Teaching English in Japan

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In the autumn of 2001 I found myself at a loose end. I was thirty, with no proper job, no property, no kids and not even any pets. Like Nelly Furtado, I was like a bird, free to fly to away, to roam the world and have adventures - to do all the things I couldn't do in Tunbridge Wells. My girlfriend was in the same position, and after spotting an ad in The Guardian offering teaching jobs in Japan, we decided to fly away together.

Japan. Land of miniature gadgets and people dropping live scorpions down their trousers in the name of light entertainment. The country that brought us sushi, karaoke and the mythical schoolgirls' knickers vending machines. For a long time, I had been fascinated by and drawn to anything Japanese, from Haruki Murakami to Pikachu. I pictured Japan as a vibrant mix of skyscraping energy and Buddhist calm. The moment the idea was in my head, I had to go. I was going to live in one of the most exciting countries in the world - and all I needed to take with me was my mother tongue. English was my passport.

Because English is big business in Japan, and for anyone who wants to spend time living abroad, earning decent money and having a great time, this is a blessing. Conversation schools are nearly as prevalent as pachinko parlours, and thousands of people spend thousands of yen improving their grasp of the international language that we take for granted and mangle daily.

Anybody thinking of working for a private conversation school in Japan - as opposed to applying to work on a JET scheme - can choose between numerous companies: Nova, Geos, Aeon, Shane, Gaba, Saxoncourt and Berlitz to name a few. Nova is the biggest of these companies, with nearly 600 schools across Japan. In fact, with its bright blue and yellow sign, there seems to be a Nova outside every station in Tokyo. (Nova schools are always located beside train stations; it's company policy, so that students can pop in for a lesson on the way home from the office or on their way into town.) Geos is huge too, with 550 schools.

Most of the schools teach both adults and children - work as an English teacher in Japan and you'll find yourself educating anybody from the age of two to eighty-two. And it's not just ages that are diverse. I taught housewives, teachers, government ministers, brain surgeons, students, bus drivers, singers, schoolteachers, translators, astronomers, designers and a lot of systems engineers. Some of them need English for work; some study it as a hobby; others for travel or for meeting gaijin (foreigners). Some just want somebody to talk to - the language isn't important, but going to a language school gets them out of the house.

As an English instructor, you'll need to learn to talk about every topic you can imagine - and many you can't - from culture, food and politics to fashion and pop music. Favourite topics include what it's like in your home country, what you think of Japan, why you came to Japan, and your 'hobbies'. Students are encouraged to talk about their interests - to have natural conversations - but a lot of the lower-level students don't understand sentences like, 'What do you do in your free time?' You have to ask, 'What are your hobbies?' Answers can be - ahem - interesting. Window shopping. Sleeping. 'Driving a car'. 'Watching a movie'. One of my students only ever wanted to talk about dogs.

Cool students

An average day for a full-time teacher lasts about 9 hours, including preparation time (for which we didn't get paid). You work 5 days a week, usually including Saturdays and Sundays, and can start in the morning or afternoon. At Nova, known by teachers as Novacation, you get 10 days annual leave plus a few days off over New Year, although the other schools are more generous. You don't get public holidays off, nor do you get any extra pay for working them. There's no sick pay. However, teachers are told this before they go - there are no really nasty surprises waiting for applicants; no false promises. You'll be expected to work hard, to dress smartly and be punctual. In return, the language school will arrange your visa, find you accommodation (although they do make a profit from renting you a room) and give you a pretty good salary. Working full time, with no overtime (of which there is always plenty available) I had a disposable income of about 200,000 yen a month (1000). That's after paying for rent and utilities. Japan might be one of the most expensive countries in the world, but unless you go crazy and eat out every night and splash your cash on a new pair of Evisu jeans monthly, you can live comfortably on that money and save a fair amount.

Using Nova as an example, on that average day you will teach for eight periods. Most of these periods are filled with your bread and butter (or sashimi and rice) adult lessons. You sit in a cubicle with up to four students and use a text book and a great deal of creativity and imagination. Teachers are expected to come up with their own ideas for lessons - the text book contains some 'target language' and a situation, such as ordering a taxi or reporting lost property, but it's up to you to decide how to apply that language and entertain the students. One of my favourites involved teaching students strong defensive language - 'You can't tell me what to do'; 'It's my life!' - then getting them to imagine that they were having a family argument whereby the parents didn't approve of their teenage daughter's rock star boyfriend. In another lesson, they had to tell me how to make a cup of tea - harder than it sounds. You can use role plays, games, tasks and guided discussions. There are 9 levels of student, from the ones who look petrified when you ask 'How are you?' to those who have a better grasp of English grammar than most of the teachers. I never asked the higher level students to tell me how to make a cup of tea.

The other lessons are used up with something called 'Voice', which is an unstructured, free chat with a group of students in a conversation lounge, sales periods (checking students' levels and doing demo lessons) and teaching kids. This is one of the most rewarding and fun parts of the job. Sometimes you teach kids on their own, sometimes in groups. Singing songs, colouring in, prancing about like a Play School presenter. Great fun. When I left, saying goodbye to the kids nearly reduced me to tears.

The nicest kids in the world. Ever.

Like every other job in the world, some days teaching English to Japanese people is wonderful; other days you want to get on the first flight home. You might get lively, chatty, interested students who make teaching a joy. Or you might get a guy with halitosis who refuses to answer in anything other than monosyllables. It's not unheard of for students to pass out in class because they're drunk or swear at other students. Sometimes students make hilarious errors that will make you smile for days: 'What kind of chocolates do you have?' - 'I have big nuts'; and the all-time classic from a guy struggling to use the word 'with': 'I eat out my wife every night.' Many of the students are lovely people who you will want to keep in touch with for the rest of your life. And you'll also meet lots of cool people from all over the world. I now have friends in Japan, Australia, America and Canada. Handy for holidays.

So what do you need to be an English teacher in Japan? To work full time, you need a degree. (Part-time workers don't necessarily need one.) And English has to be your native language. You don't need a TEFL qualification or any experience of . . . well, anything, really. I would recommend that people think about signing a part-time contract and doing lots of overtime, so you can control how much you work. Different companies have different application processes. The Geos interview lasts three days; the Nova interview takes an hour. And would I recommend it? Yes. It's hard work; it can be a slog, and there are lots of petty rules and crazy things that you will have to get used to (have you ever worked for a company that refused to provide pens for staff who needed pens to perform their duties?) But overall, it's a fantastic experience, it's fun, the pay's good, you'll meet loads of nice people and learn a lot. And yes, Japan was almost exactly as I imagined it. Apart from the Buddhist calm.

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