I’ve taught English a second language for nearly 5 years in Japan, and I’ve experienced three different forms of employment: the typical assistant language teacher gig, the business English school job, and finally I’ve arrived at the holy grail of direct hire position. Some people might get confused about the differences between the three, and what really matters in the end if all you’re doing is teaching English. Believe me, though, the differences matter in terms of salary, working atmosphere, and so much more.
Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)
ALT’s are generally well paid through programs such as JET and Interac. The JET Program prides itself on developing lasting cultural bonds between the ALTs, the Japanese English Teachers (JTE’s) and the students. I felt like I was really a part of something great and big while in the program. The interconnected social groups from different prefectures really expanded my social circles, and gave me new insights to other expats countries and cultures.
The salary started off at ¥300,000 per month, but got whittled down to ¥280,000 after taxes and such. Nowadays, the JET’s have a new system where the first year starts off at a lower number and then increases every year an ALT renews a contract. For example, let’s say it’s ¥260,000 per month, that gets increased to ¥280,000 the next year, and so on for every year stayed on. (But don’t quote me on those figures, as I’m an alumi no longer in the program).
In addition, you get the perks of vacation time, 20 days of leave plus 15 days of sick leave. Nowhere else in Japan will you get this amazing deal! Not to mention you’ll get all the national holidays off, and then you’ll even have prefectural holidays and school holidays on top of that. There will be plenty of time to explore Japan, or even hope over to South Korea or Guam. The JET Program will do events and activities within each prefecture on days off and you’ll form a tight nit bond during your years in your placement.
There are issues to think about before accepting, such as the ALT jobs often place new recruits in rural areas with little to no English support. Often the only English support will be fellow teachers, who may or may not actually speak English fluently, and who may or may not want to deal with an ALT. And even though ALT’s are paid well on these two programs, ALT dispatch companies are getting increasingly shady about their hiring methods and contracts as time goes on. I worked for a dispatch company this past year that took 4 paid vacation days away from me, which I didn’t realize at the time was an illegal move against a full time employee. These tactics are common, and since many new recruits in Japan don’t know their rights, they often get screwed out of money here and there without even realizing it.
It’s best to brace yourself, the work can be grueling. I had an “easy” schedule of two junior high schools, two elementary schools, and the occasional preschool/kindergarten visit. I did conversation competitions and speech coaching as well for both junior high schools. Now, other ALTs have to contend with 4+ high schools, traveling to a different one every week or even every other day, along with debate teams and English club activities. Daily responsibilities can range from making worksheets, speaking activities (don’t call them games, remember that), to being a tape recorder, grammar drills, or whatever the JTE wants to do in the classroom on that particular day.
Although people joke about the ALT experience as a “job prepping” experience rather than a career initiative, I thought actually the job was on par with what people could call a “real job” difficulty level. I had to multitask, keep track of lessons, improve, change, and adapt quickly on the drop of a hat. You’ll actually find in some ways that being an ALT is harder than doing eikaiwa work.
When I worked at Coco Juku, at first in comparison to the ALT life it seemed easy. The workload was decidedly less than before, with only a few students per class and maybe about four or five classes per day. It’s not uncommon for business English school instructors to have a lot of downtime, especially on week days. During that downtime, you’ll get to be around other native English speakers, so unlike at Japanese schools no one will expect you to speak Japanese. It was amazing to go from fighting to be understood by my co-workers all the time to being able to just say what was on my mind.
In terms of curriculum, the eikaiwas will already have a set education program there for you to just pick up and do. No need to craft lessons from scratch like with the ALT job, which also definitely cuts down on prepping and hassle. Most chain eikaiwas will have training and meeting days where they’ll go over the whole thing with you, and if it’s your first time teaching period they might even do demonstration classes for you.
If you’re a great salesperson, this might be the job for you. I had to try and get textbooks sold as well as get people signed on to courses, and if possible get the people to sign into multiple courses at the same time. Most programs are what’s known as “fast food English” style, where students are given easy lessons once a week (that are designed to make them feel good but not actually improve or challenge them in any way, but that’s a secret).
