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5 Common Teacher Interview Questions and the Reasons Behind Them

To land the job, you'll need to decipher the real intentions of those doing the hiring. Here's how...

By 7 min read

Job interviews can be a frustrating experience.

As some of you will remember from my previous writings, I spent a few months at the beginning of this year looking for a new job.

My search took me all over Japan: from Kobe and Hokkaido to just about everywhere in between before I finally settled on Nagano. Although I did manage to land a few offers, there were some interviews that, frankly, I found baffling.

The questions asked were sometimes nonsensical, the manner in which certain managers conducted themselves was confounding and the results were mystifying. I was able to come to an eventual conclusion: What recruiters and HR managers say and what they actually mean are often two different things.

So, for those of you who are currently going through this process or are planning to seek out a new opportunity in Japan come the new year, I’d like to offer some advice to help you navigate the “corporate double talk” successfully.

The following are some questions that often come up in teacher interviews, especially if your interviewer is also not Japanese.

1) Why did you come to Japan?

What they really mean here is: are you actually planning to work and live here long term or are you just here on an extended holiday?

Depending on the company, showing a long-term commitment to Japan may not actually help your application. The eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry, in particular, deals with huge levels of staff turnover each year and generally doesn’t expect teachers to stick around for more than a year or two.

The large public school assistant language teacher (ALT) dispatch companies generally also have to re-tender for contracts each year. If you’re working as ALT in this regard, there’s no guarantee that the job you have now will even exist next year. So, again, a lengthy deal or someone who has family ties to a specific part of Japan may not be what they want.

However, with private schools, boards of education and other such jobs that don’t have a limit on the number of times you can renew your contract, long-term, serious positions may be exactly what they are looking for. Particularly in the countryside, where jobs don’t come up as often and as such finding suitable candidates can be difficult.

What recruiters and HR managers say and what they actually mean are often two different things.

Remember that, for an agency, sourcing candidates is one of the services  for which they charge boards of education and private schools. For school direct hires, however, sourcing and looking for candidates is a time-consuming nuisance that they don’t want to go through year after year.

2) Can you commit to a one-year contract?

In other words: are you likely to jump ship mid-contract if the job doesn’t meet your expectations?

As I have said before: there’s a reason why lots of dispatch and eikaiwa companies recruit throughout the year — people quit and they do so with alarming frequency.

There are a myriad of reasons why teachers who come here feel that jobs don’t match their expectations, but that’s probably a rant best saved for another time. Suffice to say, teacher dispatch companies here will no doubt continue to make the same mistakes and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

So, how can you, the candidate, use this to your advantage?

I find that going beyond simply answering in the affirmative to this question and underlining your professionalism and commitment, goes a long way.

Don’t just say “yes,” say “of course.” Or you could answer with something like: “I believe it is important to always honor commitments and keep my word.” This takes on greater importance if you’re being interviewed by traditional Japanese managers or if one of them is sitting in on the interview.

Back in Scotland, I would have no qualms about walking out on a job if it didn’t meet my expectations. In Japan, that kind of behavior isn’t going to go down well at all. I’ve been in interviews were it seemed to be going well, only to have things take a dark turn very quickly when it became clear I had quit my last job prematurely.

You need to be prepared to explain any instances where you have quit a job before the contract was up and you need to show that you don’t take signing a contract lightly.

Which brings me neatly to the next question.

3) When can you start?

This seemingly innocuous question has tripped me up in the past and probably a great many more teachers, too.

When you think the interview is going well and you’re keen to show your enthusiasm, it’s all too tempting to answer this question with: “as soon as possible.” Unless you are presently unemployed, I cannot emphasize enough: do not do this!

In Japan, the legal minimum notice an employee is required to give is two weeks, however most contracts will probably stipulate one month.

In any case, if you are changing to a job that requires a change in your visa (switching from ALT to eikaiwa teacher, or vice versa), then you need to allow a month for the paperwork to be processed, anyway.

Bear in mind, too, that if the company you are interviewing with is a direct competitor to your previous employer, they probably have a pretty good idea of your previous employer’s contract conditions.

From a human resources point of view, if the candidate is willing to ditch a previous employer without giving sufficient notice, what’s to say they won’t do it again in the future?

Also, if you are quitting a current job mid-contract to join a new one, I recommend you don’t mention that at the interview. Make it clear that you are leaving your current job regardless of whether or not this interview is successful, even if that’s not strictly true.

Of course, it goes without saying that you should avoid bad-mouthing your previous employer at all costs, even if the interviewer playfully invites you to.

4) Are you financially motivated?

Again, the obvious answer here (one would think) is to say “no.” After all, many job interviews are a game of brinksmanship, where the employer is constantly testing the waters to see how many hours they can get you to work for as little pay as possible. That’s not a dig at any particular company, just the realities of capitalism.

However, any half-decent interviewer will see right through your insincerity if you give such an answer.

… companies in Japan don’t try to hire fools, even if a few do tend to slip through!

Instead, try to be a bit more balanced. Say something like: “Money isn’t my only motivation” or “I find job satisfaction more important than money.”

Don’t disregard money altogether, as in all honesty — only a fool would do so. For all their flaws, companies in Japan don’t try to hire fools, even if a few do tend to slip through!

5) What interests you about our company?

In other words, time to kiss some posterior!

This is the part where you show the interviewer how thoroughly you have researched the company (which you definitely need to do!) and how many of their “achievements” you can recite. Be sure to emphasize why these points make the company a good fit for you and what you can bring to the table that will benefit them and, ultimately, enhance their workforce in the future.

The points I mention here are, in many ways, generalizations.

Not all companies will be like this. Not all interviews will follow this template. Chances are though, that at least one or two of these questions will come up. Unless of course, you’re interviewing in Japanese. In which case, a different approach is required.

In either situation, be mindful of your words but also don’t be too cautious. Remember: a good interview should be as much about the company convincing you to join them, as it is about you convincing them you’re worth an offer.

Good luck with the job hunting everyone!

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