Teaching English is one of the most common jobs available to foreigners in Japan. Most native English speaking foreigners I know have taught English to some degree while living in Japan. It is also one of the easiest ways to move to Japan and get a visa.
Teaching English in Japan may seem like a fun job filled with sushi, sake, and anime adventures, but there’s also a dark side that you need to be prepared for. If you are thinking of teaching English in Japan, especially as an ALT (assistant language teacher), here are some things you may encounter and how to deal with them.
HOWEVER… don’t let this list scare you off. Teaching in Japan is actually a pretty fun and rewarding job, and being able to live and work in Japan is pretty awesome.
The advice in this article are just suggestions, since there are many ways to handle the numerous challenges you’ll face while in Japan. I just wanted to show you one way you can deal with things on this list should you encounter them.
1. Bad Students
Before coming to Japan, I thought that all Japanese students were very studious and were very attentive in class. Man, was I ever wrong.
Sure, there are outstanding students who behave in class and are polite, but chances are you’ll have some rotten apples too.
One year, I had the honor of being placed in the worst school in my city (as “voted” by other teachers). Every day in class, I had things constantly thrown at me, students ripping up worksheets I gave them, students leaving class as they pleased, and even telling me to die every time I spoke (not an exaggeration…one kid probably told me to die 20 plus times during each class). Don’t worry though, my experience at this school is the exception, not the norm.
However, even at my “good” schools, I had students play baseball in the middle of class (with rolled-up paper bats and balls), yelling obscenities (some kids yelling “genitals” in class is my personal favorite), and making fun of me. This is in addition to being attacked with the dreaded “kancho” (#3 on this list).
Believe it or not, though, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Sure, some kids will probably test your patience (which you need a lot of), but most of the time, it’s no big deal.
This mostly happens at public or private schools, but you may also have bad students if you teach at an eikaiwa (English conversation school).
How to Deal With Bad Students in Japan
If this happens to you, what should you do?
If you work at a public elementary, junior high, or high school as an ALT (assistant language teacher), the rules state that you cannot be in the classroom alone (unless you have the necessary Japanese teaching qualifications). So you should have a certified teacher who watches over the class. If they are a good teacher, they will handle any disruptions for you (as they should).
But guess what? Not all teachers are good. Some teachers don’t do jack shit and let the kids run wild. Others try to discipline the kids but can’t control them no matter how hard they try. Or the teacher might not even be in class, despite it being a rule.
If this happens, play on your strengths. If you have a very friendly and fun personality, you could joke around with the kids to make them quiet down or make fun of their teasing. However, you need to have a lot of experience doing this, cause it could backfire too.
If you’re not comfortable doing that, ignore all of the petty stuff directed at you. If students laugh or tease you, don’t react at all, and pay no attention to it at first. If it gets really out of hand, or if the students are doing something completely inappropriate, then it is okay to raise your voice to get your point across. Use your common sense, of course. Using a Mr. Miyagi style crane kick to a student’s face may not be the best thing to do if they talk in class. But it is okay to be stern and raise your voice to let the kids know who’s the boss.
Be firm and serious, but don’t get angry or go berzerk. Just let them know you’re not gonna take any bullshit. This is only if the teacher is NOT there. If the teacher is there, try to let them handle it as much as they can. Assist them if you can, but always let the lead teacher try to control their class. You don’t want to step on their toes unless they ask for more help.
Sometimes the teacher you work with is tough, but the students are tougher. In this case, you may want to talk to the teacher to see if you both can work out a way to control the class.
If your teacher doesn’t help at all, try to speak to them about it (talk, not lecture). Ask them what you should do when the students are disruptive. If that doesn’t work, you could also get advice from other English teachers. If you work directly with a board of education, there might be someone there you can talk to as well.
However, many haken-gaisha (employment agencies, middle-men) do the hiring for schools now. If this is the case, they may have different policies for you to follow. They may want you to contact them first, even before talking to any of your co-workers.
2. Japanese Students Can’t Speak A Lot of English
One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching in Japan is connecting with your students. Before coming to Japan, I thought I could talk to my students in simple English, and have a conversation with each other.
