Monday, February 05, 2007

Finding a Job Teaching in Japan

Back when I was suffering some serious physical problems, even more serious depression, and general burn-out from having worked for so long, my husband did a serious job search so he could work full-time and I could quit and rest. During his search, he was rather surprised at some of the ways in which the job market had changed since he'd last done such a search. Bear in mind that everything I say about work, pay and hours relates to working as a teacher in Tokyo. Wages in other areas are sometimes lower because of the lower cost of living.

One of the points which he realized was that the 250,000 yen for 25 hours standard which was the case about 15-20 years ago had changed to 250,000 yen for 30 hours and often that is 30 "contact" teaching hours and will not include prep time. That means that you may be required to be on the premises for more than 30 hours even though your contract stipulates you work for 30 hours. Generally speaking, teachers make from 1800-2500 yen an hour at conversation schools or in structured teaching environments.

My husband also discovered that most teaching jobs included a small or large number of hours devoted to teaching children. In fact, low pay for teaching kids is pretty much the most frequently listed work in "The Japan Times" and other classified ads in printed publications. If you're in a hurry for a job and female, this is the quickest route to employment though not necessarily the best type of work. Teaching kids can involve accommodating doting or hawk-eyed parents who will eat up your time with meetings or attempt to coerce you into teaching in a different fashion. Additionally, as if often the case in any educational situation, handling kids can be harder than dealing with adults.

The big chain schools (Nova, GEOS, and AEON) seem to be doing far more of their recruiting abroad and less hiring from inside of Japan. Competition has also caused them to increase total working hours without increasing wages, decrease class time from a standard 50-60 minute lesson to 40 minutes, and decrease overall benefits such as paid national holidays.

Most of the chain schools when hiring from abroad also provide housing at a slightly reduced rate for the teachers they hire. The housing supplement can be considered as an additional 10,000-30,000 yen per month in salary depending on the situation. The main thing is that the schools get a deal on the apartments that you wouldn't get. That is, you may not be able to find a place for 50,000-60,000 yen a month on your own so you're paying less rent through your school than you would if you found your own place. However, the school probably owns the building or has a lease which allows them to have the place at a lower rate so they aren't actually augmenting your income and it's possible that they make money on the deal. That doesn't mean you don't benefit from the arrangement though.

In general, working for one of these schools means working harder and dealing sometimes with rigid conditions (such as Nova's system of penalties) on the down-side but also having someone else set you up with a place to live and help you with any of the logistical issues of moving to Japan on the up-side. The wages are more than enough to live on if you don't go crazy clubbing, boozing, or eating out at expensive places. People who don't have connections in Japan or who feel uncomfortable with the uncertainties of travel abroad often find such places a good way of getting a foothold or simply finding a way to spend a year in Japan before going home and doing something else.

One problem with these chain schools for some people is that they tend to be somewhat rigid in their teaching structure. Some of them will monitor lessons and reprimand teachers for not following the method the school follows. If you're new to teaching and uncertain of what to do, these types of places can be helpful in your initial months as you can follow their patterns when you teach. If you're experienced, such places can be tedious and stifling as you can't be creative and even good teachers may find themselves being admonished rather than rewarded for their attempts to be innovative or creative.

Other job possibilities include working in junior high schools or high schools as an assistant teacher. This can be done through the JET program but also via other means. I don't actually have any experience with these types of jobs because neither my husband nor I are willing to teach kids. I've heard a lot of varied reports about such jobs but one common theme is that the teachers are often given little to do or not taken seriously compared to the Japanese teachers at the schools. However, the working conditions (pay for the number of hours, paid vacation time) can be relatively favorable.

There are also random full-time jobs at various schools you can find largely from on-line job searching. These places don't tend to advertise as much in print because of the cost. The main considerations with these sorts of places is that they sometimes operate on a limited budget and may overwork what few teachers they have and sometimes have been known to have teachers sign ambiguous contracts so that they can compel them to do more than should be reasonably expected. Such places have to be considered on a case by case basis. Some are great and some are pretty awful.

