Tuesday, May 9, 2017

So You Wanna Teach English in Japan...

on the job

A couple times I've been asked by friends and acquaintances to share my experiences teaching English in Japan. It's what I've been doing here for the past four years.

There's a lot that can be said about English teaching in foreign countries in general and in Japanese eikaiwa (for-profit conversational English schools) in particular. A lot of it isn't very nice, because it's a common trope to be able to get employed easily just by being 1. a living breathing native speaker of English 2. white or otherwise properly "foreign-looking" --with no other qualifications besides (typically) a bachelor's degree in any field. Proper ESL teachers are incensed by this reality. I could talk a lot more on the issue, but I'm not going to now in this blog post.

So, here's my experience in Japanese eikaiwa, and some things to look out for. I don't have any personal experience working in other programs like JET or private ALT agencies so I'm not going to talk about those either.

I've worked in two very different eikawa companies. One was in the top 4 biggest eikaiwa companies nationwide, we'll call it A. The other is small and concentrated only in the Kansai area, we'll call it K. I'll compare the two in a couple different points: getting hired, housing, training, working conditions, and teaching.

1. Getting hired and getting to Japan
Some big companies like A only do their recruiting outside Japan. A was a very typical Japanese company in that it preferred to hire blank slates and train them in the A teaching style from zero, I also think they preferred foreigners with little to no experience in Japan to avoid people just in it for the visa, and also because people who don't speak much Japanese have "purer" English (something I was actually told at A) and, I think, are more dependent on the company. Anyway, if you pass the initial interview and demo lesson stages with the recruiters in the U.S. and the company hires you, they will help sponsor you to get a working visa. My recruiters were great and spelled everything out clearly, and it all went quickly and smoothly for my move to Japan. That's a benefit of working for a big company. They're used to the visa process and do everything legally and professionally on the up-and-up. Even after I quit A, when I needed paperwork from them to renew my visa years later, they were very prompt and professional about getting it to me.
K, on the other hand, only hires from inside Japan, and many similar small companies require that applicants already have the proper visa in hand in order to be hired. K has sponsored the visas of people who came in and were hired on a tourist visa, and then applied for a working one while in the country, but it never seems to go quite as smoothly for them as it went for me with A. Small/new companies are less likely to have experience and knowledge in this area so you have to be very careful to do the research yourself and ask for any paperwork necessary for visa renewal/residency processing well in advance, since it might not get handed to you automatically.

2. Housing
A provided me with company housing as well as a housing stipend along with my monthly salary. It wasn't bad. It was nice having the stipend and also not having to do house-hunting as well as new job stuff all at the same time all by myself, but it also means you can't move out easily while still under your contract, and when your contract ends and you find new work, out you go! The housing provided by a large company will also help you avoid the housing circus foreigners always complain about, reikin or "key money"--a present of a few months' rent to your landlord. It's not a deposit. It will never come back to you. It's seriously just a present to say "thanks for letting me live here"--and finding a guarantor, someone who agrees to answer for you if you suddenly disappear with rent or damages unpaid.
K provides no housing and really doesn't care where/how you live. There's more flexibility but no stipend and not much help in finding a place of course.
In both cases, be prepared to live in a much smaller space than is typical in the U.S.

3. Training
A big company like A will probably provide a period of formal training. In A's case, I was first sent to a week-long training session in Osaka before being sent to my branch school in Kobe, where I also had a week of "job-shadowing" with the teacher I was replacing. During the general training week I shared a weekly hotel room and all the training meetings with three other women hired at the same time. It was pretty bonkers. 8 hours of training all 5 days, with huge amounts of "homework" to prepare in the evenings for the next day. They had their brand and signature teaching method that we had to learn by heart and put in practice smoothly in demo lessons before being sent to our branch schools, as well as things to learn like the company's business etiquette and expected manners. Some trainers were fair, others were passive-aggressive; most were Japanese and some were foreign like us. It was mentally and physically exhausting but my experience was pretty typical of a large Japanese company and quite benign compared to Yuya's and other Japanese friends' experiences. K provided zero formal training. I had one day to spend shadowing the teacher I was replacing, and the next day I was on my own. Luckily I had experience at A to fall back on until I figured things out, otherwise I would have been up a creek. K has a less rigid teaching method so it's possible to learn it as you go through experience rather than through training (i.e., they are a small company and can't afford the time and money to train teachers as much, they don't mind new teachers being up a creek).

