Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Insight: Teaching in Japan

Interested in travelling and teaching, but not sure what your options are? Want to learn more about teaching in different countries? That's why we're quizzing former TEFL Worldwide graduates on what they know. 

Before coming to Prague, I spent 16 months teaching English in Hamamatsu, Japan. You can see my blog "Gwynnie's Adventures in Japan" for a greater insight, but I'll try to summarise things here. 

How easy is it to find a job in Japan?
Gwynnie outside Hamamtsu castle

It depends. If you're already there, you can pick up private students and apply everywhere. There is high demand for native English speakers, especially if you don't only stick to the main cities (less competition). While it's possible to fund your own visa and go over there, most companies hire from abroad, meaning you interview in your home country (via Skype, telephone or one of their branches). If you go for JET, the application takes a year and it's quite hard to get onto. I went with Interac, who place assistant language teachers (ALTs) in classrooms all over Japan. After my initial application, it took a month or two to hear from them, and while they didn't hire everyone at my interview, they hire potentially hundreds of ALTs every year. You don't really need any teaching experience or Japanese ability for the ALT jobs - what you're doing is a little teaching and a little acting like an ambassador for your country! They want someone friendly and bubbly who they don't think will cause them much trouble. 

What's the money like? What's the cost of living?

The money is good - on average 250,000JPY a month, which is around $3000, give or take. Some private conversation schools, and JET, pay more. If you pick up private lessons (some jobs let you do this, too) you can find yourself earning anything from 3000 to 10,000 for a 90 minute "conversation" lesson. The longer you're there, the more contacts you can make who will hook you up with these nice lessons. I was lucky enough to be one of the only British females in my city, so I was offered a lot of classes.

On the other hand, the cost of living is high. A 19m² apartment set me back 60,000JPY a month, while additional costs - electric/water/gas bills, health insurance, pension payments (if you make them... you can claim them back when you leave) and, after your first year, something like council tax, will leave you with something like 130,000 a month to actually spend, perhaps less. You'll be lucky to find a beer under 500JPY, although many izakayas (bar/restaurant type place) offer "all you can drink" menus, some as cheap as 900JPY for 90 minutes of unlimited drinks. Put it this way - in my first year, I never had any money left at the end of the month, but I was able to survive, go for a couple of meals/nights out a week and travel around the country every couple of weekends. In my second year, I moved in with my boyfriend - we looked around and found a place 3 times the size of the first apartment, but for the same price. Now paying only 30,000 a month in rent, and taking on a bunch of private classes through contacts we'd made, we were able to put away around $1000 a month (each)! There are also plenty of second hand stores for furniture, clothes etc, and the longer you stay, the more money-saving tips you'll learn. So, for a year, you will have a great time but save little. If you stay longer, you can start stashing away the cash.
What kind of teaching will I be doing? 

From a 12 year old boy at my junior high!
If you go through an ALT programme like JET or Interac, you'll be teaching in public schools. This is a fascinating insight into Japanese culture, as you will get the chance to see how a Japanese school runs from day to day. You could be in junior high, high school, elementary or even kindergarten - often a mix! Some ALTs have one or two schools that they switch between, while others might have as many as 14 schools that they visit (one a day on a 2-week schedule). This kind of teaching is done alongside a Japanese teacher of English (the JTE), who may or may not be fluent enough in English to communicate well with you. Make sure you speak very slowly, and try to learn some Japanese! This can be an advantage - less pressure on you to perform, as you may only be asked to "teach" for around 15 minutes of the lesson, usually nothing more taxing that reviewing the things they've already done with a game. It can also be very boring or frustrating - it all depends on the teachers you end up with. Some of mine were great, while others made me grit my teeth and watch the clock. If you're willing to try your Japanese with the school staff, you'll find that they open up and can be very nice people. Many ALTs also eat lunch with the kids and join in with after school clubs - playing sports with the kids is a great way to get to know them a little better - and might be invited on day trips. A couple of times, I went on a walk with my junior high to pick up rubbish from the local riverside. 

