If you were to ask 100 native English teachers in Japan what they dislike most about their work, you would get a variety of answers. Some will decry the lack of a clear career path, others will complain about being reduced to a mere “human tape recorder” in some of their lessons and and others still may simply not like having to get out of their bed before midday!
However, from my own experience, and in discussing the situation with a number of my colleagues down the years, it seems to me that the single biggest cause of anguish and discomfort for my fellow ALTs — as well as those who teach in private eikaiwa (English conversation schools) — is the uncertainty of what the next year will bring.
With almost no exceptions, foreigners who come to Japan to teach English are subject to one-year contracts and must endure a renewal process every year. These evaluations ordinarily comprise two parts: an observation (or series of observations) where your bosses will come to watch your classes and then an interview where your performance is formally evaluated and a decision reached as to whether you are offered a new contract or not.
This constant feeling of having to justify your job to your superiors can sometimes breed resentment, which — if it bleeds into your work — can become self-defeating.
For me, the single most frustrating aspect of this entire process is the seeming lack of transparency. One minute you think you’re doing a great job, the next minute you find out you’re a just a few weeks away from unemployment — often with no justification given whatsoever.
And, of course, since you aren’t given any feedback, it can become all too easy to repeat whatever mistakes you made previously, perpetuating the same cycle of anxiety, anger, unemployment and frantic job searches in a shrinking market of ever-diminishing returns.
Hopefully, today we can do something about that.
I’ve had a couple of occasions over the years where my contract wasn’t renewed, with minimal or no feedback given. On these occasions, I firmly believe it was my relationship (or lack thereof) with management that led to this. In a system where transparency is sorely lacking, bullying can occur with alarming regularity and there just seems to be something about this management structure that allows socially inadequate, vindictive, wannabe dictators to ascend, all too often, to positions of power.
There are steps you can take to insulate yourself against this type of thing. So today, with the help from some of my fellow English teachers and their experiences, I offer five steps to maximize your chances of getting your contract renewed when assessment time comes around.
1. Show that you’re adapting to life in Japan
Last year, I spoke with a fellow ALT. He was somewhat confused when it came time for his re contract renewal interview. While I received his permission to relate this story in the post, this particular ALT doesn’t wish to be identified as he is still works for the board of education in question. He had called me shortly after his rehiring interview, genuinely worried for his job.
I asked him: “What is was it about the interview that troubled you?”
“Well,” he began. “I think the most worrying thing is they didn’t ask me about teaching at all. All the questions were about how I am settling in, how I communicate with others at school and how I’m adjusting to life in the town.”
Now, he is a lot younger than I am and hasn’t been in Japan as long. Of course, a work interview where actual daily work duties aren’t really discussed would be a cause for concern.
In truth, this is actually a good thing. If they had any issues with his teaching, these would have been flagged right away during the interview. However, the topics the assessors wanted to discuss were still important. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, Japanese workplaces place a huge emphasis on group harmony and maintaining a strong dynamic of teamwork and cooperation. As part of that group, you need to be seen to be an active contributor.
Demonstrating that you have worked to improve your Japanese ability or receiving positive comments from the Japanese teachers you work alongside are good ways to achieve this. From my own experience, simply buying a bicycle this year demonstrated to my boss that I was prepared to make an adjustment to countryside life.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most.
2. Curb your enthusiasm
Or at least your unique method of teaching.
While the emphasis on teamwork and shared responsibility in the Japanese workplace can, in many ways, be a good thing, there is a darker side to it that needs to be managed effectively.
… the single biggest cause of anguish and discomfort for my fellow ALTs […] is the uncertainty of what the next year will bring.
To put it bluntly: there are times when you have to know when to put your enthusiasm on hold and teacher assessments are one of those times. Don’t try to do too much and don’t stand out from the crowd, otherwise you may draw too much attention to yourself. It may be cliché, but that old Japanese saying about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down is appropriate here.
A rather cynical former colleague of mine once described the ideal scenario for an ALT as being one of “managed mediocrity.” I don’t agree with this, but particularly when I worked in Osaka City, I saw a lot of very good, highly accomplished teachers either quit or not have their contracts renewed, on nothing other than a whim. And frankly — to call some of their replacements “mediocre” would be being generous. The way my own employment ended there, left me in no doubt that the manager clearly favored blind obedience over any kind of innovation in my teaching style.
This was a lesson I learned the hard way. As I have said previously, though, if I had to go through it again, I wouldn’t do anything any differently.
Osaka isn’t unique in this regard and there is a fair chance you may find yourself at the mercy of a manager like this during your time in Japan. It’s your own personal call as to whether you want to entertain their ego or not.
3. Get feedback early
The nature of these interviews is such that, in many cases, the decision has been made before you even enter the room. That’s why, if there are any issues with your job performance, you need to identify them as soon as possible.
In most cases, you will have semi-regular meetings with management throughout your contract. There’s nothing wrong with having a quick chat with your boss before or after the meeting to ask how you are doing. Generally, their comments will be vague and non-committal, but after some time in Japan, you will find that management types become very easy to read.
If they have any issues with you, this should become apparent and that intel can, hopefully, give you sufficient time to work on improving things.
4. Read between the lines
Although in many cases the decision about rehiring you has already been made by the time your final interview comes around, some schools have a two-stage process.
You will have a lesson observed midway through the year and then be given feedback, which you can take away with you and use to better your next lesson. With lesson observations, there is often an unspoken expectation: you need to teach the class the way the supervisor thinks it should be taught, not necessarily the way you think it should be taught. Again, management egos are in play here.
You will notice similarities with your Japanese colleagues when they have lesson observations, too. It really is quite remarkable how drastically their “demo” lesson will differ from a regular class.
In this regard, it’s best to speak to other teachers in the city who have been there longer than you. They should have a good idea of what particular supervisors expect from a lesson observation and you can adjust accordingly.
Of course, setting aside time to plan effectively with your Japanese colleague — if you are team teaching — is also essential.
5. Join a union
The measures I have outlined here today can minimize your chances of running into trouble come contract renewal time. However, as I’ve mentioned, there are some instances where the assessment is less than transparent. To be honest: sometimes it’s just downright unfair. If such a situation or dispute arises, it helps to have an organization such as the General Union on board.
A union will be in your corner during such instances and if they have other members working in the same location, you can also draw on their experiences to try and see off problems before they happen.
However, if you are going to join a union, then do it when you start employment. Don’t wait until the proverbial excrement hits the cooling device. Unions are there to serve all their members. They are not just a free lawyer service for teachers in trouble. If you wait until you run into conflict before seeking them out, they are unlikely to help you.
At the end of the day, perhaps the most important piece of advice is this: be true to yourself because an employer who values you and who respects your abilities will, ultimately, wish to keep you around.
All we can do is do our best. Treat each and every class as if it were an observation, but always remember that a contract works two ways. As your employer evaluates whether or not they still want to keep you around, it is also worthwhile to ask yourself: do I still want to be here?
Keep moving forward and keep looking for ways to better yourself, whether it’s in your current job or perhaps somewhere new.
What tips do you have for dealing with teacher assessments or evaluating your own work situation? Leave a comment and let us know your advice for this stressful time!