There are also a few places that hire teachers to teach in-company lessons on a case-by-case basis. Some of these agencies offer enough work to make a full wage. Others are mainly good as a means to augment your income with spare cash. The good point of these types of jobs is that they tend to pay much better hourly wages (3500-5000 yen an hour in most cases). The bad point is that most places want the same evening hours so it's hard to schedule in enough of these types of jobs to make a full wage and they often require copious amounts of travel, sometimes very far from where you live. If the locations of the companies are sufficiently far distant, the amount of money you make spread across the total time you spend getting there, teaching, and getting back won't seem quite so impressive. Generally speaking, such jobs require core evening hours - from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm - for the most lucrative pay. You can sometimes get early morning work but the wages tend to be far lower, sometimes no better than working at a conversation school.

The main problem with relying on agencies that contract with teachers for the higher-paying in-company lessons is that there are no guarantees whatsoever, no paid vacation of any kind, and a lot of uncertainty about the numbers of hours you'll get. My former company is one of the few places that contracted for this sort of work in a fashion which would guarantee a certain amount of money each month but even they don't make any long-term promises and your entire day can be eaten up by a fairly gap-filled schedule and travel time.

The bottom line is that you have to make 250,000 yen a month in order to qualify for work visa sponsorship. There are loopholes that allow companies to undercut that in reality. They can sign you up for a contract that says they'll pay you 250,000 yen a month for 30 hours but have you work less than 30 hours a week. Immigration will not check on whether or not you actually make what your contract stipulates and (almost) no one will act as your advocate if you aren't making as much as you believed you might. You have to be very careful to make sure you understand what you're getting into and ask questions to clarify your situation. Also, companies are legally obliged to give full-time employees ten days off the first year and one additional day for each year you renew. If they give you fewer days, they are violating Japanese labor laws.

My husband ended up taking a situation which offered a decent base hourly wage up until 30 hours and a higher wage after 30 hours have been worked. It doesn't offer any guarantees about the number of hours you get per week though. He hasn't had any trouble at all getting enough hours (fairly popular teachers don't) and the working conditions are very flexible. He can pretty much teach what he wants and set his own hours. No one hassles him if he requests time off and he's not pressured to do any extra work of any kind.

The price of this flexibility and lack of hassle is that he gets no paid national holidays, no raises on an annual basis, and sometimes has to kill time between lessons if his schedule doesn't fill up. If the school were to suffer a drop in business, he would also be stuck for getting in enough hours but that seems like a pretty unlikely possibility given the school's well-trafficked location.

In general, you can choose between better hourly wages or a more secure situation which offers lower wages. For newcomers, the secure situation is often a good way to start. Once you know the ropes, the higher wage situations are easier to seek out and find a way to rely on.


Lady Wanderlust said...

Hey, I found your blog on and found your posts about language schools and Nova quite helpful. I've read a lot of similar stuff about Nova, and thanks to blogs like this one, I know (sort of) what to expect from Nova. My husband and I leave one week from today to work for Nova. Thanks for the info!

Brenda said...

Hi, Shari,

NOVA still has a pretty horrible reputation among us big English school convo teachers!

I worked for one of AEON's leading schools in central Tokyo, so my experience, I think, was vastly different from, say, the experience of the teachers who worked in small towns or in schools with less prestigious locations. However, the pay was the same no matter where in Japan one worked (with an extra 10,000 for Tokyo and Hokkaido teachers). Apartments rents were also standarized (every AEON teacher in Japan pays the same regardless of location, size of apartment, etc.), and the company pays for all transportation costs (which NEVER happens in the US).

Of course, the hours are long. (This is Japan, after all, and the Japanese often work insane hours.) But the reality is that in any teaching job (and I worked in the US as a teacher before coming to Japan) the hours are very long and teachers are often unpaid for things like prep time and grading. That's what it is to be a teacher, really.

Bear in mind, too, that the minimum wage in Tokyo is 117,000 yen per month, and that though 250,000 yen seems very low for the hours, many of the Japanese teachers work more hours for less pay. At my school, the foreign teachers were the highest paid staff in the school--receiving even more than did the manager. So, no, the Japanese staff are understandably going to have little sympathy for your plight if you moan about not making it on such a pitiable salary.

