Should You Teach English in Japan?

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It’s a question that has likely burned in the back of your mind at some point. That goes double if you grew up consuming Japanese media and pop culture, and maybe triple if you already know someone in Japan right now. You can only watch so many YouTube videos before you tell yourself, okay, I think I’ll give it a shot. But before you even ask yourself if you should teach English in Japan, let’s take a look at the variety of English teachers over there and what their jobs entail. Then if you’re still feeling it, go ahead and take the plunge.

Types of English Teachers in Japan

When deciding if you should teach English in Japan, there are a few things to consider. Beyond the title and responsibilities of the position, take time to think about the work environment, the age of your students, the purpose of instruction (test taking, conversation, etc.), and the type of visa you’ll need. Take a few moments to review the different types of instructor positions below.

Assistant Language Teachers

ALTs are a common position you’ll find throughout Japan, and often the first position many foreigners find themselves in. Most foreigners tend work to for dispatch companies, however, it’s not uncommon to be directly hired by a certain school or board of education. It’s also possible to come to Japan under the government’s JET Programme. Unless you are hired directly by a specific school or BOE, be prepared to be assigned to a random location in Japan.

The duties of an ALT can vary drastically. High school and junior high school ALTs can expect a more formal and academic environment, often preparing paperwork, grading papers, and collaborating with coworkers on lesson plans. ALTs for elementary schools and below will require a very high level of energy, as their role is more of an entertainer than instructor. They will be expected to perform song and dance, play games, and much more.

Dispatch Company ALTs

If you work for a dispatch company, your relationship with your school (or schools) will be somewhat different than if you were employed by your city or town. The school you work at is your company’s client and you are their product. Dispatch companies usually provide you with training up front, evaluate your performance throughout the year, act as the middleman for all communications between you and your school, and relocate you to a different school each year, should you renew your contract. It’s not uncommon to be relocated across the country at your own expense. It depends on which schools are available. Your previous salary/bonus are never guaranteed to carry over into your next contract, so take note.

With a dispatch company, while it is possible to be assigned to just one school, it’s far more likely you’ll be assigned to multiple schools and have a rotating shift. It’s all in the luck of the draw. ALTs with a single high school may find themselves with plenty of free time and easy classes to co-teach with their coworkers. ALTs with three elementary school and two middle schools may find they never have enough time, constantly running from one class (or school) to the next, and solo-teaching lessons without help from their coworkers.

School & BOE ALTs

If you work for your city’s board of education, or just for a certain school in particular, you’ll find you have a lot more opportunities to connect with your coworkers and students. Take time to learn everyone’s name, get to know them as individuals, and do your best to get involved in some of your school’s activities. An ALT who works for five different schools, each with a staff of fifty and student body of over two hundred would never get the chance to make the same connections, so take advantage of it!

The benefits don’t stop there. If you are well liked, it’s possible for your contract to be renewed each year, and maybe even a chance for a permanent position, if you play your cards right. Another thing to consider is since you will work directly for your town or city, you may be entitled to an allowance to spend on school supplies. Be sure to show initiative and win over your school’s trust. You never know what may happen in the future.

JET Programme ALTs

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Progamme is the last ALT option. If you are accepted, you will be placed at a random location in Japan and assigned to work at a number of schools. With the JET Programme, you’ll work directly with your schools and local BOE, as this program is run by the Japanese government. There is a restriction in that you cannot continue the program for more than five years. For more information, click here to check out the official website for the JET Programme.

Eikaiwa English Instructors

There are a number of private companies who specialize in teaching English to students of all ages. If you work for an eikaiwa (English language school), you can expect to teach a variety of classes. Your average day may involve spending a morning with children playing games, an afternoon reviewing vocabulary, grammar, and paperwork with teenagers, an evening of English conversation with college students, and at night, business English classes with adults and the elderly. Also, expect to work weekends, as the average Japanese person won’t have the time for English classes during the week.

If you are good with lesson planning and managing a room full of students on your own, it’s not the worst gig in the world. Just like an ALT’s role at a dispatch company, you are the product. Students are customers who go to eikaiwa to learn English from native speakers. They will evaluate you as a teacher at the end of their session, so you will need to do exceptionally well to make it work out. You never know what opportunities may arise, so why not give it a try?

English Tutors and Conversation Partners

The last type of English teachers we have are the tutors and conversation partners. There’s quite the variety and some may not even require a standard working visa or college degree. It’s not uncommon for students to come to Japan on a student visa, or even a working holiday visa, and teach English either full or part-time. The benefits include not only decent pay, but also a great chance to make friends and meet new and interesting people. Depending where you work, some places even grant you the freedom to choose your own working hours.

Fraud & Labor Law Violations

Japan may be one of the safest countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean every company in Japan has your best interests at heart. Especially when dealing with dispatch companies and eikaiwa, make sure to always be on your guard. Shady corporations will do their best to take advantage of your ignorance of Japanese law and your desperation for employment. What can you do? Educate yourself. Stay (or get) fluent in Japanese. Communicate with your coworkers. The more you can do for yourself in Japan and the less control you give to a dispatch company or eikaiwa, the more freedom you will have.

