Teaching is a valuable skill to have – communication and interpersonal skills are important attributes for most professional careers – but as a free-lance English teacher in Japan, what started as a skill-building opportunity resulted in a truly excellent life experience.
I got to live in the amazing city that is Tokyo and had the opportunity to experience a completely new culture, country and language. Through teaching English, I found that I was able to learn a lot about the Japanese culture, their history, and their stories – something that a visitor can rarely access. This is an important point because in an increasingly globalised world, with Australia growing ever more dependent on the Asian market, knowledge of Japan and Japanese language skills are, and will increasingly become, highly valuable skills to possess.
A bit of give and take
Whilst Japanese people may want to undertake English lessons for a variety of reasons, mostly, they are after two things – improving conversational skills in English and talking to someone non-Japanese. The Japanese schooling system places great weight on rote memory for examinations. As a result, you find students who possess an excellent understanding of English grammar and vocabulary but are unable to use that knowledge effectively and fluently in conversations. Thus, Japanese people are often looking to hone their conversational skills. However, it is also an opportunity for them to engage with and converse with a foreigner. Given that the population of Japan is over 98% Japanese, they rarely get the opportunity to speak to foreigners, and as such, Japanese people are often very eager to learn about your country, culture, and history.
I think this is especially true for freelance teachers as the classes are often conducted at student’s homes, or at bars and cafes (in informal contexts), where they feel more comfortable engaging in open conversation. Free-lance teaching is also cheaper for the student than taking classes with an English language company, making the student more relaxed about the learning process. I can imagine studying at English language companies, which are pretty expensive, would require more emphasis on language structure and student-focused learning. Although, having said that, the majority of the large Japanese language institutes advertise the “Eikaiwa” (英会話) approach, which means “English conversation meeting”. The focus is just conversation building, which they refer to as “level(ing) up” your English.
That said, it doesn’t mean I did not teach. There is an expectation for you to be able to provide valuable feedback on their language ability and provide corrections and ways for improvement. I was just able to do all of that whilst having an open and interesting conversation with students. As a result, I found that undertaking English lessons in Japan to be an incredibly interesting and enriching experience as I was not only able to learn about Japanese people, life, history, and culture, but also able to impart some of my own life experiences on students.
A stepping-stone to something else
Teaching English in Japan is a very useful way to build connections and networks. Often, it is used as a stepping-stone to other job opportunities once well established in the country. If you talk to native English speaking foreigners living in Japan, most of them are or were employed at some stage of their time in Japan teaching English. Those wanting to move into other things need to build valuable connections and Japanese language skills first; teaching English provides them that opportunity.
The connections I built whilst teaching English were diverse. My students’ occupations, ages and interests varied from a beautiful 8-month year old baby, whose parents were keen to encourage bilingual learning from an early age, to one of Japan’s brightest young neuroscientists, who was looking to improve his conversational speaking ability and engage in open and interesting conversations in English. Whilst the baby was not much of a conversationalist, his parents were: they had lived and worked in Australia and were able to offer a lot of insights into how Japanese working culture and life compared to the Australian context. This may give you some sort of indication of where your connections can take you when teaching English in Japan.
An opportunity to pursue other interests
Teaching English in Japan provides you the means to pursue other interests. Due to its flexibility, it gives you the opportunity to dedicate yourself to other things – whether that be undertaking an internship, study or other interests. Volunteer or internship experiences, although often unpaid, do not demand a high command of Japanese language skills (this, of course, depends on the job or industry and the skills you can offer). In my case, I worked as a free-lance teacher, which allowed me to pursue a full-time volunteer role with a humanitarian NGO. Whilst freelance teaching is likely the most flexible, an English teaching institute can offer you some flexibility with more security and consistency. Undertaking freelance teaching, on the other hand, works both ways: it is flexible for the teacher and the students, thus cancellations and inconsistency can be an issue.
A career option
For those seeking a teaching career in Japan, there are excellent English teaching jobs available at English schools and universities. These positions are often better paid and offer good benefits like holidays and sick leave, but they are also highly competitive and require some teaching experience. That said, one excellent way to get into Japanese schools without experience is through the JET Program. The program offers foreigners, with a bachelor’s degree (at the least), to work as an assistant language teacher in mainly public schools. I have met a number of foreigners who have established a great career in either universities or schools, who have gone through the JET program. They were able to use that program as a way to build up their experience and networks and assimilate themselves into the Japanese culture and way of life. Thus, the key to good teaching jobs in Japan, whether you go through the JET program or not, is just time, dedication and experience. Remember, persistence pays off.
Teaching English in Japan: Why not?
For whatever motivation behind your desire to teach English in Japan – whether you want a career out of it, a 6-month cultural and life experience (like mine), or a stepping-stone to other things – teaching English in Japan can be a highly valuable and enriching experience. All the while you get the opportunity to live in and experience a completely different way of life compared to back home!
Minimum requirements to teach English:
- Bachelors degree
- English teaching qualification like TESOL or CELTA
*Some companies require only a bachelor degree. However, due to competitiveness, you may find it difficult without teaching qualification or experience. For your reference, I have a CELTA teaching certificate – which I obtained a few years ago for the purpose of teaching English in Argentina after finishing university.
- Hello-sensei is an excellent freelance teaching service connecting foreign teachers and students.
- Getstudents.net is another service connecting foreign teachers and students.
*No minimum teaching requirements but being a native speaker. However, as mentioned above, those with teaching experience or qualification will find it easier to get classes.
*Some companies may have a provision in the contract you sign that states you are unable to undertake freelance teaching on the side.
Teaching English at an English teaching company:
- Some popular English teaching companies include GABA and Berlitz.
- You can apply for an English teaching contract from Australia. Both GABA and Berlitz, including others, offer this option.
*Ensure to do your research about which companies are the best. Generally speaking, all of the English teaching companies have good and bad reviews – including both GABA and Berlitz – it is the nature of the profession, unfortunately. The schools and universities are generally better but as mentioned, they are also more competitive.
No teaching experience or teaching qualification? Try the JET Program! The JET Program requires only a bachelor’s degree.
See Leah Bramhill’s experience on the JET experience.
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