Interview with 2012 AJET Chair – Matthew Cook


Many people reading this may already know you because of your work as the AJET Chairman, but you’ve also done quite a bit where you placed as a JET in Osaka prefecture. What got you started getting involved with helping other JETs and getting involved in Osaka?

My first two years working in Japan were, for the most part, a nightmare. I had what they call a “worst-case scenario” for living and working as a JET in Japan. Osaka public school students routinely score low out of all the prefectures on nation wide tests, and our city/municipality scored lowest in Osaka prefecture last year. Even though that’s the case, about 95% of the kids are still great kids, but 5% of the students is all it takes here to have a total breakdown of the system. We’re talking about students attacking teachers, students walking into classes they don’t belong to and distracting the students, screaming, throwing furniture out windows, breaking things….literally STOPPING the rest of the class from studying much less the teacher being able to instruct the lessons. Even when things weren’t as bad, or when the badly behaved students weren’t in the classrooms, the teachers didn’t know quite what to do with me, and since this was my first time in the classroom, I didn’t know how to teach, either. I asked everyone around me from JETs to the Board of Education, and no one had ANY good advice. Finally, I called CLAIR, but found that there was nothing that they could do either because they aren’t our employers ‘officially’, so they had no power to change my situation. It was a really difficult spot to be in. After a LOT of persistence and putting my foot down to administrators at school and the Board of Education, I got a transfer to another school in the same city, which ended up being a blessing in disguise.

What do you mean by “blessing in disguise?”

I was transferred to a school that was in the middle of dramatic changes and I got the unique opportunity to be a part of that. This school had some of the same problem students and situations as the last, but the leadership of this school, and the experience of the teachers there, really shined through.

The behavioral problems were hard at first, but at this school I was given the chance to be much, much more than just an ALT, and now I’m considered a regular sensei, and an integral part of the team. My students respect me, I often teach by myself, I go on school trips with the kids, and most importantly….I’ve gotten to teach what I want. I know it’s a rarity as a JET to get the opportunity to actually develop curricula and teach instead of simply “assisting” classes, and it’s been something that I haven’t taken for granted. I can really never thank my co-workers enough for the chances they’ve taken by giving me some room to work and try experimental projects that I’ve created.

Can you tell us more about Osaka AJET?

Osaka is a strange place for JETs and AJET. Part of the appeal for JETs across the country to get involved with AJET is that they need the support and help of other JETs in their area. In Osaka, that’s not needed as much because there’s more readily available English resources and people that are used to dealing with foreigners, as well as more events and places to go.

My first couple of years on JET, Osaka AJET was nothing more than a few social events a year, thrown together with no purpose other than a good time and no real team or structure. That all changed when Donald Chow, a then second year JET in Osaka, stepped up to be the new President. Donald and I had the vision of AJET accomplishing a lot more and being a lot more, than what it was, if we could offer JETs more opportunities than just parties. This was in the midst of JET being cut back across the prefecture due to budget constraints. We wanted to draw a lot of attention to the Programme. We also had other executive team members, Ben Lawson and Keiko Hamano, that were ready and willing to get more active and start new endeavors.

So what types of things did you get started?

A great variety of things. We held a variety of fundraisers over the course of the year, starting with a budget of literally nothing, and raising thousands of dollars that year for charity. We started teaching English classes to volunteer firefighters. We started visits to two orphanages in Osaka, not only donating our time, but also rice and other items for the kids. We also held enormously successful food and material drives after the 3/11 disasters.

Our reasoning was, if we were going to look our coworkers, supervisors and politicians in the face and tell them that JET is a programme worth investing in, we had to PROVE that we were worth that investment. We can do so much more for those around us, and we should have striven to be better than we were the days and weeks and months and years before that. If all JETs were doing this, then this programme would never have been questioned in the first place!

So, what made you switch from organizing your local AJET chapter to running for the chair of the AJET national council?

I had some close friends, that really believed in what I was saying, that if we represented ourselves in a better light, we could help the entire JET Programme, not just Osaka. I had never really thought about it, but with some prodding, and a lot of deep thought and reflection, I decided that there was a lot that could be done to make this experience better for all JETs.

