ESL Team Teaching in the Japanese Context
Possibilities, Pitfalls and Strategies for Success
By Basil Tonks, Head Tutor for Teyl-JAPAN
Team teaching is a well established teaching method used in many schools around the world. At publicly funded schools in Japan, team teaching is an especially pervasive instructional method in ESL classes. The government sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme or JET Programme is responsible for bringing thousands of English-speaking Assistant English Teachers (AETs) to Japan. According to the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations which administers the JET Programme, approximately 5,500 such AETs are currently employed at junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. Influenced by the JET Programme, many primary schools have also taken to hiring native English speakers as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). The number of ALTs is not clear but up to 5000 such teachers may now be employed at primary schools across Japan. (Kogushi) These ALTs are responsible for assisting Japanese teachers to conduct "English activities" within the General Studies course of the primary school curriculum. If each AET or ALT is being paired with just one other teacher, it means that there are at least 20,000 teaming teachers currently teaching ESL in Japan. However, because AETs and ALTs are often paired with several Japanese ESL teachers, the real number of teaming teachers active in ESL education in Japan is probably much higher.
Unfortunately, despite the long and widespread experience with team teaching in Japan, many teaming teachers, both native -speakers and Japanese, view team teaching in a negative light. At a recent seminar for teaming teachers conducted by this author, only one of approximately 40 participants evaluated their team teaching experience in a favourable light. Is team teaching worth the trouble? Is it possible to design a team teaching program that will "work" or should the multitude of team teaching programs in Japan be scrapped? This paper will examine the possible benefits of team teaching in ESL education in Japan, present several reasons why team teaching programs often fail to meet expectations and conclude with some practical suggestions on how teachers, in Japan or elsewhere, can make team teaching a success.
What is team teaching?
Most ESL teachers have had some experience with team teaching. They may have teamed with another teacher during practical training when they were novices or experienced team teaching later in their careers. However, many of these same teachers will never have thought carefully about the various forms that team teaching can take. In general, there appear to be two basic types of team teaching. In Type A team teaching, two or more teachers teach the same students at the same time in the same classroom. In Type B team teaching, two or more teachers work together but do not always teach the same students at the same time. In Japan, Type A is the most common type of team teaching.
Within Type A team teaching there are four basic instructional models. These models may be used singly or combined in any number of ways. In the Traditional Model both teachers share the instruction of content and skills to all students. This contrasts with the Supportive Model in which one teacher focuses on content instruction while the other teacher conducts follow-up activities or works on skill building. In the third model, The Parallel Instruction Model, students are divided into groups and each teacher provides instruction in the same content or skills to his or her group. In the last model, The Differentiated Instruction Model, students are divided into groups on the basis of learning needs with each teacher providing instruction based on his or her group's needs. In practice, this often means dividing a class by ability to provide enrichment activities to the high ability group and extra support to the lower functioning group.
What are the benefits of team teaching for teachers and learners in Japan?
As suggested by the various models listed above, team teaching allows teachers to experiment with a much wider variety of instructional models than could be attempted in a single teacher classroom. Team teaching seems to be an attractive instructional model. But is it really a superior instructional method? What exactly are the benefits of a team teaching program?
In Japan, The Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture, or MEXT, has praised the numerous benefits of having native English speakers assist Japanese teachers in their English lessons. In the Handbook for Team-Teaching, Revised Edition (2002) MEXT claims that native speaking ALTs will increase learner motivation, promote cross-cultural understanding, enable more effective presentation of language content, especially dialogues, increase learner participation, produce effective educational materials and provide on-the job training for Japanese teachers of English. This is high praise indeed. Are MEXT's expectations realistic? What does the research suggest?
Goetz (2000) has identified the following benefits of team teaching for teachers and learners. For teachers, team teaching is an effective way to learn new teaching skills and can often contribute to professional development. For learners, the cooperation observed between teachers can serve as an example of teamwork and communication. In an ESL setting, this means that teaming teachers can effectively provide a communicative model in the target language. In addition, through parallel or differentiated instruction, learners can receive more personal instruction time from teachers. Finally, because learners are taught by more than one teacher, there is an increased chance that each learner will encounter an instructional style that matches his or her learning style.
Clearly, there are several potential benefits to team teaching ESL. However, it would seem that MEXT's claims regarding increased learner motivation, promotion of cross-cultural understanding and materials development are not supported by the literature. These benefits are not inherent in team teaching. They are highly dependant on individual teachers. If ALTs are professional teachers, these benefits may accrue. If they are untrained college graduates, expectations regarding learner motivation, cross-cultural understanding and materials development may be unreasonable.
Why do many teachers in Japan dislike team teaching?
If team teaching programs are so beneficial to both teachers and learners, why do so many ESL teachers in Japan have a negative impression of team teaching? Unrealistic expectations may be one reason why so many ESL teachers in Japan become disillusioned with team teaching. However, it seems that most teaming teachers in Japan come to dislike team teaching because of their daily experiences in poorly designed and operated team teaching programs.
