyuki Yanase

Hello colleagues. Have you read the interview with Annamaria Pinter, a specialist in English education for young learners and one of the plenary speakers at the JALT 2016, which was published in the previous issue of TLT? 

Her insightful remarks on the challenges that teachers for young learners face in professional development provoked candid conversation on this topic on the JALT TYL SIG Facebook site. As a way to develop the discussion further, we asked Chiyuki Yanase, a school owner and university lecturer, to share her unique experiences in professional development.   

Anne Lamott (1995) said, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people” (p. 28). This has been my mantra for my academic journey from an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at public primary schools to a part-time lecturer at the tertiary level. This journey has broadened my opportunities for professional and personal development, and granted me the opportunity to have a brand new objective and position; a researcher who inquires and shares her findings in classrooms.

It began while I was studying for a Master’s degree in TESOL, specializing in Teaching Young Learners (TYL) as well as working as an ALT for the board of education in Kunitachi city in Tokyo. In 2014, having heard about my teaching background and unique position as an ALT at public primary schools, one of my tutors on the Master’s program (at Aston University, U.K.) was interested, and visited one of the primary schools I worked at. She was conducting research with some co-authors to investigate the current trend of hiring, and the working conditions, of English teachers at primary schools globally. Through her observation of my class, she thought my unique position as an ALT/ teacher-trainer might make an interesting contribution to her book, LETs and NESTs: Voices, Views and Vignettes (Copland, Garton, and Mann, 2016). Then she suggested that I write about my personal perspective towards team-teaching in primary education by writing a teaching journal for a month. At first, it was a rather overwhelming offer due to my thesis writing and busy working conditions. Then, Lamott’s mantra kicked in and my daughter echoed this wisdom by saying, “Mum, you are perfectly imperfect and I don’t mind it at all.” Thanks to my daughter, taking this offer was one of the best decisions I ever made. Although the research project put me in an awful state of panic, it was still the best because it reminded me of the numerous benefits of keeping a teaching journal as a tool to reflect on what I do in the classroom. It also broadened my career options: I became a researcher as well as a teacher.

While participating in my tutor’s research study, I managed to complete my thesis. In March 2015, I graduated with distinction and was awarded a Master’s degree in TESOL, specializing in young learners. I decided to focus on young learners in my MA program due to the belief that providing outstanding quality of education to children may create a more eco-friendly, diverse, yet connected world.  I had no regrets about my decision, however, it can be argued that the current research and academic field might not see teachers for young learners as competent researchers and counterparts (A. Pinter, personal communication, November 26, 2016). I experienced this upsetting trend first-hand through my own job hunting process.

University positions generally require qualifications, publications, and experience. At the beginning of my job hunting, I naively thought that I met all of these requirements. On the contrary, a candidate for a teaching position at the tertiary level is expected to already have some teaching experience at universities. Teaching in a different context is not considered to be sufficient. My setbacks were not only a lack of teaching experience at the tertiary level but also the lower perceived status of my qualification. In fact, in post-interview e-mails, my lack of teaching experience was cited as reason for rejection. This trend of disapproval of the pedagogical skills of teachers for young learners was one of the most upsetting misconceptions I have experienced in education. A TESOL qualification in any specialized area requires the ability to demonstrate skills as a teacher-researcher. In my opinion, challenging the quality of pedagogical or research skills of the holder of such a qualification means to question the TESOL qualification itself. 

Fortunately, with the connections I had built in my past during my professional development and their faith in my pedagogical and English language teaching skills, in 2015 I was offered a position at a university. I had two listening classes for freshmen students in the Global Communications department and enjoyed some life-changing moments with these students. Space doesn’t allow for a more detailed discussion of this, however, this teaching experience at a university enabled me to see my new role in education (teacher-researcher) and propelled me to seek more positions at the tertiary level for the following academic year.

Thanks to the professionals at the tertiary level who saw my potential and passion towards English language teaching, I had offers from four universities in Tokyo for the following academic year, 2016. Lamott’s quote also played a significant role in times of disappointment in keeping my head high and maintaining my faith in the pedagogical skills I had learned from teaching in various classrooms and the theoretical knowledge I had attained from the TESOL program. I have no doubt that my former ALT career and 20 + years of teaching experience have also enabled me to do my current job at universities. 

From my personal perspective, a teacher is a facilitator who provides a space for the learners and supports them to develop skills and acquire knowledge collaboratively via assigned tasks. Thus, in terms of teaching approaches and philosophy, a part-time teaching position at tertiary level is no different from that of primary school. Freshmen students in university have more sophisticated social skills and cognition than younger students. Yet, in terms of character, each one of them is as unique and intriguing as the children I have met in my past. Regarding their potential, I see no difference between freshmen students and young learners.

There are, however, differences between my previous work and the current work, especially at Oberin University, where I now work twice a week. One of the differences is the diversity of my colleagues with regard to nationality, educational background, teaching philosophy, teaching approach, and working history. The teachers’ room seems like a feasible micro model for a future society in Japan. The more experienced teachers help newcomers generously. This generosity and acceptance from my colleagues has empowered me to conduct the best possible classes for my learners. I would love to see the transformation of my country from a small island to a member of a global society as demonstrated in the teachers’ room.  The current work also offers me more liberty in terms of course design, working conditions and time to do research projects. In fact, I am currently involved in five ongoing projects with other professionals in different settings. 

In conclusion, there is a serious lack of research and publications in the TYL field (A. Pinter, personal communication, November 26, 2016). In order to develop a more child-centered collaborative learning environment in every classroom for young learners, more professionals need to join the academic circle and actively share the voices of learners and educators. For the reasons I have stated above, it is time to open the door to more teachers for young learners with TESOL. In addition, hiring teachers from various pedagogical backgrounds who approach work differently might help students to see the world from multiple perspectives. 

Reference

  • Copland, F., Garton, S., & Mann, S. (2016). LETs and NESTs: Voices, views and vignettes. London, UK: British Council.
  • Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Chiyuki Yanase is a language school owner and a lecturer at several universities in Tokyo. She has been teaching English for young learners for over 20 years and holds a Master of Social Science degree in Teaching English for Young Learners from Aston University. She has presented at various conferences and published several articles on team-teaching, learner autonomy and teacher development. Her research focuses on collaborative learning and literacy development of young learners. 

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