1. Can you tell us about the program you went on to teach English in Japan?
I was on the JET programme, short for the “Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme”, which is aimed at promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations. I worked for two years as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at a mid-level academics high school in the suburbs of Fukuoka City on Kyushu. ALTs would work with the main teacher of the class to help the students gain insight into a native English speaker’s accent and culture.
At the high school I worked in, I was responsible for the freshman level conversational English lessons, which met a once a week. I was given full liberty in designing the lessons, and could assign homework if I liked. I definitely was given a lot more independence than many ALTs!
2. What was the most rewarding thing about teaching English in Japan? What were some challenges you faced?
It was challenging for me to be put into the position of lead teacher without having studied how to teach before. This led to many failed lesson plans. Another challenge was that each class had around 40 students, making it difficult to monitor who was engaged, who was bored, or who was exhausted.
At the end of the day, the students were required to spend around 20 minutes cleaning the school. These were mainly simple things, like sweeping, or airing out the chalkboard erasers. I would wander around and chat with the students during this time, and if the students used English I would give them a sticker that they could redeem for prizes later on. Besides the hilarious things they said, their looks of success and pride when they managed to say something correctly were absolutely heartwarming!
3. What did you learn from the students that you taught?
I learned that I speak very quickly, and have “curly” hair (thanks to the humidity, my hair was a little wavy, a rarity in Japan). I also learned that enthusiasm and making an effort were often more appreciated than a flawless execution. The lessons that I was more devoted to were better received, and I was always more pleased by the students who tried hard in return.
4. In what ways are Japanese classrooms different from American classrooms (what students are taught, how they learn, their behavior, etc.)?
Japanese students are taught to memorize. In the US, the majority of classes involve essays or short answer exams, which test students’ understanding of the materials. Japanese high school exams mostly test students’ ability to remember.
Basically, every Japanese test was like a math exam: do you know the formulas well enough to produce the correct answer? This is particularly frustrating for languages, as it discourages students from experimenting.
One other noticeable difference was that girls and boys never chose to partner together, and both genders roamed in packs. They were also very respectful of the teachers. The baseball boys actually stopped and bowed to teachers in the hallway.
The high school students also had a grueling schedule. Many arrived as early as 7:00 AM (after 30 to 60 minutes of commute time) and went to extra classes after school, often going to bed after midnight. Because my class was just once per week, this meant that tired students usually preferred to sleep through my class.
5. What was your favorite pastime while living in Japan?
I actually got into dungeons and dragons while I was there! I also ate everything. Japanese food is amazing, and my friends and I would try a new restaurant at least once a week.
I also liked to go window-shopping. The way things are displayed in Japan is fascinating, and it was interesting to see how the Japanese aesthetic could be applied to something like making a crepe.
6. What would you tell someone interested in teaching English in Asia to help them get their start?
Research the country you’re interested in going to. Many have government run programs (like JET), which are the safest and most financially stable, but also the most competitive.
If you can’t go with a government program, there is almost always an organization in the country that acts as a recruiter for local language schools. These organizations can help with the immigration process and help to secure paid work before you arrive there, but again, research the organization thoroughly!
7. What should a person look for, exactly?
Well, the company should have an established internet presence with former employees discussing the company itself. If you can’t find anything about the company, it would better to avoid it. If you do find reviews, read them carefully and ask yourself, do they seem genuine? If a review is exclusively raving, it may have been a paid review.
Amity, for example, is a legitimate company that provides high quality English teaching to children in Japan that pays well, helps its teachers relocate, and provides housing and support setting up their new life in Japan, too.
Kara Payne is a 27 year old American currently living in Berlin, working in the video game industry. She has taught English in Japan, traveled to 27 countries (and counting!) and lived overseas for over 4 years. In her spare time she loves to swing dance and explore dungeons with her role-playing group.