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Surviving teaching: Learning from Japanese native-speaker teachers

Yasuko Okamura and Judi Miller

Starting teaching in a new country and a new culture is like being a beginning teacher again. If you come from a Confucian culture where teachers are automatically respected, the New Zealand classroom comes as a shock. How do teachers from Japan survive, adapt and thrive in New Zealand schools, and how can principals support them?

Journal issue: 

Surviving teaching:

Learning from Japanese native-speaker teachers



•&&&&Japanese native-speaker teachers reported experiencing “culture shock” when they began teaching in New Zealand.

•&&&&The main challenges were adapting to a less prescriptive education system and managing New Zealand students’ different attitudes and behaviours.

•&&&&The most successful immigrant teachers were those who balanced their own cultural values with values from the new culture.

•&&&&Participating in professional development courses in New Zealand helped Japanese native-speaker teachers develop effective teaching practices.

•&&&&Connecting with external support, such as joining the Japanese teachers’ network, was a helpful strategy.

Starting teaching in a new country and a new culture is like being a beginning teacher again. If you come from a Confucian culture where teachers are automatically respected, the New Zealand classroom comes as a shock. How do teachers from Japan survive, adapt and thrive in New Zealand schools, and how can principals support them?

A number of studies have explored the experiences of teachers to help develop recommendations that will improve teaching practice (Bezzina, 2006; Bullough, Knowles, & Crow, 1992; Cameron, Lovett, & Garvey Berger, 2007). However, few have explored the experiences of foreign-language teachers. This article aims to address this gap by describing a study of Japanese native-speaker teachers’ experiences. The study reveals that their positive experiences are influenced by their adoption of a number of effective strategies, and, importantly, their adaptation of strategies that fit with their cultural values. Furthermore, their retention is dependent on good support and conditions of work. The purpose of this article is to provide foreign-language teachers and potential teachers with helpful strategies, and to inform school principals and chief executive officers in tertiary institutions of useful ideas for retaining such teachers.

The study

A number of studies suggest that teachers’ professional development progresses through different stages (Farrell, 2003; Guskey, 1995), and that teachers are most likely to face difficulties in their earlier years of teaching (Bezzina, 2006; Bullough & Gitlin, 1995). The first years of teaching in a new culture represent a new phase of “beginning teaching”, even for experienced teachers. This study examines differences and difficulties experienced by Japanese native-speaker teachers teaching Japanese in New Zealand during the first developmental or “survival” stage (Katz, 1972; Maynard & Furlong, 1995). It also examines how Japanese native-speaker teachers adapted to a new culture during the “consolidation” stage (Katz, 1972) of becoming a teacher in New Zealand.

The major purpose of the study was to understand their experiences and make some suggestions to help improve the teaching practice of other Japanese native-speaker teachers working in New Zealand schools, and those prospective language teachers (especially from Asian countries) who plan to teach in New Zealand.


A questionnaire was designed to collect information on sociodemographic characteristics, expectations of teaching in New Zealand and the teaching experiences of Japanese native-speaker teachers. The questionnaire was piloted for clarity using volunteers who did not participate in the study. Distribution depended on snowball sampling (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) through researcher Okamura’s personal contacts. The sampling technique was adapted according to Japanese etiquette. This meant that approaches made to potential participants took considerable time. The questionnaires were distributed five times over two years as new groups of Japanese native-speaker teachers were discovered. In total, questionnaires were distributed to 68 Japanese native-speaker teachers teaching throughout New Zealand. Fifty-two completed questionnaires were returned, with a response rate of 76 percent. Of these, 25 teachers, including five male and 20 female teachers, agreed to be, and were, interviewed. Theoretical saturation (Creswell, 2007) was reached by the 25th interview.

Interviews were semiformal, ranging from 30 minutes to over one hour for each session, and were conducted in the Japanese language. Topics covered included personal profiles and exploration, in more detail, of questionnaire items. Examples of the questions in the questionnaire that were explored further were: “What surprised you about teaching in New Zealand?”, “What adjustments have you made to deal with what you find surprising?” and “What have been the best two things for you about teaching in New Zealand?”

