It’s been a strange year. In a move I never thought possible, I was actually able to work from home for a time this year. For English teachers in Japan, especially ALTs such as myself, this was unprecedented.
Of course, for as long as there has been the internet, there have been people working from home. Until very recently, though, unless you were self-employed, the idea was alien to the vast majority in Japan. However, COVID-19 changed all that.
As we enter this “new normal” of social distancing, avoiding non-essential travel and spending a lot more time at home, it’s time to ask: Is it realistic to think English teachers in Japan work from home?
Today, let’s try to find out.
Where do you work?
The type of school or company that you work for and its location will go a long way in determining whether you can work from home or not.
If you’re a freelance or otherwise self-employed teacher, then it’s quite simple. You decide where you work and when. If you can independently source enough students who are willing to do online lessons, then you’re sorted.
Those employed by eikaiwa (English conversation schools) face more of a struggle.
Some of the larger eikaiwa chains offer online lessons. However, the pay is usually significantly lower than an in-person class.
As for those like me who teach in a public school classroom, well, you can pretty much forget it. Elementary, junior and senior high schools are all part of the same antiquated and chronically underfunded system in Japan. Every day, regardless of the weather, your health or the viral threat level in your area, coming into school is an obligation we cannot escape.
Signs of progress
Some schools and colleges in the private sector have moved online this year. A friend of mine who teaches university English classes has been allowed to teach from home over Zoom.
When it comes to the question of whether Zoom can properly replace the classroom experience, I can only speak to my own knowledge in this regard. In hosting a few online eikaiwa lessons while I was covering for a friend earlier this year, I found Zoom to be, overall, a positive experience though it initially took some time to overcome the technological gremlins.
However, I wouldn’t say it was any more difficult to master than any other new computer program. As is the case with in-person learning, a successful online lesson depends on creating as many visual stimuli and interesting, engaging activities as you can. The “breakout room” feature is also a great way to set up pair work or small group discussions. After using it, I think it was an adequate replacement for bums-in-seats classes. In some respects, it was even more effective.
Still, the same prevailing Japanese corporate culture remains: clocking in, showing your face and being physically at the school for your contract hours is often viewed as important as the quality of your lessons.
In my job, though, the pandemic has at least started a conversation about online lessons. When my Japanese colleagues and I proposed the idea of online group lessons during school closures earlier this year, our board of education told us it wasn’t possible.
Their main reason was that not every student has access to a computer at home. It would be unfair to those students from more impoverished families who can’t afford the technology to make online learning essential.
Thankfully, in my city anyway, that won’t be a problem for much longer. Plans are afoot to ensure that every student has a tablet computer from April 2021.
Hopefully, we will be in a vaccine roll out by then, so this move probably comes too late to have any impact on the current pandemic. However, it means that the necessary infrastructure will be in place for any possible move to online in the future.
Of course, this is just a localized example, but colleagues around the country have told me of similar initiatives either already in place or coming soon. In Hyogo Prefecture, for example, the local government has pledged that every elementary and junior high student will have their own computer by the end of the 2020 academic year.
Problems of perception
Getting around the technical and logistical issues blocking the path to online English teaching at schools is just one facet. In all likelihood, the biggest challenge lies in overcoming the various negative connotations that remain attached to it.
As I mentioned earlier, setting yourself up to work from home online isn’t that hard, provided you can get around the visa issues. What is difficult, however, is attracting and retaining enough students to make it viable.
Working in the public education system here, I can see how it shapes the attitudes of Japanese as they progress to adulthood. Mandatory attendance is graded on the same level as performative competence.
When students are attending a class, the expectation is that it should be in person. To some, not actually attending suggests a lack of commitment on the teacher’s part or that you take the task at hand less seriously. So, in effect, students believe that having them attend classes in person reflects the teacher’s professionalism and dedication.
Conversely, this also fuels the perception that since an online class may be less serious or less professional — it should cost less. I have seen firsthand the negative impact of this attitude.
A case study
Back when I lived in Osaka, my former girlfriend used to study English online.
However, if I’m honest, I didn’t see much of an improvement in her ability. Then, one night, she invited me to join her for one of her online lessons. Though she had contracted the lessons through a Japanese school, the English teacher in question was not based in Japan, but instead in Southeast Asia.
Though doing her best, this teacher’s pronunciation had a strong accent that even I, as a native speaker, struggled to understand her. Afterward, I advised my then-girlfriend to discontinue the class. However, her response was, “Well, where else in Osaka can I get English lessons for ¥1,000 per 90 minutes?”
On that, she had a point. Not only was it unfair to put that teacher in a position for which she was not qualified and then grossly under pay her for her efforts, but this also fed further into the negative stereotype around online lessons.
Not just a foreign problem
Low pay for work conducted online isn’t just confined to the economically poorer parts of Asia. It’s a global problem, exacerbated by the move towards the “gig economy” of unstable, short-term employment. Teachers working in Japan aren’t spared this either. Even at the more established national chains, the pay for online teaching is usually lower than that of a regular class.
Having taught both online and in-person English conversation lessons, it’s my opinion that online teaching is more time consuming and more challenging.
You must do the same level of prep as you would for a regular class and need to be tech-savvy enough to work through the apps you are using. Unfortunately, students don’t fully understand this and employers refuse to acknowledge it. The erroneous perception that the job is somehow easier and less involved just because you’re doing it in your living room remains.
‘Online’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘at home’
Another common misconception is the idea that being an online teacher automatically equates to working from home. It doesn’t.
The General Union, a workers union representing English teachers across Japan, initiated strike action against a well-known eikaiwa chain this summer. The strike was over the company’s ongoing insistence that their teachers in high-risk areas such as Osaka had to continue to teach either in person or from their “online learning center” hub rather than from the safety of their own home.
The online center is, according to the teachers who worked there, a series of cramped booths in a busy office building in the city, allowing for no meaningful social distancing or adequate ventilation.
It’s very much a case of “buyer beware” when looking at online teaching jobs with the major teaching companies here. Almost always, you’ll still need to report to a central workplace.
The students will enjoy the conveniences of a flexible schedule and the company will benefit from not having to make teachers full-time staff members. The actual benefits to the employee, though, aren’t immediately obvious.
As many other sectors adapt to a new, normal routine of employees working online, this will, hopefully, help reshape attitudes around online English lessons in Japan. Taking an online English class could, in the medium to long term, be seen as no different from that conference call with your bosses in Tokyo while you sit behind your desk at home or elsewhere.
It certainly isn’t impossible to earn a living teaching English online in Japan. However, for the time being, if you do want to build toward a work-from-home situation, I suggest you try to phase it in gradually. View it as a supplement and not a replacement for your full-time job.
The technology is here. The students are out there. You just need to find them and keep them engaged.
As always, good luck and happy job hunting!