Here are some of the things I have heard about English teaching in the past 5 years of living, studying and working in Japan.
- English teaching pigeon holes you and is a dead-end job
- The pay sucks
- It’s boring and academic
- It doesn’t require any real skills
- Teaching as an “ALT” is a joke and you don’t have any real authority as a teacher in the school
- It doesn’t teach you any real skills
There is a fine line between being realistic and being pessimistic. We’re all guilty of sometimes crossing this line way without providing much real justification.
Of course, stereotypes don’t emerge out of thin air and there is certainly truth to most stereotypes, which is why people laugh when they see a “bad Asian driver” or a drunk Irishman eating a bag of potatoes, no matter how generally untrue or offensive it might be.
I find English teaching in a similar position, being frequently stereotyped and even stigmatized. And like other stereotypes, there is also truth to many of the statements. There are definitely jobs that pay more than English teaching. Yes, it can be boring for some people. Many people teach for 1 year and go back to their home countries, gaining nothing more than some fun memories and a bit of perspective (which can still go a long way). Also, there are some English teachers who don’t try any other profession, so end up being teachers for a long, long time (there is nothing inherently bad with this, by the way, it’s simply a matter of choice and personal drive). None of these things are not out of the realm of possibility.
On the other hand, if you are someone that’s serious about coming to and living in Japan, I think it warrants taking a closer look at the potential upside of teaching. There are many of teachers who have been successful at teaching and moved up in their respective ranks, just as there are teachers who have transitioned into different careers.
When you arrive to Japan one of the biggest challenges will be adapting to the culture. There is a period of culture shock, followed by a sweet “honeymoon period” where everything is great, followed by another period of frustration and annoyance at the rule-driven, structured way of living.
Whatever job that you have will require you to make this adjustment. If your goal is ultimately to become a marketing manager in X company or a web developer in Z company in Japan, then you’re going to to equally have to adjust to Japanese culture (work and life) at those jobs.
If English teaching is not your end-goal, then teaching English provides a fantastic opportunity to work in Japan while you assimilate to Japanese work culture and get used to life in Japan at the same time. People underestimate how much time they will need to adjust.
Japan is different and it can be frustrating at times.
By taking this approach you can take 1-2 years to adjust and then move into a job that is more aligned towards your end goal.
It’s also more likely that you will be able to find your dream company X if you have time to look around the job market, rather than trying to do it as a first move in Japan. If you work really hard to join your dream company X in Japan, and then join without really being comfortable in the work and language, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
From this perspective, English teaching is like a stepping stone.
#2 Language Skills
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who moved to Japan in non-English teaching jobs and taken after-hours lessons that their company provided, or weekend classes. Unfortunately, I have rarely seen this work out. Why? Because if you are in a fast-paced job that requires extreme focus then the last thing you’ll want to do is study Japanese in the evenings.
Many English teaching programs like JET give you a lot of down time, depending on the program. I know many people who taught 9am-2pm every day and had the rest of the days free. There’s a 2 month summer vacation as well, which is not something you have in other jobs.
This means that you have plenty of time to study Japanese.
I was a recruiter in Japan for 4 years and I once saw a hiring manager who completely dismissed two extremely qualified candidates for a job and chose the less-qualified person simply on the basis of having better Japanese language skills. Happens all the time.
This is completely reasonable because we are in Japan.
If you are doing sales you are probably selling in Japanese. If you are doing marketing you are probably doing marketing for the Japanese market.Even if you are not in an external-facing position that requires Japanese skills, you’ll still need to communicate with your colleagues.
If you don’t speak Japanese then you’re basically slowing other people down in the job. Having Japanese language skills doesn’t mean that you need an N1 certification or reading/writing. More often than not speaking ability takes priority — day to day communication.
Making real friends in Japan, especially the big city like Tokyo, isn’t always easy. I find that building a relationship in Japan takes longer. Compared to living in the US, for example, people aren’t necessarily as proactive to invite you out or include you in their groups unless you are already a strongly established member of ‘the group.’
I taught English to business-people for about a year during my study abroad. One of them, Jun, ended up becoming a good friend and was always inviting me out to different places. He was excited and proud to show me his country…and probably to have a whacky tall, blond-haired friend that he could introduce to his other friends.
You’ll also have the opportunity to become friends with other teachers, both Japanese and foreign, and they act to share some of the frustrations and challenges you might encounter in the culture.
This really beats arriving fresh off the boat and joining a company where you are the only foreigner with little or no social support net.
#4 Understanding How Japanese People Think
When you’re teaching school kids or business people and spending hours with them every day, you’re going to inevitably learn about all of the ways of thinkings, stereotypes, fears, interests, and hobbies of those people.
I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations about Japanese politics and economics during my study abroad as a part time English teacher. Often times people are curious to hear your opinions. What do you think of Trump? What do you think of gun laws in the US? Do Americans really eat snickers bars every day?
These are all topics that you can explore and share you insight on and in return you’ll get a lot of golden nuggets from them about Japanese culture. I find that a lot of students who already have a decent understanding of English really just want a friend and to share stories. You can literally sit there for hours and talk with people and gain a deep understanding of business, culture and people.
Sure, you might not be able to get into a very sophisticated level of conversation with younger school kids, but you’re still going to learn a lot about the culture, how students are educated, and inevitably a glimpse into the psyche of the country.
English teaching gives you these basic people skills to talk and understand Japanese people. These skills are going to be indispensable anywhere else you go in the country.
#5 The Money
You’re not going to make an awesome six figure salary when you’re teaching English, but it’s actually pretty decent.