Generally, the level of English in Japan is quite low - I think the lowest in Asia. Reasons behind this could be due to a number of factors - mostly, I think it's because of their "island mentality", the belief that the rest of the world is a distant place that has no real relevance to their lives. Most plan to stay in Japan forever, and see no need to learn English. On top of that, the way it is taught is quite counter-intuitive (to a Westener, anyway), with JTEs mostly speaking in Japanese and telling kids how hard English is. You will often find this quite frustrating, although it definitely varies between schools. For every handful of kids who will stare at you during class, glassy-eyed and apathetic, there will be a super-sweet, enthusiastic kid who goes to after-school English club and restores your faith in humanity with their innocent excitement over having a simple conversation with you. Speak as simply as you can, sneakily let them know you know a bit of Japanese (even if your company tells you never to use it with them) and pretend to be really into the same things as they are (anime, usually) and you'll win them over. As I said, part of an ALT's purpose is to get the kids interested in other countries - the JET programme was started to improve international relations. 

Harajuku, Tokyo - yes, those are balloons!
Alternatively, you could work for a conversation school (eikawa), such as AEON, which is a different story. Here, your working hours will be different from an ALT's Monday-Friday 8-4... think more Monday-Saturday, 12-10pm. You will be in charge of your own class, meaning more freedom but also more responsibility. Conversation schools usually teach both children and adults, although you can look this up before you apply. If you only wish to teach adults, it's possible to do that. From what I hear, the children at conversation schools are a little harder to handle, as they tend to be from privileged families and might not want to learn English. The adults, however, are learning because they want to, and are likely to be much more enthusiastic. If you teach private lessons, it could literally be anything - some of mine included: one-to-one in Starbucks, breaking down the meaning of sentences in Nineteen-Eighty-Four and opening random pages of a grammar book; a 90-minute conversation with a group of middle-aged businessmen in a bank, they rarely get to speak English so just talking to a native speaker is great for them; babysitting a 3-year old kid while speaking English to him; myself and a few other native speakers at a bar, mingling with Japanese people of all ages who wanted to practice English, while having free drinks bought for me; a one-off, 2-hour lesson on a topic of my choice, mixing speaking, grammar and reading activities. If you like every day to be different, acquire enough private lessons and they definitely will be! I also found that many adult students are fascinated with travel and other cultures, so showing them things like money from your country, English flyers/menus/magazines and photos of your home town go down a treat. 

What are the pros and cons of living in Japan? 

So many of both! I'd recommend you have a look at my blog, as I go into quite a lot of depth in articles like "The Other Side of the Coin (and How to Deal with it)", "Things I will (and won't) Miss about Japan" and, for what I miss now that I'm not there, "The Post-Japan Blues". 

In summary though - the pros. The money is good, and it's possible to save up a lot. Japan is a clean, safe country, with people who are mostly very friendly and helpful. Ask a Japanese person for directions and they'll usually walk you to your destination! Drop your wallet and someone will chase you down the street to give it back. I usually felt safe there. However, don't drop your guard too much. Friends of mine report being followed home by creepy guys, and plenty of crime does happen; it's just covered up and ignored a lot of the time. Still, it's a first-world country, the water is safe to drink (hopefully) and, as you'd expect, a lot of modern technology makes life quite convenient. The convenient stores - "combinis" - are open 24 hours a day, and sell so much more than just food (think shirts, socks, photocopying and postal services, household products, magazines etc). 

Arashiyama, near Kyoto
There's a lot to see and do in Japan - every day can be an adventure. Your first trip to the shops will be exciting enough, with all the new food and symbols you can't read. If you choose to learn Japanese (and I'd suggest it), you'll unlock a little more of this mysterious country every day. The excitement you get at recognising a particular "kanji" can be very rewarding. Japan offers skiing, surfing, mountain climbing, theme parks, nice temples, and plenty of interesting things to see and do. Although the shinkansen (bullet train) is expensive, it means you can get from one end of the country to another pretty easily (it might take around a day, though). 

