Teaching middle school is only one of many English teaching opportunities
Actually, the only thing crazy about teaching English in Japan is the sheer number of options you have if you want to do it! Here are just some of the options from the POV of an English-teaching veteran.
The JET Program
This is the program that changed my life
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, aka the JET Program, has hosted thousands of foreign English teachers since its inception in 1987 and is probably one of the best known, most trusted programs out there–it helps that it is sponsored by Mombusho, the Japanese Department of Education.
It’s also where I got my first exposure to Japan, which would of course change my life! I was a wee lad on the cusp of college graduation, still hankering for adventure before starting in “the real world” and nursing a serious urge to go to Asia. After talking to my advisors, I soon got my hands on an application and, somehow, made it to an interview! Of all the questions they asked, the most difficult thing I had to do was prove I could sing (that’s what I get for writing about my performance background!). They must have been impressed, because I made the cut that year.
Long story short: While teaching English as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) alongside Japanese English teachers, I learned more than I ever dreamed possible. One year stretched into three years (the contract limit at the time, which has since been expanded to four) and after it was over I vowed to return. Students and friends, foreign and Japanese alike, fill the memories of those years. I came back and am now happily married to a Japanese, perhaps the best proof that the program worked! I don’t know if you’ll want to stay, but I guarantee you will learn something. If your Japanese language skills are already tip-top, you may want to apply for a job as a CIR (Coordinator of International Relations) for the local government wherever they send you, or even a SEA (Sports Education Advisor) around elementary schools. The JET Program will sponsor your visa for the duration of your contract.
“Eikawa” Schools #1: Big English-teaching Companies
You might be teaching the next wave of Japanese big-wigs
If teaching for JET isn’t your speed, you can also go the “eikaiwa school” (English conversation school) route. There are tons of companies to choose from, many of them oriented toward teaching business English. According to a friend of mine who has worked in the business English field for years, the pay is pretty good. Also, because it’s business-oriented, he has met CEOs and other up-and-comers. He also says the company works with you in tailoring your schedule around other things.
Schedule is paramount. Many schools work on a shift system, but just as many have an “on-call” system, which is just what it sounds like: They can call you anytime, which will make it very hard for you to study, plan trips, or create other job opportunities.
Business English schools often prefer people with some actual experience in business, who know their way around the lingo. Not surprisingly, they are formal suit-and-tie operations where training, often paid, is provided before you begin. You should check carefully to see whether or not the school you are applying to work in will sponsor your working visa, and if so for how long. Most places I’m familiar with won’t hire you for less than three months–they are usually looking for someone who already lives in Japan or who is planning on doing so.
If the suit’s too tight, how about teaching these little tykes?
Teaching children English (3 and up) is also a booming market in Japan. The teaching style required here is obviously less formal than above, and I can tell you from experience that many of the younguns will be cheered by your presence! Important: If you don’t enjoy hanging out with kids, this type of “eikawa” is not your speed. But if you think that planning a curriculum that includes lots of English-centric games and plenty of running around sounds like fun, then it’s for you!
I’m not so familiar with this market, having only taught elementary school occasionally while on JET. But I can tell you that there are no shortage of kid-focused programs out there, and that one of the best places to find them is a website called Gaijinpot (http://www.gaijinpot.com/index/index/lang/en). If teaching certificates, etc. are required, most schools will be up-front about it, but please make sure about that when you contact them. Also, some schools may ask about your Japanese proficiency, as both the children and adults involved may not have great English communication skills. Of course, you may just find a school that prefers little or no Japanese, which is great for most first timers.
“Eikawa” Schools #2: Smaller Private Companies
Is this an English school? Looks can be deceiving
If the “bread and food” above the sun symbol makes you think of a convenience store rather than an English school, than you’re right on! But who knows? The apartment beside the sign might just be an English school. Many Japanese small businesses, including private English schools, are run right out of unassuming “apato,” with the inside totally clean and ready for business.
Would you like to study at the desk…or would you prefer the tatami mat?
Many private schools I’m familiar with are run by international couples (Japanese woman/foreign man or vice-versa) and they will obviously have fewer staff members than the big companies. Some have a patented methodology, while some are decidedly less formal. Some of them are small, freelancing branches of a bigger entity, while others are totally independent. The gist of all this is, you won’t have trouble finding an English school to work at in Japan. Only problem is, which one will you choose?
You, yourself and You
Freelancing is the life for me
If working at an English school doesn’t suit your personality, but you still want to use your English skills to your advantage while you are in Japan, going totally freelance is another possibility. I did this during graduate school in Kyoto, sometimes teaching English in-between classes, at night or on weekends. The cool thing about that is that you can dictate your own schedule and pay rate. The uncool thing is that you can dictate your own schedule and pay rate! Scheduling too much might put you in a jam time-wise. As for pay, if you ask for too much students might be wary of coming to you, but if you ask for too little, you may shortchange yourself (pun intended) and actually cause students to worry about your teaching ability! Before you freelance, make sure that’s covered under the terms of your visa.
The University Route
Ready to take the plunge?
If you have a Masters Degree or above, teaching English at university is also an option. The pay will often be far above that of an English school, and if you’re lucky, the contract period may also be quite long (sometimes 3 years or more at a stretch). I know foreign teachers who have also earned tenure at their respective universities, but this is a long, hard road that still involves publishing a lot (which you may enjoy) and academic politics (which may not bother you). Having taught at various universities both full and part-time throughout my career, I can tell you that it is a challenge well worth tackling especially if you are highly invested in Japan and love academia. If you’re interested in taking the plunge, there are English-language websites galore talking about university English teaching. If you’re not quite there yet, try some of the other shoes in the English-teaching closet–and see how they fit first.