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6 Misconceptions about Teaching English at a Japanese University

Teaching at a university or college is the dream job in Japan, right? Well, the reality might be a little different than the expectation.

By 7 min read

A lot of teachers I’ve met in Japan dream of teaching English at a university. There is a prestige that comes with the job and a lot of perks, though it’s not as cushy as some may think. Unfortunately. Because these jobs are less common than assistant language teacher (ALT) or eikaiwa (English conversation school) positions there is a lot of false information and misconceptions out there, here are just six.

1. You don’t need an MA or Ph.D. to teach at a Japanese university

This is the biggest misconception. You’ll need these qualifications if you want to be a course leader or teach classes in Japanese, but to teach normal English classes at post-secondary institutions, the bar is a lot lower. I became a teacher at two universities in Japan at the age of 22 with only a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE, equivalent to half of a master’s degree) but I worked with teachers who had never studied at graduate level.

I worked for a dispatch company that sent me out to classes. I didn’t work directly for the universities, but I did teach their courses on campus. These jobs are surprisingly easy to come by, often employing people with no teaching experience and no Japanese language skills. These companies tend to hire applicants around April or September and will put you straight to work teaching university classes if they have them. For some of the fancier clients, the company may want to only send their most experienced teachers but larger universities can be desperate for anybody.

I met English teachers who were directly hired by universities, they held master’s degrees but in a variety of subjects. Some of the older teachers didn’t have a post-graduate degrees, but instead held over 20 years of teaching experience that was considered just as good. Recently, universities have shown a clear preference to applicants with an MA in TESOL or general teaching — but it’s still not mandatory.

2. It’s not a job for life

Most of the teachers I worked alongside had contracts that were renewed every year. These contracts might be dropped if the university was unhappy with grades or were changing their English curriculum. Luckily, the institution where I taught liked to keep the same staff (if possible) but it was also happy to hire dispatch companies like the one for which I worked. It would regularly put a new teacher in the classroom every semester. A lot of dispatch teachers have unpredictable schedules and may only teach at a university for a couple of months before being replaced.

Many universities have a policy of only hiring people for a set number of years, ranging from three to 10. Because of this, a revolving door culture has formed where lecturers will work at one university for the maximum amount of years and then swap positions with another lecturer from a different university.

The vast majority of English teachers I met taught at local schools and held private classes outside their university work. We were eikaiwa teachers who traveled from classroom to classroom because the university classes didn’t pay enough to live off.

3. Teaching at a university is not just lecturing

No, you won’t be just talking for an hour, you actually have to interact with students. If you move to a university from an ALT or an eikaiwa position, you can use that experience to inform your lessons, but it’s not exactly the same.

… universities have shown a clear preference to applicants with an MA in TESOL or general teaching.

Class sizes range from five to 40 students, so obviously finding time for everyone can be an issue. You will regularly need to check that everyone is on task and if they all understood the lesson. Most universities want classes taught entirely in English, but most students don’t understand enough English for this to work perfectly. You will have to resort to a lot off gestures and drawings on the board to get the point across. You may also need to encourage students to bring dictionaries or set them research homework to build more foundational English skills.

Just because the students are older doesn’t mean they don’t want to have fun. The ALT-type activities — such as instructing a student with directions or role playing — are really useful in these classes. You might also want to add in games that keep students engaged such as hangman or shiritori (the word-chain game in which players must give a word starting with the last syllable of the word given by the previous player). Be a fun teacher — but not a patronizing one.

4. You don’t get to control everything about the classes

Kyoto University at fall

Because you’re alone in the classroom, a lot of people seem to think you have the freedom to teach anything. Many universities want teachers to follow a set textbook or curriculum. Some classes are entirely up to the teacher but these are almost always geared toward an upcoming examination of some kind.

One university I worked at wanted students to reach certain levels on the TOEIC exam, while another had created its own examination system and textbook. This can be very frustrating because what the university wants is not always what’s best for the students. Unfortunately, even in higher education, there are exams with typos, bizarre word choices — and terrible pronunciation.

5. It’s OK to meet up with students outside of class

It can be frustrating teaching incorrect English or dialogue passages on topics as dull as photocopier repair, but your lessons have to match the exams. Sometimes, there is not enough time to teach what you really want to using the mandatory materials. A lot of the teachers I met held extra group sessions outside of classes where they could meet students in a less formal setting. The ones who really wanted to improve would meet the teacher in another location, such as a café. Word to the wise: we’re talking extra help in English here. It’s generally accepted that you shouldn’t meet students one-on-one, but in groups.

Before coming to Japan, I was a trainee lecturer at at college and university in the U.K. After having it drilled into my brain that this was inappropriate, I could never bring myself to hold these kind of meetings. Teachers who did, though, seemed to form deep bonds with their students. The rules about student teacher interaction are a lot more relaxed at university level — they are adults after all — but it was a big culture shock for me.

Recently universities all around Japan have been releasing guidelines on sexual harassment in an effort to protect students. Teachers are supposed to stay professional even outside of the classroom, never hitting on or harassing students. Informal group meetings are socially acceptable, though, as staff are trusted not to take advantage of students.

6. Students might not want to be there

This is a hard concept to grasp for university teachers all over the world. I mean, they chose to go to university, right? Well shocker: a lot of students are just as bored and sullen as they were in high school. I used to teach nursing students who needed a minimum level of English to pass their first year. These poor 18- and 19-year-old students thought they had escaped English classes — only to be pulled back in.

Some students have near native levels of English, while others are limited to “Hello” and “see you.” If you teach any of the lower-level classes you might question if these people learned any English in school. Realize that the burden is on you to make the classes interesting and educational enough to make up for a lifetime of hating learning English.

I’ve had to tell students to stop eating, texting and even playing music on their phones. The biggest challenge was getting them to stop taking pictures of me as they had never seen a blonde person before. They might technically be adults, but the classes still need some rudimentary discipline.

It can be a gratifying experience teaching at a university if you get the opportunity, but it’s not quite the holy grail of English teaching some make it out to be. If you’re interested in applying for post-secondary teaching jobs like this, your first stop should be to check out the openings on GaijinPot Jobs.

I had fun at my university positions and met a lot of passionate students who made it seem worthwhile. Hopefully, this article has given you a more realistic look at these positions and what to expect.

Have you taught English at a university in Japan? What are some top tips for finding jobs like these or dealing with these types of students in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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