JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Matthew Cook of the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education

"I didn't have any idea what I was getting into when I arrived as a JET, or if I would even be here longer than a couple of years. However, working for the future of these children, and trying to give them more opportunities in their future, has become my greatest personal accomplishment and given my life new meaning." (Courtesy of Matthew Cook)

“I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into when I arrived as a JET, or if I would even be here longer than a couple of years. However, working for the future of these children, and trying to give them more opportunities in their future, has become my greatest personal accomplishment and given my life new meaning.” (Courtesy of Matthew Cook)

By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ Magazine. Eden is a member of JETAA NSW, based in Sydney, Australia, which is part of the thriving JETAA Oceania community that covers Australia and New Zealand.

As a JET Programme success story, that of Matthew Cook (Osaka-fu, 2007-12)’s must surely rank as being one of the most extraordinary and inspiring. Hailing from Blacksburg, Virginia in the U.S., Matthew’s interest in Japanese martial arts led to his participation on JET. Beginning a five-year tenure as an in Osaka ALT, he also served as AJET national council chair, working with the Japanese government as well as JET alumni associations, international corporations, and news media about the value of the programme and internationalization. In 2012, after his JET tenure ended, he was hired by the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education as their Native English Teacher (NET) Program Coordinator, and in the following year, became a senior staff member appointed to the revolutionary English Education Reform Project—and as far as anyone knows, a first for a foreign-born, former JET to be appointed to a senior government role in education.

Now almost a year after his historic appointment, Matthew generously took some time out of his packed schedule to talk with JQ about his role, and most interestingly of all, provide some frank opinions about the JET Programme and the state and future of English education in Japan.

First of all, let me just say, congratulations on your achievement. In a nutshell, how did you go from being an ALT to a senior staff position at the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education? Is that something you could have imagined doing when you first arrived as a JET in 2007?

Thank you very much. It’s been a whirlwind, these past few years, and the congratulations are appreciated. However, we believe the real work is just beginning now.

During my time as a JET, I had the unique opportunity to develop my own curriculum and methodology, teaching junior high and elementary school students. I taught phonics part of a methodology, with the goal of extensive reading. I also had the honor being the AJET national council chair my final year on JET. That experience opened a lot of doors, allowing me to meet some influential people that I may not have been able to meet otherwise.

One of those people was Toru Nakahara, who was named the superintendent of the Osaka Prefectural Board of Education on April 1 of last year. He holds the strong belief that English education has been a failure in Japan, and wants to reform the system altogether. He was one of the first people to take my opinions and experiences seriously, and believed that I could use them to play a key role in the reformation of English education in Osaka. Because of that, I got the chance to interview for a position on his special “English Reform Project Team,” fondly referred to as the “Seven Samurai.”

It’s something I never would have dreamed of in 2007. In fact, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into when I arrived as a JET, or if I would even be here longer than a couple of years. However, working for the future of these children, and trying to give them more opportunities in their future, has become my greatest personal accomplishment and given my life new meaning.

“Seven Samurai” is a wonderfully evocative name. Who are the other members on the English Reform Project Team?

I was hired from outside the board of education along with Kiyoshi Takeda, who was a high school English teacher in Shiga prefecture. He took a couple years off, and a few years ago he graduated from Harvard with a master’s in educational leadership.

Colleagues who already worked for the board education were teamed with us, because they should have a good understanding of the internal processes of the board of education. Two members from the high school division, two members from the prefectural education center, and one member from the elementary and junior high school division.

I know it’s early days yet, but what kind of impact does the appointment of a non-Japanese (and a former JET!) to a government position have on English education and the perception of JETs in particular? 

That’s a tough question for me to answer. It’s a huge leap forward, and very encouraging from my viewpoint. I hope that it opens the door for other government entities in Japan to see what’s possible and search out capable employees with broader experience and different perspectives to add to their workplace. If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that diversity should be celebrated and encouraged.

It’s been close to a year since your appointment. What are the challenges you’ve faced and how did you deal with them? Did your experiences as a JET prepare you for these challenges?

