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Movin’ Up: Climbing the Career Ladder as an ALT in Japan

Here are three tips for long-term employment as an English teacher in Japan.

By 8 min read

There comes a point in the Japan experience of every English teacher here where that youthful exuberance gives way to harsh pragmatism.

For most, the initial honeymoon period — when Japan can do no wrong and everyday life seems a joyful blur of partying, traveling and learning Japanese — seems to last about two years. Once you reach this point, the cracks in the facade become impossible to ignore. Do you stay and ride it out or “go home and get a real job?”

Of course, in the endless hyperbole of social media, where everything has to be either wonderful or catastrophic, there is a third way that is often ignored. You can do what I have done: stay in Japan, but work to better yourself here. Don’t just sit back and accept what Japanese life throws at you — step up, challenge it and make things better for yourself.

Improving your career prospects is one way to accomplish this.

So, what practical steps can teachers take to set themselves up to teach long term here? Here are three ways to move up the career ladder in Japan.

1. Move into management

If you’ve ever worked at an eikaiwa (English conversation school) chain, such as Nova, Aeon or ECC, then you probably had a foreign manager.

These district and regional managers are, in almost all cases, people who started out just like you, as classroom teachers.

The ALT dispatch companies often employ management that is a mix of Japanese and foreign employees. Again, many of these foreigners were regular ALTs who gained promotion into their current roles.

However, another issue with these companies is the remarkably high turnover of staff and it’s not unusual to see a teacher who has been there for more than 10 years but has never moved beyond the regular classroom. So, in short, not everyone will make it as a manager. In fact, statistically speaking, given the sheer number of teachers who pass through these companies every year and the small number of management positions that are created, your chances would seem slim.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to tilt the odds in your favor if you’d like to move from the classroom to management.

You’ll probably want to have at least two years of clean service with no issues before you ask your employer about advancement opportunities.

First, acquiring some Japanese language certification will go a long way in this regard. Most of these foreign managers will, for the most part, act as a conduit between the rank and file teachers and Japanese senior management. Generally speaking, you should aim for JLPT N2 level, but some companies will accept N3 or N4, depending on the type of work.

In these situations, it’s often the most compliant rather than the most competent candidate who is singled out for promotion. Work every shift that is asked of you. Help out on outside projects such as promotional events and marketing pushes when you can. Also: be patient. You’ll probably want to have at least two years of clean service with no issues before you ask your employer about advancement opportunities.

I’ll be honest: I very quickly realized soon after I arrived in Japan that this kind of management wasn’t for me. I believe that critique, self-reflection and asking questions of each other is the key to improving efficiency and performance in staff. This does not mesh well with the Japanese approach to corporate management, which remains heavily top-down and focused on obedience rather than inquiry. It takes a certain mindset and a willingness to blindly follow orders, even when you don’t agree with them.

You should think carefully about whether or not this is the right path for you depending on the type of organization you work for.

2. Strike out on your own

This is an area where a few of my friends have enjoyed reasonable success. After working for a company for a few years and gaining the necessary experience, teaching skills and network, you may want to consider setting up your own school.

Getting a business visa can be a costly and prolonged process, though it isn’t impossible. Most — but not all — of my friends who have their own schools, set them up after they got married to their Japanese partner.

Now, I would never advocate marriage for anything other than love, but the fact of the matter is: it’s a lot easier from a logistical point of view to set up your own business in Japan if you are married to a Japanese national. Also, setting up your own business is potentially a decades-long commitment, so perhaps it is more pertinent to wait until you’re happily married before embarking on such a venture.

… you can expect to spend as much, if not more, time doing promotional work […] as you will spend in the classroom.

The main point to consider here is that not only will you be teaching all of the classes, but in a country like Japan, where image is very important in business, you will also be the face of your company both in marketing and in a customer facing capacity.

Presentation, professionalism and a solid commitment to getting your name out there are everything. From my friends’ experience (in the first few months especially) you can expect to spend as much, if not more, time doing promotional work — such as handing out flyers and attending local events —  as you will spend in the classroom.

Again, it takes a certain type of person to be able to commit to this.

3. Seek greater autonomy

One of the reasons that ALT and eikaiwa teaching work seems to offer limited potential for career expansion is that the job itself can be something of a difficult sell on your resume.

ALTs are (as the name suggests) assistants to full-time, certified local teachers. While in reality we are often the lead teacher in our lessons and sometimes we teach completely alone, this isn’t supposed to be the case, and as such it’s difficult to put this on your resume and be taken seriously.

The eikaiwa route, too, has its limitations. You are usually a solo teacher. At many schools, especially the big chains, your classes are shackled to a particular textbook or set lesson plan and materials, making it hard to demonstrate that you actually have any real lesson planning skills yourself.

So, to prepare yourself for a future career in management, training or as a senior teacher, you need to seek out greater autonomy as early in your teaching career as you can. Autonomy, in this regard, functions on two levels.

There is the obvious freedom of preparing and performing more lessons by yourself with as little support from either your manager or your colleagues as possible. Try to move away from pre-set lesson plans and develop your own style where possible. Use the provided texts and materials around a lesson plan you have created rather than creating a plan to suit the materials you are given.

These positions require a lot more commitment than a conventional ALT position and they will often require a lot of overtime…

However, beyond just the classroom, there is also the issue of personal autonomy. Try to take on private students to teach informally. Look for some writing or translating work. Anything that gives you a bit more experience outside your day-to-day classes — and also puts a bit more money in your pocket each month — will lead to growth and a feeling of independence.

I branched out into solo teaching when I moved to Okayama back in 2008. The Kurashiki NET Program, at that time, granted ALTs special prefectural licenses to teach unassisted. So, in other words, whereas most ALTs will team teach alongside a regular Japanese teacher, in Kurashiki, I had to function without that safety net. I planned and taught the classes completely on my own.

Though this part of the program was later scrapped due to poor management, there still exists a number of similar positions across Japan, where the ALT will be asked to teach solo. Such positions will ordinarily be advertised as English teacher or English instructor positions rather than ALT — although the work is similar in many respects.

When you’re searching for a teaching vacancy on GaijinPot.com, be sure to look out for positions that specify you will be the solo teacher or the lead instructor. These positions require a lot more commitment than a conventional ALT position and they will often require a lot of overtime, but if you really want to be a serious teacher then this is where you need to be.

You’ll also need at least JLPT N4 level and about two years of previous ALT experience.

Life in Japan is whatever you choose to make it. If you want to be a teacher for life, it can happen for you. What I’ve hopefully imparted to you in this post is just a few of the ways that you can get there — but in the end it is up to you.

Every man or woman is responsible for their own destiny. Whatever you decide to do, do it because it’s what you want to do. Don’t be pressured by those who say you need a “real job” or that it’s time to “go home.”

I’ve been in this country for more than 10 years now. Japan is my home. For now, I am happy to divide my working time between teaching, writing and a few other outside projects.

Ultimately, your home, your career, your life, is whatever you want it to be.

Have you branched out or moved on from teaching as an ALT or at English conversation school? Do you have any tips or advice for those who’d like to teach in Japan for the long term? Let us know in the comments!

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