4. Working conditions
Both companies large and small followed a typical pattern. Since eikaiwa is English conversation lessons marketed for after school and after work, the working hours start and finish late, I think it's common to start around noon and finish at 8 or 9pm., it's also common for the work week to be from Tuesday to Saturday instead of from Monday to Friday. At both companies, the majority of their students attend classes on Saturdays, so that is the day most of their profit is generated. I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a for-profit English school that is not open on Saturdays. It is also the busiest day, and at both A and K I teach 8 classes in 8 working hours. Classes are typically 40-50 minutes long and have 5-10 minutes in between each one. During these few minutes you'll probably be expected to talk with parents/students, sell textbooks or special events, and somehow gather up your things and start the next class on time. It's nonstop until the end of the day. At some schools, every day of the week is like that, but at K, I average 6 classes daily. This gives me time to prep since at K lesson prep is more the teacher's responsibility. At A, all lesson materials came mailed from HQ ready to use, but at K, I plan and make a lot of the materials myself. Freedom means you have to do a little more work. I don't mind it though, because planning something interesting for the kids is one of my favorite parts of the job (how it goes in reality is often completely different from my expectations but that's part of the fun). Classes are on a weekly basis with a yearly calendar, and students usually sign up for the year/four classes a month. This means you can do all your prep for a week of teaching more or less the same classes every day, until the next week starts.

The late hours and days off on Sundays and Mondays have their pluses and minuses. For people who can't wake up in the morning, heading to work at noon is much less painful. However, especially when I worked at A, I found socializing outside of work very difficult. I couldn't meet up with friends so easily after work since I finished at 9pm, and most of my friends worked Mondays. Sundays I spent at church. On the other hand, with Mondays off I can do sight-seeing on a weekday which means everywhere is much less crowded. It's always sight-seeing by myself though!

A required maybe 2 working Sundays (six-day work weeks) in the year for events and training sessions, and followed the typical Japanese calendar of national holidays. K requires much more work on Sundays (paid) but also has strings of days off to make up for them where most Japanese don't in November, February and June as well as the typical New Year's and May Golden Week holidays. It might be best to consider the number of days off in the calendar. K provides 123 days off in the year, could be better but could be worse. My first year I got 5 additional paid leave days (not sick days, some companies will expect you to use these when you're sick) and now I'm up to 9 per year. If you're going to work in a corporation in Japan, also be prepared to work on Christmas Day. It's not a holiday for adults, and it comes at the awkward time right before the New Year's holidays when children are often out of school but their parents are still working, so the kids who attend eikaiwa and other educational businesses often spend their first few days of their winter vacation there. Businesses that cater to kids are aware of this and often schedule all-day events during winter, spring, and summer vacations.

A funny thing about K: there are all-day field trips with the kids on Sundays 6 times a year, and a 3-day camp once a year. For spending 36 hours with the kids on the camp you get about $40 token of gratitude. The field trips usually involve 4 hours or so of overtime. It is not paid, and nothing will come of it if you say nothing (like the Japanese staff do). However if I complain, my manager allows me to take the extra hours off to make up for it. It's a grey area because there is only my manager and I keeping track of it unofficially, but I know it will be allowed because there is no way K will agree to reimbursing us monetarily. Smaller companies may want to go under the radar, under the table about things like this, but they also have more flexibility for you to negotiate a compromise to your advantage, if unofficially. 

Most people who come to Japan and get hired by eikaiwa are not here just because they love teaching--usually they want to see Japan, or further some hobby or study of their own. In that case, I'm not sure working full-time in a corporation is the way to go. Work can be all-consuming and it can be hard to make time to do what you really want.

As for salary, A's was considerably larger than K's. I went with K anyway because I liked its low-stress, more free atmosphere and location. With greater salary comes greater responsibility, but both salaries are larger than an entry-level Japanese worker or American worker back home. You can have enough left over to put away into savings or pay off student loans if you're careful.

