In our lives we can experience many sides of a similar coin. That made sense when I originally wrote it.
Over three years ago I decided to apply for the JET Programme, the Japanese government’s initiative to recruit foreign teachers to teach English in Japanese public schools.
I was with the JET Programme for three years, placed in the cold north of Hokkaido, and taught in elementary schools, junior high schools and a high school.
I had my ups, I had my downs. Everybody has a different experience.
Some dive into the ‘JET community’, and spend their time travelling around and experiencing as much as possible. Others delve into Japanese culture itself, studying the language intensely and immersing themselves in Japanese culture.
Still others find themselves alienated and struggling, feeling lost and alone, and just trying to get through it. I read many horror stories before I came to Japan, about being sidelined as a teacher and feeling culturally alienated.
So there are many ways a tenure on the JET programme might hit you. Most of the people I interacted with seemed to be enjoying themselves and doing well, with a rough patch or two for good measure.
However I don’t wish to explore that minutiae here. ‘Every situation is different’ is the unofficial motto of JET and you can read about that anywhere. What I want to discuss is the incredibly different experience I had teaching in a private eikaiwa (English conversation school) in Saitama, near Tokyo.
After JET I wasn’t sure what to do so I decided to stay in Japan and try somewhere else. I set my mind on Tokyo and sent out a flurry of applications.
I had some interaction with the ALT company Interac and a variety of others, and became desperate for a job, otherwise I would have to leave the country due to my work visa expiring and didn’t feel ready to go home yet.
Eventually I got a nibble, and an interview and demo lesson later, secured a new position teaching in Saitama City, just a 20 minute train ride from central Tokyo.
After an only moderately painful move (moving is often rough, you may know), I was now near Tokyo and full of excitement.
So what were the differences between teaching in a more rural and distant environment on the JET Programme, and teaching in a big city with a private company? I will outline the changes here.
First off, my salary took a significant dive, from being an overpaid public servant to a more modest ‘standard’ pay for this kind of work. The Japanese government is much more generous with foreigner pay than private companies. This makes sense, private companies are trying to turn a profit whereas JET is more of an ‘exchange initiative’.
My rent was subsidised on JET and was ridiculously cheap, so with this new job it shot up significantly. Not only this, but apartments in the city are small. Really small. I didn’t even have a place to hang up my washing anymore. My washing machine was next to my fridge.
On JET I had a rental car so I drove many places, including around the countryside, to ski fields and road trips. I got to travel all around Hokkaido. Having a car in the city is impractical, so in Saitama I could only walk or catch the train.
The train was fun at first, but after the 17th time of being crammed into a tiny metal box without room to even move your arms, trying to turn away from a smelly dude breathing directly into your face, it got old.
Comedian Louie CK says in a stand-up that you can tell how new someone is to New York City by how they react to riding the subway. The newbie has a look of wonderment. But the daily commuter wears a grumpy face.
This was certainly the case for me and trains about Tokyo. Eventually I hated catching the train, the dehumanising feel of being squashed into a small metal box…but had no choice but to catch them.
Next, the hours for this new role were weird: 12:10 to 9:10, whereas JET was a regular day. I am not a morning person, but I believed I could motivate myself to get up early, use the morning for something useful, then trot off to work and afterwards go to bed early.
Not so, I just stayed up to the wee hours of the morning and got up at 11:20 am or so everyday. If a student asked me when I wake up, I would smile sheepishly and say: ‘uhmm…9am…right…’. They would invariably reply: ‘wow! So late!’ (5am seems the standard wake up time here).
I learned that I need something in my life to start early. It gives me a reason to force myself up and start moving around. So I’ll keep that in mind in the future. JET or other ALT work should provide you with normal hours and eikaiwa can be a mixed affair.
My training on JET consisted of seminars and workshops that were applicable some of the time. My first lessons were rough, I was a nervous semi-wreck, but I slowly got better and soon was teaching a room of 40 kids just fine. They tried to help with the seminars, but it was mostly learn as-you-go.
My eikaiwa job had an attempt at training, but with multiple trainers that all had different views about what you should do in a lesson.
I left training with no idea of what a standard lesson was supposed to look like, and my company didn’t seem able to communicate what was expected. I kept receiving conflicting information about what each lesson required and simply took it in my stride until another person told me something else.
A month or so after my training, the nice lady who helped hire and train me got into an issue with the boss, and she quit. Which was sad, because she was really cool and helpful.
The second trainer they hired to train me and others quit after about a month, after being consistently reprimanded for her fashion sense, jewellery and ‘not-Japanese’ way of going about things.
The coworker I trained with rapidly came to hate the job and recently quit, alongside myself. I met a new coworker, and she was already scheming about how to ditch the job for something better, before having even started.
I was chatting with a manager once and said casually ‘see you tomorrow’. He replied: ‘oh, actually you won’t because I just quit and this is my last day’. Oh uh…ok…see you never again, then.
As you can see turnover is a problem for this job.
