So, as you might know, I’ve never really talked that much about my job in Japan. Why’s that? Well, my company had this rule about sharing too much information, which is fair enough. Anyway, I’ve left now, but I will still respect that rule by not naming names. You can put two and two together yourself though, if you want.
I worked for three years at one of the biggest English conversation schools (英会話 – eikaiwa) in Japan (and luckily it wasn’t one of the ones that went bust!). Generally, when foreigners come to teach English in Japan, they choose between working at an eikaiwa or working as an ALT (an ALT is the “assistant language teacher” who goes into actual schools and assists the Japanese English teacher). Unfortunately, many people mix up these jobs and think they are the same thing. They’re not – they’re actually very different.
As far as I know from friends, ALTs often (although not always) don’t get the chance to prepare or even teach their own lessons. They also always have a Japanese teacher with them when they are teaching. Generally speaking, working for an eikaiwa means teaching whole lessons by yourself, which you have to plan and prepare by yourself. Often these lessons follow a set formula and there’s not much room to be creative, but at least you get to teach real lessons. There are pros and cons for both ALT and eikaiwa work though.
Anyway, I don’t want to write about the differences between being an ALT and working at an eikaiwa, I want to just tell you about working at an eikaiwa. Of course, there are different big (and little) eikaiwas in Japan, and they will all have slightly different styles and markets. Some are more business based, some focus on kids. The company I worked for was both. For the first two years I worked at a small suburban school which had more kids classes than adults, for the final year I worked at a large city school which was only adults. They were really different!
My working hours were 12:00 – 21:00, Tuesday – Friday and 11:00 – 20:00 on Saturday – with a lot of overtime! (Unpaid overtime for the first two years.) It’s generally crazy busy and there’s no free time for relaxing on the job – sometimes not even enough time to have your hour lunch break or even pee between lessons. That’s a side of it I didn’t like.
The lessons can be fun, but they can also become boring or repetitive, depending on your schedule. You could find a day when every lesson is different, or a day when you teach the same thing three times. At my schools there were also opportunities to make up my own original lessons sometimes, which could be really fun. My favourite was a lesson I called “To-mah-to/To-meh-to”, which focussed on the differences between British and American English.
Which brings me to another point – the company I worked for used American English. I’m British. Naturally this posed a few problems. Especially when I was teaching kids, it was important for me to change my pronunciation as much as I could to match American English, and to change my vocabulary too. If I told a kid to “go to the lift” they would have no idea what I meant. But if I said “go to the elevator” they would understand. It wasn’t really so much of a hardship to do this, but it has affected my English, and I did fight against it at first. I still can’t say “can’t” with American pronunciation though!
One of the best things about working at an eikaiwa is the students. With the exception of a few kids, or a few grumpy adults, most of them really want to learn and lap up everything you tell them. Even though you don’t have to be a qualified teacher to get a job at an eikaiwa (just having a degree is enough), students believe you are a wise “sensei” and want to get information from you. This is good for your ego, but it was something I had to work on. I spent the whole first year feeling like I had no idea what I was doing (although apparently I was doing fine). Students would ask me grammar questions and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Even now my grammar is not great, but I’ve learnt a lot by being asked really strange questions about English grammar and having to go and find out the answer. I also learnt a lot about Japanese culture, because time and time again I have taught lessons where students are required to explain Japanese culture in English. Mind you, after three years it did get a bit annoying to still be advised to go to Kyoto and asked if I could use chopsticks or not…
Generally speaking, my company looked after me pretty well during my time in Japan. My job started with a week of training at the nearest head office (in my case, Nagoya), and after that I had regular study meetings in which I could practice and ask questions. The company also looked after all of the paperwork, like visas, health insurance and alien cards, and also provided an apartment with subsidised rent. Staff were always pretty helpful when it came to things like needing help with the doctor or dentist, and generally people were quite sociable too. Some of my best times in Japan have been the times I have socialized with either staff, teachers or students.
Socializing with staff, teachers and students is a really good way to improve your Japanese as, even though they can all speak some English, they will usually default to Japanese once faced with a social situation. I learnt a lot of casual language by going to izakayas with my co-workers.
Overall, I’m glad I chose the company I did. I’ve certainly had my gripes, but I’ve heard much worse stories from friends with other companies. If you are thinking about coming to Japan to teach I advise you to really weigh up your options before deciding if you want to work at an eikaiwa or be an ALT. If you choose to work at an eikaiwa I also advise you to think carefully about which one – they are all different. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me directly.
Finally, I said I wouldn’t name any names, and I won’t. But if you’re curious…
This blog post is an entry for the April Japan Blog Matsuri on the theme of “education”, which is being hosted by NihongoUp.