Jul 8, 2019

Transitioning from English teacher to alternative career in Japan: Rude awakenings

Transitioning from English teacher to alternative career in Japan: Rude awakenings photo

Making the transition from working as an English teacher in Japan to working in a Japanese office environment, taking steps up the ladder of an entirely different career in Japan, can be something of a rude awakening. This is especially the case if all you’d done prior, and for many years, was to teach English … in Japan. Such was the case for this former English teacher.

Some background

I came to Japan in my mid-to-late-twenties having spent post-graduate years moving between stints at factories and call centers in order to fund trips overseas. Arriving in Japan with not so much as a single toe on even the first rung of a career step-ladder I spent over eight years working as an English teacher -- in kids eikaiwa, as an ALT and finally in adult eikaiwa and business English.  

It came as something of a rude awakening then, when I began working outside of teaching English in an office environment with feet on the first rung of a ladder aimed upwards in a career in Japan, in something completely different to teaching.

Actually, in the new work environment here some of the rude awakenings I was expecting (even if I was still woefully unprepared for them), and in some cases rather than being rude, the awakenings turned out to be a pleasant surprise. 

Hopefully highlighting them here will help those foreigners looking to transition out of teaching English in Japan and into a new career.

Jump to:

Say “Goodbye” to the micromanager

Say “Hello” to spreadsheets and presentation slides

Task-based working structures

The kids gloves are off

Performance reviews and planning

Say “Goodbye” to the micromanager

Across three working environments as an English teacher in Japan I became accustomed to being micromanaged. Time sheets that needed to be stamped daily by senior members of staff (as an ALT), time cards for clocking in and out (eikaiwa), specified lesson structures and plans (eikaiwa), down-to-the-minute demonstration-lesson plans to recruit new students (eikaiwa), raised eyebrows for being a few minutes late, little chance of leaving early (without performing due process), training that focused more on falling in line than it encouraged creativity or initiative. The micromanaging goes on.  

To a certain extent, the micromanagement that the English teacher in Japan may be subject to is understandable -- there are schedules that need to be fixed in order to serve students’ needs so some level of micromanaging is required to make sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time.  

To another extent, the micromanagement style of the English-teaching industry might be said to reflect a lack of trust on the part of management towards its teachers. Maybe they’ve been stung in the past. Maybe they understand that, for the most part, the English teacher in Japan is not being provided with the kind of salary and benefits that encourage staff to be trustworthy.  

As such then, having made the transition out of teaching English in Japan, it came to me as a strange feeling to be trusted (or should that be “expected”) by the new employer to get on with getting tasks done under my own steam and under (for the most part) my own schedule management.  

It felt a little bit like the first time you might have used one of those self-checking machines at the supermarket -- that frisson of excitement about the potential to take advantage of the system quickly subsiding with the realization that actually you’re an adult and you want to do things properly.  

Here in the career in Japan, nobody is looking at the clock to check what time I’m at my desk ready for work. I’m not faced with furrowed brows or burdened with feelings of guilt at booking time off (I just put it on a calendar) and there isn’t a timesheet or stamp of begrudging approval anywhere to be seen.  

Of course, the sense of freedom and trust given comes with it the expectation that tasks are going to get done (to a high degree of quality) and that the completion of said tasks contributes to a more immediate and quantitative growth. The stakes are higher in this regard -- no growth = less salary or, well, less in the way of a job, the evaluation of which is usually saved for end-of-year performance reviews.

Self-motivator, time management, project management … are all terms that I thought to be empty recruitment parlance but have now come to realize that they carry at least some amount of utility.

Say “Hello” to spreadsheets and presentation slides

This was one of the above mentioned rude awakenings that I knew would come with the transition out of teaching English in Japan, but one that I just couldn’t bring myself to get prepared for.

I hate making spreadsheets and I’ve learned that I’ve no sense at all when it comes to making presentation slides or sales documents. And that’s a problem because office-environment Japan loves them. (Although I can’t say whether or not the love is felt greater in Japan than it is in other offices around the world because I don’t have the experience.)

Some of the spreadsheet and presentation document creations that are the fruits of my Japanese colleagues’ labor appear to me as works of art, breaking through the boundaries of brutal function to enter the territory of pleasing aesthetics. They make my own humble efforts look embarrassing by comparison.

Nonetheless I’ve come to learn that spreadsheets are an essential and I’m often required to make them, however basic. When it comes to sales and presentation documents, I’m largely dissolved of the responsibility, for the most part because they are almost exclusively needed in Japanese. Something which I think I’ll be eternally grateful for!

