How to make a career teaching English in Japan

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Photo by Paul Worthington

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I’ve already lived in Japan for several years. Despite recently branching out into writing recently, my work has been, and remains predominantly focused in the English teaching sphere.

I’ve spoken before at my despondency when I hear people say things like this: “teaching English isn’t a real job”, “teaching English is a dead-end job with no future”, “you can’t have a career teaching English in Japan,” and so on.

Unfortunately, as time goes on and I see salaries continuing to plummet from the levels I experienced upon my arrival in 2006, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dispute these sentiments.

The problem is, these days, unless you have some kind of highly specialized skill set, and at least intermediate Japanese writing and speaking ability, English teaching may be the only way to go for long term, stable employment.

So, with this in mind, what is a teacher to do?

One of the biggest problems in Japan for English teachers is the way jobs in the industry are structured and marketed. Considering that even today less than 10% of those who come into Japan as entry level English teachers will stay more than 5 years, it is no real surprise that companies have come to view teachers as transient, disposable, and easily replaced. To that end, experience doesn’t really count for much and opportunities for career advancement are considerably limited. The stark reality is that to most employers someone like me, with close to a decade of experience isn’t really any more attractive than someone who is “fresh off the boat” as it were.

Indeed, given the way certain companies operate, being a teacher of several years’ standing can actually present a considerable disadvantage in finding a new job. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, companies, especially those in the conversation school (Eikaiwa) side of the industry, often have their own, highly-regimented way of doing things. They will have a set methodology for delivering lessons and a focused curriculum and materials that must be followed closely. As such, a new teacher, with little to no experience is more malleable, less resistant to change and also less likely to dispute or seek to highlight any flaws in the company’s prevailing teaching methodology. Also, to less reputable employers, of which sadly there are several in the industry, longer-term residents of Japan are far more likely to be aware of their rights in respect to pensions and health insurance, and are therefore more likely to be considered “troublesome” to companies who seek to flout these obligations.

There is also the unfortunate and growing specter of fixed limits on contract renewals, meaning that no matter how well a teacher performs, once his or her fixed term expires, they will be made redundant.

All in, it paints a pretty grim picture for “lifers” in Japan such as myself. However, all is not lost, and there are still some effective ways in which one can better themselves here.

Like most industries, English teaching has several different facets, each with its own set of entry requirements and potential rewards. If you are a mid-career, experienced teacher such as myself, there are a few different ways you can seek to improve your lot.

One of my friends, who is of similar age, and in a similar predicament to me with regards career options, is about to “take the plunge” and embark on a new venture. He has signed up to undertake a master’s degree course in TESOL (Teaching of English as a Second Language). There are a number of courses of this type across Japan, with options both for online and weekend/evening course delivery, allowing even the busiest teacher to fit it into their schedule. The price of these courses is the one stumbling block: usually around 2 or 3 million yen. Though hopefully, if you’ve been working for a few years already you will have saved up a bit.

These courses are typically broken up into modules, with 10 modules required to complete your master’s course. Most people do 2 or 3 modules per year, meaning you’re looking at about 3 or 4 years of part-time study to get to where you need to be. Luckily, many institutions now allow students to pay for the course as they undertake each module. 2 or 3 million yen may seem like too big a lump sum to pay out in one go, but 200-300,000 yen every 4-6 months, whilst still a lot to the average English teacher is do-able, if you can manage your savings correctly. For those of you who can complete the course a whole new sphere of English teaching, (universities, private high schools, international schools) and the potential for far higher salaries awaits you.

For those of us who love teaching, but aren’t quite so academically inclined, the thought of doing a full degree course could seem somewhat daunting. In this case, perhaps you may wish to consider a more practically minded form of certification.

I completed a Cambridge CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching for Adults) prior to coming to Japan for the first time back in 2006. It certainly opened a few doors to me as a young teacher and the skills I gained really did benefit me in those first few months trying to find my rhythm as a teacher. At around $1500 US for the course, it’s also a far cheaper option than a master’s degree. Even if it doesn’t allow you to teach at universities, it is still an internationally recognized teaching qualification that will help you stand out from the crowd come interview time.

Now, some 9 years later, I will soon embark upon the next step, as I consider undertaking a DELTA (Diploma of English Language Teaching for Adults). The DELTA is a mid-career diploma, aimed at preparing experienced teachers to make the transition into school management roles. For those of us who may also be considering upgrading to the master’s degree at a later date, the academic credits obtained from doing your DELTA can, in many cases, be used as partial credit towards your Master’s award. I would recommend you check with the schools you are interested in before applying.

A final option may be the TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test). This is a course myself and some of my colleagues have been fortunate enough to go through recently, thanks to the generosity of our employer. Unlike some other courses, the TKT is of benefit to both native English teachers and our Japanese Teachers of English (JTE) counterparts. From my own experience, not only did the course help me a great deal in brushing up on my fundamentals, it also gave me a better understanding of just how tough it can be for our JTEs sometimes. The TKT, like the CELTA and the DELTA is verified by Cambridge University.

TKT is relatively new to Japan, with only a handful of centers currently offering seminars. However, you don’t necessarily need to be enrolled in the seminars to take the exam, meaning it is a very cheap option with a level of expertise on a similar level to that of a CELTA. The exam itself costs around 6000 yen, with the seminar costs varying dependent on length and point of delivery.

So as you can see, all is not lost for the career minded English teacher in Japan. For those of us who want to move forward, if you work hard, always seek ways to improve yourself, and you can get a bit of good fortune, then there’s still plenty of long-term options out there.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Scott Wysocki says:

    Even though the “A” in CELTA stands for adult, are CELTA grads still in high demand for younger learners?

  • Matthew Coslett says:

    Good article. I would add that there is also the Applied Linguistics masters course. It opens slightly different doors, but can be a good one for people that want to keep more options open that solely teaching.

  • maulinator says:

    Another aspect to work on would be to improve one’s Japanese skills. A teacher that speaks fluent Japanese is always going to be more attractive than one that does not. Nuanced grammar points must sometimes be explained in Japanese to get the point across. Communication with the other teachers will be easier so it will make you more marketable. Also living life in Japan will be easier.

  • Mikey says:

    This is the boat im in dude.

    9 years teaching experience. Australia, Japan, Spain, Germany. Now im doing my MA TESOL in Sydney before i move back to Japan. Its so much easier to complete when you have some teaching experience – some of the others with none have no idea about simple things like transitions and classroom management.

    Do you know if those masters programs in Japan recognise prior learning or work? My uni recognised 4 subjects! thats a year at part-time saved!

  • Carlos says:

    What about the rather discriminatory “native speakers only” side of the business? I am not a native speaker but I do have experience teaching, the CELTA certification that I received in New York and a bachelors degree in Business. It sounds great to employers until they realize my passport is not from any English speaking country. I am trying my best to secure a job in English teaching in Japan but I always face rejection for not being a native speaker. Many people agree that even though a native speaker has a better pronunciation, sometimes their knowledge of grammar and English semantics is not as deep as the one of an experienced non native who has studied English for many years. I’ve never had a native teacher yet I have no problems understanding and communicating in English at a native level. It is really frustrating and discouraging. Has anybody else had the same problem in Japan?

    • Jason Hawkins says:

      Yes it is discriminatory…but I think your qualifications can let you stand up from the crowd.

    • JohnFranklin says:

      you are not alone Carlos. why don’t you create a home base English teaching. you will be the boss and you own your own corporation. I’m heading to that platform though. currently I’m focusing yet on something different yet sooner or later I will do the home base teaching.

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