Today we return to the subject of teaching in Japan with the second of three guest articles by Sean Montgomery, who writes on the basics you need to know about eikaiwa and employment experiences with them. See Part 1 here.
Part 2: What to expect on the job
As a rule, eikaiwa contracts generally don’t compare favorably well to JET contracts. That said, there are some hidden benefits, as well. For the right person, an eikaiwa experience can be more beneficial than being a JET. One thing you should always in keep in mind: eikaiwa are businesses first, schools second.
As a first-time teacher, you should expect to receive between ¥230,000 and ¥260,000 per month. It’s a high enough salary to start paying back school loans and still have a life (or even save some), but if you’re doing all three of those at once you’ll have to maintain some level of control over your budget. Most small conversation schools do not offer year-end bonuses.
Eikaiwa generally operate between 12 pm and 9 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Their target customers are housewives with hobbies and young children during the afternoon, kids coming home from school in the evening, and workers with hobbies or looking to acquire work-related skills after their jobs. Occasionally you will find contracts with hours from morning to early evening, but they are relatively rare. This isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. True, it’s almost always dark when you get out of work, but you have a less crowded commute and your schedule may more compatible with Skyping with family, especially if they are in America. It can also be nice having Mondays off because you don’t have to deal with crowds in shopping areas or tourist spots. It does mean, of course, that going out Friday night is more risky than usual.
Most schools will have you work around 25 teaching hours a week. You might be thinking “25 out of 40 is pretty good, right?” Not always. Those hours are usually counted in minutes, and when most of your classes range from 40 to 50 minutes and start on the hour, that means that a lot of that extra time ends up being sandwiched between classes. Don’t necessarily think that you even get those minutes free, either. You’re often expected to interact with students and parents in between classes, so it can sometimes happen that you work 35 classes a week, with only five full hours for prep time, and still be within 25 teaching hours. It’s not always a stable schedule, either. If you want clarification on class prep time, be sure to ask about it before you sign.
Call them school events, call them overtime–extra hours are required work hours that fall outside your contracted Tuesday to Saturday 12-9 pm. It isn’t strictly legal; labor laws specify that workers cannot be required to work outside their contract. Pretty much all eikaiwa will require your attendance at certain weekend or after-hours events, however. Typically they include holiday parties, field trips, or beer gardens. Some schools will pay you overtime wages for extra hours, others will give you time off in exchange. It’s good to know which.
Vacation and Sick Leave
Most schools offer between 3 and 4 weeks of vacation at predetermined times. You’ll pretty much always get a week off at the New Year, Golden Week (in May), and Obon (in August). Some schools give you other national holidays off as well, but many do not. Unfortunately, most of those holidays fall on Mondays. Sick leave varies from company to company. Most (though not all) will require a doctor’s note and deduct pay from your salary, so the best policy is not to be sick. Many schools will not allow you time off outside what’s specified in your contract. For small schools especially, it’s simply too much trouble to find a replacement for you during your absence. A small school can sometimes, however, be more flexible than corporate schools in certain situations. For example, I worked at a school that had a week holiday in November (when there are no special holidays). I was able to work that week and take an extra week off before New Year’s to go home and visit my family one year.
This is something that tripped me up once, so be careful here. Eikaiwa can be slippery when paying for transportation. Some will offer it, some won’t, and others will offer it only in specific circumstances. If you’re expected to arrange your own transport, make sure you feel comfortable biking the distance. If you are expected to take public transportation, make sure they will fully reimburse you. Also keep the elements in mind: it’s no fun to bike in the rain.
I’ve gotten a lot better at being punctual, but it took some work. You might be different, but you’ll likely be late at least once or twice. Some schools will penalize lateness according to a system. If you’re five minutes late, you might be docked 15 minutes’ pay or a full hours’. Some won’t even put it in the contract with the expectation that you’ll never be late. It’s always good to confirm their policy ahead of time.
Small schools will often require you to “assist in the administration of the school” or perform other duties “to grow the school’s business,” etc. Basically these vague contract clauses can mean anything from cleaning the school to proofreading to handing out fliers on the street. These can be irksome to many eikaiwa teachers, so it’s advisable to confirm what specific efforts might be required of you.
Commonly, training at eikaiwa follows the same basic pattern, with some variations. You are expected to come into the school for about a week (typically on reduced pay) and learn the ins and the outs from the manager and the teacher you are replacing. A company may require you to give mock lessons with their materials or give you lectures on teaching policies, while others will simply assign you to tail the teacher you are replacing. Whatever the form, the training is not usually especially structured, and you should keep in mind that whoever’s training you doesn’t do that for a living. That means you should pay attention to a few things during this brief period.
The reputation of the teacher you’re replacing will have a big effect on your first six months at the company in a variety of ways. Some things to consider: Are they respected by their co-workers and superiors? What is their teaching style and how does it reflect your training material? What kind of a relationship do they have with their students, and do the students feel comfortable with them? These observations will inform not only your initial procedure as a replacement teacher, but what you should do similarly and differently in the office to make life easier for yourself.
It is not uncommon for some students to quit fairly soon after a new teacher arrives at a school, no matter how good they are. Each student has different needs and motivations, and the one thing they all crave is stability. You’ll want to mirror the previous teacher as much as possible in many areas, at least initially. How much time do they spend on the textbook and how much in conversation? What level of vocabulary and grammar do they use? What kind of pacing are the students accustomed to? By easing the students’ transition between teachers, you will reduce the likelihood of them leaving.
Not every school will make them for you, but obtaining detailed cheat sheets on your classes beforehand will make life a lot easier for you. The best of these include not only specific information about where a class is in their textbooks, but the overall atmosphere of the class, the types of material and activities with which they do well, the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student, and the curricular goals toward which the teacher was working with the class. These can prove invaluable, and the more detailed they are, the easier it will be for you to take over the classes.