Strangely, even though it wasn’t difficult work, I realized quickly that I couldn’t business English for an extended period of time so I ended up only staying there for 6 months. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a big hiring overturn rate at eikaiwas. Why?
Well, remember, it’s a business and not-so-much a school. The bottom line, your boss wants you bringing in more customers and keep those customers happy. In the end, you’re not really so much a teacher as instead a pseudo-retail worker and the retail being English. Unfortunately that means dealing with students/customers who don’t like how you teach, how you dress, how you don’t speak Japanese in class (yes, it happens), and so on.
It doesn’t help that the pay is less than most ALT work, as I got around ¥270,000 per month (so post-tax I ended up having about ¥250,000). I chose Coco Juku over the other eikaiwas because some, like Nova I believe, will pay you not by the hour but instead per class. Meaning, with only five or six classes and being paid minimum wage per hour, I’d maybe make ¥210,000 under that system. Still, I knew I would be taking a pay cut regardless, as ALT work is considered one of the higher paying options.
In addition to the pay decrease, the scheduling can be killer. You will be expected to work on national holidays, and the leave gets cut down to 10 days which go into effect after 6 months of working there. Pray you don’t catch a cold, because if you do you’ll be paying for that out of your salary. Unlike with the ALT job, you won’t get those nice summer and winter breaks to go traveling. Instead, you’ll most likely have to cut into your limited leave time in order to do a proper get away.
I worked both Saturday and Sunday every weekend. I thought that after working there for awhile that maybe I could start requesting switched days with other employees or maybe ask to switch my days, but it was a no go. My social life suffered and so did I, and that wore me down really quick. Most eikaiwas will have instructors working on the weekend, whether full or part time, but usually it’s Sundays off at least, or one pick of either Saturday or Sunday off. My schedule was an anomaly, but it can happen.
I burned out so quick with eikaiwa, so perhaps I’m being more negative than positive. Regardless, I would say that out of the three I would recommend eikaiwas last.
Getting directly hired by a Board of Education or a private institution is the best of all three. The job security is guaranteed. Once you’re signed on to a year long contract, you get all the benefits of being a same status employee as any other Japanese teacher. Most direct hire positions range from ¥280,000-¥350,000, but the pay can increase if you’ve got a TEFOL/TESOL certificate. That neat slip of paper can get you higher into the ¥400,000 mark, but that’s rare.
For my contract I get 20 paid leave days, and then since I’m working for a high school I also have national, summer, and winter holidays to look forward to. Direct hire contracts are decided on a case by case basis, so your school may only give you 10 just like an eikaiwa or dispatch company, but usually direct hires get 15. However, if you want to go into negotiations about your leave, you can do that. As a person directly hired, all you need to do is set up a meeting with the principal or the board of directors. Eikaiwa and ALT contracts are generally locked in by the company or the government, so negotiations are near impossible.
Direct hires do have more responsibilities than ALTs. I will be working with a committee, and I’ll sometimes be forced to work on the weekends. I’ll be expected to help edit and shape the curriculum, which means more hands on work with worksheets, tests, evaluations, grading, records, and etc. On top of that I’m the teacher in charge, as in the classroom will be under my command and not to a Japanese teacher. I’ve got to keep grades, score tests, and do basically all the work of a real teacher. Most direct hires will perform similar responsibilities.
Although it’s technically more work, the relief of knowing you’re at one school with a set schedule makes for a lot less stress. Also, you’ll get to form deeper bonds with the teachers you work with, as you’ll see them daily instead of once a week (if that), and you’ll have more control over your classroom and what goes on with how grading works. Students will generally speak English more with you, too, because you’re a familiar face instead of some stranger that pops up at seemingly random times.
No matter which option you choose, all three are rewarding in their own ways and my story isn’t necessarily yours. The JET Program isn’t for everyone, and direct hires can be too much responsibility for some people to handle. Each person has to decide what they can and can’t do when it comes to their job. Just keep in mind that there are options to try out, and if you want to find a job in Japan head over to GaijinPot to find one. If you’re already on your way over, congratulations! I hope whatever your situation, it’s amazing for you.
Do you agree with my assessments? If not, comment! Add something new to the conversation. Or tell me what topic you want me to write about next.