English teaching in Japan is changing. Across the country, a new team of “Teacher Leaders” are helping English teachers to transform their lessons. Laura Mckenzie met one of these leaders in Fukushima.
I joined the British Council Japan as a teacher trainer on the second year of the Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) in May 2015. I was soon plunged into the thick of things - in my second week the British Ambassador came to visit as I delivered training to future “Leaders of Education” in central Tokyo. There was a real buzz in the training classrooms that week, but I was curious to see how these teachers would get on when they returned to their schools and local areas, and came back into contact with everyday school life.
As a result, I was delighted when I was asked to go to Fukushima to see Yukari Ota, a Teacher Leader from the first year of the project, deliver training to her senior high school colleagues.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the moment we arrived, I was struck by the atmosphere in the room. The teachers were enjoying the chance to practise their English with colleagues, but, more than that, they seemed to be inspired and captivated by the person leading the training, Yukari. She peppered her sessions with examples of how the LEEP training had helped her own students become more enthusiastic about English, and how they had started using more English to communicate in the classroom. The other teachers were obviously hooked by their colleague who was facing the same everyday realities as them, but making a change, and they clearly wanted to know more about how she had done it.
I got in touch with Yukari after the training, and found out more about her story. I would like to share it with you, in her own words:
“I was selected in April last year. It was just after I moved to a new school. Also, I had just come back to Japan from the US where I had studied Education for six months so I was excited to do something for English education in Fukushima as a LEEP leader.
After week 1 training, I changed how to teach vocabulary. I used to have students just check the meanings of words in Japanese. After week 1, I tried activities like dash to the board, Pictionary and miming. My students were excited to try these activities and I still do these in my class now.”
Yukari’s flawless delivery of the training was no accident, as I soon found out. She had clearly put a huge amount of effort into preparing her sessions:
“I started the first cascade sessions in December last year. As they were the first I went to Niigata to watch cascade sessions by Mr. Nozawa (a fellow Teacher Leader) to see how to deliver them... It was a great help for me to prepare. Beforehand, I listed what I should say and practiced for the sessions. I used the classroom and practiced in front of nobody. Occasionally English teachers watched and gave some advice”.
Her efforts have paid off, and Yukari has noticed that, since taking the training, her colleagues have started to view her differently:
“.., other teachers' attitudes toward me have been changing. When I suggested trying communicative teaching method before, not everyone agreed on it. However, after I delivered cascade sessions, many people started to understand what I wanted to try and gradually changed their response.
“They seemed to be impressed to see English-only lessons delivered and were particularly impressed by ideas such as teaching past perfect, how to check students' reading comprehension, etc. Trainees in my sessions told me that they would like to try some of the ideas used”.
This has created a snowball effect in Fukushima, with large numbers of teachers flocking to see Yukari delivering open lessons in her school:
“Last week, I showed my class to teachers from all over Fukushima prefecture – 56 teachers visited, far more than I expected. I think the teachers are interested in how I teach with methods and ideas in cascade sessions. It went well and teachers, including those from traditional, academic schools, gave me positive feedback. I am sure the cascade training had an impact on English education in Fukushima”.
The Ministry of Education calculates that 20,000 teachers will have benefitted from LEEP training by the end of March 2016. Rather than numbers, though, it is the personal connections that result from the training that may be having the biggest impact. Yukari notes that:
“Thanks to LEEP, I now have friends to talk about teaching English with, materials and ideas”.
In the months to come, I am looking forward to meeting more people like Yukari all around Japan.