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English Teaching in Japan: My Experience

English Teaching in Japan: My Experience

When I started pondering what I could share about teaching English in Japan, I felt uneasy. My story is experienced within and limited by the following conditions: one year of teaching English in one particular high school in Tokyo. It is true, though, that my knowledge on the topic has been greatly aided by lots of information coming from a vast part of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) based in Japan.

I followed Facebook threads, read articles, and heard stories from my colleagues. So, as I was pondering, I decided to approach this article from the bottom up. I invited my Facebook community, largely comprised of teachers of English all over the world, to ask me any questions they have about English teaching in Japan. The picture of the “scene” that I will paint with my answers to the 13 questions is by no means complete, by all means open for additions.   

How long is a working day of a teacher in Japan? How much of that time is actual teaching time?

Working as a full-time teacher in a private high school, most days I clocked in at 8:20 a.m. and clocked out at 5 p.m. Ideally, that is, and that is what foreign teachers do, unless there are papers to grade, forms to submit, students asking for help, etc. That is the case in my school and I imagine it to be the standard situation across school system. On a regular day, I’d spend 4 hours in class teaching and the rest of the time – planning my lessons, marking papers, writing feedback, rushing through lunch, talking to students.

If you care to know how long a working day of a Japanese teacher is, that is a whole different story. A third of all teachers in my school would be at work before I entered staff room at 8:20 a.m. Nearly all of them would be there when I left at 5 p.m, at 5:30, at 6, and even at 7… While foreign teachers worked every other Saturday, Japanese staff of the school often had to be at school most Saturdays and many Sundays, too.

Besides teaching classes, what else is part of the job?

My experience of being a high school teacher showed to me that a big part of the job is to be always accessible to students, both timewise and emotionally. Many of those kids would stick around in school and at the doors of the staff room until 6 or 7 p.m., asking questions, studying for tests, preparing and rehearsing for countless school events. Being there for them, I found after my first few months there, makes a big difference in building the rapport.

As for the duties that could be listed on a resume, besides teaching and planning I had to attend daily morning and evening meetings (20 and 10 minutes long respectively), attend monthly so-called “long meetings” which lasted for 3 hours and were carried out solely in Japanese. Add to that helping with regular school events, giving demo lessons on Open Campus days, presenting the course at fortnightly school promotion days held with the purpose of attracting prospective students. Certainly, you also deal with paperwork as it comes, prepare and grade tests, and participate in teacher training sessions a few times a year.

What is a typical average class size?

In my school a typical day is split into two parts, A.M. and P.M. classes, and the group sizes vary accordingly. Morning classes are held in groups of around 30 students in such subjects as Maths, History, Japanese, Science, obligatory English (not taught by foreign staff), and English Conversation (taught by foreign staff but not given grade for). After lunch students take two more lessons within specific courses of their choice. Those groups of students for the popular International Course where I was employed ranged from 15 to 25 in number, depending on the level of language proficiency. In short, class size is rarely going to be under 20, and that is something to be aware of and ready for.

How is professional development (PD) organized?

There are a few official training days throughout a school year when all school staff get together and … listen to lectures of some older, more experienced teachers for one or two days. As far as I understand, this is a Japanese way of mandatory professional development within the education system, which as a Russian I luckily escaped. The foreign staff from other branches of my school in the area around Tokyo got together three-four times a year for a day of in-house training that was devised and organized by the curriculum director of the course.

These PD days involved general discussion of issues teachers had at their schools, as well as short presentations and workshops that every teacher had to give. Those days were lots of fun and gave me quite a burst of energy, as learning from other teachers often does. However, I wouldn’t assume that this is common practice. In fact, I’d love to know more about the different ways that PD is arranged in other schools across the country.

How does a teacher interact with colleagues within the school?

As a Russian who speaks a couple of words of Japanese, my interaction was limited to my immediate colleagues who speak English. During whole-school events I was placed in groups with some Japanese English teachers. In fact, I did not feel that I had to interact with my Japanese colleagues directly and linguistically extensively, ever. Even though all paperwork is in Japanese, I was always given help by other English-speaking teachers.

On another level, I felt a large abyss between Japanese English teachers and us, foreigners, in terms of sharing the content or discussing ideas. There were at least three Japanese teachers who taught morning English classes, but I never even once talked to them in English, nor did they attempt to talk to me. What foreign teachers do and what Japanese teachers do in the classroom are separate things that exist on different plains and are not expected to overlap. This realization made me feel sad and confused at first, but later I just accepted it as a fact.

