Today, we have a double-header of an interview. Ken Hartmann is the authority on English teaching in Hokkaido – he is the man behind Hokkaido Insider, the leading recruitment guide for English teachers in north Japan. He is also a man with a long history in English language instruction: he has a quarter-of-a-century of experience in TEFL. My TEFL Journey met up with Ken to discuss TEFL, Japan, and the frozen north.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I have been given the nickname of Hokkaido Ken for living and working as a teacher on this large island situated to the north of Honshu. When I arrived 25 years ago, EFL teaching conducted by native speakers was still in its infancy. Even in a populous city like Sapporo, which became known around the world after the Winter Olympics of 1972, a foreigner would stand out like a sore thumb.
Being a computer systems analyst I had no intention of becoming a teacher, but sometimes timing and events beyond our control lead us to unintended destinations. It is a long story as to why I am here and probably it would be best to check out my profile on the Hokkaido Insider website for that lengthy summary.
How about your teaching experience? How did you start out as a teacher?
My teaching experience began with young neighborhood kids and housewives just to keep busy and earn a little spending money. Slowly I built up a private school which peaked at about 125 students, with some part-time American and Canadian teachers helping me. Along with the home school, I taught part-time at a private girl’s high school, junior colleges and ultimately several universities.
Currently, I have let the home school slowly succumb to attrition as I added more and more college classes, and simply have no energy left to expend on kids at the end of the day. I have gotten to know hundreds of teachers through my work and the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT), which was instrumental in providing support with the what and how of teaching EFL. Now my non-teaching time is spent giving back to others by providing information to help native speaking teachers to live and find work in Hokkaido.
You clearly have a wealth of experience. How have you managed to succeed where others have failed?
As a teacher I suppose that I have been successful by being able to connect with students and other teachers, and having a willingness to always look for ways to improve my teaching. Being an independent type, I never wanted to work for one institution, so focused on building up my own business.
Even during many years of a failing economy, I continue to see a steady demand for English being taught by native speakers. I sometimes wonder why more ex-pats do not try to develop their own neighborhood schools. As so many foreigners have Japanese marriage mates – like me – the convenience of a spousal visa makes this a very easy route to take. One doesn’t need to have a Master’s degree in Linguistics to help young children and/or housewives to learn English.
Of course, if you want a full-time job at a university, proper certification and higher-level education is a necessity these days. The problem is that those jobs have become more and more difficult to obtain and the odds of being chosen are quite low.
It’s interesting that you mention the many years of a depressed economy in Japan. How is this affecting the TEFL job situation in Japan?
With a declining population of young people, and an increasing number of native speakers hanging around, the job market is tighter than ever before, especially in Hokkaido where everyone wants to live. Schools are closing down or merging and the bottom line is that there are fewer opportunities, especially full-time.
However, with respect to finding employment the problem exists that there is no central place to apply for all of these positions. In Japan, the hiring process often works through business relationships that have been established for many years and schools are not eager to change the system. Many of these schools prefer to let other agencies or services do the hiring for them as the school administrators feel incapable of deciding who would be best for the position. I must admit that I have not seen much progress in this system over the years in Hokkaido with respect to public schools.
What about Hokkaido in particular?
The economic conditions have dictated the hiring of part-time teachers who do not require benefit packages, and who can easily be replaced, if necessary. This is certainly not unique to Hokkaido, but the economic downfall hit Hokkaido and Okinawa the hardest. Sapporo is the only major city in Hokkaido, with about two million people, and quite a number of universities, junior colleges, technical and language schools. The other major cities of Hakodate, Asahikawa, Obihiro and Kushiro are much smaller with only a handful of such schools.
Altogether, there are many native speakers scattered throughout the small towns in Hokkaido thanks to the JET program and local school boards that are pushing the hiring of native speakers for elementary, junior and senior high schools.