AEON doesn't penalize teachers for calling in sick (which I never did, but that's my own personal work ethic and health status), or for habitual lateness (again, I never was--nor would I look favorably on someone who was, as I think that it is unprofessional behavior, and, having managed people in the past, I admit that I would also be likely to impose some kind of sanction on someone who was habitually late, say, moving them to a later, less desireable shift). I won't say that there weren't times when I felt that what I was being asked to do was unfair, but when this was the case, I certainly voiced my opinion about the matter to the manager, or, in the case of working on my days off, flat out declined to do so.

One thing that may be worth mentioning is the initial start-up costs of coming to Japan. Even when the school is taking care of things like key/deposit money for a furnished apartment and transportation costs, one should still have between two and five thousand dollars to cover the basics like food and non-work-related travel. It takes a while to learn how to conserve money in a foreign country, and, let's face it, many people act like tourists for the first several weeks, and that is an expensive way to live. If I hadn't come to Japan with a job already lined up, I would definitely have had at least five grand to my name. As it was, I came with just under three grand, and I was more than fine.

I know this is a long comment! Thanks for your patience, Shari, as always, and, of course, I am happy to answer any questions about my experience with AEON in Tokyo!

Shari said...

lady wanderlust: Hi there and thanks for your comment. :-) I hope things work out okay for you at Nova. FWIW, I worked with people who worked for Nova and liked it, others who thought it was okay and some who hated it. I hope you land at a good branch and wish you all the best.

Brenda: Thanks for the information on AEON. I know that Nova pays differently based on location but wasn't sure about the other big chains. However, the comparison of Japanese wages and working conditions and foreign ones is another long post which I'll hopefully get to some time later today now that you've raised the issue (and I appreciate it as it's an interesting one).

About the Nova penalty system, bear in mind that it penalized people for unavoidable lateness in addition to avoidable lateness. That is, if you used the Chuo line and someone jumped on the tracks and the trains shut down and this caused you to be late, you forfeited wages. If there was too much rain, snow, or an earthquake and the trains were late, you forfeied wages.

And you didn't forfeit wages commensurate with the time you were late. You were penalized for several hours depending on how late you were. I don't know the system anymore but it was things like losing 2 hours wages for 10 minutes of being late last I heard. It also wasn't about habitual lateness or bad teachers. The rules were applied unilaterally to every teacher regardless of their attendance record or quality of work.

Like you, I rarely called in sick and often worked when I was really, really sick at my former office. It was neither recognized nor appreciated by the Japanese staff and the Japanese office workers frequently took half days (which we could not) or went to the doctor when they had a cold or a headache (and took time off or were late getting in to do it). People get sick but the foreign staff were regarded with suspicion when they did so whereas the Japanese were seen as sincerely ill. The Nova system is set up to punish foreign employees for something which is a normal and unavoidable function of our lives.

I don't have an issue with not paying someone who isn't working but to charge them a day and a half of wages for taking one day off sick seems pretty egregious.

Brenda said...

Hi, Shari,

Yes, I agree that NOVA's penalty system is horribly unfair and perhaps even illegal--although perhaps not, given that Japan has few, if any, laws against prejudicial behavior toward foreigners. (See Debito Arudou's website, because, well, yikes.) NOVA has one of the worst reputations among the big language schools for this and many other reasons.

I heard many times that teachers should basically take the work visa and bail out on NOVA as soon as possible, but I wonder how this is seen by other employers in Japan.

As far as Japanese staff getting special treatment, I can't say I saw this at my school or heard of it at other AEON schools. I did have to go to the doctor twice during my stay, and both times, just as did the Japanese staff, I got half-days off (and that meant that so did my Japanese handler/translator) and more sympathy than I thought my flu warranted. Both times, my classes were cancelled and I was never penalized for the time. (Perhaps I was seen with more sympathy because I often voiced my opinion that the Japanese staff were also being treated unfairly when they made less money for more work.)

Anyway, I know that everyone's actual mileage may vary!

Great forum, as usual, Sheri--and again, sorry for such a long post!

Shari said...

I've also heard that Nova employees are sometimes encouraged to take the visa and run. I'm not sure it's quite that bad but I do believe caution is in order. You should know where you stand before getting into it. I think most other employers know that Nova is often the bottom of the barrel and I doubt they care if Nova refugees come to them. My company hired a lot of them and we never regretted it.