What specific practices exist in the country education system (e.g. organized visits to businesses, museums, factories; vocational training for school children)? Are there extracurricular activities?

Japanese high school thrives on extracurricular activities! I had never seen teenagers hanging out at school from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. until I got to see a Japanese high school. Not only does this participation show on their record and help raise their chances to get into universities. It also looks like these kids are genuinely keen on organising events and taking part in virtually any school-related project. Sports day, school barbecue, week long school trips to other parts of the country, culture festival, charity events, art performances, exhibitions, competitions, workshops, lectures, speech contests… you name it. I can’t remember a week when school was in peace and quiet.

Is it true that Japan is a country of workaholics and there are almost no days off? How many days of personal leave do teachers get? Is it the same in every level?

Most certainly so! In the first year of contract school teachers might get 10 days of personal leave per year in addition to a two-week summer vacation in August. I’ve given a rough idea of how much they work answering one of the questions above, and even so some teachers I worked with do not take their days off. In Japanese culture working hard is a much valued quality. On the bright side, the national holidays throughout the year are plenty, so that eases up the stress a bit as you always have something to look forward to, a day here and then.

What (CEFR) level are students when they finish high school?

You might hear a lot about how low the level of Japanese students is. As much as I’d like to contradict that opinion, I’d have to venture a guess that, from my experience, the majority of students graduate at around A2 level.

Which cultural peculiarities (in teaching) amazed you and took you aback within the first few months of teaching there?

It is not an easy task to try and identify which of my challenges were culturally-bound, specific of the age group, or a peculiarity of my school. I’ll comment on the three major examples that still stand out for me as something to be aware of when entering a new class.

First of all, the level of students is likely to be quite low, and so is their self-confidence. Students are ever too ready to tell you that they don’t speak English, that English is difficult, and that ends the conversation. That takes adjusting to, especially in terms of structuring your lesson and revising the activities you’re accustomed to. Secondly, you might have heard or read about the silent classroom. While silence might be a common reaction to a teacher’s question, that rule does not at all regulate all of the classroom experience!

Japanese students are just as noisy and lively as Russian, for example, and they would happily chatter away the class time, especially if they don’t understand the task you assigned. One more aspect of teaching that was sort of a revelation to me is building the rapport with students.

It took me about four months to feel the connection the way I wanted to have it. First weeks seemed to be the weeks of suspicion, examination, and test on their part… It could have been my own, singular experience intensified by the fact that I had just arrived to the country. In any case, it took me a while and quite a few emotionally challenging lessons before the bridges of trust were built and stood solid.

Is it more difficult for a female foreign worker working in Japan than it is for men? What are your experiences? Coping strategies?

I didn’t really notice any gender-related differences, even though it might be interesting to note that I was the only female (and the only non-native) foreign teacher among twelve teachers of the foreign staff. That fact struck me at first but I can’t say I felt singled out. All in all, in my experience of this one year among male colleagues I can’t remember situations when I was treated differently because I am a woman.

What qualifications are required to get employed?

I assume the requirement will vary depending on the type of position you have in mind. The general rule is that in order to apply for a university position you will need to have a minimum of relevant work experience and an MA in the field (or its equivalent). Most higher education institutions place a lot of importance and emphasis on academic articles, too. Knowledge of Japanese is stated as a requirement in quite a few vacancies, although the proficiency will range.

And yes, in many cases you will have to be a native English speaker or have a near-native English speaking ability. I can also attest to the fact that it is not going to be easy to get an English teaching job in Japan if you do not reside in Japan already. I consider myself immensely lucky to have had a Skype interview from Moscow, sending my demo lesson by email. Even if times are changing, I wouldn’t count on this scenario to be common.

How difficult is it to get a job if you don’t have a passport from an English speaking country?

At the risk of sounding too positive and annoyingly optimistic, I am still going to say it is very possible and there are always options around. You will need to spend a lot of time looking for them, though. While the majority of job ads will stick to “native speaker of English”, there are more and more positions open for non-native teachers. To serve a good example, in my current, new job at a university there is one more Russian lady freshly employed.

Is it easy to make friends? Is there a large expat community that is open to welcoming new expats?

If you have time and energy left after your working week, it could be easy. There are multiple expat groups you can find online, on Facebook specifically. Personally, I was too exhausted, too culturally shocked to socialise in my free time during my first year here, but in principle it can be easily arranged. Tokyo is packed with foreigners of all sorts and kinds so you’ll definitely find someone to hang out with.

Anna will be answering a few more questions over on her blog. Check it out for more answers to your questions about English teaching in Japan. -ed.

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