Life is mostly stress-free there, especially if you work with a company like Interac. When I arrived, we were given a week of training, and then introduced to our "I.C." - a nice Japanese lady who spoke English, took us to our apartment and helped us settle in. Mine took me shopping for furniture (well, a futon and some kitchen things) and helped me set up my resident card, health insurance and everything else. Doing that on your own would be pretty hard, but all I had to do was fill in the forms she gave to me. My I.C. even came with me and held my hand when I had to have my wisdom teeth extracted. Most people were very friendly and encouraging, and my city had a big expat population and a lot of Japanese people who were keen to learn English, meaning that I had a great social network who were always up for a bit of karaoke or a barbecue on the beach.
I hope you like Hello Kitty...

On the other hand, a lot of things can get you down. The initial culture shock might lead you to feel that you have stepped into a magical fairytale, but after a few months (as is natural with culture shock) you might find yourself very homesick. The food is so different; although there are chains like McDonalds and KFC, it can be hard to find any "home-like" food; even to find the right ingredients at the supermarket. Japanese food is not heavy on dairy, meat or bread products, and if you're not used to that, it can take some time to get used to. If you eat school lunches with the kids, like I did, you might find yourself trying to stomach a few nasty seaweed soups or the dreaded "natto". The way of thinking in Japan is very different, too - you might often find yourself frustrated with the strange logic used there! Just remember that you're not there to change the country to your way of thinking, and try to go with it and keep a "foreigner" support network to help you adapt! 

It can be hard to find clothes that fit, if you're anything over a UK size 10, as well. My city had a few second hand shops frequented by the surprisingly large Brazilian population, so it was possible to find things in my size, although I mostly used internet shopping. If you can fit, be warned that clothes (like most things) are pretty expensive in Japan. As I mentioned, going out for a drink can be costly - it ends up being far cheaper to buy the "all you can drink" packages! And while Japan seems a convenient place to explore the rest of Asia, finding a flight to any other country in Asia for under $300 was quite a challenge. Another thing that winds a lot of people up is the subtle attitude towards foreigners, that many find racist. This isn't as bad in bigger cities, but should you find yourself the only foreigner in a small village, expect to be followed and gossiped about often. Your attempts at speaking Japanese might be greatly patronised, as will your chopstick skills (think "WOW! You can use chopsticks!!"). The way you interpret this will depend on your ego, though, I think. 

Overall, I am very glad that I went to Japan. I found that I was capable of doing so much more than I thought possible, and I met a lot of great people and had a fantastic time. I definitely do not regret going. One note - I was there when the big earthquake/tsunami happened, albeit 400km away. We felt the earthquake, and it was scary. Fears of radiation still abound, and nobody is totally sure of how safe it really is. Companies near Fukushima seem to offer higher salaries for English teachers these days, so it's really up to you to decide whether you feel safe being near the area or not. If earthquakes and radiation worry you, perhaps you should look for jobs near Kyoto or further south, for example Hiroshima or Fukuoka, or - if you prefer a milder climate and snow - somewhere up north in Hokkaido. You're sure to have a great time if you go with an open mind and a smile. Feel free to comment below with any questions! 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Czech Adventures: Karlovy Vary

I recently wrote about my adventure to Karlovy Vary on my main blog, so I thought I'd let you have a look!

Barely 2 hours from Prague lies the beautiful town of Karlovy Vary. Famous for its natural spas, every summer sees tourists flock to soothe their aching muscles in its healing waters. For many, it is a magical place, while others (including my guide book) see it as one massive tourist trap overcrowded with Russian hypochondriacs.
As we travelled in early June, it was neither overcrowded nor much of a tourist trap. Of course, the roads were dotted with little stands selling crappy souvenirs – Karlovy Vary’s particular speciality is a type of china jug (it looks like a small watering can) which you can fill up from various natural springs to try the water. We ended up doing it, of course, out of curiosity – the water was warm and sweet. Very interesting.....