What it’s really like to teach English in Japan: A teacher’s perspective

teaching English abroad to young learners in Japan

Teaching English in Japan is unlike teaching, well, anywhere else in the world. Not only is it a country full of magnificent sites – both natural and historic – but it also has a rich culture with many beautiful customs. 

While we have previously covered a few tips and tricks for getting ready to teach English in Japan, our team here at Teach Away wanted to dive deeper into how to best prepare for teaching English in Japan. 

While country research is key to understanding your next home away from home – and tips and life hacks are important to creating convenience in your day to day – we believe there is nothing like learning from other teachers’ personal experiences to truly prepare you for your next adventure. 

That’s why we spent some time getting to know Alex Barnes from Benesse BE studio. We wanted to learn what took him all the way from North Carolina to Japan to teach English to some very little and very special young learners.  

Alex’s Story

Alex Barnes teaching English in Japan

Originally from North Carolina, USA, Alex Barnes studied Japanese at university, which is when he first became interested in this beautiful country. It wasn’t until he started tutoring Japanese exchange students in the English language that he really found his passion for teaching English. This work led him to eventually move to Japan, where he has been working in the English teaching industry since 2011. His success and life there has been so rewarding that he is now keen to share his experiences with others thinking about, or already looking into, teaching English in Japan. He told us: “I’m really interested in sharing with others how [teaching] English works, and I feel like I learned a lot more about my native language by teaching it.”

When Alex started applying for teaching positions in Japan, he had a variety of interview experiences. He found that some interviews were information sessions followed by group interviews, sometimes involving quite a bit of travel. Whether in a group or individual setting (or both), interviews usually involved a recruiter giving an explanation of the company and job. Then applicants were often asked to model part of an English lesson. 

One unique thing that Alex did during this recruitment process, which really helped him stand out from his peers, was preparing some sample lesson plans and teaching materials ahead of time. That way, he was ready in case he was required to use his own material. “Eventually, I accepted a position for an English conversation school in a city called Tsukuba, about one hour outside of Tokyo,” says Alex. He was there for a while before he took a position with a company that had a focus on teaching English to young learners in Japan. 

“I started at Benesse BE studio in May 2018. I was brought in to head up training, observations, and employee care for the Instruction Section,” he says. He notes that “since BE studio is focused on teaching children, especially younger learners, the training and school atmosphere is very fun. Games, songs, and crafts are a big part of lessons, so teachers that enjoy these types of activities and enjoy teaching young children are the kind of people working here. Teachers might have a lot of students, but schools tend to be small, so a typical work environment is more personal and friendly than many large private conversation schools or public schools.” 

teaching English abroad to young learners in Japan

Alex was a quick study and soon settled into his life at BE studio, a company that he says “has a different company culture and lesson style. I was pleasantly surprised that BE studio places a lot of importance on employee care and communication with instructors. We also have regular workshops to improve teaching skills, and because new and experienced teachers come to share ideas, it’s a very supportive environment.”

Alex explains that many of the large companies in the industry don’t have the time or resources to see instructors often after initial training. Usually, this means that the head office only gets involved when a teacher, or their school, have a problem. 

The philosophy at BE studio is different, however, and Alex tells us that the staff are very committed to continuing to support teachers and building their teaching skills long term. This kind of work environment was exactly what Alex needed and hoped for, as it lends itself to a long career. Some of the foreign employees at the company have been working there for more than 20 years!

Alex did say that teaching English to young learners in Japan may not be a great fit for everyone. “This may seem self-obvious, but you need to enjoy working with younger children. Some people think that they’ll have a good time, but find the job not to their liking when they actually have to teach children every day,” Alex says. “If you love working with kids of various ages, you’ll be fine.” 

Teaching English to young learners in Japan is definitely a unique experience. Alex says of his work: “you’ll often find that kids have high enthusiasm for English and want to involve fun in the lessons. That’s not to say you won’t find that with adult students. Many beginner adult students will enjoy games and learning English as well, even if the type of enthusiasm is different from children. The biggest difference is probably in how you approach teaching those students. When teaching kids, you will have to take into account their personality and learning style more often. Whereas teaching adults is often focused more on their goals and purpose for studying English.”

teaching English abroad to young learners in Japan

Alex tells us that it is extremely rewarding work for him: “When you see the ‘oh, now I get it’ look on a student’s face, or a parent tells you their child had a conversation with foreign tourists last weekend, or a student finally passes the English test they’ve been studying for, it makes it all worth it.”

For Alex, teaching English to young learners in Japan with a company like BE studio was a dream come true. He was fulfilled in his work, his company was supportive and he could see a clear career path for himself that would allow him to stay in the country he fell in love with as a University student. 

That said, when it comes to embarking on teaching English as a foreign language career in Japan, it’s best to understand what to expect. 

Alex’s main advice for those reading his story is setting expectations of working for a Japanese company. “You have to take everything with a grain of salt and manage your expectations. Step one is accepting the major differences between working in Japan and working, in say, the US or Canada.” He says it’s important to not only really understand the country’s culture, but to specifically be prepared for a very different working culture. That’s the best way to set yourself up for success.  

Preparing for the little things

After learning first-hand from Alex’s success story for working and living in Japan, we began to see that sometimes it’s the smallest things in life that can really trip you up. Based on his experiences, here are four things to consider before your boarding call. 

Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork

Before you’ve even left on your trip, make sure to have all your paperwork in order. The last thing you want is to travel for 15+ hours only to discover that you need a certain form signed by someone back home! When you first arrive in Japan, there is naturally going to be a bit of running around getting this, that and the other thing. Alex’s sage advice is: “Make sure to prepare well for initial costs as much as possible. Getting through all the paperwork (city hall, phone contracts, etc.) can be frustrating, but you just need to have patience.” 

