Going for a teaching job interview can be an intimidating experience. Selling yourself as the best fit for a position is not always easy, especially when you don’t know exactly what the interviewer’s idea of a best fit may be. Fortunately, a little advice from those within the industry can give you a clearer picture of what to expect and how to prepare.
For this article I have enlisted the help of three experienced interviewers – Mike Birch of Panorama English, Ryan Hagglund of MY English School, and Eric Shannon of ELS x 2 English Classes – to share their insights into what is required to interview well for a position in Japan. I will also add in supplementary comments and summaries of my own.
For context, there are two main entrance streams for people who wish to teach English in Japan. Applicants can either aim to teach in Japanese schools as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) or work in a private conversation school (Eikaiwa). ALTs usually work in tandem with Japanese teachers, whereas Eikaiwa instructors teach small-group lessons for students of various ages and abilities, with some schools specializing in classes for children.
This article is aimed at job hunters looking for work in Eikawa schools. Some of the advice will be applicable to ALT positions as well, but these are not the focus of the article.
Now let us begin: what do you need to know about your interview?
1) Research The School.
“It makes a big difference when a candidate comes in knowing something about my school, what we do, and how we teach,” says Ryan.
Mike agrees. “I also like being asked what texts are used at my school, and someone who knows a bit about some of the more commonly used texts for teaching kids in Japan usually leaves a good impression.”
Show the interviewer that you are serious about the job by alluding during the interview to any research you have done on the school. Similarly, try to ask intelligent questions about teaching methods and materials.
2) Language Teaching Qualifications.
“Qualifications,” says Ryan, “show that teachers care about being professionals.” He will still hire people who do not have a language teaching qualification, but teachers will need to get one to have their contract renewed.
For Mike, they are a big plus and show that applicants have put some thought into what they want to do with their lives.
Language teaching qualifications are useful but – in the beginning at least – not essential. If you don’t have qualifications it would help to know enough to be able to talk about the ones you might like to get in the future.
3) Teaching Experience.
If you are joining one of the big conversation schools, teacher training is part of the package and experience is not essential. Smaller operators however can less easily afford to take on teachers who do not have grounding in the industry.
Mike considers experience to be essential. “I’m not prepared to risk losing students in order to train a teacher,” he explains.
For Ryan, experience can be a mixed blessing. “I don’t hire people who don’t have experience, because I want them to know whether they like teaching and living in Japan,” he says. “That being said, sometimes people with too much experience aren’t flexible enough to adapt to how we teach.”
If you don’t have experience, apply to a big school that has the resources to train you. If you have many years of experience, emphasize that your approach is flexible and that you are open to new ideas.
Enthusiasm will not always make up for lack of experience, but a warm personality and a passion for helping people is always going to help you stand out.
4) Enthusiasm And Personality.
“Enthusiasm only counts for so much and while a positive I’d take a calm experienced teacher with a proven track record,” says Mike.
Eric believes that personality is an essential consideration. “How the teacher will interact with the children is very important to the overall teaching/learning environment.”
“If the teacher is too strict,” he considers, “the students will inevitably be quieter and less likely to respond openly.”
For Ryan, keenness is non-negotiable: “experience and qualifications can be obtained, but personality and enthusiasm are set.”
Enthusiasm will not always make up for lack of experience, but a warm personality and a passion for helping people to learn is always going to stand you in good stead. Get it into your interview somehow.
5) Japanese Language Skill.
In the bigger schools Japanese language skill is not necessary, though it may be a useful way to show that you are interested enough in the culture to stay until the end of your contract.
Mike says that the importance of Japanese language skill depends on the individual’s case, but Ryan feels knowing Japanese is a significant advantage in that it demonstrates an ability to empathize with the students and enables teachers to understand what students are saying to themselves and others in the classroom.
Japanese skills are never going to be a liability. If you have them don’t hide it, but don’t show off, either. If you don’t speak the language, you may still be able to get a job, but it’s probably prudent to let the interviewer know that you are working to improve your skills.
6) Personal Reliability.
“Reliability is a must. You lose every time you’re let down,” says Mike. “If I’m asking around about someone who’s approached me for a job, one of the things I want to know is ‘can I trust this person?'”
Ryan believes that getting an accurate gauge on reliability is so important that he will lengthen the recruiting process until he is satisfied. Unreliable people, his experience shows, are usually not willing to go through all of his extra interactions.
Word of mouth (if applicable), references, your time in Japan and general conduct around the recruiting process will give the interviewer clues about your reliability. Cultivate good habits, and if you have bad habits already, make a fresh start. Interviewers will be looking to see signs of adjustment to Japanese life and plans to remain here in the medium term.
Tests are your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other candidates.
7) Testing Situations.
Depending on how much experience the interviewer is looking for, you may be asked to put together a lesson plan on the fly, teach a hypothetical demonstration lesson or teach in a real classroom.
“I would always ask prospective kids’ teachers about their ideas of classroom discipline and how they enforce the rules in the classroom. This lets me know how the teacher will be with the children in different situations,” says Eric.
Ryan’s approach is to make the recruitment process itself a test of commitment, with multiple interviews and essay questions culminating in a day of teaching at his school.
For Mike, the interview questions are tests of suitability. Be ready to be explain why you like teaching, what you get out of it, where you see yourself going with it in future, and why you quit your last job.
“Negative comments about previous employers will never give a favorable impression” says Mike, and nor he does recommend overreaching in interviews. “Talking about having a sister whose three kids you used to play with does not impress me at all. It only shows you have no real experience.”
Expect to be tested. There will be tricky situations, but don’t be afraid of them; remember that they are your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Prepare to teach, prepare to talk about teaching, and prepare to ask and answer some searching questions.
As this article shows, different schools all have slightly different needs and different interviewers have slightly different approaches, but it is to be hoped that this advice from Ryan, Mike and Eric will help provide prospective employees with a general idea of what to expect in an interview for a position at an English conversation school in Japan.
Think positively – the interview is your chance to impress.