It’s pretty well known that most Japanese students can’t speak English. I’m not saying this to put Japanese students down. I’m just stating the facts. Unless you work at an international school, or your school has a special English program, the chances are very high that your students can’t speak much English.
I don’t blame the students for this. Japanese students are smart, and many of them study English hard. But in Japan, they learn English mainly to pass tests (entrance exams). This means they emphasize reading and writing, with very little focus on speaking.
It’s pretty much like studying how to read music and expecting to become a professional pianist. It just doesn’t work like that. If you want to be good at playing the piano, all of the books and studying won’t help. You need to sit down and actually practice what you learn. Speaking English is exactly the same.
In addition to this, the English they learn for their tests is crap. Some of the English they learn sounds very unnatural. Even if a sentence is grammatically correct, it sounds so stiff that it would even put robots to sleep.
How to Communicate with Students in Japan
So just be prepared. When talking with students, speak clearly and slowly.
I DO NOT mean speaking loudly. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those people who speak louder and LOUDER if the person they are speaking with can’t understand? Yea, don’t be one of those people. It’s condescending and makes the person you are talking with feel like shit. Also, don’t talk so slow that you make the other person feel dumb. Just don’t slur your words together and talk like you drank 10 cups of coffee.
Use simple sentences too. Even simple questions like, “What kind of music do you like?” Or, “What’s your favorite food?” can be too difficult for some students to understand.
Instead, ask them this:
- Do you like music? / What music do you like?
- Do you like American food? / What American food do you like?
Most students can understand the “do you like ~?” type of questions. Gestures and body language are also very helpful. Just look at Mr. Bean. That guy doesn’t speak at all, yet he can entertain you for hours.
Also, any visual aids you have would work great if you want to talk to students outside of class or during their free time — things like photos, videos, or something related to your hobby would work well. I have known JETs who used pictures of popular music groups (BTS, baby!), dance, or music to relate to the students. I’ve done magic for many years, which works well to have fun with the kids.
You could easily argue that this falls under the category of “bad students,” which is entry #1 on this list. But being Kancho-ed is such a unique experience that I had to give it its own section.
If you don’t know what a Kancho is, you’re in for a surprise…literally. This is mostly done to male English teachers.
A Kancho is when a student puts his hands together to form an imaginary gun with his fingers (index fingers and thumb). What this student does next brings the phrase “Stick ’em up!” to a whole new level.
You see, this student will try to RAM the nozzle of his gun (aka index fingers) up your “tunnel of terror” (not sure why I came up with this name). Yes, students actually get a kick out of this (or maybe they will get kicked). They must Star Trek fans, cause nothing brings them more joy than to explore your Uranus and look for Klingons.
Have I had this done to me? You bet — more than once. If a kid does that to me or touches me anywhere inappropriately, I immediately tell them no. I usually tell them that what they are doing is bad and to never do it again. I say it in Japanese, but English would work just as well. As long as you say it sternly, so they know you mean business.
But I’ve had worse.
While I was at an elementary school, a cute little boy in the first grade came running to me from the other side of a hallway. He looked so happy and was calling out to me, his arms spread as if he wanted to embrace in a hug. So I extended my arms as well, fully expecting to catch him when he jumped up. Well, at the last minute, he jumped forward, cocking back his hand, and then executed a Superman punch so perfect it would make any MMA fighter jealous of his technique.
Unfortunately for me, this kid was also accurate as hell, and his punch landed so perfectly in my family jewels that I think I may have blacked out for a second. The next thing I remember was me being on the ground taking a knee, and that kid was nowhere to be seen. Since that was over 10 years ago, he is probably around 18 years old now. I’m pretty sure his balls have dropped by now, so I’m going back for revenge…if I can only remember what he looked like…
4. Your Teachers Suck
Bad teachers. It’s bound to happen. You may even run into problems with other staff at your school, people at the Board of Education, or your contracting organization. But you most likely won’t be seeing these people often as an ALT, so it usually isn’t a problem. If it is, you can always contact someone higher up the chain of command to help you.
