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The Smartest Answer Isn’t Always the Best One: 5 Tips for ALT Interviews

It's that time again for English teachers in Japan: meeting with new companies, schools and boards of education to secure a new contract. These five tips can help.

By 7 min read

For assistant language teachers here in Japan, January and February are a critical time as you will soon find out — if you haven’t already — whether or not your employment has been renewed for another year. So, whether you are unlucky enough to not have your contract extended or you simply feel that it’s time for a change, either way: you’re going to be attending a lot of interviews over the next couple of months.

As an experienced ALT, I’ve been fielding a multitude of questions on this topic in the last few weeks through email and on the GaijinPot Facebook group. Based on my own previous experiences with this “crunch time” and in answer to readers’ questions, I’ve put together a list of five important things to consider when you attend an interview.

1) Full-time work deserves a full-time contract

Although most English teachers in Japan — whether they work as an ALT or eikaiwa (private English conversation school) teacher — would say that they work full-time hours, not all of us are on full-time contracts.

The old method that some companies used to get around these obligations was the infamous “29-and-a-half-hour contract,” since they were following the now disputed guideline that said anyone who works less than 30 hours per week did not automatically qualify for health insurance and pension coverage.

Since one teacher challenged this ordinance and won their case, this particular form of contract is not as prevalent as it used to be. However, teachers do need to be careful. If a job is advertised as a full-time position, make sure at the interview that the contract is also full-time. A contract for less than a 30-hour week for a job that requires you to be at school for 40 hours or more should set alarm bells ringing.

2) Pension and healthcare are rights, not perks

Another issue along similar lines is the idea of health insurance and pension being offered as an incentive for good performance.

This is not only a sign of a bad employer, but also totally illegal. Either you qualify for health insurance and pension or you don’t. If you do, then your company is legally obliged to enroll you and cover 50 percent of your premiums from day one of employment. If you see a job posting that with an offer similar to: “Pension and healthcare negotiable after three months of perfect attendance” — do not apply!

3) Some questions in the interviews are designed to trip you up

When answering questions at the ALT interview, it’s very important to consider this point: The smartest answer isn’t always the best answer.

As an example, I recently discussed an unusual situation with a current ALT who was interviewing for a job with a city’s board of education (and who wishes to remain anonymous as they are still interviewing). They were asked: “What are your future plans?”

He answered straightforwardly that he hoped to build a solid network in Japan, continue to educate himself on the people and the culture, and save some money with a view to buying a home and setting up his own business in Japan.

Remember that even though the person interviewing you may be foreign, they are still following, in all likelihood, guidelines set down by Japanese management.

Despite giving what he felt was a detailed answer, he was stunned to find a few weeks later that he didn’t get the job. Through various contacts, he later found out the reason he didn’t get the job was because the supervisor felt that he wasn’t committed and would leave as soon as a better opportunity came along.

The fact is, with the short-term nature of English teacher contracts in Japan, anything more than a one-year agreement is a rarity — and many of these contracts are for a fixed term. Realistically, I don’t think it’s possible for any teacher with true ambitions to answer such a question honestly without giving off something of an acquisitive  attitude. In this type of situation, it comes down to considering what is the most appropriate answer, rather than the most honest one.

If possible, try to talk to people already doing the job you are applying for. This will help you build a profile of the kind of person the company is looking for and you can condition and edit your answers accordingly.

4) Demonstration lessons aren’t really about teaching ability

Let’s face it: the very premise that you can properly assess a teacher’s skills in five or 10 minutes is nonsensical. However, applicants make the mistake of thinking that this demo is about showcasing their “teaching skills.” Many often err by explaining step by step just how they would approach the lesson, including giving a running commentary and drowning the assessment panel in a stream of worksheets, lesson plan supplements and game materials. In my earlier days, I made the mistake of preparing loads of handouts and going into far too much minutiae regarding my lesson plans.

The presentation itself is about showing off your basic skills. Do you have enough of a presence and a voice to engage students and make yourself heard by 30 or 40 surly teenagers? Can you write legibly on a whiteboard? Is your English intelligible to non-native speakers? Can you handle pressure?

Answer all of these with a firm “yes” through your actions and the rest of the content of your presentation becomes almost inconsequential.

5) Speak clearly, but know when to shut up

Finally, I come to the one flaw of which I am perhaps most guilty when it comes to interviews: talking too much!

In interviews elsewhere, companies want to bring on candidates who will be assertive, inquisitive and look for ways to innovate and think outside the box. Japan isn’t quite there yet when it comes to such things. Japanese companies tend to value more submissive traits, such as the ability to listen and follow instructions, the ability to respect and follow rules and the humility to accept critique.

Remember that even though the person interviewing you may be foreign, they are still following, in all likelihood, guidelines set down by Japanese management. Keep your answers on point, relevant and brief.

Ask questions when prompted but try to avoid interrupting with questions of your own during the interview.

Ask questions when prompted but try to avoid interrupting with questions of your own during the interview. In most cases, you will be asked at the end of the interview if you have any questions. As a general courtesy, don’t ask questions such as, “When will you tell me the decision?” Refrain from any queries that are very specific to your own personal situation, such as housing or visa issues. Ideally, these questions should have been addressed in the pre-interview information pack or any correspondence leading up to the meeting. It’s probably best to wait and see if you’ve actually been offered the job or not before drilling down into these particular details, but don’t leave it until the last minute.

The number one mistake that all candidates run the risk of making when applying for new jobs is not taking the time to fully consider if the job is right for them. Before you go to an interview, do some research. Check the company’s website. If possible speak with some current and former employees. Be wary, though, that former employees (depending on how they left the company) may have a rather jaded view of their time there. As in journalism, it’s best to consult multiple sources before you try to draw any conclusions.

Good luck with the job hunting everyone!

Do you have any tips for ALTs scheduling job interviews this time of year or questions for Liam or others who have gone through the process? Let us know in the comments!

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