Next – the lessons and the lifestyle.
On JET I taught at public elementary schools, junior high schools and a high school, with each class ranging from about 10 to 40 students, alongside a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE).
I also taught special needs classes, joined in club activities, English camps, conferences and numerous work parties with my Board of Education and school staff.
With eikaiwa, I taught all ages, ranging from 2 to 94 years old. Each class consisted of 1-2 students, and occasionally I had a class of 4-6 kids.
The workload with eikaiwa was *significantly* higher. On JET I taught 3-4 50 minute lessons a day. JETs often complain about not having anything to do during their downtime, and fret about how to use their 20 days of paid leave. This was not a problem at eikaiwa.
There I often taught 9-10 lessons a day, each at 40 minutes, sometimes with a student interview mixed in. The least number of lessons I ever had was 5, which is still one more than JET. Not only this, but outside of copying materials and printing articles and brainstorming over activities, I was required to regularly write progress reports for every student.
I also worked every Saturday with Mondays off, so would miss out on public holidays that happened to fall on a Monday. Unlike JET, you had to work a certain number of months to gain one day of leave. I got up to two.
The company doesn’t have the nicest facilities, so I taught in a small room that had dirty wallpaper, compared with JET’s large classrooms in some admittedly old school buildings.
Contrary to how I expected, controlling a class of 3-4 kids was actually significantly harder than doing the same for 40 of them.
With a large class you can often gain order through volume and presence alone, asking many questions and using interesting activities to win over students and drown out troublemakers. I could talk over a difficult student and the rest of the class would eventually start ignoring them.
With a small class, if 2 out of 4 students is ADD, or hates English because their parents are forcing them to attend classes, or only cares about unko (literally poo), then you are approaching a class that is already 50% problematic.
The close proximity also means those problem students have a MUCH easier time corrupting the other students into goofing off. I don’t enjoy discipline or being strict as it takes the fun out of class, but for some of these classes that is the only option. It’s basically the opposite of having a good time.
It didn’t help that I had an extremely picky manager that would constantly badger me about small things while I was trying to deal with the stress of having a chaotic and unproductive class. I found this problem to be harder to deal with in a very small class. I was unlucky enough to have some extremely stressful classes.
The adults were mostly fine. You get to interact with many people with many different jobs and can even cover some interesting subjects like politics or music.
Students ranged from people who were lacking in confidence and simply needed some coaxing, to salarymen (and some salary women) studying English for business purposes, to an unfortunate minority who talk at you for 40 minutes while making mistakes and not really listening to your suggestions.
I didn’t get it as bad as a friend, who hated his job because all he would do is smile and nod as students talked into his face, often poorly.
So lessons for me ranged from being stressed to an extreme level, to tedium, to dull rote reading from a text book (some of which are very boring indeed), to surprisingly pleasant and constructive English lessons.
The company appeared to actively discourage teachers and school managers from congregating, as other teachers told to me not mention it to management whenever we had an unofficial get-together.
There was a strong rift between the foreign English speaking teachers and Japanese school managers, as English speakers are slotted in and out of the role at a fast pace and no working relationships are formed.
My japanese speaking also suffered as I internalised that I was only ever supposed to speak English. That’s my role, my place in life. Using Japanese…ダメ！
In place of JET’s many work parties, and the social and geographical proximity of other English teachers, my eikaiwa had a Christmas party, and farewell parties for the few people who actually completed their 18 month contracts.
So, moving along, I quit my eikaiwa job, amongst other concerns such as being too tired to work out (which I used to do 3-4 times a week), being surrounded by fast food outlets and getting progressively fatter and unhealthier.
I started to feel like, what’s the point? I’ll have the same week next week that I had last week. The same overwork, the same isolation and numbing sense of boredom. And reluctant students.
The job stretches on forever with little distinction to be made from week to week.
My other option was to find another job here in Japan, but after three and a half years away I think it’s time to rediscover my home country for a while before finding something else to do. Another county? Perhaps. Teaching in my home county? Maybe.
It just seems the contrasts between my job and lifestyle on the JET programme and working in a private eikaiwa in a big city are remarkable. However, people often know only one world:
They only know JET and therefore their complaints and ordeals are without point of reference to worse jobs.
Or they only know the eikaiwa lifestyle, which may increase their durability before finding something else, unless it crushes them. But then again, a teacher prior to me held down this job for 8 years.
8 years! I understand playing out an 18th month contract or two under these conditions, but there must be bounds of reason! Then again, it’s not like I have been a sex slave in Africa, or been wanting for the basics of life, and hey, it’s a job.
I realise that the JET programme is significantly cushier than it originally seemed. That’s not a slight against it, by all means you should try to do it!
But don’t forget that if it is hard for you on JET, other English teaching jobs are a lot harder. The many annoyances I had on JET now seem like they were silly to worry about. The message is surely that whatever you are doing now, there is always something worse.
I’m grateful for contrasting experiences. Now it’s time to try something else.Here's my social media! Support and follow. 🙂