What Kind of English Teacher Are You?

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Photo by Olivia Blackburn

In a previous article, I talked a little about my experiences living in Japan for 9 years as a writer and English teacher. In this article I will go into more detail about teaching English in Japan. I will look at the industry, and try to help you make sense of the job choices that lie ahead.

Teaching at an Eikaiwa

An Eikaiwa, or English conversation school, is typically a small to medium-sized school, usually part of a larger regional or national chain of schools. There are many individual, family run Eikaiwas, but they generally don’t recruit from overseas.

At Eikaiwa, you can expect to teach around 7 or 8 different classes a day, varying in length from 40 minutes to 1 hour depending on the company and the type of lesson being delivered. Some companies also offer intensive lessons which can run for 2 or 3 hours.

One of Eikaiwa’s major plus points is the variety of the schedule. Some classes will be for children, others for teenagers and young adults and others for professionals and business people. No two classes are the same and if you are new to Japan it really is a great way to get to meet a variety of Japanese people over a short period of time.

No two classes are the same and if you are new to Japan it is a great way to get to meet a variety of Japanese people

You will also learn to teach very quickly, in what is very much a “sink or swim” environment. Eikaiwa teaching methodology is fairly easy to pick up though. Provided you have some common sense, a good speaking manner, and you are a “people” person, you’ll be teaching with confidence in no time.

Most Eikaiwa teachers can expect to work at least one day on a weekend, indeed many teachers have to work both Saturday and Sunday. A teacher will still have 2 full days off per week, but these may be weekdays and they may not be consecutive.

Although it varies depending on the company, a typical weekday at an Eikaiwa begins at around 12 or 1pm, sometimes later. Classes can run until 9 or 10pm in the evening. Weekend days are a little more sociable, with a typical Saturday or Sunday running from 10 or 11am until 5 or 6pm.

If you have a young family or you value your free time on the evenings and weekends Eikaiwa probably isn’t for you. However, for young people who enjoy the night-life Japan’s larger cities can offer, Eikaiwa is probably a good way to make a decent living, whilst still allowing you plenty of time to party.

In terms of Salary, Eikaiwa is not what it once was. Many Eikaiwas now favour a performance based model. This means that teachers are paid a pretty low basic salary, with top up incentives based on number of classes taught, the number of students taught, willingness to relocate at short notice, type of classes taught (business, kids, intensive, etc.) and so on. This system allows good teachers to make a lot of money if they can bring on and retain students, however this can be difficult when you aren’t guaranteed to be teaching the same students every week. Also, in quiet periods, the salary can drop considerably if there aren’t enough classes to go round.

Check out this article to see real world examples of the cost of living in Japan.

However there are still Eikaiwas that offer a guaranteed monthly base salary. If you are new to Japan, I strongly recommend going down this route. When you are moving to a new country, on a limited budget, the last thing you need is potential financial instability.

Another thing to watch out for is pension and health insurance contributions. The actual law governing employees entitlement to such benefits is a bit sketchy and full of loopholes, but in principal companies are supposed to offer these benefits. However, a number of Eikaiwas do not offer either health insurance or pension contributions. If you are planning to stay in Japan long term, I strongly recommend getting yourself enrolled on these programs as soon as possible.

Being an ALT

ALTs, or Assistant Language Teachers, work in public schools all across Japan. Teachers can be expected to teach in elementary, junior high, senior high schools and sometimes a combination thereof. Working alongside a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE), the job involves delivering team-teaching lessons for up to 40 students at a time.

Unlike in Eikaiwa, where a teacher can teach up to 8 lessons a day, the maximum an ALT will ever teach is 6 classes in one day. A typical day usually involves only 3 or 4 classes. However, whereas in Eikaiwa most lesson planning is done for you via the textbook and teaching script, ALTs can often be expected to plan part or sometimes all of a lesson on their own. This very much depends on how busy your school is and how much work is shared between you and your JTE.

On the face of it, ALT can seem like a much better job than Eikaiwa. A typical working week is Monday to Friday 8.30-4.30, so it is pretty much as close to a 9-5 job as you will get in Japan. Also, the actual teaching time is much lower than Eikaiwa, typically no more than 20 classes per week.

You’ll also get an up close and personal account of daily Japanese life as you will be working alongside regular Japanese teachers and students, many of whom may never have travelled outside Japan before. You will also be invited to observe or sometimes take part in school events like the sports day, culture festival, and many others.

As with all jobs however, there are downsides. Firstly, the majority of ALTs in Japan are not employed directly through their respective city governments. Instead recruitment is outsourced to dispatch companies (Haken Gaisha in Japanese). As a result of this, the salary paid to ALTs is somewhat lower than that of the average Eikaiwa teacher. ALTs can expect to earn somewhere in the region of 220,000 – 240,000 yen per month, but every area is different, depending on the contract that each individual city has with the dispatch company.

In more rural areas the pay can be considerably lower. I recently saw an advertised vacancy for a full time ALT at a monthly rate of just 180,000 per month but also keep in mind that your daily living expenses in the rural areas will be much lower than living in the big cities.

Also, Japanese students aren’t always the angelic stereotypes we may think they are. Japan’s school discipline system is somewhat different from western countries and sometimes kids can be aggressive, violent and uncooperative. This can often be a shock to new teachers whose only previous experience of a Japanese classroom has been watching one too many animes.

