Disclaimer: These posts are not meant to be about all teachers and forms of teaching English in Japan. The stories and events reported in there are specific to my experience and the company I work for. They should not be interpreted as being relevant to all forms of teaching in Japan. This is what has happened to me and while I don’t think that it’s the same for everyone, some research and talking with other people has shown that there are good and bad things in all companies and all situations. They’re just my story.
As much as I’d like it to be different, the truth is that even after just 2 or so months teaching English in Japan I’ve come to realise that the reality of the job is quite far off from what is being advertised and sold to you when you sign up. Which I guess isn’t really surprising – nothing is what it seems these days, but when it concerns a fairly radical change in your life, such as moving to the other side of the world, it’s easy to be worried.
Now don’t get me wrong I’m not saying it’s downright untenable and horrible. See my previous post about all the good things that are involved in becoming an English teacher out here. But there are quite a few things which have stuck in my throat from the start, and that of most people who I’ve spoken with and who teach in Japan, whether they have been for a short or long time.
The Eikawa industry in Japan is pretty big business and is primarily controlled by four major companies, all of which are North American. The most famous, both in and out of Japan, is NOVA – a megacorporation of global stature, and which is often referred to as the McDonald’s of the Eikawa industry. NOVA have been getting into a fair amount of trouble these last few years, as documented on the Nambu Union site. These troubles range from what have been claimed to be illegal practices in regards to the treatment of students down to illegal and shady practices in their treatment of staff.
If you look at it from a business point of view, then it’s not that much of a surprise – after all this is business, and like every other business in the world today, its purpose is to make money, not to be nice to people, or care about their needs. I was put off working for NOVA after looking into them, but I’ve met a few people who worked for them before (though mainly outside of Tokyo) and they’ve all seemed to have pretty good experiences – which goes to show that it’s not always all bad no matter how it looks on the surface.
Which leads nicely into my situation, as an employee of a much smaller Eikawa company – which shall remain nameless for the time being. It’s not all bad, far from it, but there are some aspects of the job which were seemingly conveniently avoided or entirely left out when I signed up.
For one the working conditions are quite different to what is sold to you – which is the promise of an 8 hour day, with at the most 5 or so hours of teaching, and that would not even be a norm. The rest of the time would be for some admin tasks and generally sitting around or going out to check the local areas where you teach. The reality is however different, primarily due to the fact that a lot of the districts are short-staffed (the reason being a lot of people leave with short or no notice), but also due to the fact that the managers who run the schools are obviously more interested in making money by signing people up than in ensuring that the level of teaching is adequate for all the students.
Let me explain – the reality is most of us work a 9 hour day, with 6 of these hours spent teaching. Technically you have to be in an hour before your first lesson to prepare the day’s lessons, and any additional time off (an hour or two split into small chunks throughout the day) apart from your 45min break, can also be used to prepare. Now if you teach an average of 4 hours, then things are pretty much fine – you have ample time to prepare and ensure every lesson is going to be as good as possible, and you won’t feel stressed or tired, as you’ll have enough time to relax, go for a walk, eat etc… But when it’s a 6 hour day, which generally includes a variety of lessons from kids to teenagers to adults of varying levels, all split into chunks of 30mins to 1h30 then it becomes trickier. Preparation being the key – and you’re not paid anywhere near enough to really put a 100% into preparing everything fully, and more importantly you don’t really have the time to do it. Because you’re teaching. So when comes the time for your last student, you’re generally worn out and unable to give it your fullest.
Again the key here is that you end up with 6 hours because the managers want to make money – the more people study the more money they make, the less time you have to prepare and the more stressed and tired you end up. Again from a business point of view I understand the need and reality for this to be – without said money there wouldn’t be work for teachers, but at the same time there are definitely a lot of cases where school managers are just solely money motivated, which is highly uncompatible with the ethos of teaching – which is about ensuring people get a good lesson and learn something, and that’s not going to happen if you’re overworked for the sake of money (which you ain’t seeing much of anyways).
Add to that things such as an inability to fully communicate with some of the staff in schools, who are all Japanese and some of whom don’t have a decent level of English, and the seeming attitude of some staff to treat teachers as mere workers when it’s supposed to be an equal situation where both staff and teachers work together to ensure the school runs well – and you end with a situation which is a bit shit, to be frank.
I work in two schools where the managers are like that – if someone cancels they’ll do their best to get someone else in, which becomes grating quickly. They regularly seem to make mistakes which make your day harder, such as not telling you when your hours have changed, giving you classes which you aren’t trained for or downright ignoring your advice when you recommend a student for a certain level (or in a worst case, recommend that a student be downgraded because they’re at totally the wrong level – something which is seemingly unfeasible because it would be admitting that they were wrong in the first place and obviously milked said student for all the money). They also have an attitude which isn’t conductive to a nice working environment either – now, there’s probably a few explanations for that, and I’m sure it’s not a 100% down to their personalities. After all it’s not like I know them that well – it’s a working relationship, but it’s a pretty shitty one.