I also knew that if we wanted to save this programme from dramatic change for the worse or shrinking numbers due to budget cuts for the programme or bad publicity, it was up to us to do it. We simply can’t sit around and wait on the ministries or others to help us, when it’s well within our means to help ourselves. I knew in my heart that if we wanted this programme to be something we can all be proud of being part of for long into the future, it was up to us to be the change that we wanted to see in the programme.

This is not to say I’m not still working hard for JETs in Osaka. I’ve started a really fascinating partnership with the Yamamoto Noh Theater in Osaka. Together, we’re bringing JETs in to participate in workshops involving traditional Japanese theater including: Noh, Rakugo, Kodan, and Ozashiki Asobi. They’re teaching us about their arts, in the hope that we’ll share that knowledge with others when we return to our countries. At the same time, we’re helping them with their English presentations for the shows, so that they can better describe and explain their arts to audiences, in one-of-a-kind, all-English shows!

I’ve also worked very close with my own U.S. Embassy and the Consulate in Osaka-Kobe. The Consulate General, Patrick Linehan, has helped us to have meetings with the East Asia Regional English Language Officer, in hopes of helping the local authorities to reform English education, and even came to visit my school and speak with my students after watching one of my classes. A few weeks ago, we helped them to hold a special dinner for JETs, where we were spoken to by Embassy officials, who were JET alumni, from every decade of the JET Programme’s existence!

If you could do JET again, what would you do differently?

Plenty. For starters, I would have been much more assertive with my expectations regarding my experience as a JET here, to my employers, and what I wanted to achieve during my time here. I think so many JETs come here with that “fish out of water” feeling. It’s so easy to take the position of “I’m the guest here, so I should just accept everything about work and life the way it is because it’s not my country and culture”.

What often results is a JET being unhappy with their experience, and having feelings of being unable to change it, so they just take it in stride and go home to their country, at the end of their contract, leaving their successors to experience a similar, if not the same, situation.

In my mind, just accepting things the way they are couldn’t be any more of a mistake or waste of our time as JETs. It’s true, we ARE guests here. We should definitely take our time settling in, and watching how things are done. I often hear JETs who’ve been here multiple years state: “My first year was just getting trained and figuring things out.”

After figuring things out, I believe that we should speak our mind, though. It’s our responsibility to work for the changes we want to see in the world, no matter the country or the community. We weren’t brought to this country to be Japanese, or to do every little thing “the Japanese way”. We were brought here to expose Japanese citizens around us to other ways of thinking and doing things, while at the same time learning from them and sharing the positive attributes of their culture with our own countries.

It’s true, I got a particularly bad placement when I got here originally. But looking back, I probably should have started standing up for myself and my students a lot earlier and demanding changes and the support we deserved much earlier.

What advice would you give someone who has ideas for their schools or even the JET Programme, but doesn’t know how to give them momentum?

My main advice to JETs is to always keep their eyes open. It’s all about connecting the dots. We’ve got such a unique opportunity here. There are so many more experiences and opportunities that are available to us because we are speakers of English or foreign. You should always think about what’s going on, and how you can help others with the resources you have available to you, whether that’s speaking English, your home country, or the other JETs in your community. If you are consciously thinking all the time about how you can help and what you can bring to the table, when opportunities present themselves, you’ll see them. Then, it’s just a matter of “connecting the dots”.

My other advice is to keep in mind that anything is possible. Persistence is key. If you really believe in something, and you know it’s accomplishable and it’s the right thing to do, never stop fighting for it.”

So what’s next for Matthew Cook?

I plan to stay in Japan for the time being and continue to fight for English education reform. I’ll be in Osaka for the time being, and I also plan to stay involved with the JET Programme as an alumni. I truly believe in JET and the possibilities that an internationalization strategy like this can do to make the world a better place. If there’s a way to help and support JETs, past or present, you can count on me being there. I truly believe that after this shared experience we have all had, the one thing we can all agree on is:

Once a JET, Always a JET.