In accordance with qualitative research methods (Creswell, 2007; Lofland & Lofland, 1995; Priscilla, Robinson, & Tolley, 2004) all responses were transcribed, translated from Japanese to English and analysed using thematic coding (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) and then interpreted using a grounded-theory qualitative approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

Backgrounds of participant teachers

The data collected from a survey showed that the majority of the participants (94 percent; n=49) held a teaching qualification. Of these, 24 held a New Zealand teaching qualification, 13 held a Japanese teaching qualification and a further 12 held both.

The data also showed that the majority of participants (87 percent; n=45) held a university degree from Japan and that many tended to pursue higher New Zealand qualifications—for example, university postgraduate degrees and teaching qualifications.

Teaching experience prior to arriving in New Zealand varied from those who had had no teaching experience (23 percent; n=12), to those (77 percent; n=40) who had had teaching experience either in Japan or in non-Japanese-speaking countries, or in both. All the study participants had taught in New Zealand schools for at least one year. Around a third of the teachers (31 percent; n=16) had taught in New Zealand for 12 years or more (see Table 1). These teachers had been working mainly for either secondary schools or tertiary institutions.



The findings revealed that Japanese native-speaker teachers experienced the process of teacher development as the series of differences and difficulties faced by other immigrant teachers in the New Zealand cultural environment. Japanese native-speaker teachers therefore made adjustments and adaptations to fit the New Zealand curriculum. In particular, they adopted useful strategies specific to them, which enabled them to have positive teaching experiences. Their experiences differed according to how long they had been teaching in New Zealand. Early experiences emphasised “culture shock” (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001); later experiences emphasised the value of using resources and seeking support; and experienced teachers spoke about using effective teaching strategies while maintaining their cultural values.

Getting started

Making curriculum resources, learning new pedagogical practices, adapting to New Zealand teachers’ attitudes and values, and, especially, managing New Zealand students’ attitudes and behaviours were the main differences and difficulties that confronted the Japanese native-speaker teachers when they began teaching in New Zealand. The differences were attributed to the fact that the teachers had received education mostly in Japan.

In Japan, teachers are permitted to teach using only the approved resources, such as teachers’ manuals. Likewise, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology sets the timetable and allocation of teaching hours within the curriculum at all schools. This contrasts greatly with the freedom accorded to teachers within the New Zealand education system and was a point remarked on by most of the teachers interviewed. They expressed different opinions about the freedom: some teachers found it difficult to teach without resources, while others enjoyed the freedom.

One participant said:

In Japan, teachers are advised what to cover in teaching in detail whereas in New Zealand, that is not the case, which is sometimes the hard part of my teaching in New Zealand.

Another participant said:

I like the New Zealand way in that we teachers have freedom to prepare our teaching materials.

Many teachers also found that the teaching methods and learning styles in New Zealand were surprisingly different from those in Japan. They described the influence of the teachings of Confucianism in Japan, which results in students being passive and spoon-fed by the teachers. In contrast, teachers noted that the New Zealand education system emphasises interactive teaching where students are strongly encouraged to participate in the various class activities.

One participant noted:

What I found through teaching in New Zealand schools was that students are active in the classroom. In Japan, this kind of thing seldom happened to me as students in Japan are very passive and busy listening to the teacher and taking notes.

Another said:

The Japanese system puts emphasis on rote learning … Learning in New Zealand, students ask questions frequently and do discussions. I was surprised.

Cultural differences between Japan and New Zealand also largely influenced how the teachers experienced their management of New Zealand students’ attitudes and behaviours. Japanese native-speaker teachers often experienced discrepancies between their own expectations of the classroom environment and the expectations of students in New Zealand classrooms. Many teachers remarked that the positioning of teachers in Japan is influenced by Confucianism, which leads to automatic respect for teachers by students, parents and the community. They noted that this is not the case in New Zealand. One comment encapsulates this:

The difference [between teachers in Japan and New Zealand] was very surprising … If you want your students to respect you [in New Zealand] you must do something special to get it, which is, I found, very hard.

Furthermore, Japanese cultural values posed problems for Japanese native-speaker teachers. For example, teachers imposed high expectations on themselves because they believed that students must not entertain any doubt about the knowledge of their teachers. This led to difficulties in interactive classrooms. A teacher remarked, for example, that as a beginning teacher they hesitated to say “I don’t know” when asked a question by students.