Having problems with the teacher(s) you work with is much more common. Most of the time, this is due to a lack of understanding. For example, many ALTs complain that all they do in class is read things out loud like a human tape recorder. Yes, I’ve been there, done that.
Or it could be the teacher has a personality that just doesn’t rub you the right way. I have worked with teachers who are bossy and demanding, which I hated. I’ve also had teachers at the opposite end of the spectrum who were super lazy and just didn’t give a shit, which I also hated. I’ve also had teachers who I like as people but dreaded working with (they probably felt the same about me).
Chances are that if you teach in Japan for a few years, you are bound to work with a teacher with who you just don’t jive with.
How to Deal With Problems Between You and Other Teachers
So what do you do? Usually, I am biased and will take the ALT’s side. But in this case, most of the problems I have seen were caused by or escalated by the ALT. If you want to eliminate most of your problems with teachers, remember this: You are an ALT, which means ASSISTANT language teacher. Even if you have a PhD. and 20 years of teaching experience, if you sign up to be an ALT, your sole job is to support the head teacher.
This means that if the head teacher shoots down all of your ideas, makes you a human tape recorder in class, and makes you do a lot of work outside of class (correcting papers, making copies, preparing materials, etc.), so be it. That is the job you signed up to do.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should put up with teachers or staff being disrespectful or even breaking the rules. There’s a huge difference between a teacher who makes you a human tape recorder because that is their teaching style and a teacher who just doesn’t want to deal with you.
Keep in mind that sometimes, the teachers HAVE to teach specific material, no matter how boring it may seem. They have deadlines to meet, and they may have to speed through the material, which means little time for fun activities or games with the ALT.
If you feel like doing more in class, you can politely mention that to your teacher. For example, you can say something like, “If we have time, I have this fun activity that might work well for this lesson.” Or “Would you like me to create an activity/do a demonstration for this lesson?”
However, if you find yourself being completely disrespected for no good reason, I would NOT confront your teacher directly or even other staff at your school (the vice-principal usually runs the show at Japanese schools). Instead, go to your hiring manager/caretaker. If you are a JET, this means talking to either a prefectural advisor, the CIR, or the person in charge of the ALT’s at your local board of education. If you are an ALT hired through a haken-gaisha (hiring company), talk to them first.
Sometimes you’ll get standard, seemingly useless advice. Things like “unfortunately, this shouldn’t happen, but it does at times, so politely suggest so and so…” This kind of advice may seem pretty pointless, but it can actually be useful. Now you have the power to say that someone higher up told you what to do.
Let’s say a teacher always leaves class and leaves you alone with the students (against the rules). You could mention that your boss told you this shouldn’t happen. “I don’t mind teaching the class alone, but my company/boss/BOE told me that this should not be happening. Sorry for this inconvenience, but I need to follow the rules and have a teacher in the class during the lessons.”
If you rather not do this, you could also politely suggest something like, “Would you mind letting me know in advance when you have to leave the classroom? I would like to ask another teacher to help me during those times.”
Super Important Note: I don’t want to victim blame here, but make sure that you have a significant problem that would be difficult to resolve on your own. Many problems ALTs have are just minor things that can be worked out on their own with a little patience and common sense. Every teacher you work with will not share the same views as you, so don’t be upset about it. Go with the flow, ASSIST the teacher instead of forcing your ideas upon them, and try to be understanding.
Being left alone in class is against the rules, and if something happens, the head teacher can get into a lot of trouble. However, it does happen pretty often in my experience. I usually let it slide if it doesn’t happen all the time or if I like the teacher or school. Sometimes you can make the situation worse if you escalate the situation by having your boss talk to your school. It is crucial to maintain harmony (is that Japanese enough?) with other teachers at your workplace, for your sanity and theirs. The quote, “don’t shit where you eat” is very applicable here.
That being said, if it’s a major problem that is causing you unnecessary stress, put your foot down and let them know they are fucking up. If your first contact with your superiors doesn’t work, contact them again. Give them time to deal with the situation, as it can take time to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the Japanese workplace. But stay on the situation until the issue is resolved.
