Have you ever thought of teaching English in Japan? There are so many possibilities and also contradictory information online that it can be confusing sometimes.
I’ve been working as an English teacher in Japan for 6 years now and I thought I should use my experience and share some useful information with you.
Teaching at a so-called “eikaiwa” is one of the various options you have when working in Japan.
What is an Eikaiwa?
Eikaiwa (英会話) consists of the kanji for “English” (ei, 英) and “conversation” (kaiwa, 会話) – and that’s exactly what an eikaiwa is: an English conversation school.
The English skills of Japanese people are often quite low.
Now, you might wonder if they don’t learn English in school. Well, yes they do. However, the Japanese school system is rather old-fashioned and hasn’t changed much in many decades. The way English is taught in Japanese schools is not very effective. The majority of students can’t actually use the language. Most of them just study in order to pass tests, so the focus is on learning vocabulary and grammar rules by heart. Conversational skills aren’t considered to be that important.
As the English education at school is insufficient, a lot of people rely on additional help of either cram schools (“juku”, 塾) or eikaiwas.
Working at an Eikaiwa:
Working for an eikaiwa is one option if you consider teaching English in Japan. People often ask me what it’s like to work there. They seem confused because they read a lot of contradictory comments in forums. You’ll certainly find a few horror stories and I won’t say they’re not true, but let me tell you that not every eikaiwa is the same. In fact, there are a lot of differences.
Types of schools:
The big chain schools:
The big chains usually have a higher budget, newer material and better classrooms. They can be found mainly in big cities. They’re well-known and getting a job there is more competitive. It’s easy to replace one teacher with another. Some of these schools also focus on selling products to students, so rather than a teacher you might feel like a salesperson sometimes.
The advantage of big chains is that it’s easier to obtain information online (e.g. experience of previous teachers), there’s a greater support network and some even offer a “career ladder”.
Small individual schools:
Small conversation schools can often be found in rural areas. Some of them struggle because they can’t spend as much on advertisement and promotion compared to the big chain eikaiwas. A few schools even have to close (and you’ll lose your job) because they can’t keep up with their competitors. Compared to the big chain schools, they might or might not treasure their teachers more. They know that it won’t be easy to replace the teacher as many don’t want to live in a rural area of Japan.
There’s often less structure and less money to spend on class material, but you might have more freedom in planning and organizing your lessons. You also might have a much closer relationship to your students than in one of the big schools.
English conversation schools are seen as an addition to the English education at regular school. Some parents want their kids to learn English as soon as possible! Others want to improve their English conversational skills for business reasons or just as a hobby.
It’s very common that you’ll have students of any age, usually raging from 2-70+ years old. While at most schools the majority will consist of kindergarten, elementary school, jr. high and high school kids, you’ll also have the occasional adults.
Class sizes may vary from 1-10 students and often they’re not all the same age. It never gets boring that way, but also can be challenging at times.
Working Hours and Vacation:
This may vary from school to school, but most commonly you’ll find something like that:
- working hours: afternoon to evening (e.g. 1pm to 9pm)
- 40h per week (25 teaching hours) / 5 days a week
- work on Sat or Sun is common (maybe no consecutive days off)
- vacation / days off vary a lot
Your day at work usually starts with kindergarten and elementary school kids in the early afternoon and the later the day gets, the older the students are.
How strict those working hours are handled depends on the school. Some require you to be present all the time even when you don’t have any classes. Others will let you come just right before your classes start and let you go home as soon as you’re done.
By working for an eikaiwa you usually have less vacation than ALTs (assistant language teachers) who work for public schools and have vacation when the schools do.
While it may vary from eikaiwa to eikaiwa, 1-4 weeks vacation per year are quite common. The vacation is often in accordance with the Japanese holidays (New Years holidays, spring vacation, Golden Week, Obon summer vacation). Some schools will be closed on public holidays, others won’t.
The average salary is 250.000 yen per month for a full-time position. I would advise you not to take a job that offers less than that!
Very few eikaiwas will offer you more for an entry position – up to 300,000 yen are possible. However, I wouldn’t expect that if you’re just starting out as an English teacher in Japan.
Some schools will pay for transportation or offer you a car. In accordance with the labor law a few schools will enroll you into the “shakai hoken“, but the majority won’t. So you’ll have to pay health insurance (kokumin hoken) and pension (kokumin nenkin) yourself. It’s illegal, but it’s a standard practice.
A few schools will pay for your accommodation (or at least subsidise it), others will at least offer assistance in finding an apartment. Some will offer you paid sick leave, but many won’t.
If you’re single and don’t live in one of the most expensive parts of Tokyo, the average salary is enough to make a living – and even save some money (or pay back student loans). Taxes in Japan are extremely low (especially compared to Germany …).
Apart from teaching, lesson planning, creating teaching material or attending school events (e.g. speech contests), you might also have to work outside of the school. Some eikaiwas have contracts with nearby companies or kindergartens. Teachers might be sent there outside of the regular working hours.
Especially in smaller schools you might have to help with advertising, recruiting, cleaning or creating material for seasonal events.
What and how you’ll teach, depends a lot on the teaching philosophy and program of each school.
For kindergarten kids you’ll mainly just play with them, using English (songs, jumping around, teaching basic things like colors, numbers and the alphabet). With older students you’ll work with textbooks and whatever material the eikaiwa offers. Test preparation is necessary and very common. The most important English tests in Japan are: Eiken (英検), TOEIC, TOEFL and the National Center Test for University Admissions.
Adults often just want to have (random) English conversations with you.
