Is it your dream to teach English in Japan?
Do you want to work in Japanese public schools OR in an English Conversation school?
Both have pros and cons. Which one is the best option for you?
To clarify, Public School means public elementary (grades 1-6) and junior high (grades 7-9) schools, organized by the city’s Board of Education. This rarely includes high school (grades 10-12), kindergarten, or preschool. The reason for this is a lot of the preschools and high schools are private.
Conversation School (also known as Eikaiwa or English Conversation School) are an extra-curricular, private school for people interested in improving English conversation. Not to be confused with juku, or cram schools. Juku can include English classes in addition to other subjects, although they are private after school academic and test preparation schools. I have never heard of a foreigner working at juku. Eikaiwa are for students of literally all ages.
Hours are on weekdays, usually between 8:00am and 5:00pm. You will get around two months a year off (mostly unpaid) as school holidays. This is super nice if you want to travel in Japan. You almost always have weekends off. You should have 5-10 days per year as paid days off, although getting approval to take the days off isn’t always easy. A normal week is 40 hours a week at the school(s) although time in the classroom is more like 25-30 hours or much less. Legally you are a ‘part time’ employee and not allowed to work over 40 hours a week unless you are volunteering to do so.
Note: IF you work for the JET Programme or directly for a board of education, you will not get as much (unpaid) school holiday time, but you will get more (paid) work time. IF you work in a high school (unlikely in the first couple years for a recruiting/dispatch company), you might have to work on some Saturdays.
Hours are seven days a week, as early as 6:30am and as late as 11:00pm. Usually you will get two days a week off, but don’t expect a weekend day or two days in a row. You might have several classes in a row and you might have a lot of breaks in between. Hours per week really depends on the company, the need for teachers that week, and your popularity as a teacher. You aren’t always guaranteed a minimum number of hours per week and your salary will depend on how many classes you teach. You are not expected to sit in a teacher’s room on days with no classes, but are instead paid only for hours worked plus potentially minimal preparation time.
Working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) is not technically teaching. You will assist the homeroom teachers or Japanese teachers of English by playing English games, modeling correct pronunciation, grading, coming up with lesson activities, etc. You will interact with students and act as a cultural representative – a curious outsider meant to get them interested to study English. For elementary schools, students have not yet learned reading and writing in English, so they mostly play games and have activities to learn about other cultures. This is all facilitated by you with sometimes minimal assistance from the homeroom teacher.
As they are schools for Conversation, students will go to Eikaiwa to make up the lack of conversation practice in public schools, improve conversation and pronunciation skills, and maybe brush up on grammar. You could teach small classes (up to ten students) or one on one classes. Students will sometimes be toddlers and sometimes older adults. The age group / level really determines what type of conversation you will have. Most Eikaiwa have their own lesson plans and activities provided, and you will prepare your lesson and take notes on what was done during the class time. Part of working in Eikaiwa is often sales and marketing (selling learning materials, recruiting new students, etc.).
For Public Schools, see the post How Can I Get Paid More?
For Eikaiwa, the salary can be more, but it really depends on the number of hours worked. Make sure you research and ask companies how you are assigned classes/hours worked and if they can guarantee you can earn enough to cover your living costs (250,000 a month is a good Minimum salary).
If you work up to 40 hours a week in a public school and still have time and energy left, you are allowed to work at an Eikaiwa on weekends and in the evening. It must not interfere with your public school job – including making you too tired to do well the next morning. Working minimally at an Eikaiwa is a fun way to meet people learning English.
You can also do private tutoring if you find your own students. This is going to potentially pay a lot more if you put in the hustle to find students and have some tutoring experience already. If you already have a work visa from either working at a public school or at an Eikaiwa, this is a nice under the table side job to do. Many long term English teachers have side hustles – especially when they have a family to support.
The choice is up to you. If you don’t have a strong preference, you can apply for both and take the best offer you get. Most of the information I have on this blog is about working in public schools, because it’s my preference to have a consistent income and work with junior high school students. I self published a Kindle ebook and a PDF version about my first year in Japan, working at a junior high school, which might give you a better idea about what it’s like. If you think working in a conversation school is a better fit for you, a lot of the information about finding work and living in Japan on this site is applicable as well. Working in private ESL schools in the US was like working in Eikaiwa with public school hours. In the future I might even work in Eikaiwa again and write more Eikaiwa focused articles.
A lot of people teaching in Japan have tried both, and for both pubic or private conversation schools, your attitude and the company you work for make a big difference in your experience.