5. Your Japanese Will Suck
Show of hands. How many of you think that living in Japan will make you fluent in Japanese?
If you put your hand up, I’m sorry to say that this is not the case. In fact, your Japanese might not improve at all. I do not believe that being immersed in a foreign language will make you fluent. Many people assume that if you live in Japan, even for a year or two, you’ll come back speaking fluent Japanese. This is absolutely not true…unless you put in the effort.
Most people I know who lived in Japan only improved their Japanese a little, if any at all. The people who became good at Japanese put in the time and effort, which you can do no matter where you live.
Immersion only allows you to be exposed to a language consistently and provides you the chance to practice what you learn in real-life situations.
However, what happens to many JETs is they find they can get by speaking English. Many JETs (myself included) are super motivated to study Japanese when they first get to Japan. But then you start to get busy and just want to have fun. Learning Japanese gets pushed aside.
Those JETs who get placed in rural areas are usually the ones who learn a lot of Japanese since there’s not much nightlife in those areas, and you’ll probably be closer to the people in your town.
As an English teacher, you will find yourself surrounded by people who speak or are interested in English. You’ll probably be speaking English quite a lot. You’ll use English with other ALTs, the English teachers you work with, and the staff at your company (or Board of Education for JETs).
What about making Japanese friends? Becoming friends with people in Japan is awesome, but this often doesn’t help your Japanese improve unless you are already at an intermediate level or higher.
This is because the chances are high that you’ll meet a Japanese person who can speak English or wants you to teach them English (English bandits). So the conversations you have will naturally turn into English.
If you meet someone who can’t speak English, then your Japanese already needs to be at a decent level to communicate with them. If not, the conversation gets awkward, and you’ll just want to run away from each other.
Of course, there are times when you can click with someone without knowing each other’s language. There are Japanese people who can’t speak English, who have friends that can’t speak much Japanese. They communicate by simplifying what they say and by using gestures. But even in this case, you need to know some Japanese to relate to them.
If you’re lucky, you can find someone who can speak English well but has no problem with you speaking Japanese to them. Or you can find conversation partners or hire an online tutor. That will help your Japanese to improve quickly. Or better yet, you can find a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks Japanese 🙂
If you want to become amazing in Japanese, all you need to do is be consistent in your studying. There are so many excellent resources for learning Japanese that it’s never been easier to study on your own. Pick a book or program and study it every day, even if it’s 15 minutes. Just be sure to stick to your studying schedule. The best resource I used to learn Japanese is Japanesepod101, but there are tons of other options out there.
Then, be sure to try out all of the new words and grammar you learned at any chance you get. Whenever I learned a cool grammar pattern, I would create sentences to use when I went to the store or talked to people at school. I had some pretty embarrassing mistakes, but that’s what makes your time in Japan all the more fun!
6. You’re On Your Own
If you come to Japan with the JET Program or other well-established hiring companies, they should help you move and get settled in Japan. Things like finding a place to live, setting up your utilities, taxes, insurance, etc., are difficult to take care of on your own, even if you speak fluent Japanese.
However, keep in mind that some companies don’t do this. Before you accept a position with a company, be sure to confirm what kind of assistance they provide to help you move to Japan. A lot of big companies help you with finding a place to live, but that’s it. You may have to get a cell phone, set up your internet and utilities, and pay any taxes or fees on your own.
Even if you work for the JET Program, where they take care of pretty much everything for you, you might still have some situations where you’re on your own. I would get important-looking letters in my mail, and I had NO idea what they said. I pretty much ignored them. Well turns out, some of them were pretty important. One of them was for my city tax, which you need to pay. So unless you can read Japanese very well, understanding any mail you receive can be frustrating or even scary.
Learning the culture and dealing with daily life situations can also be challenging. When I first came to Japan, my contracting organization helped me set up a bank account. I finally got paid (I didn’t get my first paycheck until 2 months later), which was awesome since I was nearly broke. Well, being the genius that I am, I forgot my PIN code. When I tried to withdraw money from an ATM, I used the wrong code 3 times.