This part of the process is certainly not unique to Japan. When it comes to paperwork and settling in, relocating anywhere to teach English abroad is going to require some calming deep breathing techniques. But Alex adds one key tip for arriving in Japan: “after you’re all set up, find your closest 100-yen store (think dollar store); you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many everyday goods you can buy there!”

Learn the language

Kajsa, another English teacher at BE studio, says that what surprised her the most when she arrived in Japan is “how little people speak English.” 

While being fluent in Japanese was definitely an asset for Alex Barnes, it’s not necessarily required in order to be fully prepared for life in the country. That said, knowing a handful (ok, maybe a few more than a handful) of key Japanese phrases will definitely be handy. It’ll help you get oriented and manage some of those day-to-day tasks, which can seem insurmountable when faced with the inability to communicate in the local language. 

Check out these great resources for learning some Japanese before you take off:

tourist visiting Kyoto, Japan


Get to know the culture

You could probably read endlessly about Japanese culture to try to understand everything this amazing country has to offer. Reading up on Japanese cultural practices on our blog is one place to start.

Or you could do what Erin, another BE studio teacher, did before her move: “I mostly prepared by checking out videos about living and working in Japan.” But in her experience, it seems that it’s best not to take everything you hear about Japan too seriously. She says: “There was some content that didn’t match what I actually experienced. For example, they talked about manners in Japan a lot, like not eating and walking at the same time, but I see people doing that all the time.”

As for Alex Barnes, he says that based on his experience in Japan, “life is very comfortable, the food is great, and the people are polite and helpful. The culture is very different from back home, but that’s what drew me to Japan in the first place.”
 

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What it’s like working in Japan 

Where Alex thinks you might find the biggest shock, and where he indeed was perhaps most challenged, was adapting to the work culture in Japan. 

For example, if you’re like us and roll into the office at 9:01, then you’re going to need to rethink your approach to punctuality in order to be successful in a Japanese work environment. Alex kindly warned us that “Japanese employees typically arrive at least 15 minutes before their shift starts, and showing up only a few minutes before work starts, or being right on time, is considered late.” He explained that for Japanese people, work time is paid time. Therefore, they believe that everyone needs some time to catch a breath and get ready for their shift: “The main idea is that everything is prepared and you are actually ready to start working when the shift time begins.” 

In addition, Japanese people like to keep their workplace tidy – not that you can blame them! No one likes a messy desk; it’s distracting. In Japan, Alex says “many workers place a lot of importance on cleaning the work area and expect everyone to contribute.” While he didn’t technically have to contribute, what he discovered was that “it made relationships with my co-workers so much better once I started pitching in with the cleaning.” 

Alex also noted about his job: “In the Eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry specifically, it’s important to remember that you’re working for a business; it’s not 100% teaching lessons. You might be asked to hand out fliers or help promote the school in similar ways. So as long as you keep a flexible attitude about assigned tasks, you’ll avoid a lot of problems and have better relationships with Japanese co-workers.”

These tips might seem very specific, but as our friends at BE studio reminded us, in Japanese culture, not everything is communicated directly, so you need to learn to ask the right questions. As we mentioned in our article about teaching young learners in Japan, the presence of foreigners is quite limited, which means the average person has fairly low exposure to different ways of doing things. We suggest taking the time to really read up on what to expect. Because the more you know, the better prepared you’ll be. 

Find a community!

Speaking of getting prepared, there is nothing like having a support network to ensure you’re in the know and set up for success. There are definitely going to be many other English teachers just like you, who you can meet and learn from. 

Don’t underestimate the kindness of strangers. We learned this from another BE studio teacher named Mary Kate, who shared with us her biggest surprise in Japan: “People have been really willing to help a lot. I was surprised by how helpful everyone wanted to be. People just come up to you and ask if you’re doing okay, or if you need anything.”

If you want to make some friends before you leave, you can join the Teach Away Community Facebook Group to connect with other English teachers getting ready to ship out. Then you can plan to meet up with them when you arrive. Happens all the time!

 group of friends

To wrap it up

In short: make sure you’re as prepared as possible! That includes everything from understanding your workplace, to ensuring you have your TEFL certificate for authentication purposes. A TEFL is not always necessary, but a really great way to get prepared for teaching English abroad.

Of course, one person’s experience can be very different from another’s. We urge you to read up on Japan and learn as much as possible before deciding to explore opportunities for teaching English abroad

Even for Alex, it wasn’t a totally clear path: “I didn’t know completely that I wanted to teach English overseas. I knew I wanted to work in Japan and use the Japanese language in my job long term, but I was open to the idea of working in other industries in the future. However, I found that teaching became a passion for me, and working my way up to training felt like a natural progression from my love of teaching. While being involved in training and employee development satisfied my desire to teach, I also studied Japanese with the intention of using it for work. With my current position, I really enjoy the challenge of using Japanese on a daily basis, and I’ve warmed to a management position more than I would have thought when I first came to Japan.”

He admits that: “My experience might be a bit rare specifically as a foreign manager, but those who do move up here are the ones who are dedicated to learning the language and accepting and working with cultural differences in the workplace, which is likely true in any country.”

Regardless of your career path, teaching English in Japan can be one of the most important and valuable things you can do for your future. As Alex told us in his interview, “those I’ve talked to who made careers in other industries or careers back home have said that the transferable, non-teaching skills they learned here came in handy in unexpected areas. In addition to people who have used teaching or Japanese language skills in work back home, skills such as customer service, content creation, and intercultural communication have often opened doors to a variety of careers for many people I have met through work.”

Ready to teach English abroad in Japan? Check out all the latest job opportunities. Specifically interested in teaching English to young learners? See what’s available.

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