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Direct Hire: The Quest for the Assistant Language Teacher’s Holy Grail

Direct hire jobs are rare, but these 5 tips will help you find one.

By 9 min read

In all the years I’ve worked in the English teaching industry — both in Japan and elsewhere in Asia — there has always seemed to be a distinct divide between those who are relatively happy with their lot and those who aren’t. Here, this seems especially pronounced among those working as  assistant language teachers (ALTs).

Most ALTs in Japan are employed by dispatch companies, however if you asked the average (or above average) ALT, they would probably prefer to be hired directly, rather than through an agency.

That’s not to say that working for a dispatch company isn’t without its benefits. After all, if you want to work as an ALT in one of the larger cities — and indeed most people new to Japan want to work in or near Tokyo —  then dispatch is the only realistic way to achieve this if you’re coming from overseas for the first time. Very few direct hire jobs exist in the big cities, but more on that later.

Likewise, most dispatch companies offer the prospect of promotion — to teacher trainer, senior teacher or recruiter, once you’ve done a few years as a regular ALT. Conversely, direct hire jobs through boards of education are static, don’t typically offer much scope for up-skilling and can come with limits on how long they can contract an ALT.

Dispatch companies also provide English-language support and can help with the simple things that those new to Japan may struggle with, such as getting an apartment, arranging a cellphone and so on. It’s also a lot easier for a new teacher to get hired by a dispatch company, with little or no experience. They provide a good starting point for those looking to make a career teaching in Japan.

Of course, there are downsides, too.

Most ALTs in Japan are employed by dispatch companies.

For starters, dispatch teachers have to balance responsibilities between their schools and their management company. You’d be surprised at how often these loyalties can conflict. Remember: a negative evaluation from either of them is likely to cost an ALT their job.

A fact that often comes up when discussing “the quest” is that since the dispatch company takes a portion of the money the board of education (BOE) has set aside for you as their “management fee,” salaries for ALTs hired through these companies (who are basically doing the same job) are usually about 30 percent lower. This varies from place to place, of course. It does, however, mean that there are many jobs available through an agency.

In most cases, direct contracts between BOEs and teachers tend to be simpler and comply more with appropriate holiday entitlements and pension and healthcare contributions. Some — though not all — dispatch company contracts can be purposefully opaque in these regards.

Further, there is less uncertainty with boards. Even if a dispatch teacher performs his or her job to the letter, sometimes due to circumstances beyond their control — like the tendering process — their company could lose its city contract. If this happens, ALTs can find themselves out of work through no fault of their own.

It’s not surprising, then, that many ALTs view direct hire jobs as something of a “holy grail” within the teaching industry. So how does one find these elusive jobs? And if you do find an opportunity, then what steps can you take to maximize your chances of landing the gig?

Here are five helpful hints to get you started.

1. Look beyond the usual places

While we have a plethora of fantastic jobs on offer at GaijinPot Jobs, direct hire positions are relatively rare.

In saying that, in the past I was hired onto two different direct hire programs (Kurashiki City Board of Education and Osaka City Board of Education). I did this by searching through the Education/Teaching category of the GaijinPot Jobs site. So it’s important to keep checking back regularly if you’re searching for a specific type of job. Of course, you should check other job boards as well — you never know where you’ll find the ideal opportunity.

It’s also worthwhile to simply phone the city halls of any boards of education in your area and ask how they hire their ALTs. I found a few leads in and around Osaka this way a couple of years ago.

Again, though, don’t do this unless you have the Japanese skills to ask politely about vacancies. Perhaps get a friend to do it for you anonymously if they can.

And speaking of Japanese skills…

2. Step outside the English comfort zone

When applying for jobs within Japan for the first time, it’s a common conceit among the less experienced to think that — because we are applying for jobs as English teachers — the ad and the recruitment process will be in English.

This is simply not true. Indeed, one of the main reasons that so many BOEs across Japan call on the services of dispatch companies is because they do not have the manpower, resources or budget to maintain a full-time, bilingual manager to oversee ALTs. On a more base level, many board of education bureaucrats are simply scared of trying to communicate with foreigners.