What I didn’t know was after 3 unsuccessful attempts, it voids your bank card, requiring you to get a new one. Now, this was all in Japanese, so I had no idea what was going on. I gave up after trying numerous times. This happened on a Friday, so I had to wait until Monday to talk to the bank (I had to use my vacation time too since the banks were closed by the time I finished work). It then took a few more days for me to get a new card. At this point, I was cashless and starving. I did lose a fair amount of weight, though, so I guess it wasn’t so bad.
Most of the time, you’ll be fine in Japan, even with no Japanese skills. There is a lot of information available on the internet in English, and translation apps really can help you communicate with someone. Google Translate has been improving a lot too.
Just keep in mind that you’ll have situations where you’ll have no idea what is going on, especially if you can’t speak or read Japanese well. You may have to handle these situations on your own, and it can be a struggle since many Japanese people can’t speak English.
7. Too Much Work
A great thing about working as an ALT in Japan is that most positions don’t have any overtime. Most Japanese teachers (especially at the junior high school level) work crazy hours, often working on the weekends and national holidays since many of them are in charge of a club or sports team at their school.
As an ALT, your working hours are set, and no one should expect you to work overtime. The teachers you work with have similar hours to you; 8 hours per day. But working 8 hours a day rarely happens for teachers in Japan. Just to catch up on their work for the day requires a few hours of overtime per day. If you work in a public school, these teachers do not get paid for any overtime work. As an ALT, I’m out the door the minute my time is up.
Of course, there are times when I had lots of work and voluntarily stayed longer to finish. Or I’ll bring my work home and do it there. This doesn’t happen very often, though. You may end up working overtime during your first year as a teacher since you are still new to creating materials for class. But most of the time, you can get your work done during your free periods.
So what is “too much” work for an ALT? If you work at a big elementary school, you may be asked to teach the whole day (6 or 7 classes). This is relatively common, but it can get very tiring, especially if you do this every day.
Not only do elementary classes require more energy (dancing, singing, playing games, etc.), but sometimes the school wants you to play with the students during their breaks too (recess time and lunch break). It’s also common to eat lunch with the kids, which is not relaxing since you have to talk or entertain them while you eat. So in the worst-case scenario, you could be working non-stop from the time you get to school until the time you leave, with no breaks.
This is subjective, but if you work for JET, the salary might be worth it. But most haken-gaisha (hiring companies) pay much less, and with a schedule like that, it might not be worth it.
Don’t worry, though. It’s pretty rare to have a full schedule like this every day. When I taught only at elementary schools, I had a lot of classes but negotiated to eat lunch in the staff room. If they gave me a full day of classes (99% of which I taught alone), I usually didn’t play with the kids during recess and would just chill in the staff room instead.
The only major problem comes from a violation of your contact or company guidelines. Sometimes, your company’s policies or contract will say how many classes per day you should expect. Sometimes it’s written very vaguely, so it can be open to interpretation. If this is the case, I would still contact your hiring company if the number of classes you teach is always way more than what is stated in the guidelines.
Some contracts will explicitly say how many teaching hours you have per day or per week. In this case, I would talk to your hiring company about your schedule.
What is far more common, especially in elementary school, is ALTs teaching the entire class on their own. I believe that the head teacher or someone with the proper qualifications MUST be in the classroom with the ALT unless stated otherwise. Despite this, it is still common for the head teacher to leave the ALT on their own. This can be seen as a compliment since they probably trust you enough to take care of the class, but it doesn’t make it right.
What to Do if You’re Doing More Than You’re Supposed To
Some teachers may be in class, but just sit at their desk doing their work and leaving you to teach the class. Some jobs ask you to teach the class on your own. But many ALT positions want you to teach the class together with the head teacher.
English classes are now required in elementary schools, but most teachers can’t speak English. Some teachers feel like they will get in the ALT’s way or are shy about speaking English. But sometimes, the teacher just wants to have a free period to do their work. In any case, you should try to get them involved in the classes. You can ask them to do a dialogue or skit with you or to tell them to explain an activity to the class.