- Many English teaching programs are outside of Tokyo, so rent and food are living expenses are going to be pretty cheap.
- Many programs will subsidize your housing and commute anywhere from 30%+ for housing and 100% for commute
- And you can save a significant portion of that money
You’re not going to be able to comfortably support a family of 3 with just your English teaching salary. But it’s more than enough for one person and you have some nice subsidies and living conditions that make savings favorable. More power to yah.
#6 Downtime for Skill Building and/or a Side Hustle
This is arguably one of the greatest benefits of English teaching. I have plenty of friends and have interviewed several people who have taken this approach to building a career in Japan.
Some people might take the negative stance and flip this to say that “English teaching is easy and you have plenty of time.” Yes, exactly! And why is that a bad thing?
If you are a web developer — especially if you are a web developer — the English teaching route could be a good option. You have time to work on your own projects on Github and build a portfolio. You can hone and brush up your skills, perhaps even making some money freelancing on the side (on Upwork or where that may be).
Another potential drawback that I hear about teaching English is that you don’t get to mingle or associate with business people. You aren’t in the “real world.”
This is only as true as you want it to be. There are tons of online and offline meet up events that you can join in Japan regardless of your profession. You can network with those people and establish yourself in the community.
Everything is online nowadays anyways so much of the core information you’ll need for the basis of any skill is going to be available for free.
You can then use these extra projects and side freelancing jobs to your resume. You can leverage them for your next job change out of English teaching.
Also, this is another way to make side income. As you’ll have some downtime you will be able to take on other students privately, for example. This is exactly how Tony got started in Japan — as an English teacher that built up a good reputation and eventually was able to branch out and support himself financially purely through teaching private lessons. Another popular side hustle in Japan is working part time at Eikawa, where they basically pay you to show up, eat food, and have conversations with strangers.
#7 Downtime for Travel and Other Fun Stuff
We often find ourselves into jobs and the complain about not having enough free time, time to explore or enjoy other hobbies.
Teaching English is not one of those jobs.
You get off work at 2pm and have relatively low living costs and some friends. Great, now what? Travel the country of course.
It’s going to be hard to take longer trips if you are working for a typical Japanese company. They don’t give you that much time off and eh, trust me, it will be a lot harder then. You will have KPI’s and goals and there will be something breathing over your neck.
Enjoy the freedom while it lasts.
#8 You’re making a f*cking impact
People often point to education as a big source of Japan’s problems. It creates the conformist society which results in a lack of entrepreneurship that is stifling economic growth. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
Well, now is your lucky chance to do something about it. You are in the school…the belly of the beast, so to speak. People complain about the Japanese education system. Here’s your chance to learn something about it and to do something.
You have an opportunity to teach someone something about your country and about the way other people think. You have an opportunity to influence the life of a Japanese student who could potentially go on and make bigger impacts in the community and society.
It’s absolutely your choice what kind of teacher and mentor you’d like to be.
#9 It Will Not Pigeon Hole You
I’m not sure where this stereotype came from. English teaching is more like a springboard.
Most companies in Japan know that two of the jobs you’re able to get as a foreigner are English teacher or recruiter. They do not think of you any less because you have done one of those jobs. It’s almost expected.
“Great, you’ve put in your hours and you’re no longer a flight risk. You’ve adapted to the culture. Getting a visa will be easier now since you’re been in the country for some time.”
Outside of language skills, I’ve heard a lot of employers in Japan complain about the total lack of cultural awareness when interviewing non-Japanese candidates. For example, being contrarian or being “the loudest in the room” might work in some cultures, but it most certainly won’t work in Japan. What you might perceive as being a “reserved or quiet” Japanese person is actually a sign of self-discipline and humility.
The subtleties of this can’t be learned by reading a blog, book or watching videos. Osmosis won’t work. It can only be learned through actually spending time with Japanese people and working/studying in Japan.
I know many people who have worked as teachers who have found jobs across almost every other industry you can think of. Including but not limited to:
- Web development
- Tech industry in general
Teaching English for a year or two will allow you to explore your options in Japan and decide what companies/industries you’d like to develop your career in.
#10 You Will Gain Transferable Skills
It doesn’t take much to show up to a classroom with a lesson plan, a big smile, and a desire to teach, right?
Wrong. Anyone can show up and do a poor job.
To be half decent as a teacher you’re going to come across a range of challenging scenarios that are going to test you. You can either strive to become better and learn, or can you wallow in your mediocrity. Such is life.
A few of the skills that you can pick up from teaching a class full of students:
- Breaking down complex problems and explaining them in simple terms.
- Thinking on your feet and adapting to stressful situations.
- Organizational, time management and planning skills. Lessons can fly by and you have to make sure you cover the lesson plan
- Getting over cultural and language barriers
- Learning new communication styles and adapting them to different audiences. Everyone learns differently.
- Patience. You’ll need a lot of it.
- Deadlines and written reports
- Handling conflict and dealing with disruptive behavior in a cool and level headed manner
- Leadership. All eyes are on you and you are the center of authority and a leader in every sense of the word.
- Creative thinking. You have to keep things interesting, engaging and new. How are you going to do it?
Teaching English, like any job, has it’s downsides. However I think especially for someone who is coming to Japan for the first time, the positives outweigh the negatives. It provides the perfect testing ground to gain a deeper understanding of the country on so many levels.
Ultimately, I believe that anyone who really has the drive to move to Japan and build a career here will find a way, and English teaching is one path that’s proven to work for a lot of people.