Part 2: Working in Japan
So, you’re about to start working. Here’s what to expect.
Here are some useful bits of information regarding contracts:
For ALT positions, it’s normal to make less money (or even no money) during certain months. You might make 240,000 yen in peak months, but only 180,000 yen in December, and 0 in August. You have to be responsible in setting aside money at the end of each month and managing your expenses.
I make ¥235,000 during peak months. After taxes, insurance, and other expenses, I receive ¥140,000. (The rent for my current apartment is just shy of ¥40,000, which my company deducts from my paycheck.)
Then, I spend about ¥45,000 per month on groceries. My utilities, including cell phone, consume another ¥15,000. Finally, my student loans claim ¥30,000, leaving me with about ¥50,000 at the end of the month. This is during months with peak pay, however. I have to set aside about half of that for the lean months, so I’m left with about ¥25,000 of disposable income per month assuming that nothing goes wrong. When I visited a friend of mine during winter vacation, the trip cost me all of my disposable income for December plus a little more. (I’m not complaining, though. It was worth it.) You need to be aware that you will be poor for your first year. After you have a year of experience, you’ll be in a position to seek better pay.
Another important thing to note is that many ALT contracts are for less than a year. You might work from June to February like me (or something similar), or you might have the standard April-April contract. If you have gap months, your options are to either live off savings and enjoy your extended vacations, or get a second job. You ought to receive your work schedule for the year as soon as you start working. If so, go to your second job and ask for full-time work during the gap months but only Saturdays during peak months, or something like that. As an ALT you’ll have an Instructor visa which only permits you to work in public school, but your second company can get an “extension” to allow you to legally work for them too.
If your first job is at an Eikaiwa, then you’ll have a Humanities visa. Full-time Eikaiwa teaching ought to keep you busy enough, but if you need or desire a second job then you can teach at any other Eikaiwa or a private school without needing an extension. It’s possible to get a job in a completely different field, too. You could work at a restaurant if the owner is willing to do the visa paperwork. Once you’re in Japan you can think about the more distant future. You don’t have to be an English teacher forever. This is especially true if you get married to a Japanese person and get a spousal visa. A spousal visa doesn’t have these restrictions so you can apply for (almost) any job in (almost) any field. So if you have two jobs, think about which one you wish to pursue, and take every opportunity to become a better worker in that field.
Many Eikaiwa contracts are based on hours worked per week, or even per lesson taught. Be wary of this setup. It’s nice to get paid ¥4,000 per hour, but for how many hours? For Eikaiwa schools that give you a monthly salary, ¥250,000 is the standard. If they’re paying significantly less than that, it likely won’t be enough for you unless you have no loans to repay or you don’t mind working a second job to make ends meet.
ALT job duties
ALTs work in public schools, usually elementary or junior high. There are high school ALTs, but I can never find any job listings for them. I have no idea why. The standard answer is that high schools are run by the prefecture rather than the city, but that doesn’t answer anything. I still have no idea. Anyway, most companies will either do what they can to accommodate your preference (elementary vs. junior high) or else they’ll tell you during the interview where you’ll “probably” end up.
Depending on the circumstances you’ll be given one or two schools. If you have two schools, you’ll switch every week. In the school your time will be divided among the JTEs. (In my school there are five JTEs.) You’ll be given a new schedule every week based on the JTEs’ needs, but your working hours will always be the same. You’ll work from 8:30 to 4:15 or thereabouts. You’ll likely have three or four classes every day (there are six periods total) and the remaining time you’ll have free.
During your free time your activities will be somewhat influenced by your school. Some schools don’t care at all what you do, so you can practice Japanese or browse the internet or whatever. But my advice is that you use the time for “professional development.” You can do whatever you want before work or during lunch break, but use work hours for work. Use the time to make yourself a better teacher. Read the textbooks. Read books about teaching. Read books about English. Make teaching materials (more about that in part 4). Make hypothetical lesson plans–if they’re really good, show them to a JTE. You’d be surprised what a good, supportive JTE is willing to let you do in class. This is especially true after you’ve proved yourself to be a good teacher.
In the beginning, you’re going to make many mistakes. If you pay attention, accept feedback, and learn the curriculum quickly, you’ll fall into the role nicely in due time. After that, you can slowly build trust with your JTEs. Some JTEs are good, some are mediocre, and some are bad. Some won’t ever trust you to be more than a human tape recorder. Some teachers hate teaching and are just counting down the days until retirement. Some other teachers, however, will take you under their wing and mold you into a terrific ALT. No matter what, you need to see the opportunity in your situation and make the most of it. Make no requests at first. Just do what you’re told until you know the drill. Then make small requests. If the JTE sees you do a small task well, they should let you try more things.
You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time passes by. Before you know it you’ll have to say goodbye to everyone at your school. You’ll miss the teachers and the students. :( So make the most of the time you have there.
Eikaiwa teacher job duties
This is more difficult to write about because Eikaiwa schools are drastically different from each other. Some are cram schools (塾) where students come after school to go over what they learned in school. Your responsibilities here will be very different from working at an English-immersion nursery school or a school that gives one-on-one lessons to adults. Furthermore, every school is different in which curriculum they use, which teaching philosophy they employ, and what they accept/encourage/allow from their teachers.
Some Eikaiwa require you to strictly adhere to the curriculum they laid out. This is a relief because it means you won’t be under pressure to write lesson plans every day, but it’s also stifling because you have good ideas of your own and you have a natural inclination to try things. More often than not, bad schools will require adherence to a curriculum because it’s easier for them, and they feel threatened by good and innovative teachers. But there are plenty of good schools that do this too. They have a good curriculum and they don’t want to mess with success.
Although the planning stage can vary wildly, the actual classroom activities are likely to follow the same patterns. You’ll be statistically likely to work with elementary-school children. This means songs, games, and activities. Try to come up with games of your own, and by all means look for books and videos on the topic.
I think that that’s about the long and short of it.