Most English teachers in Japan start out working as instructors at eikaiwa (private language schools) or in the Japanese school system as assistant language teachers (ALTs).
For those considering teaching in Japan — or crossing from one stream to the other — it’s worthwhile to take a look at the main differences between the two types.
Language schools feature small classes (typically one to four adults or two to eight children) based around a particular topic, usually using material provided by the school, in line with the school’s teaching philosophy. Most schools set a three-part lesson plan that includes target language introduction, controlled practice and student language production. Instructors are responsible for devising complementary activities and adjusting them to meet the needs and level of the learners.
ALTs will deal with larger classes and teach lessons based on the school curriculum, working out of textbooks, by unit rather than by individual lesson in conjunction with a Japanese teacher. The ALTs may be trusted to teach entire lessons, but are often placed in a supporting role through which they lend pronunciation assistance and lead short activities.
Both types of teachers need to be flexible in their approach, but language school instructors must make a lot of small in-lesson adjustments. Since catering to the needs of paying students is paramount, instructors must assess the classroom situation, take into account the age, interests and study needs of the students, and decide which activities will best fit the target language and the topic.
While ALTs also respond to developments during the lesson, there is not the same need to read the situation and weave a lesson to accompany it that is so essential in the eikawa classroom.
2) Hours and conditions
Language schools often open long hours — six or seven days a week — and instructors are required to be available for shift, weekend and public holiday work. ALTs, on the other hand, are at school weekdays from 8 a.m. until four or five in the evening, can maintain normal hours and will not need to work on public holidays.
Eikawa instructors usually have a sales aspect to consider. This may include encouraging potential students to join the school or encouraging current students to renew. Bringing new students through the door and keeping longer term ones happy is part of the package.
ALTs do not have to worry about sales; as the face of English language in their schools and communities, they have other concerns. Being de facto ambassadors, ALTs are expected to interact positively at all times, and there is a responsibility to behave in a fashion that will not embarrass the school or the community.
4) Japanese language requirements
Instructors do not need much in the way of Japanese language skills, but ALTs must be able to speak at a basic level or better so that they can understand the schedule, communicate with the class teachers and make small talk with students. Although ALTs can get by employing common sense, a dictionary and a sunny demeanor, the ability to speak reasonable Japanese helps immensely.
Depending on the language school, competent instructors who stay in Japan will get pay increases and may be given the option to up-skill and/or move into management positions. ALTs who work for a dispatch company in larger cities and speak Japanese well may also get similar opportunities. For the vast majority of ALTs, however, there is little room for in-house advancement or pay increases.
Those who intend to make a career here in English teaching should spend the first year or two improving their Japanese, learning the trade and making contacts within the industry. This may open doors to suitable positions with Japanese companies, universities, private schools or in management roles.
6) Social life
Instructors will normally parachute into a readymade ex-pat scene complete with enthusiastic beginners, cynical lifers and all stages in between. ALTs will have a different experience: as the only foreigner on the school staff, ALTs will need to develop relationships with locals and will be forced to rely on their Japanese skills to do so.
Life in Japan — as with life everywhere else — is to a large extent what you make of it, but the teaching stream you choose does play an important role in shaping your Japan experience.
For more on life as an ALT, see Liam Carrigan’s article here.