Many companies, dispatch and eikaiwa in particular, strive to get as many customers as possible. With a vast sea of applicants, their goal is to assign each ALT or English instructor as many schools or students as possible to keep the money rolling in. Make sure you can handle the work load, and try to find out in advance exactly what you are signing up for. Should you teach English in Japan, you’ll need to check each company’s credibility before diving in.

Useful Questions to Always Ask Yourself

A Teacher’s Role in Japan

When deciding if you should teach English in Japan, take some time to consider what will be expected of you. Especially for those of you planning to work as an ALT. In Japan, because a sensei is parental figure, don’t be surprised if you are told to refrain from certain activities, even in your free time outside of work. If you think people won’t notice what you do when you step outside, think again. And that goes double if you live in rural Japan.

It’s not uncommon for Japanese teachers to be told by their school or the BOE how they can and cannot spend their personal time away from school. If a student or their parent sees you at a casino, you can expect a stern talking to from your BOE next week. This goes for all teachers, so don’t take it personally. But if you value your position, you’ll need to abide by those rules.

A Foreigner’s Image in Japan

When you come to Japan, you represent more than just your home country. You represent every single foreigner in Japan. Keep that in mind when certain rules or aspects of the culture don’t mesh with you. While you won’t be held to the same standards as your Japanese coworkers, you’ll be respected more for trying. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and use each moment as a chance to bridge the gap between your cultures.

The Joy of ALT Life in Japan

There is something special about ALT life in Japan that makes it stand out among all the other jobs here for foreigners. It’s one thing to communicate with all your coworkers in Japanese. In Japan, you’ll do that everywhere you go. The same goes for the being totally immersed in the culture. You can experience that from your living room TV. No, what makes this role so special is your opportunity to touch lives and change how they see the world. And not only will you change them, but they’ll change you too.

Even though you didn’t grow up in Japan, you’ll watch your students grow throughout the year. You’ll see your coworkers warm up to you, and enjoy the group outings you have every now and then, be they karaoke, onsen, or just a group meal. The seasons will change, and you’ll share classes each day, and if you’re lucky enough to participate in after-school activities, you’ll be in for a real treat. If you put in the effort to bond with your students and coworkers, you’ll have an irreplaceable experience like no other.

Opportunities in Japan for Teachers

Everyone has their own reasons for the jobs they take. Sometimes there’s just no other option and that’s understandable. When deciding if you should teach English in Japan, you’ll need to think about your long term goals before jumping to any hasty decisions.

While teaching in Japan tends to require a college degree, one thing it doesn’t require is a teachers license. Something to consider should you ever choose to go back home. If you accumulate all this experience in the education field, you’ll need to consider how you can apply it later in life.

However, should you decide to stay and play for keeps, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities waiting for you just around the bend.

A Career in Teaching

Working as an ALT certainly has its moments. Some days you feel like you made an impact on a particular student, while other days you can feel stressed and unfulfilled. The same goes for any job. But when the years fly by, will you still have the patience and energy, or will the novelty have worn off? The later tends to be the case for people who stay in Japan long-term, but make no effort to learn the language or respect the culture.

If teaching is not for you, there are always other options. If you can make it long-term with a dispatch company, you may be able to climb the ranks, and become an ALT trainer, or even climb further up the corporate ladder. It’s possible, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

In rare exceptions, there are instances where foreigners go on to become regular school staff (home room teachers, etc.). The school or BOE grants a special visa which forgoes the typical requirements for Japanese citizens. If you stay in it for the long haul, it might not be as rare as you think.

A Gateway of Possibility

One last thing to keep in mind is that once you are in Japan and hold a working visa, the doors of possibility are open. A lot of companies in Japan will not interview or even consider applicants from abroad. There are too many hurdles in the hiring process involved, but once you are here, everything is different. While it’s true, you are limited to work only within your visa’s category (an instructor visa only permits you to work education jobs), there will be nothing stopping you from applying for the jobs you really want.

If your dream is to work as a Japanese translator and you’ve built up the skills while working as a teacher in Japan, then go ahead and take the shot. You are already here, so go stick your foot in the door while you still can. Unless your spouse is Japanese, you’ll still need to find a company that can continue to sponsor your visa, but once you are a seishain (permanent employee), then you are gold. Depending on your flexibility as a teacher, don’t knock your freelance options either. Maybe it’s time to start your own business. You never know how things work out sometimes.

Final Thoughts

Teaching abroad can be a life-changing experience, and opening yourself up to new and foreign cultures will only help better yourself as a person. Not everyone can be so lucky to experience traveling abroad, let alone living and working in a foreign country. When deciding if you should teach English in Japan, take some time to reflect. Not only on your options now, but also consider where you’ll be in a year from now. In two, three years from now. If you have a goal in mind, then start working towards it today. What opportunities await you when you cross the border? Only you have the power to find out and make it happen.

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