Finding English Teaching Work in Japan
There aren’t many stations you can exit without seeing the huge neon signs of the large English school chains lighting up the night sky. These are often referred to as the McDonalds of English teaching.
The big chains generally employ any native English speaker, and sometimes even competent non-native speakers. They operate rigid “systems” to enable just about anyone to “teach”. After a while every lesson starts to follow the same pattern and you will find yourself teaching on autopilot, just as the students equally appear to be going through the motions.
The big chains rely heavily on marketing and are often seen on TV and in the other media. As part of their strategy to present a “professional” image they reflect typical Japanese business life and operate a rigid dress code for staff – so if you’re thinking of working for one of these be sure to pack a suit and tie.
Personally I found the formality of both the teaching system and dress code served only to inhibit freedom of conversation (and hence learning) between student and teacher and that lessons were much more effective in a less rigid environment.
Hourly pay is towards the lower end of what teachers make in Japan, but due to high staff turnover you’ll frequently be asked to work overtime which can boost earnings considerably.
In addition to the large chain schools there are numerous smaller, privately owned schools. These offer a refreshing alternative to the big corporations and usually provide a friendlier and more individual environment in which staff and students are treated as human beings, not mere cogs in the corporate machine.
Smaller schools usually don’t operate a “system”, thus giving staff the opportunity to create their own lessons – a much more satisfying working experience. Also, due to the smaller size you will often see the same students on a regular basis, giving the opportunity to get to know them as people and to cater for their individual strengths and weaknesses. Pay is comparable to, or slightly higher than, the big chains.
Unlike the big chains, which often prohibit teacher-student socialization (no doubt they fear students will stop paying to learn English if – God forbid – they actually make English speaking friends), many smaller schools encourage friendships, and social events form part of the program. Although optional, these events can be genuinely fun.
One of the most flexible and satisfying ways to teach is as a private teacher. Simply advertise your services in one of the numerous free mags and you will find students. If you are any good, they will book more lessons and often recommend you to friends.
Lessons may take place at your home (make sure it’s clean and tidy), the student’s home, or more commonly in a coffee shop or McDonalds.
It helps to offer students a free first lesson and assessment of their needs, essentially giving them the chance to try before they buy. Try to personalize lessons for the individual student, although of course you will be able to re-use your carefully prepared lessons with other students.
There are also a number of agencies that match students with teachers for private lessons, usually at no cost to the teacher. Advertisements may be found in the various free English language magazines available in the major cities.
The JET Program
The JET Program is organized by the government to provide native English speaking assistant teachers in junior high, high, and some elementary schools.
The advantages are you’ll have the security of government employment. Perhaps not quite the same security and pension rights as your Japanese colleagues, but you’re unlikely to be fired in mid-contract. The program arranges flights and accommodation, and you’ll have evenings and weekends free (quite a rarity for an English teacher).
The main disadvantage of JET is the rigidity of school English teaching. There won’t be much room for creativity, and you might become disillusioned with a system that leaves so many in need of further English practice upon graduation.
However, for a first taste of teaching English in Japan JET is well worth considering and – in my humble opinion – better than the alternative offered by the big chains.