Of course that’s what you signed for so bitching about it ain’t really gonna change it or make a difference. But it seems to me that even the administration which is above both the staff in the schools and the teachers, doesn’t care much either. And having talked to some people about it, it’s generally been like that for some time. Obviously admin aren’t there to make everyone’s life hunky dory, but again it’s common logic that if your staff are unhappy with working situations it’s not going to make them more willing to do better or worst stay – hence the staff shortages due to people legging it when they realise it’s far from what they’ve been told it would be or when they’ve been treated in a way they feel is unfair. And that’s the thing, if you have such a high turnover of staff, as they do in my district (4 people have legged it this month so far – and this it would seem is a fairly common occurence), then you’d think you might realise there are issues which need solving. Again from my point of view this seems much more of a case of a big company not caring about anything but the bottom line. Which is unfortunately the harsh realities of the corporate world we live in.
Another thing which adds to this is the overtime. The contract you sign as a teacher guarantees that you only work 233 days in your first year, and 230 after that. Due to this, the company also factors in 13 days a year (or 10 after a year of service) of what is called stand-by or cover. Simply put this means that every month you can be either put on cover, where you have to work an extra day a week to cover for someone (who might have legged it say), or on stand-by which means that you must phone in on your day off and check if you’re needed due to teachers calling in sick, in which case you are then told where to go and what to do. Which is fine, but the kicker is here – anyone employed by the company since 2006 does not get paid for these extra days of service. That’s right, these are by and large days where you work for free and this is not explained to you until you get here (though the hours you do apparently count towards a quarterly bonus – which is never explained to you unless you specifically require it to, and then it’s still quite tricky to work your head around it). And that’s not at all – not only do you work for free, the person who called in sick has money taken away from them. A nice little earner if I’ve ever seen one. And to top it off, anyone employed prior to 2006, does get paid for the 6th day of work. Meaning you do end up feeling like you’ve got slightly shafted.
Now while this is all in your contract and legal, there are still liberties the company tries to take – for example asking you (well more like telling really) to do 3 cover or stand-by days in a month. Which is downright oppressive and nasty. On the plus side you can refuse to do 3 extra days a month, and let’s face it when these are free days you definitely want to, but it’s a hassle and really I shouldn’t have to explain to my boss that this kind of offer is unreasonable. It should be obvious. What’s more sometimes the company will say that in return for your extra work you can paid leave at a later date – which is all fine and dandy but the later date is to be decided by them, not you and them together.
There is also no sick pay – fine, that was advertised to me from the word go. I can take it. There are also no paid holidays of the employee’s choice. Again fine, this was explained from the beginning and there is a sizeable amount of holidays spread throughout the year. But lo and behold, after a month here I’ve found out that there is actually a clause in the contract which clearly states that after 6 months of employment you are entitled to 10 days of paid leave (as you are in most countries, it’s 21 in the UK for example) which you can take at any time. Now this is in your contract, because it’s the law in Japan – and as it’s been explained to me anything in a contract which contradicts Japanese law is automatically void in the eyes of the law and therefore inapplicable by the employer. But the kicker is you are never told about this – ever! I’ve asked about 5 teachers who’ve been here for more than a year and so far none of them knew about this.
Again this goes back to my point of making your employees feel content – why hide from them a legal clause entitling them to paid leave. It doesn’t fill you with the kind of confidence you need to stay in the job. And if you don’t well, everyone else has to work more hours and days, unpaid for some. And so the cycle continues. It’s pretty crazy once you look at it from the inside. I took a pretty big pay cut coming out here to do this, and like I’ve said before I don’t regret it and I knew what I was getting into. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt since leaving university and standing on my own two legs in the big bad world, it’s that you should always get what is due to you, especially by law. The system is bad enough as it is, without you having to take shit you’re not supposed to, or shouldn’t really have to because someone just wants to milk you for all your worth.
It’s funny because I was reminded the other day of the adage that goes ‘those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach’. Which I guess might hold truth in some situations (definitely in a lot of academic circles for example), however in the case of teaching English as a foreign language, it is a job which requires a lot out of someone – dedication, care, interest and so on. Yeah you can blag it, and a lot of people do, but really if you like to do things well, then you’re going to care about what you teach, how you teach and who you teach. And the working conditions of your average Eikawa teacher in Tokyo are far from ideal for you to do that. Now it seems to me that with time comes experience, and with experience comes the ability to put your foot down for good and ask for something which is much more adequate – for example I took over some days from a guy who’s an experienced teacher and who basically told the school manager to f*ck off because she had no understanding as to what teaching is about or any understanding that when you teach for 6 hours (which can include up to 10 classes of varying age and levels) you’re not going to be able to give it your best. So he got what he wanted, a quieter day and a different school.
I don’t know if I’ll wait till I’m an experienced teacher, because I’m not sure I want to become one (especially of English as a foreign language), but I do know I want what’s due to me and I want to be treated like a friggin’ adult, which is what I am. I want to see my contract not a single sided piece of A4 (I mean wtf!) and be told of all the clauses relevant to my employment, I want to know how my bonuses really work, and I want to be able to give feedback about working conditions and know that they will be taken in and acted upon. However so far, it seems that none of these things are a reality. So I’ll just have to keep on doing it and see what happens. I’m not a quitter, and I like a challenge, but some things are far too idiotic to not get wound up about.