Where Do I want to work? (Part 1)
You’ve made the big decision and you’re coming to Japan to teach ESL. You are excited and eagerly anticipating this great adventure. There are so many decisions to make and so many things to put in order.
So many questions are darting around inside your head right now. What part of the country would I like to move to? Will it be easy for me to make friends? Will I be able to learn the language? How do I manage a classroom full of children who cannot speak English when I have never taught before?
Another important question you may be asking yourself is, “What type of school should I work at?”
There are many types of schools in Japan and it can often be very difficult to compare the types of experiences you may have at them. Should I teach at a private language school? Should I teach at a public school? What about a university? Would I be more suited to teaching children or adults?
Choosing the type of school can really help you streamline your job search and can make things a lot less confusing for you.
Let’s start with some of the most common types of schools in Japan and a general breakdown of what you might expect while working at one.
The word “eikaiwa” in Japanese literally means, “English conversation school.” A Japanese eikaiwa is essentially the same as a hagwon in Korea. These schools are prevalent throughout Japan, but there are not as many now as there once were. During Japan’s “Bubble Economy” era, language schools were everywhere in Japan and foreign teachers were paid extremely well. I still hear tales from time to time from people who have been here for twenty or thirty years about being paid two hundred dollars an hour just to have drinks or dinner with a businessman and allow him to practice his English. Although those days are long gone, there are still many positions available teaching children and adults.
In recent years, the adult language school market in Japan has been drying up. With the Japanese economy in a basic recession for many years, people no longer have the financial ability to study English. Another issue is the fact that once upon a time many Japanese people were interested in working for international companies and living in other countries. Today, the younger generation in Japan is more content with staying home in Japan. In the past four years two major adult language school chains have gone belly up. Several years ago NOVA, the largest chain in the country went bankrupt leaving more than 7000 teachers suddenly homeless and without a job. Last year GEOS, another large adult language school closed its doors.
If you enjoy teaching young learners, you’re still in luck. There are still many eikaiwa chains and small private schools operating throughout Japan. Although many adults may not be as interested as they once were in studying English, many parents still want their children to learn the language.
Public school jobs are very common in Japan. Thousands of teacher work every year all over Japan as ALTs or Assistant Language Teachers. If you find work as an ALT you are basically assigned to help a full time Japanese teacher. They create the lessons and basically tell you what to do. In an eikaiwa setting, you would find yourself leading a class, in a public school environment; you are helping someone else teach.
I have heard very different stories about what public school jobs can be like. I have not worked in this environment myself, but many of my friends and colleagues have at one time or another. What you are responsible for as a teacher mostly has to do with what the Japanese lead teacher want you to do. Some will give you a number of tasks and responsibilities while for others, you are nothing more than a human CD player, reading things aloud for them.
When working as a public school ALT you would normally travel a weekly circuit between different schools. You will also have hundreds of students. As far as I know, you are not responsible for lesson preparation since that is normally done by your lead teacher.
In Japan there are two main ways to work in public schools as a teacher. Each year several thousand people come to Japan with the JET program. The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program is run by the Japanese government and supplies ALTs to schools, often in rural areas throughout the country. A competitive program to get into, teachers in this program have a lot of benefits others may not. The have subsidized housing and airfare, as well as a tax free salary. Over the years people have complained about the JET program stating it as wasteful, but as of 2011, there are still more than 2000 people working in Japan as JET assistant language teachers.
University jobs in Japan, like in Korea tend to be competitive and difficult to get. Schools in Japan tend to pay quite well and instructors at universities earn more than teachers working as ALTs or eikaiwa teachers.
Typically, to have a chance at getting a university teaching position you need a Masters degree. Even with a post Graduate degree, in larger urban areas, it can be very difficult to get a position at a university. I have even met people who have Master’s degrees and are published in academic journals who can only find part-time work.
It is possible however, to get a university position with only an undergraduate degree if you are willing to live in a rural area. Some smaller universities in small towns or cities can at times find it difficult to attract foreign instructors. I have met some people who had full-time teaching positions with only a bachelor’s degree.
To be honest though, many people who are able to get jobs at universities or colleges have a connection. Japan is like any other job market in the world and having a good network of people can often lead to employment.
These are becoming more popular and more common throughout Japan. Although the adult language market in Japan may be smaller than in the past, many parents, especially affluent ones, want their children to get solid English educations. They want their children to be fluent English speakers and are often willing to pay top dollar to do so.
These schools now quite common and the quality varies greatly. Some of them have very well thought out curriculums and a great deal of resources. Some use public school curriculums from countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom while others have very haphazard and poorly put together curriculums.
Some international kindergartens hire only certified teachers from other countries while others will hire people who may only be in Japan on a working holiday visa. The experience you have working at a school like this can vary drastically.
Working at a school like this is quite different from working as an ALT or at an eikaiwa. This job is similar to being a kindergarten in our own country. You have your won homeroom class who you are with all day long. You will be responsible for teaching them English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science and maybe even Art and Physical Education. You will take them on field trips and conduct all assessment. It is a lot of work, but can be very rewarding depending on the school you work for.
People who find themselves in Japan to travel and just have a good tie may find this type of job a little much. There is definitely more work involved here than being an ALT (many might call a human CD player) or an eikawa teacher, but it can definitely be rewarding for those who are interested in “serious” teaching.
I wrote this several years ago (2011). It was originally part of a self-published eBook called Teaching in Asia: Tales and the Real Deal. I plan to share segments of this book here on Just Japan Stuff. Hopefully some of you will find the information useful.
Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.
Follow him on Twitter: @jlandkev