Two of the biggest challenges we’ve faced are budget and human resources. There are lots of great ideas out there regarding English as a foreign language. The reality is, writing education policy for one million students is a lot more complicated and intricate. It just isn’t as simple as having a great idea, when there are so many factors, on so many different levels, at play.

One of our main projects is developing curricula for elementary school English language education. As many readers well know, English teachers are not budgeted and allocated for the elementary schools in Japan. Finding ways to enable schools to teach English without certified English teachers, technology, or budgets has certainly been an obstacle that requires some innovative thinking and ideas.

I think my experience as a JET certainly did help me, especially my tenure as AJET chair and our other volunteer ventures here in Osaka. Operating on an almost non-existent budget can challenge you to think about things outside of the box, to find new ways to approach issues and think about what’s really necessary to accomplish the goals you’ve set in front of you. I’ve always encouraged the JET community to get out and get involved in their communities, not only for philanthropic purposes, but partly because it’s great for developing your own personal skill sets and experiences for the future.

Do you still maintain your JET links? Do you consider JET as being an important part of your team’s reformation efforts?

Absolutely. I’m still very close with some of my JET and AJET colleagues. I have AJET counterparts who have gone on to work at an Australian premier’s office, Apple, and other major companies. Remaining in Osaka, JET alumni are working with the local AJET chapters to find new ways to support and benefit from each other.

The latter half of your question is a little more complex. As of right now, it’s hard to consider the JET Programme being an important part of efforts toward English education reformation. The programme’s goals are a bit broader than ours. Additionally, the JET Programme hasn’t yet found a way to implement JETs in a way that has measurably changed English language education. I would encourage the Ministry of Education, as well as the other administrators of the programme, to find ways to give JETs more focused time with students to make a more meaningful impact on students’ English language education.

An analogy I often use is that assistant language teachers are quite often like “butter spread across too many slices of bread.” I’d like to see ALTs’ efforts and responsibilities streamlined to more effectively help students.

Last year the LDP announced their intention to double the number of JETs in three years. What challenges do you think this will bring?

The stated purpose of this doubling is to improve English proficiency in Japan. I think this shows what is a continued, and profound, misunderstanding of the JET Programme’s goals and track record.

While the JET Programme has done great things for internationalization in Japan, it’s hard to see any tangible, measurable effect on English education. For this reason, I feel that doubling down on a programme for “ALTs” (that are already widely questioned for their ability to affect English education) without reforms and changes to that programme is not a good idea.

This “doubling down” definitely has the potential to negatively affect the JET Programme instead of helping matters. This could bring out the naysayers who state that the programme is a failure, because it hasn’t proven to help or change English education.

On the other hand, if the entities that oversee the JET Programme were serious about making real, sincere changes, it could propel the programme into the 21st century.

In my opinion, to give the JET Programme the “teeth” to change English education, the Ministry of Education needs to seriously recruit teachers with ESL experience and backgrounds. These teachers need to have a desire to teach English as a career, be given special licenses to teach by the ministry and be given real responsibilities in schools, instead of being peripheral staff that are often left feeling like long-term guests.

On top of that, any serious effort to teach English needs to be backed by making it an official subject in elementary schools, starting from first grade. The rhetoric I hear at this stage is still far from being sincere, and is on a timeline that allows other countries in the region to continue outpacing Japan at an exponential pace.

If these types of changes were introduced, and JETs were strategically placed to teach these lessons in elementary schools, I’ve no doubt there would be a profound change in English education that could be directly linked to JET, and ensure its stability for decades to come.

Here in Osaka, we’re taking steps toward doing exactly this: English education from first grade, not “foreign language activities.” Licensing special teachers with the needed experience and proficiency. And most importantly, a strategic methodology for teaching English for communication and proficiency, not for taking entrance exams.

It is my sincere hope that our efforts will inspire leaders in Tokyo to do the same.

Lastly, here’s a random: where do you see yourself in five years?

Specifically, I don’t know. Especially considering that I had no idea I’d be here five years ago. More generally, I think you’ll find me fighting the good fight: trying to give our children better opportunities and experiences than those who came before them.

Find Matthew on Twitter (@Cooksensei) and Facebook. He also has a blog at http://cooksensei.com. For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.