If the teacher always disappears whenever you teach the class, that is a problem. This happened to me all the time, and for the most part, I didn’t mind it. This is because I liked the kids and the teachers.
However, I had some schools where I did not like the teachers. It felt like they were taking advantage of me and didn’t care about following any guidelines. In this case, I straight up told them “no” if they asked me to do something against the rules. But as mentioned above, I recommend talking to your advisor or hiring company about it before talking to your teachers or school.
8. Too Little Work
A very common complaint with ALTs is that they don’t have anything to do. This is especially true if you work at a junior high school, where it’s more common to have free periods. In the beginning, you’ll need these free periods to prepare for classes. But after a few months, you’ll probably be able to prepare for all of your classes in an hour or less. You’ll be left with a lot of free time, just staring at the clock, waiting until you can go home.
In my opinion, this shouldn’t even be a problem. Yes, when I first started teaching in Japan, I too was bored out of my mind. I had 3-4 hours of free time almost every day. I prepared for all of my classes at all of my schools in an hour or two. The reason why I felt so bored was that I didn’t know what I COULD or COULDN’T do. Once I found out the limits of what was acceptable, I came to love free periods. Now I wish I had more free time and no classes 🙂
Of course, you need to do something that would be deemed appropriate for the workplace. The difficult thing about this is that every school has different standards.
How to Spend Your Free Time During Work
If you want the “best” answer on how to spend your time, it’s putting more effort into your classes. I usually created games and activities in minutes. Sometimes some activities would take an hour for me to complete. However, when I knew I would have a lot of free time, I leveled up my game.
Instead of just making worksheets, I would take the same activity and create giant posters or props to make it more exciting. I would even create cards with different designs and made enough decks for all the students to play.
I did this by printing it out in color, onto construction paper, laminating it, and cutting all the cards out by hand. As you can imagine, this took a long time. I think I worked on it for days for one or two weeks. But the time just flew by, and I had these decks of cards that I used many times for years. You have to be careful, though. Some schools don’t like you using a lot of their expensive supplies like printing things in color and laminating sheets.
If you’re interested in another subject like Japanese or science, you could ask that teacher if you can join their class. Or, if you want to be a super-duper JET, you can go around asking other teachers or staff if you can help them with anything, or even clean the school.
I have been so bored that I’ve done all of the things I just mentioned. But let’s be honest here, most people don’t want to work in Japan to clean or bug other teachers to do their work. So what should you do?
When I started working as an ALT, I was told that reading a book during my free periods at school was okay. However, I know some JETs who were told not to do that at school. It all depends on your school and the teachers you work with.
Quick Tip: If you want to read a novel at school, put it on your desk instead of holding it in your hands while reading it. This small change can make it look like you’re “studying” instead of relaxing. I also would leave my class materials and open textbooks on my desk to make it seem that I’m “busy.” Anyone who looks at you can tell you’re reading a novel, but it somehow looks better than reading a book on a completely clean desk.
I think that most schools will be okay with you reading educational materials (NOT manga or novels). So studying other subjects or learning a new skill with textbooks is probably okay. Studying Japanese with books or flashcards (no audio or video) is probably okay too.
Many schools provide the ALT with a laptop to use. However, most websites are blocked, and you might not even be able to check your email. You can only access “safe” websites and the school’s email system.
Instead, try to see if you can bring your own laptop to school. Use a pocket WiFi or tether your laptop to your phone’s service. Then you’ll have full access to the internet. I bring my laptop to school, and I’m never bored.
Should You Teach English in Japan?
If you’re friendly and like kids, teaching in Japan can be a fun and rewarding experience. Compared to other jobs in Japan, teaching English (especially as an ALT) is relatively low in stress and provides you with a decent salary and working hours. You also have a chance to connect with your students and make a difference in their lives. You’ll probably make tons of unforgettable memories while you’re in Japan too.
If you do plan on teaching English in Japan, I recommend doing the JET Program. Check out the “Is the JET Program Worth It?” article if you want to learn more about it.