Most eikaiwa schools want you to be a native speaker of English and have at least a BA / BS degree in any field! However, those are mainly the requirements to obtain a work visa.
In fact, if the work visa is not an issue, it’ll be enough if you have a good pronunciation and a relatively good command of the English language. As long as you won’t teach university students or business English, you don’t have to be a native speaker. I’m not – and yet I teach English. I know my English isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for this kind of job. With younger students it’s more important that you have a clear and correct pronunciation and that you can create lessons that are fun.
For a few conversation schools it’s important that you have some sort of ESL certificate or qualification. While you’ll find a job without having one, it can certainly help to outdo competitors.
Some schools also require you to have a driver’s license that is valid in Japan.
Working at an Eikaiwa – Pros and Cons:
Here are a few positive and negative aspects I see with working for an eikaiwa school in Japan. They might be subjective as they’re based on my opinion, but I think it’ll point out a few important things you should know and think about before taking a job at such a school:
Working Hours (+/–):
The working hours at an English conversation school can be something good or bad, depending on your lifestyle. Starting in the afternoon means that you can sleep in. You have your mornings to exercise, study Japanese, go grocery shopping or just sleep some more.
On the other hand you have to work until 9 or 10pm. Joining any club activities, a gym or just hanging out with friends who have “normal” working schedules might be difficult. If you live in a rural area, getting anywhere past 10pm might be impossible. Also, it’s very likely that you’ll have to work on a Saturday and instead get a random day off during the week.
Students’ motivation (+):
The parents pay for the students to come and study. Some students come because they want to. Of course not all of them will be motivated, but it will be very different from teaching in a public school where you’ll find a lot of unmotivated students.
Small class sizes (+):
As mentioned earlier your class sizes will be ranging from roughly 1-10 students per class. Small class sizes allow a closer relationship to the students. Smaller classes are also easier to manage and you can focus more on each individual student and their progress.
Compared to 30+ students per class in a regular school, I think that’s a much better deal.
Work Load (–):
Although this depends a lot on the school, it’s safe to say that you’ll probably be busier at an eikaiwa than you would be as an ALT (assistant language teacher) in a regular Japanese school. You might have to do 5 or more 60-min. lessons in a row. It can be extremely tiresome.
You might be sent out to an external school, a kindergarten or a company in addition to the regular working hours.
However, there are also schools where you don’t have so many classes and your work load is relatively low.
Not a teacher but an entertainer (–):
Especially when working with younger students you have to jump around, dance, sing or just simply make a dork out of yourself. That has not much to do with teaching and it’s certainly not something everybody can or would like to do.
You might have extremely quiet and shy teenagers. Then, you need to come up with some good ideas to wake them up and make them talk. You need to be entertaining and surprise them. Just standing in front of the blackboard and preaching some grammar rules won’t do anything.
My personal experience:
When I first decided to come to Japan I didn’t think I would end up being an English teacher. Although my major in university was in a related field, I thought I would not be able to teach little kids. It really scared the hell out of me. But I wanted to go to Japan so badly and the lack of time just didn’t allow me to look for other jobs. I had nothing to lose. I brought my own work visa (Working Holiday Visa) and thought if I don’t like the job, I could just leave and try something else.
To my surprise I came to love this kind of job immediately. Japanese kids were surely different from the ones in Germany. It was so much fun teaching them. Even now, 6 years later, I still enjoy it a lot. It’s not something I want to do for the rest of my life, but as I like it so much, I never considered trying something else.
I have to admit I wouldn’t be fond of it, if I were to teach only one age group. Having this huge variety of students and ages every single day makes it exciting. It never gets boring.
My classes consist of 1-9 students. Over the years you really get close to them, you see how they grow up and improve their skills. You’ll be proud if one of your students wins a contest or passes a test. That’s the great thing about being a teacher. It can be really rewarding.
Side Note: About frustrated teachers:
I won’t deny the fact that there are problems at any school. A lot of people have difficulties in adjusting to Japanese work ethics. Others just have no idea about teaching as they come from a completely different field. On top of that they don’t care about teaching at all and only do the job in order to make some money and stay in Japan.
Those are often the people who get frustrated easily and start fighting with their managers. That’s where a lot of the negative comments come from that you’ll find in various Japan forums. Some of them are justified without a doubt, because there are some really bad schools out there.
In my 6 years I’ve seen many teachers come and go. Some couldn’t deal with living in the Japanese countryside, others couldn’t adjust to Japan in general. For some teachers my previous school was the best thing ever, for others it was hell. And I’m sure that’s true for any other eikaiwa out there as well!
That’s why it’s hard to tell whether a school is for you or not. You won’t know until you try, but you can prepare by getting as much information as possible about your future employer, the location and the students. Make sure to get in touch with current and former teachers and don’t just listen to some random comments in forums.
Read about other people’s experience:
There’s so much more to say about this topic. You should also read about other people’s experience with teaching at eikaiwa schools in Japan.
- Jibun Mirai Associe/NOVA Experiences
- The Truth About AEON
- Working at an Eikaiwa
- Working for an Eikaiwa – What’s not to Like?
Where to find Eikaiwa jobs:
There are many options, but my top 3 sites for eikaiwa (or teaching jobs in general) are:
For bigger chain conversation schools you can also apply directly through their website:
I couldn’t cover everything in this blog post, so if there’s anything in particular that you want to know about, please let me know in the comments below!
I’d also like others to share their own experience with us! Have you worked at an eikaiwa before? What pros and cons do you see?
Would you consider working at one?