The Pros and Cons of Working at a Conversation School in Japan

I have an important and very exciting announcement to make!  Starting February 1st, I will be working for a gaming company in Tokyo focusing on social media, graphics design and international localization.  The job is entry level, but it is perfect for myself who came to Japan straight out of college and is looking for IT experience.  I will be moving into a sharehouse in the Nakano Ward of Tokyo tomorrow night, and am thrilled to take pictures and share my experience!

But first, let me recap my thoughts and feelings of teaching for the last four months.  I worked for a company called “COCO Juku” (COmmunication COmpetence).  COCO Juku was founded in 2012 so it is a relatively new conversation school company, but it has schools all over Japan and is a pretty famous for catering to all age groups and prepping students for taking the TOEIC tests as well as studying abroad.  I was a full time native instructor that worked for 40 hours a week teaching all different age groups (from 6-60).  My school was very small, but made profits since it was located in a very concentrated area and the staff had great relationships with their students.  I taught a lot of doctors, business men, and researchers that were in the area as well as children.  I enjoyed working there, and it was overall a positive experience, but I would like to point out the pros and cons in this post.

The Pros:

  • Easy to Start Out in Japan – This is a great starting job for those coming to Japan from another country.  The company pays all of your travel fees (to and from work), provides you with health and unemployment insurance, and locates your housing if needed (which is very necessary in smaller towns).  My company even helped me set up my own phone contract, wifi, and bank.  Some companies provide very little assistance to those coming abroad, which can be very frustrating, especially if you are charged key money (non-refundable) when starting a housing contract.  My company helped me avoid that and located me a furnished apartment.
  • Super Supportive Staff – My coworkers were always supportive and friendly to me, even though we had busy schedules and sometimes only saw one another between meetings and breaks.  They always encouraged me to ask questions and gave me tips on how to better engage the students.  My counselor and branch manager even helped me furnish my apartment, get groceries, and threw a welcome party for me.  Now that’s genuine hospitality!
  • Pre-made Materials – My school had existing lesson plans for each class that I could look at for reference and build upon.  Lessons are pretty simple.  You have your warm-up, grammar/vocab, target language, and then conversation practice.  You can interpret this formula in any way you wish.  Some students really love going by the book because filling in all of the activities gives them a sense of accomplishment and they can practice at home.  Advanced students that already have a grasp of the target language prefer to stray away from the book and focus more on conversation.  These are the students you’ll really bond with and enjoy teaching–and they may even teach you something yourself!  I have made friendships with many of my students and am thankful for their knowledge.
  • Learning About Japanese Culture – I have learned so much more about Japanese culture from my students than I have any other textbook.  From the best foods to places to go sightseeing; they have taught me all about Japan and the customs here.  They constantly recommend me places to go visit and also give me their own perspective which has helped me decide which places to visit during my vacation (Universal Studios, Asakusa, and Kyoto have all been recommended by my students).  I deeply appreciate their knowledge and it has helped me make a lot of decisions while living here.
  • Souvenirs – This is a small added bonus, but students and staff would always bring in souvenirs for me when they traveled.  From Pocky to fancy creampuffs and Christmas cakes, I have tried a lot of Japanese food from my students’ travels.  My favorite were these green tea chocolate balls from Kyoto.  A student brought me flowers on my last day and I was so touched I nearly cried.

The Cons:

  • Sales Driven Schools – Unlike public schools, students that come to conversation schools pay a lot of money to take classes with a native instructor.  Due to the number of students, the focus often shifts to profit rather than the quality of classes.  Sometimes I had to think on my feet when my schedule got shifted because a student wanted a last minute lesson.  There is a ton of pressure to get students to sign up and renew their contracts.  When they didn’t, their reasons are taken into consideration and the staff is evaluated.  At times I felt I was under a ton of pressure and couldn’t focus on enjoying the lessons I was teaching.  There is a small bonus (1000 yen) for recruiting students, but in my opinion, it is not worth the stress.  I would rather just teach and let the sales aspect be handled by someone else.
  • Inflexible Schedules – As a native instructor (especially if you’re the only one at your school as I was for three months), you have little to no control of your schedule.  Since conversation schools are sales driven, classes are scheduled to maximize the profit.  This means teaching back-to-back classes or the same student over again if they’re willing to pay.  My schedule on weekdays was 12-9, whcih was bit too late for someone previosuly coming from the standard 8-5 American work schedule.  Sometimes I didn’t get a full lunch break on my super busy days.  But as an instructor, it’s your job to teach as needed, even if there is a walk-in customer.  Sometimes home instructors affiliated with the school will walk in to practice English with you.  While it is helpful to the company, this takes valuable time away from your lesson planning, which can be very inconvenient at times.
  • Teaching All Different Age Groups – A huge stress for me was teaching all different age levels.  Some days I’d have mostly kids from 6-8 where we’d focus on flashcards, games, and songs.  Other days I’d have 10-14 years olds that were too cool for songs, but weren’t advanced enough to talk in complete sentences so I’d have to come up with creative ways to get them talking.  Sometimes I’d teach a class where half the kids liked drawing while the other half was more interested in taking off their shoes and throwing them at each other (mostly the younger boys).  Then I’d teach adult classes at night and be asked complicated grammar questions and completely have to shift gears.  It sounds great teaching a variety of students, but at times I didn’t feel capable of teaching them all, which is a big reason I wanted to quit outside of my job opportunity.
  • Gossip – Living in a small town, there is bound to be a lot of gossip.  However, even in my small town in America, I had never encountered the amount of gossip I did here.  In Tokushima, pretty much everyone recognizes one another and knows every little detail about their personal lives.  One of the Japanese staff loved gossiping about the students’ love lives which was a bit unnerving at times.  It was hard to keep a professional attitude in the workplace because of this and I prefer to keep a semi-professional relationship with my students.  I am happy I’m moving to Tokyo where there are better things to do than gossip.
  • Very Few Holidays – A huge reason why I didn’t like working in conversation schools is that they give you very few holidays off.  I had to work on Christmas, coming of age day, and would have had to work most of the days during Golden Week.  I felt cheated having to work on days that other companies got paid to have off.  Especially on days when the school was super slow, I hated being trapped inside an empty classroom with virtually nothing to do.  The good thing about this is even if a student cancels their lesson, the teacher still gets paid the same amount.

So would I recommend working at a conversation school?  If you’re a young and adventurous person like myself, I would recommend being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) before working at a conversation school.  With ALT work, you generally are more of a helper and work alongside a Japanese teacher while planning activities to enhance their lessons.  The work load is generally a lot lighter and you have more time to meet friends and enjoy Japan.  If you’re an experienced teacher, especially if you have a degree, I recommend shooting for university or business English teaching.  There you will find much more stable work with better benefits.  If you’re good at sales, market yourself so none of your profit will go to the school!  I’m dead serious.  If you have a large client base, you are better off starting your own school, whether it’s meeting in coffee shops or renting out a space for your classroom.  If you have talent or are very passionate about it, the possibilities are endless.

However, if you’re looking for a challenge, and teaching a large range of students is desirable to you, then conversation schools may be the right fit for you.  Just keep in mind that your schedule may always change and that there are more options out there if it’s not the right fit for you.

Thank you all for reading and keeping up with my teaching adventures this far.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or would like to add anything.  I look forward to updating again once I get settled in Tokyo.  Cheers!

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4 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Working at a Conversation School in Japan

  1. Karen Meppelink says:

    Catherine:
    I would not have been able to do what you did! Teaching is a stressful job especially with the multiple age levels. What an accomplishment! Good luck in Tokyo with the gaming/social media job. Sounds like you were made for it! I hope it goes well.
    love Auntie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Catherine Little says:

      Thank you so much for reading, Auntie! I have so much appreciation for how hard you and mom have worked. Teaching can be rewarding but the staff can cause a lot of pressure. But I still don’t regret taking the job offer because it helped me get my current job! Love you!

      Like

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