5 tips for teaching English in Japan as a long-term career (from someone who’s done it)

Fujiyoshida Japan view of Mount Fuji and Chureito pagoda at sunset

Teaching English in Japan doesn’t have to be a short-term adventure. If you’re considering TEFL as a long-term career in Japan, here’s the scoop on how to do it.

To get some solid TEFL career tips for teaching English in Japan, we decided to go straight to the source and talk to someone who’s been there. So we got in touch with Alex Barnes, an American who has been working in the English education industry in Japan since 2011, to pick his brain.

Alex first started as an English teacher in Japan working at an English conversation school near Tokyo. Now, he’s the head of instructor training, observation and employee care at Benesse BE Studio. Pretty impressive, right?

Based on our chat with Alex, we’ve compiled a list of five tips for developing a long-term (or even lifelong!) career teaching English in Japan. Let’s look at his advice at a glance and then dive in deeper.

 

woman teaching English in Japan to young learners

1. Research a career in teaching English in Japan.

The best way to prepare for your TEFL journey is to do lots of research on teaching and living in Japan, as well as Japanese work culture. A great place to start is reading about what it’s really like to teach English in Japan from teachers who are currently living and working there.

These days, there are a ton of online resources for those interested in living and working in Japan. But it’s wise to try to stick to reputable sources of information (instead of falling down a YouTube rabbit hole). For example, the Government of Canada has published a very informative guide for Teaching English in Japan. Although this is primarily meant to be a resource for Canadian citizens, it’s full of information that applies to TEFL teachers of all nationalities.

Next, it’s a good idea to set some career goals for yourself and come up with an action plan for how to achieve them. If you’re planning to have a long career in teaching anywhere, then getting a university degree in education is seriously worth considering. Or, if you’re a US citizen and already have a bachelor’s degree (in any subject), you can easily become a licensed teacher through an alternative teacher certification program.

Now let’s look at a more specific example. Let’s say your goal is to have a long-term career specifically in a field like teaching English to young learners in Japan. Your action plan can start with completing the online University of Toronto OISE TEFL course with a specialization in teaching English to young learners. And then you can research schools in Japan that cater to young learners. For example, Benesse BE Studio may be a good fit for you.

It’s also a good idea to start learning basic Japanese before you take off. This will help you settle into life in Japan faster, which is particularly important if you plan on staying for a long time.

 

Japanese kindergarten student drawing

2. Find a job that offers opportunities for career development.

Once you’re ready to get serious about your job search, you’ll likely find that there are countless postings for English teaching jobs in Japan all over the internet.

Feel free to look around, but my advice is to stick to TEFL-education-specific job boards, like the Teach Away job board. Reputable schools with good long-term career growth opportunities are more likely to recruit teachers on these sites.

When looking at job postings, keep an eye out for specific mentions of career growth opportunities that would be available to you. Most schools that support professional development will highlight this benefit on their website and job postings.

Some schools offer teachers paid training and professional development programs as part of their compensation and benefits package. For instance, Benesse BE Studio provides paid initial training and lesson observations to get you classroom-ready before you start teaching.

If you can’t find information about a school’s professional development opportunities online, this is a great thing to ask about during an interview.

 

English teacher in Japan working at corporate office

3. Look into specific opportunities for advancement for teachers in Japan.

Any reputable school or education company should be able to provide opportunities for advancement within their organization. Let’s look at what some of the more common professional development opportunities look like in Japan.

 

Expanding your range as a teacher

You don’t necessarily need to stick to teaching one age group at a certain type of school your whole career. There are many opportunities out there for expanding your teaching range to other specializations.

For instance, you may start off your career teaching English to young learners in Japan and later decide that you’d like to work with teenagers at a cram school to prepare them for English university entrance exams. Making this career move is completely doable with some additional training.

 

Pursuing a career with group companies

One of the benefits of working for a big education company in Japan is that it offers a wide range of teaching opportunities within one group of schools.

Expanding on our example above, this means that once you’re prepared to teach teens, you can look into transferring to a cram school that’s part of the same group of companies that recruited you to teach young learners.

Group companies also often work together on projects, which is a great opportunity for networking and finding the next career step that’s right for you.

 

Expanding your skills to support other teachers

Once you’ve built up some teaching experience, you may want to consider helping to train teachers who are early on in their careers by becoming a mentor. Participating in a mentorship program is also a great way to build skills outside of teaching to have a more well-rounded resume.

Best of all, being a mentor allows you to have a greater impact on the teachers you support and the students they teach.

 

Pursuing a career at the corporate level

Sometimes there are opportunities at a company’s head office for educators who demonstrate their value and have specific skills. This means that you might be able to grow your career beyond the classroom and work in human resources, product development or other roles – as was the case for Alex Barnes.

The more prepared you are for the skill set required for the role you are seeking, the better. A certain level of Japanese proficiency is also usually required.

All that said, there can often be a fair bit of competition for coveted management positions, particularly at larger companies. Being recognized for great work and understanding what’s required for higher positions are the keys to long-term career advancement in Japan.

 

Japanese business people greeting by bowing

4. Do your best to get your teaching contract renewed.

Once you accept a job with an employer who offers the career advancement opportunities you’re looking for, it’s time to start focusing on how you’re going to take full advantage of them. You should start by setting yourself up for teaching English in Japan for a long time.

English teachers in Japan generally first get hired on one-year contracts that are tied to their work visa. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan to stay longer from the get-go!

When employers make contract renewal decisions, teachers are often evaluated based on their work performance, their reputation among coworkers, and direct feedback from students and parents. So make sure you work hard and meet all of your employer’s expectations. This includes taking initiative and adapting to Japanese work culture.

Some great advice is to always think about what’s best for your students and be conscious of working in a team. And if there is one golden rule to live by while teaching English in Japan it’s: don’t forget to always be polite and respectful. Both are particularly important in Japanese culture.

If you’re planning to stay in Japan for many years, it’s crucial to make yourself comfortable by learning all about Japanese culture and customs. And most importantly: learn some Japanese! Sure, you’ll be able to get by with just greetings and pleasantries, but the more fluent you become, the more at home you’ll start to feel.

 

foreign English teacher in Japan on city street

5. Research how to apply for permanent residency in Japan as an English teacher.

Once Japan starts to feel like home, make sure to look into immigration status requirements.

While most English teachers go to Japan on a renewable short-term work visa sponsored by their employer, if you want to move there for much longer, we have good news: it recently became easier to become a permanent resident of Japan!

Dealing with immigration paperwork and formalities can be a hassle, but a good employer should help support you through this process.

For instance, Alex told us that at BE Studio: “We have a specialist supporting teachers’ visa renewal process, as well as changes in their status of residence. Although teachers prepare the application themselves, we remind teachers as it gets close to the end of their visa period. We also provide proof of employment and any other certificates needed depending on the situation. There are a number of teachers and corporate staff at BE studio with permanent residency, and the company can provide advice and support in order to do so.”

So what’s next?

With this advice in mind, you can start taking the right steps toward a rewarding, long-term teaching career in Japan.

In short, the key takeaways from our chat with Alex are to start by researching teaching opportunities in Japan, find an employer who offers the career advancement opportunities you’re looking for, do a great job and make long-term immigration plans.

Are you ready to start your career teaching English in Japan? Start by creating a free Teach Away account to apply for one of the 100+ open positions currently on our Japan job board.

Looking for a teaching job in Japan with excellent career development opportunities? Benesse BE Studio may be the perfect fit for you. Check out their latest job post for Early Childhood English Teachers.