Teaching English in Japan — the experience of a lifetime

By Jake Hallows
Aerial view at dusk of night skiing in Niseko Village, a popular destination for ski resorts in Japan

When I look back on the events of my still relatively short life, there are several periods that stand out as the best of times. One of these is the year which I spent living in 北海度 (Hokkaido – The northernmost prefecture in Japan). Be it the snow, the friends or the work; I have fond memories of it all. What did I do? I worked as an ALT (Assistant language teacher) in several schools in a small town called ニセコ (Niseko). It’s known internationally for some of the best ski and snowboarding resorts that side of the Alps.

My main work placement, Niseko high school was a school that specialized in agricultural and tourism classes, whilst also providing a normal education as well. It was an incredible experience that I would recommend to anyone who truly wishes to experience Japanese culture at the deepest level. Today, I will be talking to you about how you can teach English in Japan and what you can expect to find in your job as a teacher.

What to expect from the classes

First of all, let’s discuss how the classes work. The majority of foreign English teachers in Japan work as an ALT. This means that you will usually have a JTE (Japanese teacher of English) with you that will help keep classes running smoothly, which is really handy when you’re first starting out and a little nervous.

However, your JTE may not be able to speak English themselves. This can lead to some pretty big issues if you can’t speak Japanese and there isn’t someone there to translate. However, 90% of the time these JTE are more than happy to support your lesson plans, provided you’re hitting the necessary goals in the curriculum. On the other hand, my JTE had spent several years at university in Canada and living in India and was completely fluent in English. So be ready to be flexible with your JTE, as every situation is different.

Another important topic is the curriculum itself. Whilst you can investigate the details of the curriculum yourself, often your JTE will be the one to inform you of what they want you to be teaching. The lessons often revolve around the use of textbooks, which students will use both at school and at home. Your role as the ALT is to get the students to use the language themselves, make activities that help them learn the target language, and to make the lessons enjoyable. A hard task at times to be sure, but that’s the job.

Classes are over, what next?

Once the bell rings and classes are over, it’s home time, right? Sadly not. As a teacher, your duties continue later in the day as well. Depending on your situation, you may have marking to do, activities to plan and future plans to discuss with your JTE.

But it’s not all boring! I’m talking about afterschool activities with the students. Depending on the school, you may be asked to host or even join a club to interact with students and get them using English outside of the classroom! This might sound like a hassle to you, but is actually some of the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done, so let’s get into it.

As I mentioned, English clubs are common in Japan. The activities you do at clubs can vary greatly depending on your student’s interests. Whether it’s listening to music, playing boardgames or watching movies; if it’s in English, it’s okay! In my experience students primarily wanted to talk about me and my experiences living abroad.

Of course, there are more serious English clubs too. For students looking to advance to university, English is a key skill for them to learn in order to pass entrance exams. You can expect these students will want both mock interview and essay writing practice. Students can also aim to take the varying levels of the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) test. I spent many afternoons practicing the test questions with my students, and it means a lot to them.

You may also get the opportunity to join a club of your choice too! As an ALT, your main job is to interact and promote international relations with the younger Japanese generation. Sports clubs give you a great opportunity to do so, without any teacher-student relationship to get in the way.

How do I sign up!?

So, you’re interested in the job and want to go as soon as possible? Well, there are a few hurdles ahead of you, so keep reading and I’ll take you through the path to working in Japan.

As I’ve mentioned before, most English teachers are ALTs. Most ALT positions are hired through ALT programs, such as JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and Alterac. The application and interview period varies, but they can be very lengthy, so I recommend doing all the preparation that you can beforehand.

But what preparation can you do before you’re there? Well, there’s a lot of options. Getting yourself a TEFL (Teaching English as a foreign language) certificate helps a lot, as does any practical experience actually teaching that you can arrange.

There are also a few things you will need before you are eligible to apply too. If you’re not a native English speaker, then you will need a certain level of English education before you can apply though it differs depending on the program. You will also need a degree of some sort too, though it can be in any subject.

There’s also the option of applying direct to work at schools via sites such as GaijinPot. However, these jobs normally require a higher level of experience, education or that you are living in Japan with a visa already. This is where you’re more likely to find jobs at international schools, which can be great for those who are dedicated to working in education, with the relevant degree to show for it. International schools often teach almost entirely in English, so the work there is similar to that of a school from another English-speaking country.

So, what do you think?

Have you been sold on what I taught you today? If that’s the case, I recommend first looking into the ALT programs I mentioned above as they’re two of the more well-known ones. Or perhaps you want to look into the other side of the classroom as a student? If that’s the case, then check out this article on what you can expect as a student in Japan.

Written by Jake Hallows for TEFL.net December 2020
Jake is a Japanese translator who has spent time working as an English teacher in Hokkaido, Japan. His hobbies include reading manga, playing video games and studying foreign culture.

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