How to implement a successful equal opportunities policy by Matt Schaefer

I have, since 2013, worked as a program manager of Rikkyo University’s Center for English Discussion Class, a large-scale, unified-curriculum course that caters to roughly 4,700 students per year at a university in Tokyo, Japan. I am jointly responsible for curriculum design and evaluation and for hiring, training, and overseeing the professional development of 42 full-time instructors. It is a fulfilling job, in which my decisions affect the language learning of a significant number of students and I have the opportunity to interact with a diverse and committed group of teachers.

Because of the large number of instructors we require, and because each of them is on a five-year limited-term contract, we generally conduct recruitment twice a year, once in spring and once in autumn. When we post a job listing for the hiring of our instructors, we include the statement:

Applicants of any nationality are welcome to apply’ and make no mention of English proficiency or ‘nativeness’.

In an ideal world, this would not be necessary. However, we want to be explicit about the fact that we are interested in seeing candidates with the appropriate teaching ability regardless of any other criteria.

We attract applications from nationalities all over the world, which makes us feel confident that we are choosing from a relatively broad range of candidates and therefore, based on the simple mathematics, ultimately selecting a higher quality of instructor than if we were to limit ourselves in any way. It seems both counter-intuitive and self-harming, not to mention ethically objectionable, to needlessly narrow your options when seeking to find the best person for a job. Our recruitment criteria focuses purely on appropriate teaching skills and awareness of relevant language learning principles, so differences in L1-speakerhood, gender, ethnicity, or any other non-teaching related factors are consciously and happily ignored.

As new teachers go through our orientation training program, the issue of “nativeness” continues to be irrelevant in the context of acquiring awareness of the unified curriculum and considering how best to help students achieve our course aims. These aims focus on mutual intelligibility among students, which means that no one variety of English is identified as a desirable model. While our instructors’ main role in the classroom is to facilitate large amounts of student-to-student interaction, they also demonstrate the type of discoursal and strategic competence that is a goal of the course. The message is that “nativeness” plays no part in determining whether or not this is possible for any individual.

At the end of each semester, our students complete a survey with space for open comments. I do not recall ever reading a comment, either positive or negative, that referenced a teacher’s nationality or L1. If a student were to begin the course with any preconceived notions about who should or should not be teaching them English, these prejudices do not seem to persist in light of their actual classroom experience.

In the staff rooms, there is just as likely to be intercultural miscommunication between, say, American and British instructors as between “native” and “non-native” instructors. It is very interesting to witness first-hand the blurring of distinctions between “dialects” and “varieties” of English in this context. While unhelpful generalizations do get made on occasion, as happens among most large multicultural groups, instructors tend to become aware that their collective idiolects contain overlapping elements of a variety of possible uses of English. Distinctions of L1 or D1 (first dialect) status, therefore, become untenable.

In short, a hiring policy that allows us to seek the best teachers for the position, regardless of a candidate’s L1, has resulted in no discernible disadvantages for our center while providing many advantages, first among them a welcome diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Discrimination on the grounds of nationality or “native” speaker status appears self-defeating, lacking in sound principles, and damaging to the health of our industry.

Matthew Schaefer is a program manager on Rikkyo University’s Center for English Discussion Class in Tokyo, Japan. Previously, he worked as a language teacher and/or Director of Studies at various language schools in France, Italy, Spain, and the UK. His interests include assessment of ELF and professional development for teacher trainers. He is also a founding member and co-host of the TEFLology Podcast.

13 thoughts on “How to implement a successful equal opportunities policy by Matt Schaefer

  1. SoloFriendly says:

    Japan in general, was used to be for “Native” English Teachers only. However, it is great to see that they are becoming aware what true, experienced, trained and qualified English Teachers can offer, regardless of their skin colour and nationality. I admire and salute those behind this changed and you are one of them, Matt. Thank you for standing behind those Non Native English Teachers and for believing in them, that they too can teach the English language successfully. Good article to read. Thank you, Matt.

  2. Njegovan Tatiana says:

    I hope that soon there will be true justice when hiring English teachers. I am a NNEST, my students pass their English tests, they are thankful for my professional and high level teaching. Good luck to us all!

  3. Shannon Storey says:

    I taught in Japan in the 80’s, when native speakers could get away with a lot of incompetence – and during that time, I had the pleasure of teaching conversational English and communicative teaching methods to Japanese high school teachers who were dedicated to their work, committed to their students and competent in their field. I’m glad to see that today, their competence might be rewarded at Rikkyo.

    Naturally, I’ve shared this on Facebook! Your sense of reality needs to be promoted widely.

    • Matt Schaefer says:

      Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your experience.

      Hopefully, we’re moving towards a time when a teacher’s competence is recognized regardless of their linguistic background!

  4. Peter says:

    Hi Matt,

    I’m a big fan of the TEFLology podcast and of TELF advocacy.

    I have two questions:

    1. How many of the 42 teachers in your program are currently Japanese? And do they have the same earning benefits as foreign staff? How long do you think it will take before the entire program is run by Japanese teachers?

    2. Are there any Visa restrictions to being allowed to work as an English Teacher in Japan, related to the origin of the passport?

    … In China, there is a policy that only candidates holding certain passports can obtain a legal work visa as an “English Foreign Expert”. So regardless of employers desire to employ highly qualified, non-native teachers from abroad, they are not eligible for legal work in China. This is to try and manage the quality of teachers in a very young ELT industry where demand is probably 400% higher than supply. (possibly 50000 new ETLs required on an annual basis, making any kind of “teaching proficiency” testing hugely administrative heavy – hence they have opted to the passport proxy)

    • Matt Schaefer says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment and your questions.

      1. Depends on what you mean by “Japanese”! We have teachers who were born and raised in Japan with Japanese as (at least) one of their L1s. We also have teachers with one or more Japanese parents who were raised (at least partly) outside of Japan (I happen to fall in this category). And we have teachers who are second- or third-generation Japanese-American, who may or may not have grown up with some Japanese language input. Anyway, regardless of cultural and/or linguistic background, all teachers are on the same contract and therefore receive the same earning benefits. I don’t think the goal is for the entire program to be run by “Japanese” teachers, but a more equitable ration than we have now would be nice!

      2. I’m afraid that this is an area that I know very little about. However, our center’s website does state that “any nationality is welcome to apply” and I’ve never been told by our personnel division about any such restrictions. It’s very interesting to hear about the situation in China – I imagine that since demand is so high they will find some way of meeting it.

      Glad to hear you’re a fan of the podcast – many thanks for your support!

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