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Awkward English Teacher Interviews in Japan

Some of the questions future ALTs were expected to answer range from the unconventional to the downright bizarre!

By 7 min read

The first job interview I ever had was for the “copyboy” job at a famous Glasgow newspaper, The Herald. It was straightforward. I went in, answered some simple questions, handed over some documents and a few days later I got a phone call saying I got the job.

“This is easy,” I thought to myself at the time.

Suffice to say, a number of years later, when I started working in Japan, I realized that interviewing for jobs here is far less straightforward. Some of the hoops we are expected to jump through and some of the questions we are expected to answer range from the unconventional to the downright bizarre.

Thankfully I’m not the only one who has had to contend with some absolutely loony interviews down the years.

So, today I present some of the many stories I have heard from teachers in Japan of the unbelievable interviews they have endured. Bear in mind, these are definitely not the norm. Though interviews for teaching jobs in Japan do tend to be a bit less predictable than interviews for other kinds of work, hopefully you won’t have to go through anything like the extreme examples covered here today.

Remember, the companies involved here are real. Only the names were changed, to protect the ignorant!

1. ALT’s Got Talent!

When your interview becomes a talent show.

Our first story concerns a young teacher new to Japan. Let’s call him James.

James was interviewing for an ALT position in Saitama, near Tokyo. He had prepared a lesson plan, as requested and had been up into the early hours the previous morning making the necessary materials.

At the interview, he answered all the usual questions and all seemed to be going well, until this happened: “OK” said the interview panel. “So, what are you going to sing for us today?”

At that point James could be forgiven for wondering if this was a school manager or Simon Cowell sitting in front of him.

“Eh, well sir, I don’t sing,” he replied.

Visibly disappointed, the manager replied, “But how are you going to entertain the kids if you don’t sing for them?”

James realized, at this point, that this interview wasn’t going to end well, so he decided to at least try to salvage some dignity.

“With all due respect, I’m a certified teacher, sir. I am not an entertainer or a karaoke singer,” he said. The interview ended shortly thereafter, and it goes without saying, no offer was forthcoming.

So, if you get arrested, or drunk, remember to tell the police that you don’t work for us.

That wasn’t all however. James also showed me an email he got from the company at the time (unsurprisingly this particular dispatch company has now ceased trading) which included the “guidelines for teachers.” This one rule in particular cracked me up:  “Remember it is vital at all times that we project a good image for our client schools and the company.

“So, if you get arrested, or drunk, remember to tell the police that you don’t work for us. Instead, say that you work for **** or ****.” (Japan’s two largest conversation school chains at the time.)

I thought this was a joke, but I have since heard the same story about the same company from multiple, independent sources. Safe to say I think the industry is better off that they no longer exist.

2. “So, what are you doing after the interview?”

When you want to do your ALT demo, but the dude in charge thinks flirting is more important.

Another teacher, let’s call her Anne, told me a story of a strange interview she had with an Eikaiwa (English Conversation School) company a few years ago.

She was one of four candidates, of which she was one of two females. The interviewer, a native English speaker in his 30s, spent almost the entire interview flirting with the other female candidate and largely ignoring everyone else. At certain points the other candidates’ answers were actually cut off by the interviewer so he could hear more from his seemingly “preferred” candidate.

Suffice to say, a week or so later, Anne got the “thanks but no thanks” letter from the company. But the story doesn’t end there. It seems that the candidate of choice wasn’t quite as charming as she initially seemed. When she failed to turn up for her first day of work, the interviewer, clearly embarrassed, called Anne and said “OK, we’ve changed our minds and would like to hire you instead, you’re clearly the stronger candidate.” She respectfully declined their offer.

3. My story: “No names! Only numbers!”

When you aren't sure if you're in a sci-fi movie or an interview.

Of course, if I am asking other teachers to share their weird interview stories then it’s only fair that I share my own. I once interviewed with a city board of education for an ALT job. It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, in Japan or elsewhere.

The candidates, around 20 of us were herded into a freezing cold former school building. Supposedly, it was a former primary school now serving as a “community center.” The dark, decrepit aesthetic could best be described as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets the horror movie “Saw.”

Each of us handed over our documentation as we removed our shoes. We were then assigned a numbered card. We were sat in what I’m guessing used to be a classroom. As we sat shivering in the cold of a typical Japanese January afternoon, we were ordered to remain silent. Electronics were also banned. Apparently checking your Facebook or Twitter is considered a crime, lest someone warn the outside world of what is going on in this interview and call for help!

Things got even more bizarre from there. The interview was overseen by a mix of native English teachers and Japanese board of education staff. One of the native English speakers made the mistake of referring to a candidate by his name, which prompted an immediate rebuke from the BOE staff:

“No names! Only numbers!” he barked.

From then on, it felt less like a job interview and more like an induction into Imperial Stormtrooper training school. Unfortunately, Darth Vader wasn’t around to offer any handy hints.

Eventually, the “program manager” arrived, a full 15 minutes late. He delivered a highly rehearsed, monotone speech about why the program was so great and why we should all be proud to work for them.

He was a short, officious man, and in all, he talked at us for about 15 minutes longer than he should have. The harder he tried to inject authority into his words, the more difficult it became to take him seriously.

Was I really getting lectured on professionalism by a guy who was late to an interview he himself had scheduled?

Was I really getting lectured on professionalism by a guy who was late to an interview he himself had scheduled?

Some of my fellow candidates fell asleep, or perhaps it was the early stages of hypothermia, I’m not really sure! Naturally, at the end, no time was given for us to ask the Micro Mussolini any questions of our own.

In total, despite the interview itself taking less than 10 minutes and the demo lesson being only 5 minutes long, the entire process took more than three hours! When one of my fellow applicants started doing handstands during his teaching demonstration, I really thought I had slipped into The Twilight Zone.

It must have worked though, since a few weeks later he called me and told me he’d been offered the job! All things considered though, I think I dodged the proverbial bullet on this one. The program manager, I am reliably informed, proved to be every bit as unpleasant as I assumed him to be.

So how about you — what are your most bizarre interview experiences here in Japan? Share a comment below with your stories.

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