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Working in diverse teams
Working in diverse teams

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3 Case study: team-teaching in Japan

You are now going to read a case study of a woman who went to work in Japan in the early 1990s after completing her degree. In the case study, Susan explains some of the communication problems she experienced in the early months of working in a Japanese high school. Her role in Japan was to team-teach with a Japanese teacher of English (Figure 3). You will see how the difficulties in communication diminished the effectiveness of their working relationship during the early months.

Described image
Figure 2 An Englishwoman in Japan

Case study 1: Susan

When I was 21, I was fortunate to be able to live and work in Japan for three years. I had just graduated and was interested in living in a country which seemed to be very different from my own. At the time, in the early 1990s, Japan was seen to be a very foreign place and Japanese stereotypes abounded.

Armed with what I considered to be an open mind, I embarked on my journey. I was employed as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) in five senior high schools in Chiba Prefecture. My job was to team-teach with Japanese teachers of English to classes of 16- to 19-year-olds in the state school system.

Like many of the other native English speakers who went to work in Japan, I found the first six months of working in the Japanese school system very difficult. This was my first job after leaving university and I wanted to succeed, but found my attempts to make a difference often floundered.

As a young woman confident in my own ideas and full of enthusiasm to make a difference, I struggled to understand why I was not flourishing and towards the end of the first year, I considered not renewing my contract for a further year. I was suffering from the ‘culture shock’ I had been warned about.

Some of the things I struggled with at that time and could not understand included:

  • Difficulty in working in particular with the older male Japanese teachers of English who did not seem to want to accept my ideas about how to do things. It felt that they expected me to listen to them and learn from them. I expected to have a more equal relationship.
  • There was an expectation that I would stay in the school staff room even when there was clearly no work to do. I felt that there were better and more productive ways I could use my time and struggled to see the point of sitting around during the summer months or late in the working day when to me it seemed that nothing was getting done.
  • When I was invited to go on a staff skiing trip during my Easter holiday, I could not see the problem with saying no to this, yet it was clear that there was a problem with my refusal. My feelings were that this was my own time and my own money which I wanted to spend in a different way.
  • Speaking my mind and expressing my views openly in staff meetings, pointing out what I perceived to be issues so that we could bring them out in the open and deal with them, did not work at all. This approach seemed to shut down the conversation rather than open it up.

Thankfully, I did decide to stay on in Japan and I continued working in that role for a further two years. During that time my understanding of Japanese culture increased. I started to see similarities in our outlooks and not just differences. I came to value a different way of doing things and learnt about the art of compromise and getting your point over in a way that could be heard.

After three years in Japan, I was sad to leave and I am thankful for having had the opportunity to learn so many lessons about working with a different culture at such an early stage of my career.

Activity 3 Putting yourself in Susan’s shoes

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

In the case study above, Susan highlights a number of areas she found difficult to communicate effectively, which were in some part due to cultural differences. Take a moment to reflect how you would have felt in this situation and what your approach might have been.

If you have some experience working with people from a different cultural background consider what problems (if any) you experienced. Did cultural differences get in the way of effective team-working and if so, what did you do about it or what could you have done about it? Make some notes in the box below.

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Susan found working in Japan very difficult during her first year. In the case study she explains that she felt she needed to challenge the way things worked in the staff room. Her first reaction was to make a judgement about the relationships structure and social etiquette she witnessed. Her first thoughts were that the way she experienced the world was the correct and only way to see things.

After working in Japan for three years, Susan saw things quite differently. She understood more about the different values that underpinned the society and appreciated that there was more than one way to do things. Having this understanding really helped Susan find a way to work together with the Japanese teachers of English.

Next you will look at Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, which can be used as a general guide to understanding the differences between cultures.