4 Differences between Working at Eikaiwa and Being an ALT

April 18, 2017

Even though I’ve had experience living in Japan, this time around is a whole new ball of wax. Before, I was a fresh graduate working at an eikaiwa with all the other newbies out in Western Japan. Smartphones were nonexistent. Wifi was rare. Imports limited.

Now, I’m an ALT at a technical high school a stone’s throw from Tokyo – many of our students and staff commute from Saitama. Amazon can get me anything I want within a few days… for the right price. My apartment came with the wifi installed. I’ve been able to establish myself in the community within the first month, as opposed to the weeks it took me in Hiroshima.

Naturally, some of the differences I’m noticing are as a result of my outlook on life, which has surely changed from my mid-20s to mid-30s. Maybe the eikaiwa business has changed, but I still get hits on my Truth About AEON blogs years after the fact. I’d like to share some of the differences I’ve observed as a AEON teacher and an ALT in a Japanese high school.

1. Downtime

AEON and eikaiwa as a whole are English machines – not effective ones, mind you, but machines nevertheless. What this means for teachers there is that they are essentially shuttled from one classroom to the other all day with only 5-10 minutes to catch their breath, assuming their manager doesn’t want them “on” all the time, speaking to students in the lobby in the few breaks they have.

AEON used to operate slightly outside the law, only scheduling teachers for 29.5 hours/week to legally keep them as part-time employees and avoid benefits. Things are different now, and there’s probably more “off time” in the form of scheduled office time without classes. Nevertheless, there are no special events – aside from maybe major holidays – at eikaiwa to add a little spice to your schedule.

Although I’m at a private high school, I have a feeling the experience is closer to that of a JET than for those at an eikaiwa. I’m certainly required to come in earlier: 8:00 or 8:30 when compared with 12:00 or 1:00 at AEON. On the other hand, I’m more accepted as a member of the staff than simply another foreigner passing through as I was before.

2. Speaking Japanese

If you’re working at AEON, GEOS, ECC, Jason’s English School, WinBe, Gaba, or any one of hundreds of eikaiwa, chances are you’ve been told not to speak English in the classroom… at all. Not even if a student is struggling to find the word but you know the meaning in Japanese. Not even if there’s a medical emergency and you have to call for an ambulance, but can only speak English when you use your cell phone in the classroom… ok, maybe not, but the policy is usually strictly enforced.

In my high school, not only am I actively encouraged to speak Japanese in the teacher’s lounge – pretty much necessary for my survival – I’ve even been given the responsibility of teaching a foreign exchange student remedial Japanese. I can remember at AEON clearly being reminded not to speak Japanese after a student “complained”. In Sano, the only thing preventing me from talking is myself and my language ability.

3. Less Importance on Genkiness

I just love the Englishization of that word, even though the memories of using it aren’t so exciting. To those who are new to teaching in Japan or about to start, genki behavior is easy to spot from those working in retail or any number of businesses: overenthusiastic smiling, bows, and customer service. In the classroom of an eikaiwa, more than just being “on”, you’re requested to be on and genki all the time: exaggerating your laugh for students, and never letting anyone see you frown.

So far, I haven’t really noticed that kind of attitude around my school. There’s certainly an energy I would expect in the classroom, but no meetings about smiling more and convincing others we’re having the best time of our lives. Maybe this is simply because a Japanese high school is a business, but not one really built around customer service. Of course teachers have to answer to parents at times, but there aren’t campaigns to sell new materials outside of the classroom or business goals to be met when it comes to student enrollment… there are, but these are handled by the business end of the school, not the educators.

4. Double Standards

It doesn’t matter where I’m employed in Japan – a language school, a public school, a Japanese company; if I’m hired for my English-speaking skills, there are always going to be double standards at work. On the one hand, I appreciate the fact I’m given similar responsibilities as Japanese staff like cleaning, and the expectation of staying late. On the other hand, I’m not hired directly by the school, just a recruitment agency dealing with the paperwork and steps to bring foreigners to Japan. AEON hires teachers directly, but they are still held to a different standard in the workplace.

I’m not always expected to attend meetings that other teachers in lateral positions must. I may not be asking to proctor tests or take charge of a class at the last minute, something other high school teachers are asked to do. The differences are more subtle working in a high school, but still present.

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