I think that AEON is a much better deal than some other places though my comment about Japaense getting preferential treatment when sick applied to my working in a Japanese office, not a school. My husband worked for AMVIC which was the precursor to the GEOS/AEON split. They took better care of their teachers than a lot of places. The fact that you had someone who translated for you is a serious indication of that.

In general, the staff at Japanese schoosl are overworked women who really aren't appreciated. It's not fair but it's their windmill to tilt at and not related to the teachers' issues in any way. Though I often expressed sympathy for the female staff at my office and at Nova, that didn't really stop them from thinking our work was incredibly easy, required no skill, and we were overpaid.

It was classic myopia. Most of them had no idea what it was like for us and only saw that we were teaching a language we were born into and worked fewer hours. Most (but not all) ignored all other factors. Sure, they're screwed over but that doesn't mean we have it cushy or easy.

ターナー said...

That's definitely been the mindset at my branch. The staff initially just refused to see the reality of my relationship with the company until finally headquarters reminded them about my contract details. Namely...

- We are part time workers according to Japanese law. Selling your teachers as full timers is fine if you want to lie to students.

As far as AEON is concerned, they completely downplay the amount of salesmanship involved in the company. Brenda mentioned that long hours are to be expected as a teacher, but foreigner employees at AEON are not teachers, whether they'd like to believe so or not. We're salesman, and we were made so under the false pretense of teaching.

The contract may stipulation a maximum of 25 "teaching hours" - of course, that equates to 30 50-minute classes - but it doesn't seem to include additional time used for reviewing special materials, counseling with students, doing interviews... essentially, this means we are doing nothing outside of classes. Far from the truth.

Shari said...

Thanks very much for your comment, Turner. It was very interesting to hear the perspective of someone else who has actually worked for AEON.

I must say that I had never heard about the salesman angle before though I guess all teachers have to do it under different guises and titles. At Nova, we gave demo lessons. At my husband's school, they call it a level check. In all cases, it's a short lesson where the teacher is supposed to get the student to buy. I don't know if AEON requires more than that from their foreign teachers though I'm pretty sure they require more than that from the Japanese staff.

It's interesting how ambiguous the contracts tend to be at some of the schools. I guess that part of the reason they do that is to make the teacher believe less work is involved than really is. There are a few places where this is not the case but I'm guessing they attract fewer teachers because the straightforward terms seem less attractive than the overall (and false) package the chain schools offer.

My husband's school is one of these places where it's all on the table and there is none of this business where teachers get jerked around. When he initially got his job, it seemed to not be quite as lucrative but, on the whole, it seems to be better than any of the places that look good on paper.

ターナー said...

They do make it seem like less work - glossing over details like interviews, demo lessons (occasionally), counseling sessions, material checks, mandatory talk in the lobby, etc.

Naturally a few oversights are to be expected, but when you start filling every second of the time you have between classes with "required" work, how can the company say you're not teaching according to the contract? It's a little insulting. Not to mention you may not have a spare moment to drink water, use the bathroom, or just sit down.

Shari said...

The interesting thing is that I believe they would probably still get teachers if they were upfront about the conditions. Most people aren't in it for the money. They're in it for the experience of being in Japan but I think the Japanese, in general, think most of us are here for the cash. Students used to tell me that all the time at Nova (that I was here for the money).

My former company was relatively upfront about all they expected so I never felt duped, fortunately. I still consider myself lucky to have had such a good experience in a real Japanese office environment.

BTW, the talking in the lobby business sounds really like a lame way of wringing every second of work out of the teacher!

ターナー said...

Yes, but it's to be expected; after all, you have employees at a business like a bank bowing to you when you enter. You give far more money to the eikaiwa, so people should expect more "service" by Japanese standards.

That's true, teachers would still apply and accept positions. I just hate the fact that the entire industry (from my experience, anyway) is one big facade - during a talk with the manager, I was advised not to tell anyone I just came to Japan for the experience of living in another country; they'd rather have people believe I came solely for the purpose of teaching English, for the betterment of the eikaiwa. Yeah, right...