Most elementary schools in Japan’s northern prefecture lack specialist English teachers

A specialist English teacher gives a lesson at Ono Elementary School in Aomori City on Nov. 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenta Oka)

AOMORI — Although English lessons for elementary school children started in April 2020, only a few teachers specializing in the subject have been placed in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan.

Since 2016, the Faculty of Education of Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture has held courses for elementary school teachers to acquire second-class licenses to teach middle school English, and promoted the training of English instructors, among other measures. Despite this, the prefecture has only 26 specialized English teachers in its 260 elementary schools. Only five English specialists will join the teaching staff of primary schools from the 2022 school year, and further measures to increase the number are sought.

The Aomori Prefectural Board of Education reports that teachers specializing in certain subjects are assigned to schools taking into account the number of students and the demands of each school. Tsuyoshi Sato, an associate professor at Hirosaki University’s Faculty of Education who is familiar with teaching English, said, “Ideally, each school would be assigned a specialist teacher.” With the full-scale start of English classes in April 2020, the workload for every primary school teacher has apparently increased.

Sato said the reality in schools where full teachers offer English lessons instead of specialist lessons is that many instructors lack experience in teaching English and have also not taken any university courses on teaching English. “There are things you can do in the field, like using digital teaching materials, so I would like them to implement what they can first,” he said.

An instructor teaching English in Aomori City commented, “In addition to normal lessons and event preparations, among other tasks, I was responsible for setting up English lessons, grading and other responsibilities. I’m busier than before, and don’t even have time for lunch.” A principal of one of the city’s elementary schools said, “Those in the field have a heavier burden, so I want to see specialist English teachers assigned quickly.”

The decline in the number of new teachers and the exodus of staff fluent in English have been cited as reasons why specialist teachers cannot be placed in all parts of the prefecture. A representative from the prefectural education board explained, “The number of new teachers themselves has decreased in the prefecture, and we are wondering if we can assign them to entire areas of the prefecture in the future.

The Hirosaki University Faculty of Education Course for Prefectural Target Teachers was launched in 2016 to address the shortage of English teachers in elementary schools. Teachers spend three years studying six subjects, including “methods of teaching English” and “English philology”, on holidays and other days, and receive a class two license for middle school English at the end of the course. Over 30 people have graduated to date and the university has successfully developed its human resources.

(Japanese original by Kenta Oka, Aomori Office)