… many board of education bureaucrats are simply scared of trying to communicate with foreigners.

This is why, when you do apply for a direct hire job, most of them will conduct the interview in Japanese.

Try to have a Japanese-style resume prepared. Templates are available online or from most convenience stores — but don’t send in a Japanese resume unless the employer directly requests it. Sometimes, the resume is also a test of sorts to determine if you really are a native English speaker.

Your Japanese resume is a great thing to break out on the day of the interview, though. If they ask for your documents, it shows dedication and an effort to acclimatize on your part.

3. Be as drama-free as possible

I mentioned earlier that one of the main reasons that BOEs tend to use dispatch companies over direct hiring themselves is their frequent reluctance to interact in English (which can lead to some awkward interviews). However perhaps even more so at the forefront of their minds, is the desire to avoid having to contend with any “drama queens.”

Let’s be honest, we’ve all met the kind: the type of teacher for whom every meeting is an opportunity to complain, every minor communication issue is a perceived example of blatant discrimination and for whom simply going to work, doing your job and going home isn’t worth it unless it gives you the chance to write a multi-paragraph Facebook post about how the whole world is against you.

… don’t be demanding. Don’t make any controversial statements and don’t rock the proverbial boat.

We all have our moments. In fits of anger and frustration, I’ve been known to call out previous employers on here for their stupidity and malevolence, but really — there’s a time and a place for all that. If you must indulge in the occasional bit of venting on social media, it’s best to keep your privacy settings tight, so only those you trust to see such ramblings can see them.

You can get off on to a good start by learning some of the common questions to expect at the interview itself. Just remember: don’t be demanding. Don’t make any controversial statements and don’t rock the proverbial boat.

4. Be prepared to move to the countryside

Cheaper living costs in smaller cities mean more time to explore Japan.

At the time of this writing, with the exception of a few big cities (Osaka and Yokohama are the only two that immediately spring to mind), most urban ALT placements, especially those in and around Tokyo are divided up between the numerous dispatch companies.

If you’re serious about going the direct hire route, then you need to be prepared to relocate to the countryside. The simple fact is: that’s where about 90 percent of these types of jobs are located. Smaller cities mean smaller management and this generally makes boards of education more open to the prospect of directly hiring ALTs.

Take my current workplace as an example. Located in a small city, it employs six ALTs in total (including me) to cover all of its needs. Less people means less potential flashpoints — from the perspective of both the ALTs and the board. Everywhere has its moments, of course, but overall the level of stress here is far lower than it ever was for me in bigger places I’ve worked like Kurashiki and Osaka.

5. Get on the road

One major difference in direct hire positions is that, given their largely rural location, a lot of them will insist on you having a Japanese driving license — so it may be a good idea to transfer the one issued in your home country if you have one. This is the polar opposite of places like Osaka, where driving to work was actually prohibited. Rural folks can’t afford to be so demanding. The reality is that you will need a car for most of the jobs advertised for direct hire outside of a major city.

So, if you do get a Japanese driver’s license or hold an international permit, make sure it features prominently on your resume and in your application. It could mean the difference between a yes or no at the final interview.

… you will need a car for most of the jobs advertised for direct hire outside of a major city.

Overall, you’re unlikely to find a direct hire position right away when you come to Japan. I landed my first one after about 18 months working here. You need to do an English teacher “tour of duty” in Japan, as it were, with eikaiwa (English conversation schools) and dispatch ALT jobs first. These will help you to find your feet, acquire some of the language and actually get to know what it means to plan and carry out an effective lesson.

Most direct hire jobs of any real value won’t consider you until you’ve been in Japan at least a year.

But hang in there and your day will come!

Have you experienced working directly for a board of education as an English teacher in Japan? What are the pros and cons of these jobs? Do you prefer them to working through a dispatch company? As always, Let us know in the comments!

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