Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teaching In Japan, My Experience

I regularly get asked about teaching in Japan, so I thought it was about time I wrote a post about it. I won't really go too much into the wheres and hows as there is a fair bit of detailed information out there on that. Some helpful links to start with for that are;

Teaching In Japan

Japan Guide

Secrets On Teaching In Japan

I first came to Japan to teach in 1999. Actually, I first came to Japan in 1999. I had applied for a job from a newspaper advertisement in my local paper for a small conversation school. Before I knew it, I was on a plane heading for a country I knew not a lot about, could hardly speak the language and knew no-one there. Before I left people were telling me how brave I was, but it wasn't until I stepped on that plane that I felt the fear.

For the most part, I loved the teaching side of working in the conversation school. The school I worked in, as long as I used the text book for a large part of the lesson and followed some other curriculum, I had a lot of freedom. I taught students from two years old to those in their seventies. I taught group and company classes and private lessons.

In our school, unlike many others around, we were not only allowed, but actually encouraged to socialise with the students outside of class. I formed many friendships with my students and one of my first students remains one of my closest friends to this day.

Working in the conversation school was hard though. I worked six days a week, each day with a different schedule. Somedays, I would teach six classes (averaging an hour each) back-to-back, not finishing until 9.30pm by which time I was exhausted and starving. At different times of the year, on top of the schedule we were also obligated to work to teach "free lessons", sample lessons for potential students and that was unpaid on our day off. We only got paid for our classroom hours and not our lesson planning time. I was also expected to travel to different schools, sometime between lessons, that time wasn't paid for either. Personally, I found that job useful as an introduction to working in Japan, but wouldn't want to have done it for much more than the three years I was there.

Mind you, the different conversation schools can really vary in style and rules, so it's important that you find out their system before deciding whether to sign up with them or not.

My second job in Japan, the one that I'm in currently, is very different. I work in a private combined junior and senior high school. I found out about this job through word-of-mouth. The other teachers that started at the same time as me, applied for the position from a job advertisement on-line.

Unlike many of the public school jobs, I'm not an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). I have my own classes, plan my own lessons and create the tests. I work with three other native English-speaking teachers. I have to say, I love this job. I'm blessed to be at a high-level academic school, so the students are smart and for the most part, eager to learn. The students are mostly very friendly and will say hello when you see them outside of class, some will even call out "I love you!" In class, I find the junior high students very eager to answer questions, the older students sometimes more reluctant to do so. Right from the first class, we try to instill on the students that our lessons are not going to be like a normal Japanese class so this helps a lot.

Of course, like any job, there are good days, and bad days. The school has a very good reputation (to the point that when people find out I work at this school, they suddenly act like I'm someone important), but with that comes a rather rigid way of thinking and doing things and that can take a little getting used to.

In this job, I work from 8.15am to 5pm, Mondays to Fridays. Each day, I teach an average of three classes (65 minutes each) and the rest of the time is spent doing some marking, lesson planning and administration, with admittedly, a nice amount of free time. I get school holidays off, which amounts to quite a lot over the year.

Somethings are quite different in schools in Japan. For example;
  • At my school, the students are usually there from before 8.30am to 6pm. They have classes every second Saturday and often on holidays.
  • At Japanese schools, there isn't a cleaner. The students (and many of the teachers) clean the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and gardens. I believe this practice has roots in Buddhist teachings.
  • In Japanese schools, the students stay in their classroom and the teachers move around for lessons.
  • Most Japanese schools are very strict about hair colour. Students are not allowed to lighten or colour their hair.
  • One reason why the students are at school so late is because they often have "club activities". The clubs can be anything from sports teams (baseball, handball and soccer are very popular at my school and taken very seriously), to creative clubs (photography, art, brass band), to something more academic (like the astronomy and nature science clubs).
  • All of the students were slippers at school. When they arrive in the morning, they put their "outdoor shoes" into their shoe locker and change into regulation slippers. The teachers also wear "indoor shoes", but this can be anything from slippers to high heels (that's what I wear), just as long as they are deemed for in-school wear only.
  • Foreign teachers can only work at the school for a maximum of three years.
  • The Japanese school year starts in April and finishes in March.

