Choices, Choices …
When thinking about coming to work at a school in Japan it’s good to know what types of TEFL jobs there are in Japan. There are various employment opportunities available, some of which may be more suitable for you than others.
The biggest and most well-known employer is the Japanese Government themselves. The JET Programme is described as a “large scale exchange programme” and it places participants in schools all across Japan. I never applied for JET myself but I have heard from friends that the application process can be quite rigorous, including interviews, grammar tests and so on. According to the website it’s not possible to apply for a JET position from within Japan so it’s not a great option for someone who’s already in the country and looking for work. Maybe your month long dream holiday metamorphosed into the beginning of a life-long journey or maybe your previous work hook-up let you down. Whatever the case, you’ll have to apply from outside the country.
The second option you have is to work for a private company. There is a vast array of placements to be found on sites like TEFL.com which range from teaching at night schools to day care centres to Supermarket chains to working in proper schools. The advantage of applying to a smaller company is that you’re more likely to get some one on one contact with the owner/operator which can lend a more personal, comfortable feeling to the whole process. The down side is that jerks exist. Even in Japan. Any company you’re looking at, give it a solid googling before moving ahead.
The third (and final as far as I know) option you have is to be hired by a school board directly. This can happen essentially one of two ways. If you’re lucky enough that your home city has a sister city program in place with a city in Japan then you should be able to apply through your home town. Failing that you’ll have to actually be in Japan, with some experience, excellent grasp of Japanese and preferably be already known by the relevant board of education. So, yeh … this un’s a tuff un.
What I did.
I went for the second option. My company is actually one of the largest private employers of ESL (English as a Second Language) instructors in Japan and as such they have a great support system for new employees. For example they give you on-going training throughout your employment and help you set up necessary things such as accommodation, a bank account, and doctor’s appointments. Their contracts are for a year, which can be viewed as a positive or a negative. If you’re looking to make the land of the rising sun your regular pad for the foreseeable future then you’ll likely want the security of a longer contract. On the other hand a single year may appeal to those who are off on a short gap adventure from their regular existence. I’ve met many people in this category and having this kind of support along with a short commitment time really appeals. I should say that I’ve only known one or two people to ever be refused a re-contract.
Generally speaking the main differences between the JET programme and the other options are the way you work and the number of days you’re at school. A JET’s role is considered to be that of “team teaching”. They work with a Japanese Teacher to both plan and deliver each lesson together. This can be good for new teachers with little experience as they will have a lot of support at the beginning, however this may frustrate over time as you become more experienced and want to tackle the lessons solo. You are also expected to be in school every weekday, even during many school holidays. So even when there are no kids around or classes to teach you will still need to plump down at your desk for the full 9 to 5!
By comparison, my position at a private company grants me sole control over the classroom. A teacher at the school sends me a schedule for the week which includes details about what they’d like me to teach for each lesson (such as a certain grammar point or particular page number from the textbook) and it’s up to me to plan my lesson, make a worksheet, prepare any extra materials and so on. So there’s more room for personal creativity and you don’t have to find time to discuss a lesson with someone else before doing it. The down side is that your preparation workload is higher and you won’t really know if what you prepare is entirely appropriate for the lesson. What I mean by this is that the previous lesson was probably taught by the Japanese teacher, so although you get information from your schedule about what to prepare you can never be completely sure about what stage of understanding the students are about the current topic. Another difference for me is that I do get school holidays off. So about a month at the end of March (end of the Japanese school year), a few weeks at Christmas/New Years and a chunk of time in the summer. This is ideal for anyone who wants to do an extra spot of travelling or exploration in their free time. The lurking terror that comes shrouded in these good-time-vibes is the fact that this time is unpaid. So the month after your awesome jet-set party-time you’ll be getting a significantly smaller pay-check.
My quick, snap judgement of the situation leads me to this (probably vastly unfair) assessment of people who apply to these kinds of posts: I feel that JETs are more likely to be Japanophiles who have a deep rooted interest in the country and most likely studied some Japanese before coming (this is very useful as you’ll have a very slim support network compared to private companies) whereas private company employees are usually just up for an adventure. They grabbed a quick TEFL certificate before launching off to wherever and are possibly less prepared or committed to the idea of living and working as a teacher here.
So there you have an outline of the different kinds of opportunities available to you when applying for positions in Japan. I want to make it clear that this is all based on MY EXPERIENCE and is in no way a blanket standard across the country. Every company you work for, every school you visit, every teacher you work with will likely have their own way of dealing with you. And I should also say that I mean no offence with any broad, sweeping judgements I’ve made.
If you’re already working in Japan I would love to hear about your situation. What kind of position do you hold? Are you a walking tape recorder or are you the class leader? Please share your experiences with a comment.