The main difficulties encountered were language problems (“Initially I suppose my English was not good enough so that I was not very confident”) and classroom management. The latter difficulty is similar to that encountered by many beginning teachers (Bezzina, 2006; Kremer-Hayon & Ben-Peretz, 1986). In the case of the Japanese native-speaker teachers in this study, however, classroom management was not experienced as a separate issue. It was connected to their limited knowledge of colloquial language, their cultural values about teaching and their perception that students lacked respect for teachers. For example, one participant was surprised by what he perceived to be a lack of respect by students:

They often came and saw me, calling me ‘mate’. I told them that I was not their mate.

The students behaved (or misbehaved) differently than expected, and, while some teachers were able to successfully use management techniques learnt at New Zealand teachers’ colleges, others found that nothing seemed to work. They remarked that the language barrier limited their attempt to adopt the norms of the New Zealand classroom.

Getting established

In order to survive, Japanese native-speaker teachers found it necessary to learn new ways of working. They learnt new teaching methods and skills by adapting available resources, attending professional development courses, making class observations and joining a network of Japanese teachers. As they put newly learnt teaching methods and skills into practice, they became more confident to teach Japanese in New Zealand classrooms. They emphasised that, to work more effectively, they needed to use and adapt resources, understand cultural differences, improve their English language and get to know their students.

The importance of a good support system was commented on often. Most remarked that the work conditions for teaching in New Zealand (for example, “fair treatment”, “flexibility in teaching”, “receiving positive feedback from students”) helped them to continue working well as a teacher. The teachers who chose to continue teaching in New Zealand not only received support from their school and colleagues, but also received extra support outside school, especially from the people who understood them and their culture. Comments included:

It was really good to get advice from colleagues who were more experienced than me.


Some teachers in the network also introduced me to other schools so that I was able to visit and observe other teachers’ classes.

As noted here, joining the Japanese teachers’ network to share their experiences and problems was considered beneficial, as was receiving support from Japanese language advisers and their own mentors. These strategies especially helped them solve some of their dilemmas.

Managing the class continued to be the biggest challenge for most teachers. While language problems hindered their classroom management initially, most acknowledged that the practical learning opportunities they gained through professional practice in the teacher-training courses helped. Teaching experience in New Zealand gave them more learning opportunities.

Some remarked that engaging in interactive teaching in the New Zealand classroom gave them confidence to communicate effectively with New Zealand students. One comment was:

I have been teaching for a long time. If you continue teaching, you will naturally learn what is important in teaching and how you can solve problems.

Experiencing success

Working effectively as a teacher in New Zealand requires competent use of teaching and management strategies. Many Japanese native-speaker teachers became effective teachers by adopting a number of useful strategies described in the literature (Cangelosi, 2000; Hardin, 2008; Vaughan & Weeds, 1994; Wragg, 2004; Yates, 2001). These included motivating and encouraging students, setting up clear learning objectives, facilitating students’ participation in class (that is, using a communicative approach) and managing classes through communication.

Teachers also mentioned how useful it was to integrate their own techniques with recognised strategies to encourage students to learn Japanese. One such strategy was to introduce Japanese as being a subject that is easy to learn. A second strategy, especially for junior classes, was to give considerable compliments and positive reinforcement to students. A third strategy was to provide students with relevant practical activities. They found that students worked better when they knew what they needed to do and what they could achieve as an outcome. This was effective for students learning both the cultural aspects of Japanese, and vocabulary and expression. A fourth strategy was the use of the direct method—“a method for teaching language that avoids the use of the native tongue, and that emphasises listening/speaking over reading/writing” (Nunan, 1999, p. 305). For example, students are asked to describe a picture shown by the teacher, using the learnt sentence structures and expressions, while the teacher uses gestures and facial expressions to help students practise speaking the language.

Other strategies that helped the Japanese-language teachers included: establishing their own teaching styles; promoting Japanese-language education; using their own experiences of learning languages; recognising the advantages of students having experience in learning a second language; and teaching students how to study foreign languages. Central to their success was their development of a sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). Many of the teachers believed that their competence enabled them to find ways to teach effectively and with some flexibility.

One participant said:

I found that teachers not only need to choose an appropriate teaching style but they also need to be able to change it according to the needs and abilities of students. What I do is to teach less if I find my students are not following me well, but I teach more if I find them doing well.