Admittedly, jobs like mine are a lot harder to find and may not be offered to first-timers. I should mention that I have a Bachelor degree and post-graduate studies in Applied Linguistics, which I'm sure didn't hurt when applying for the position. I have also taught English to foreign students in a number of private schools in Australia.

My husband works in the public school system and also enjoys his job. It's quite different to mine. He is an ALT and works at three different junior high schools on a rotating schedule in the one city. He doesn't have the same planning to do, but also doesn't get to teach a class on his own often. Somedays, he feels a bit like a walking tape recorder and his schedule will differ each day. This is his first time to Japan and his first job teaching English. Had we decided to stay longer he may have been able to get a job at the school where I work now once I finished my three years.

On my blogroll there are many other people who live in Japan, but not all of them talk about teaching here. Some good ones that do are;

Present Simple writes some hilarious accounts of teaching her university students.

The Monster Flower sometimes talks about teaching private students.

If you have an interest in Japan and Japanese culture, teaching is something that I would recommend, even if teaching isn't your be-all-and-end-all. I have used my time to build a business that I will take back to Australia as well as creative inspiration and travel time. My husband has spent some of his free time learning a martial art, Iaido, that would have been difficult to do in Australia. It is no longer a place that you come to make lots of money, those days are over.

So that's all that I can think about writing for now. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask. I'd also love to hear other people's experiences of teaching here, either in the comments or as a blog post that I can add as a link to this.


Orchid64 said...

I think people who teach are somewhat reluctant to talk much about it for fear of getting attacked by the people who believe teaching is a bottom feeder job full of miscreants who are too lazy or incompetent to get a "real" job in Japan.

Your situation sounds really good with the teaching hours. Being full-time and having only 3.25 hours of face-to-face time (which can be truly exhausting) is excellent. If the work is fulfilling and interesting for you, you couldn't ask for better conditions than what you've got.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

That's a good point, sad, but valid.

Just because there are some bad teachers out there, people shouldn't be getting attacked for being "too lazy or incompetent to get a "real" job". Teaching can be a real and rewarding job if taken seriously.

Orchid64 said...

As someone who actually worked in a Japanese office for 12 years, I can say that teaching is more "real" work than office work. It's more tiring, more challenging, and requires greater skill to be good at. Sure, there are people who are little more than monkeys doing a jig for the natives, but that's not nearly as common as detractors would have people think.

I think the only reason teachers get derided is that they spend all day speaking English. The bar for "real" work in Japan is set at having to speak Japanese all day, not at having any skill or being good at your job. :-p

Sorry, this is a peeve of mine. I do go on sometimes. ;-)

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Don't apologise at all! It's really interesting to hear, thank you for sharing.

fantasybaseballmacbookpro said...

Just found your blog through Japan Times, so far I am enjoying your posts.

I am currently in the field of education here in Japan and well it is kind of sad how people treat teachers.

Parents in this country seem to download all their responsibility onto the teachers because it seems they are too lazy or too stupid to take care of their own offspring. At the same time they blame teachers for being lazy and not doing anything. Make sense much? I guess educating the future generation who will be responsible for governing Japan, saving lives in the field of medicine, I could on for ever but you get the point.

About the lazy and incompetent idea. Wow, this is absolutely hilarious. Most to all people in Japan go to work for 12-15 hours a day for no reason other than punching in for that allotted amount of time. As I have learned it is not the actual level of productivity that matters it is the amount of time you are physically present. Raise your hand if you know a teacher who takes naps during the day? Or who sits there staring at nothing but air? What about salarymen in "real jobs" who sit and do nothing except log more hours at work? Why not spend some time at home with your children and teach them some etiquette (do not get me started with Japanese etiquette unless you really want me to ;) ).