Once again, one very important thing to remember about eikaiwa is that they are businesses first and schools second. The progression of the students is secondary to the bottom line. Some teachers realize this after they start teaching at eikaiwa, and it drives them out of their minds. If you go into the experience at peace with that mindset, however, you will be far more satisfied with your experience.
At a private eikaiwa, you will likely spend all your time at a single branch with a stable staff and prepping in the same room as the owner of the company. Some local eikaiwa have multiple branches. In that case, you’ll have some interaction with your boss, but will work most closely with the coworkers and manager of your own branch. Sometimes you’ll work with other foreign teachers, and at other schools you might be working one-on-one with a Japanese manager. Other schools may require you to run a school by yourself on certain days. In addition to teaching, you will likely be responsible for administrative tasks like lesson planning, maintaining class records, student level checks, and student evaluations.
An important distinction from JET ALTs is that you are not an assistant teacher at most eikaiwa. You are in control of your own classroom. It’s terrifying for some and exhilarating for others. It means you have to be teacher, disciplinarian, and entertainer all at the same time. It isn’t unusual for eikaiwa teachers to have problems with one of those three, but they’re vital to your success. The first two probably speak for themselves, and as far as entertainment goes, the biggest problem with students of foreign languages is motivation. If the students aren’t motivated, they won’t internalize what they learn. In a public school, you don’t necessarily have to worry about this because the students HAVE to be there. At an eikaiwa, however, when a student loses their motivation, you could lose the student (and their money). Most eikaiwa lessons involve a combination of textbooks and conversation or activities. While the textbooks are usually predetermined, there’s often plenty of room for curriculum development and introducing your own materials and activities in class.
Many schools will require you to spend some time test-prepping–with kids in particular. Most often, this means teaching the Jr. STEP (Society for Testing English Proficiency) Test, AKA the Eiken. Testing can be an important motivational tool at eikaiwa, so it’s rare to find a school that doesn’t have some emphasis on test prep. That said, it’s more of a seasonal thing at most schools and doesn’t take up a large part of the schedule.
Some schools offer test-prep classes year-round, mostly for upper levels of STEP, the TOEFL, and TOEIC. These can be more difficult to teach than regular classes because of the significantly different approach to English that preparing for them requires.
As previously mentioned, working at an eikaiwa often involves many miscellaneous activities that people don’t associate with teaching. To speak from personal experience, I’ve cleaned schools at the beginning of every day; I’ve handed out fliers outside of elementary schools, inside shopping malls, and in parking lots; I’ve proofread translated menus, scientific papers, corporate websites, government promotional materials, and technical documents; I’ve also recorded the English audio guide for a museum. It can be a mixed bag, and something that certain teachers appreciate and others do not.
This is the single greatest part of working at an eikaiwa. Classes at eikaiwa tend to be small (1-10 members), and teachers typically end up with both children and adult students. It can be far easier at an eikaiwa than a public school to build relationships with your students due to the class size and the simple fact that you aren’t associated with an institution. In fact, it’s often expected; A strong relationship with a student can be a valuable motivational tool. Working closely with small numbers of students also gives you a strong investment in their progress. Watching your students’ English improve can be very encouraging, and simply knowing all their students’ names is something of which few ALTs can boast.
These close relationships can benefit you in many other ways. In adult classes, teachers can often develop friendships with students that lead to relationships outside of class. When your students like you, they might invite you to cultural events or treat you to dinner or even bring you bentos at work. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s not an uncommon experience. In kids’ classes, teachers can become a role model similar to an older sibling or a parental figure, and close relationships with children can yield fascinating insights into Japanese culture that you can’t easily find elsewhere.
As I may have mentioned before, eikaiwa are businesses first and schools second. For many, that can be off-putting. Whether you’re planning to be a teacher in the future or not, however, there’s one place it looks good: your resume. Employers look for a variety of things on a resume, some of the most common include multitasking, organization, leadership, and most importantly, numbers. Various duties and busy schedules make you good at multitasking; being responsible for your own curriculum for a large number of classes means you need to be organized; and being in charge of your own class gives you leadership experience. Let’s focus on numbers, then. In this fast paced, dog-eat-dog world, most employers want concrete ways of comparing one job candidate to another, and to do that they like to see numbers on a resume. As an ALT, it’s fairly difficult to say “student numbers increased 30%” or “passing test scores doubled” on your watch. Eikaiwa job experience is far easier to quantify in that way, and this can be an advantage when you eventually move on to other employment.
For dedicated teachers and savvy businesspeople, private or local eikaiwa can also offer chances for advancement. While it takes time and a true commitment to the company, it is not unheard of for teachers with a strong performance record and good Japanese skills to acquire permanent or even management positions.
TROUBLES AND DANGERS
Eikaiwa teachers at private and local schools basically have no internal support system. You’ve got co-workers and students and that’s it. They’ll help you out to a degree in setting up your life, but don’t expect them to counsel you or automatically be friends with you. You have to work at building relationships at an eikaiwa. The closer proximity to the administrative apparatus that comes with teaching at a local eikaiwa can breed workplace tension to a greater degree in this area than an ALT job often does, but it comes with the territory.
Eikaiwa of all sizes have occasionally been known to violate their own contracts. In these instances, teachers’ options are often limited, as civil litigation in Japan is far more difficult than in countries like America. Thankfully, these instances are relatively few and less frequent now than before.
Next: Part 3: My experiences as an eikaiwa teacher
Sean Montgomery: Manga fan, politically opinionated, artistically inclined, and community organizer. He taught English in Matsuyama for 5 years, and is currently working as the CIR for Shikokuchuo City in Ehime prefecture.