Normative Japanese cultural values such as obligation and responsibility, tolerance for difficulties and endurance of hardship (Marsella, 1993) helped the Japanese native-speaker teachers cope with difficulties and continue teaching in New Zealand schools. When faced with differences in cultural values in the school system, and the mismatch in expectations in the classroom, these teachers made adjustments and adaptations, but they maintained their own Japanese cultural values. For example, they showed “tolerance for difficulties” when making adaptations to fit into teaching in New Zealand schools. They also accepted “responsibility” and displayed “endurance” when facing difficulties in classroom management. They also emphasised that it was important for them to balance the acquired culture in New Zealand with their own culture, alongside the development of a support system inside and outside of school:

I think you need to enjoy teaching. Even though there are some problems, you take it as natural to have them. It is more important for teachers to enjoy working. Also, you must be patient and fond of your students.

These adaptive strategies obviously helped the Japanese native-speaker teachers to survive in New Zealand as immigrant teachers.


This study explored the experiences of Japanese native-speaker teachers teaching Japanese in New Zealand schools. While the data comprise self-reports, which may encourage some embellishment, the findings highlight several ways Japanese native-speaker teachers learnt how to become effective teachers in New Zealand. Learning involved facing differences and difficulties in teaching in the New Zealand cultural environment, and making adjustments and adaptations to fit into teaching in New Zealand schools and institutions. Teachers described their adaptive use of many effective strategies suggested in the literature as well as strategies specific to them. In particular, their survival depended on them maintaining their own fundamental cultural values in conjunction with the use of helpful strategies. The use of these strategies by Japanese native-speaker teachers obviously contributed to their successful adaptation as foreign-language teachers in New Zealand.

Helpful strategies for migrant foreign-language teachers

Since Japanese native-speaker teachers noted that their development involved not only learning to become a teacher but also adapting to a different cultural environment, immigrant teachers need to be prepared to adapt themselves as teaching professionals and as immigrants to work in a foreign context. For example, they should anticipate culture shock alongside adjustment to teaching.

•&&&&Teachers are advised to learn and adopt many strategies relevant to effective teaching in New Zealand and adapt these to their own experiences. The findings in this study suggest that maintaining one’s own cultural values is an effective strategy for coping well with the difficulties faced in a different cultural teaching environment.

•&&&&Japanese native-speaker teachers adopted several tactics to motivate and encourage students that would be useful for other foreign-language teachers working in New Zealand schools. For example, they introduced Japanese as being a subject that is easy to learn; they used considerable compliments and positive reinforcement to encourage students, especially in junior years; and they provided students with practical activities to learn both the cultural aspects, and vocabulary and expressions.

•&&&&Japanese native-speaker teachers made good use of the professional development resources available and put these into practice in their actual teaching. This suggests that it is crucial for immigrant teachers to continue their participation in teaching and learning opportunities in a foreign context in order to find their own ways to teach effectively.

How schools and tertiary institutions can support Japanese native-speaker teachers

•&&&&It would be useful for principals and chief executive officers to encourage immigrant teachers to participate in professional development opportunities. Teachers who stayed teaching used practices learnt in professional development courses in their teaching.

•&&&&Japanese native-speaker teachers recognised a good support system as an important factor in enabling them to continue teaching in New Zealand schools. They received support from their school and colleagues, the people who understood them and their culture, and the Japanese teachers’ network. It is recommended not only that immigrant teachers seek out support, but also that school principals facilitate early availability of support systems. This will lead to the retention of immigrant teachers.

These recommendations indicate that balancing the acquired culture in New Zealand with their own culture helps Japanese native-speaker teachers adopt strategies that enable them to teach effectively and to survive as teachers in a foreign context.


Special thanks go to the Sasakawa Fellowship Fund for Japanese Language Education for support through funding and supplying resources and opportunities which made it possible to conduct this study.


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YASUKO OKAMURA has recently graduated with a PhD. She has over 15 years’ experience as a Japanese native-speaker teacher teaching Japanese in secondary and tertiary institutions in New Zealand. Her research interests are immigrant issues in relation to educational studies.


JUDI MILLER is an associate professor and co-ordinator of the M.Ed. counselling programme at the University of Canterbury. Her research interests include career development and professionalisation of counsellors.