Getting an uncooperative student to speak even a little, is why I love teaching English in Japan

Student motivation is another area where new teachers can encounter problems. In Eikaiwa classes, most students have paid a lot of money to be there, so they are motivated and want to learn. In public schools in Japan, a number of your students may have little or no interest in learning English, or talking with a foreigner.

From my point of view however, as someone who has been teaching in Japan for many years, it is these kind of challenges I love the most. There is nothing in this world more satisfying than working with an apathetic, uncooperative student over an extended period and finally getting them to speak, even just a little English.

Being an English teacher in Japan will never make you a millionaire, but if you are patient, willing to work hard and have a genuine love for teaching and for Japan, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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  • Dara Harris says:

    Ahhh, it would be cool to be an English teacher in Japan, but I have zero teaching ability, and I don’t have the skill set to deal with problem students, so I would never be able to do it.

  • Peter Palfrei says:

    How much Japanese does a foreign teacher need to know in order to work as an Eikawa teacher or ALT?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      From my experience, the good ALT jobs, ie. The higher paying dispatch companies and the direct hire positions are starting to be a bit more fussy in this area. They dont state Japanese as a requirement but at the interview if you can give a short self-introduction, even just 2 or 3 sentences in Japanese it goes a long way to improving your chances. But for eikaiwa, its zero, in fact some eikaiwa companies purposefully hire teachers with little or no Japanese. Because they don’t want teachers using anything other than English in lessons.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      For the actual classroom the school usually require that you do not speak any Japanese at all.

      But to get along with your co-workers it’s good to know at least a few words of Japanese.

  • Sofija Todoric says:

    Well, I am from Serbia (Europe), and as far as I have seen by now, in all job ads I see ”native speaker” condition. The problem is bigger as I don’t reside i Japan, because many of schools don’t want to bother with that.

  • Andrew says:

    This article has confirmed my desire to teach in Japan. I have just signed up to start a BA honours degree in English language so hopefully in 5 years time when I pass I can apply for JET or Interac. My only concern is my age as I am 29 now. Will I be too old to teach in Japan at 34??

    Thank you for the article

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Not too old. More than age, many Japanese schools are looking for professionalism. They want teachers who have some work experience and can show that they would make a good employee for the company.

      Check out this interview I did with another teacher. http://blog.gaijinpot.com/gpod-18-teaching-english-in-japan/

      • Andrew says:

        Thank you Anthony for your help. Just downloading that podcast to my iPhone as we speak. I have just subscribed so I will not miss an episode. I plan to also take a TEFL course to get teaching and classroom experience.

        Thanks again!!

  • Ismet Duman says:

    I wish to do this English teaching job in near future and live in traditional Japanese way of life.

  • Steven says:

    I also enjoyed your article. One comment I would make is that in my experience (10 years), 3-4 classes for an ALT per day is on the light side.

    • Clickonthewhatnow says:

      The whole rule to the ALT game is ESID, of course. If you were seeing 5 or 6 on a regular basis, I’d think you were at the elementary level (where at least the planning is minimal).

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thats a fair point Steven. I am fortunate that in my experience teaching 5 or 6 classes a day was the exception rather than the rule, but i know not all ALTs are so lucky

  • Sofija Todoric says:

    It’s is funny how in Japan they will hire you if you are native english speaker, and won’t if you are not, without taking into account your educatinon. Sadly I am not native English speaker and I have CAE Cambridge certificate and bachelor in Anthropology…but that doesn’t matter.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Sofija, i agree with you. I don’t think it is fair that non-native speakers have such a hard time getting jobs in Japan. In actual fact, i would say thay being a non-native speaker probably gives you a deeper understanding of some of the more complex grammar points. These are things you have actually had to learn in the past, whereas to a native speaker they come naturally which sometimes makes it difficult to explain to students.

      • whatareyoutalkingabout11 says:

        What a joke! You guys whining seriously have no right to. You think I want to actually pay money to learn Nihongo from a Korean or Thai? Would you pay your hard earned cash for that? Put yourselves in the students shoes. You only need to look at a few of the non-native profiles on Hello-Sensei, people claiming how pro they are yet their profile introduction is riddled with basic errors! Some were even using text language!! What a joke, sorry if my reply is not politically correct enough for all the kiddies out there but at least it’s real.

        • AkiraWolf says:

          I can hardly see your point. First of all being familiar with something doesn’t mean you are capable to pass along that knowledge or to explain it. One being native doesn’t make him/her teacher. Second, you would prefer to have native instead of educated teacher? I don’t know where are you from but do you think that you can teach your native language in some foreign country? And while we are at it why not math as well? You had math in school, so you are familiar with. And last, I think that you missed part that I’m English teacher and that they are hiring non teaching natives.
          P.S. I was a student once. My teacher was highly educated Serbian woman.

  • Susie says:

    Good article, but I disagree with “daily living expenses in the rural areas will be much lower than living in the big cities.” I’m as rural as they get and living costs are huge – utilities are more due to the remote location, food is ridiculously expensive (even for Japan) as well as having very little choice, and transport costs are higher as it takes so much longer to get anywhere. Life isn’t very convenient either – I would love to be able to get to a conbini within just two hours!

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