Once you join a company, you'll be automatically entered into Japanese National Health Insurance. It's not so expensive and it makes medical care very, very cheap compared to the U.S. I can get seen and get a prescription filled all for about $15. I paid about $80 for an endoscopy once. K also provides a free basic health check every year. No complaints there from me.

Most eikaiwa hire foreign teachers on a yearly contract that can be renewed for additional year(s) if both parties are willing. You should get a transportation stipend, bonuses may or may not be provided. You might be surprised at how short and vague contracts are compared to ones in the U.S. K's is only 2 pages long. It's good to know your labor rights and clarify expectations beforehand, if you want to be American about it, since in Japan contracts are more like a formality, and unspoken expectations, we might say the company's "vibe" or "culture," can carry more weight than a contract. If you're staying a long time, be aware that in the past companies were only allowed a certain percentage of contract workers, and after keeping a worker in a contract position for 5 years, were legally obliged to turn the position into a full-time one with all the benefits of lifetime employment. However this law has since been overturned and seems to change a bit every year, now the number of contract workers is on the rise and companies are not obliged to grant them lifetime benefits no matter how long they're hired. Career advancement in both A and K seems to depend on Japanese ability as well as professional factors, most eikaiwa teachers I know remain just that for years though.

5. Teaching
This could either end up being the longest, or the shortest, part of this post. In both Japan and America, I'd say teachers are given a lot of respect. But education here is simply different, a lot more focused on classic lecture styles with rote memorization and passing exams. Eikaiwa are apparently to fill the gap by providing what schools lack--English conversation with a real live native speaker, more focused on practical language use and having fun with such interesting teachers from different countries. Eikaiwa are not schools. They are for-profit businesses. The theme is education but they're selling dreams: it makes for good business in which the customer's need is never quite there, never quite satisfied. Language acquisition never stops and there's always something to improve, isn't there? Students are also customers. If you join eikaiwa taking yourself very seriously as an educator you might find yourself frustrated. Classes have to be smart and have substance to keep students interested and working towards their personal goals or they will quit, but teaching is not all you will be expected to do in many cases. At A, I had to actively participate in the business side as well--selling textbooks and extra classes, handing out pamphlets at the nearby train station, keeping track of goals for monthly student numbers--and while at K I'm not expected to do that as often, one should be aware your branding is different here than in the U.S. In the U.S., your professional value is determined by qualifications, years of experience, passion for your work, etc., but in eikaiwa, your non-Japaneseness is a big part of your value as an employee. Lessons with you are the product being sold, and like any zoo is more popular with an elephant, eikaiwa cannot attract students without a foreign face, since that was the branding established when eikaiwa first started as a business in the 1980s. I notice in both A and K's promotional material (pamphlets, websites, posters) the line isn't "we have teachers with this-and-that qualification and this many years of experience!" but most often, "we have teachers from many different countries!" It's always good to study that promotional material and be aware of how you're being marketed.

I think if you can understand that the company's first goal is to generate profit you'll be happier as a teacher in eikaiwa, because you'll know why things are done the way they are (one common pet peeve: curriculum decisions being made by business people who have never taught before) and won't have expectations of being a sacred pure educator as we'd think of in the U.S.

In conclusion
Another factor I have heard is that it can be hard to translate teaching experience in an eikaiwa to a job back home in the U.S. I haven't yet tried repatriating and job searching again in America so I'm not sure how it really is, but there is a population of foreigners (self included?) here who seem to get "stuck" in eikaiwa. They don't gain many marketable skills to sell back home, and get content with living on a modest steady income, even without any real career advancement or salary increase, so that's where they stay, working eikaiwa in Japan for years. Some foreigners who climb the corporate ladder or work in universities sneer at them, but you know, whatever floats your boat. Eikaiwa have not died out for a couple decades now so that must mean they are fulfilling some needs in Japanese society.

Eikaiwa can be an "easy" way in if you can get hired by a company like A that will sponsor your visa, but it's definitely not for everyone, and every eikaiwa business is different. It's been good, bad, and ugly for me but mostly good, and I haven't run into any of the nightmare stories you can find online. I hope this post shed some light on the subject for anyone considering teaching English in eikaiwa in Japan.

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