If you haven’t already, the English teacher in Japan looking to transition into another career in Japan would do well to be familiar with at least a few of the following spreadsheet / document software … 

Keynote, Numbers for Mac

Google Sheets

Microsoft EXCEL / PowerPoint

Task-based working structures

As an English teacher in Japan you get used to the structure of a working day being based around lessons -- prepare for it, do it, write up the notes, and possibly leave it for another teacher to deal with at the next time of asking (often the case with eikaiwa structures).  

In this regard then, a lesson can appear as a unique entity that once complete is, well, complete. There’s no need to return to it and all it does is lead to the next lesson comprising the same textbook, the same students, and the same time slot.

OK, so this maybe a gross simplification but I use it to highlight another awakening since moving into a different career in Japan -- that the completion of one task often leads to a larger, more important task presenting itself.

This task-based working structure comes with the benefit of greater flexibility, independence (we care less about how or when it gets done, and more about that it gets done, to a degree of quality and on time) and creativity. But it’s also never ending and can sometimes feel overwhelming.

A task is completed (and if completed well you may get a little time to bask in the glory) but it almost always leads to another, greater task and so the sequence continues and builds in this way, and often comes home with you.

I sometimes miss the teaching days where I could get the satisfaction of something being comprehensively done, and in getting to that point not have had to worry about what was coming next.

The kids gloves are off

I’ve found that since establishing a career in Japan outside of teaching English the kids gloves that were often worn by Japanese colleagues on accounts of my being foreign are now worn to a much lesser extent.  

Of course, most foreigners working in Japan, in any number of industries, have found gainful employment based to some degree on their being foreign. That’s the same when I was an English teacher in Japan and it remains true now -- I’ve long since reconciled with the fact that were I Japanese, I wouldn’t be in the job that I’m in now. 

But the balance has changed in this new career in Japan. As an English teacher in Japan, being foreign (one of those whose native language is English) was the overwhelming qualification. After that came teaching ability, professionalism, planning skills etc.  

In fact, one could make the case that in regards to teaching English in Japan, the “foreign” part needs to be maintained -- the more foreign, the better for students who want the novelty and the cultural exchange. It’s perhaps to this end then, that teachers are handled (for better or worse) with kid gloves. Things get done for them, maybe because it’s just assumed that they don’t have the ability to do it themselves or maybe so as they can be left to concentrate on the teaching and the being foreign.

I’ve found in my current position though, that I’m expected to figure about more things for myself rather than just playing the, ‘I’m foreign so take pity on me’ card.

I used to do this a lot in the early days. It seemed logical to do so -- something that could take me up to an hour to figure out could be done in five minutes if a Japanese colleague just showed me how. I think as an English teacher you fall into the habit of thinking that Japanese staff are in place, to a greater extent, to support you.

Well, true or not, it took a little time for me to realize that, after getting into a career in Japan outside of teaching English, my foreignness and I were not the center of attention and that Japanese colleagues have their own tasks to worry about. Even if it means laboring through lots of Japanese, I make sure to tackle obstacles under my own initiative as far as I can before I run to the arms (open or not) of Japanese colleagues.

Performance reviews and planning

As an English teacher in Japan performance reviews were almost exclusively limited to how I was performing in class with the “review” itself taking the form of an observed lesson with feedback and analysis after the fact. Little regard was given to anything outside of that -- career-in-Japan goals, school targets, role within a team, personal development et al. 

Now I find myself having to think a lot more about the bigger picture at the same time as trying to improve upon the finer details of my own working style and role within a team.  

Currently, performance reviews are held twice a year and involve filling out a sheet detailing my goals for the following six months, how I intend to achieve them, as well as their corresponding degree of difficulty. Then comes a meeting with the boss (Japanese) where we reflect on changes (or not) since the last review and collectively adjust my goals for the next period.

For now though, I’ll save the finer details of the performance review for another article. The point here is that after working as an English teacher in Japan for so many years, it came as a challenge (and remains that way) for me to have to think more broadly and see myself as part of an organization or service as a whole in order to set goals and make plans toward achieving them. 

Maybe it sounds great, setting your own goals. For me though the process comes riddled with self-doubt and insecurity -- I’m I setting the right goals? Are these goals too easy? Are these goals unrealistic? -- and sometimes I just want someone else to set them for me.

I end up having to take a leap of faith, an under-the-breath, “Screw it! Let’s just put this down and see how it pans out!”.  

In the broader context, performance reviews and goal-setting of this kind is all a part of saying “Goodbye” to the micromanagement and compartmentalized working structures that can either be said to restrain or protect the English teacher in Japan.  

And this, really, was and remains the greatest workplace awakening that I experienced in my transition to an alternative career in Japan. 


Japan Jobs is all about providing information, ideas, and insights to help people with working life, employment and careers in Japan. If you think this article would be useful or helpful for others, please give it a share.



Preparation tips, insights, real experiences, resources and practical information for people interested in pursuing employment and a career in Japan.