The most commonly mentioned problems in team teaching programs around the world are a lack of time and poor communication between teaming teachers (Goetz). Implementing a team teaching program requires much time. A lot of time is needed to establish the program itself and even more time is needed to plan and run individual lessons. Without sufficient time to prepare, teaming teachers can easily become stressed and the quality of instruction may quickly decline. Without adequate communication, teaming teachers often find it difficult to work together and solve the numerous problems that inevitably occur. Teaming ESL teachers in Japan also experience these problems. They have very little time to plan as a team and communication is particularly difficult because many Japanese teachers lack the English skills to effectively communicate with primarily monolingual, English-speaking ALTs. In addition, Japanese ESL teachers and ALT'S also seem to experience stress because of significant differences in their expectations of each other. (Mahoney) Confusion over who should do what often seems to lead to a decline in instructional quality and directly contributes to negative feelings about team teaching programs.
How can teachers improve their team teaching programs?
Almost all team teaching programs in Japan are imposed on teachers by school administrators. Teaming teachers who are not satisfied with their programs have only one option. They must work with their colleagues to improve their team teaching experience. Fortunately, there are several concrete actions teaming teachers can take to improve their team teaching programs.
Much of the effort to build a successful team teaching program must take place outside of the classroom. As a first step, teaming teachers must identify the goals and philosophy of their program. This may include discussing the team teaching model(s) to be used, identifying the responsibilities of individual teachers, setting rules for classroom management and stating the benefits expected to accrue from the team teaching program. Next, teaming teachers must make team building a priority. Teachers may want to begin with an honest discussion of professional strengths and weaknesses or personal teaching philosophies and preferences. Team spirit can further be developed by making decisions by consensus, accepting and faithfully implementing decisions made by the team and always maintaining a professional relationship with team members. In addition, teaming teachers should also try to improve communication with colleagues. Teachers should always communicate honestly and with respect. Maintaining a positive attitude and a sense of humor will also go a long way to improve communication between team members. Finally, teaming teachers must always strive to make time for their team. They will need time to plan, prepare and evaluate. As part of the planning process, Goetz (2000) suggests that teachers discuss what materials will be taught, who will teach them, how will they be taught, if and how small groups of learners will be created, how will learners be evaluated and how they will evaluate the team teaching program as a whole.
In the classroom, teaming teachers may also want to try using some of the instructional techniques proven to be successful by practiced teaming teachers. Benoit and Haugh (2001), two ESL teachers with team teaching experience in Japan, suggest that team teachers should always maintain eye contact while teaching, develop hand signals to communicate during lessons, circulate around the classroom as much as possible and use echoing (repeating or translating the utterances of the other teacher).
Establishing a successful team teaching program is not an easy task. It takes a lot of commitment, goodwill, thought, time, flexibility and patience to make team teaching "work". Money is also a factor. Team teaching is, by its very nature, more costly than single teacher instructional models. Do the educational benefits, especially in an ESL context, outweigh the costs? At this time, it is difficult to say. The benefits of team teaching may be substantial. However, due to a lack of research within the ESL community, it is impossible to draw any definitive conclusions about the efficacy of ESL team teaching. Meanwhile, teaming teachers around the world, including many in Japan, are working within team teaching programs now. They do not have the luxury of waiting for the research to come in. It would seem that, for the moment, the best advice to teaming teachers is to make the best of the situation. By taking a few practical steps, teachers can dramatically improve their team teaching programs and make the team teaching experience more enjoyable and beneficial for themselves and their students.
Benoit, R. & Haugh, B. "Team Teaching Tips for Foreign Language Teachers." The Internet
TESL Journal 7.10 (2001): 43 pars. 23 May, 2005
Council of Local Authorities for International Relations. "The Jet Programme, 2004-2005
New Participant Data: 2004-2005 Participant Totals by Country." The JET Programme.
1 July, 2004. Council of Local Authorities for International Relations. 30 June, 2005
Cromwell, S. "Team Teaching: Teaming Teachers Offer Tips." Education World.
3 December, 2002. Education World Inc. 23 May, 2005
Goetz, K. "Perspectives on Team Teaching." EGallery.
1 August, 2000. University of Calgary. 23 May, 2005
Kogushi, M. "The Prerequisites for Making English a Subject at Primary Schools."
26th National Conference of the Japan Association for the Study of Teaching English to Children (JASTEC). Nagoya, Japan. 12 June, 2005.
Mahoney, S. "Role Controversy among Team Teachers in the JET Program." JALT Journal
26.2 (2004): 223-244.
Maroney, S. "Some Notes on Team Teaching." Sharon Maroney's Home Page.
September, 1995. Western Illinois University. 24 June, 2005
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Handbook for
Team-Teaching, Revised Edition. Tokyo: Author, 2002.
Murai, G. "Using Checklists: A way of reducing surprises in team-taught classes." The Language Teacher 28.11 (2004): 35-40.