Do not get me wrong Japan is great but when it comes to logical decision making it does not seem like they are in the class of developed countries.

That was me rambling on and on so I hope it actually makes some sort of sense.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

How right you are when it comes to Japanese teachers! I'm amazed at the responsibility the homeroom teachers have for their students, often things that I really feel should fall to the parents.

I do have to confess, I don't have any of that being an English teacher. That isn't to say I don't work hard. Even though I only actually teach a few contact hours a day, they are intense hours.

Anonymous said...

Wow...Wonderful post. It's scaring me a bit, though. When I first got to Japan, I emailed a few different websites for people who are interested in teaching English, expecting most likely not to get any bites because I have heard how competitive the business is. I have not taught English before, and have come from a completely different career background, so I figured there was no way I'd hear from anyone.

Then the call came, one Saturday.

This agency called and thought I'd be perfect for a teaching job. They're trying to set me up for an interview. I keep explaining that although I have no teaching experience, and my background is in the arts, I have an interest in learning how to become an English teacher here. What I'm really asking for is guidance, but the agent keeps saying "You're perfect for this job! I'll make sure the director meets with you right away!"...Should I think of this as a red flag?

I'm likely to hear any day now when my interview will be scheduled, but now having read particularly the first link you included, I'm apprehensive to say the least. Should I back out of this now, or at least go to the interview to see how it goes?

Girl Japan said...

Nice to meet someone else who enjoys aesthetics, paper, and design!

laurent said...

this article is very interesting for me because it is the first time i read something about english teaching.
i am teaching french and i can understand well what you are talking about.
i think my school has almost the same system as yours.
but french is a kind of challenge for some people and, as i learned how to teach here, i learned also to be patient.
i think i found a good school which balneces well money purpose and teaching. before i worked in another school which closed. it was horrible; no friendship with students, only money interested the owner.
what about your difficulties to teach or your way of teaching?
i am sorry about my english, maybe i should go to school also haha

laurent said...

i forgot to say that in french comunity in japan, many people look down on french teacher as lazy people or people who can t succeed in another job.
i am always surprised that a guy who is translating some papers could thinks he is really better than me or my friends.
people have focused on big schools and don t know well it exists many types of schools.
anyway i feel i am working seriously . many people have teached in many places before coming in tokyo or another city.

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hey Dateline - don't be too scared, there are good experiences and bad. Personally, I love the situation I'm in now, but wouldn't have gotten the position if I hadn't worked somewhere else first. Hope you went to the interview and that it went well.

Hey girljapan - right back at you!

Hey laurent - it sounds like some of the French community have some of the same attitudes that Orchid64 was talking about. Luckily, I haven't had much of that directed at me, but then again, where I live, I don't get to meet many other foreigners and all the ones I do teach.

The problems I come across at school is the different attitude towards teaching stlyes and discipline. I work very hard at creating a comfortable, safe environment where the students don't have to be scared of making a mistake. At times I then have Japanese teachers come in and yell at my students when I'm in the middle of something and it really gets me angry. Sometimes it's for something as stupid as not having their top button done up, but at others, the teachers get angry at them for doing something that I've told them it's ok to do.

My school has a rule that we have to have a Japanese teacher around in case of any problems. But actually they just get in the way and make things harder some of the time. Of course, it depends on the actual teacher.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I am from Australia too, but my mother is Japanese. I am thinking of getting a Bachelor Education by the time I'm 22 because by the time I am 22, I have to decide whether I am Japanese or Australian. If I become Japanese, then I'll live and work in Japan, probably teaching English. Would Japanese schools hire a Japanese person long-term to teach English? Are there many people like that in Japan?

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hi Anon

I imagine that if you're a Japanese citizen and fluent in English they'd jump at the chance of having you. Not all schools have the three year rule. It's just that my school was sued a few years back (long story, but I think the school was in the right), so they are scared of going through it again.