Oct 31, 2019

Acing the English teaching in Japan job interview

Acing the English teaching in Japan job interview photo

This guide to acing the English teaching in Japan job interview is based on real and actual interview experience. And, yes, in many cases job interview success. The industry being what it is, many English teaching jobs in Japan will involve teaching kids and will likely be in an ALT or eikaiwa -- conversation school -- setting. Advice dished out here about acing the English teaching in Japan job interview reflects this.

After a bit of personal English-teaching history, this guide to acing the English teaching in Japan job interview breaks down thus:

Have a brief lesson activity or plan prepared for your job interview

Strike a balance between creativity and willingness to follow teaching style

Show an interest in the growth of the school

Interact with the students

Understand the importance of relationships with students’ parents

Keep it light and breezy during the interview

Wear a suit during the interview

Don’t be weird

A history of acing job interviews to be an English teacher in Japan

This former educator’s first interview for a job as an English teacher in Japan took place outside of Japan, in one of the world’s great capitals. And in a Hilton hotel no less. Perhaps not the typical setting for an English teaching in Japan job interview, or any job interview at all, but then I had read the listing in a broadsheet newspaper. 

At that point in my life I was yet to have set foot in Japan. I had also not set foot in a classroom of any kind since graduating from university … with a degree that had nothing to do with teaching.

I had, however, gone weak at the knees for a Japanese beau whilst picking grapes under the blazing sun of Victoria and the authority of a working holiday visa for Australia. And I wanted to meet my beau again.  

The interview was conducted in pairs with the general manager of the school (a Brit) and his sidekick (another Brit and a teacher at the school) asking the questions. 

There’s not much that I can remember about the interview other than the horror of my cell phone ringing on two occasions during the proceedings -- once when I entered the room, and then a second time just a couple of minutes later.  

Poor interview form, yes. In my defense it was my first cell phone, a few days old, and I managed somehow to charm the interviewers away from the sheer lack of professionalism. (I would later meet the teacher sidekick in Japan where he would tell me that one more time and they would have asked me to leave. Three strikes and you’re out.) 

Aside from the cell phone mishaps what I can remember from that particular interview for an English teaching job in Japan was a lot of laughter (for an interview) and good chemistry between the interview partner and I. We both got the job.

I also seem to remember the general manager taking us all out for a beer after our interviews were over. Maybe this was a second interview in disguise. Or maybe he just liked having a drink.

Note: The above English teaching in Japan job interview was for a school the students of which were kids -- from around fours years old to 16. 

Skip to around three years later and I’m sitting on a rusty-spring mattress in a damp guesthouse room in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia clasping a cheap cell phone at the other end of which is a representative of an ALT dispatch company in Japan. I’m backpacking with the Japanese beau I met in Australia after having spent next two years dating while working at the English teaching job in Japan, the interview for which I have described above. 

A some point during the back half of our loved-up world tour it became time to figure out how I was going to get back to, and set up in, Japan.  

In Australia (Yes, Australia again.) I remember booking some time in an internet cafe and sending off an application for any jobs as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan (ALT) that appeared to have little, if any, criteria to entry.

I heard back from one shortly before flying out to Indonesia. They weren’t concerned about meeting in person (You see, low entry criteria.) but did want to do a telephone interview.

On the island of Bali I bought a pay-as-you-go cell phone. I should interject here and say that this was around the year 2007, before backpackers were armed with smartphones and serviced with free wifi on the beaches and in the jungles. By the time I reached Yogyakarta on the island of Java, I had arranged a date and time for a telephone job interview with the ALT dispatch company based near Tokyo. 

I can remember almost nothing about the interview other than it seemed to go well. And that I was bare-foot, topless and smoking a cigarette at the time.  

Anyway, it must have gone well because when I turned up in Japan a couple of months later to knock on their office door (figuratively) they let me in (figuratively) and gave me an ALT teaching job (literally) in central Japan. 

So, after two interviews for English teaching jobs in Japan then, I was yet to have actually demonstrated any teaching skills under the burning glare of any interviewers.  

This tells the future English teacher in Japan two things -- some schools in Japan don’t want their new teachers to come cocked and loaded with English teaching skills, preferring instead to have a blank canvass to work with. In other cases it tells us that some schools in Japan (particularly ALT dispatch companies) are so desperate to get bums on seats, so to speak, that they’re scared to even ask for a demonstration of said skills lest it results in them having start another search from scratch. 

Eventually, I did have to demonstrate teaching skills, such as they are, in an interview setting.

I would go on to take a number of interviews for jobs teaching English in Japan. Mostly in eikawa where the bulk of students were kids.  

Honestly, I don’t know what I was doing. I didn’t want the jobs because they offered just about the same conditions and working environment that I had already experienced. I think I was just seeing what else was out there -- pretty much a lot of the same, as it seemed to me at the time.

The job offers did come though. I was doing the right thing in interviews. I think I knew just what to say, how to present myself, and what it was the schools were looking for.  

After my final interview for an English teaching job in Japan I took the offer. It was the only English-teaching gig that didn’t involve teaching kids. About the best I could hope for at that time. It was my last teaching job before moving on to work in media. 

Take-aways from a litany of interviews for English teaching jobs in Japan

Have a brief lesson activity or plan prepared for your job interview

It doesn’t always come, but you should always assume it will -- the request during your interview to demonstrate a bit of a lesson. Be prepared. 

It’s highly unlikely that there will be real students involved, and if you’re skeptical about this just think how happy paying students (or their paying parents) are likely to be at the prospect of their costly lesson time being used for this purpose. No, your interviewer(s) will play student for a few minutes.  

This is really going to go in one of two directions -- you’ll be asked to teach a page or two from a textbook, or you’ll be given a box of materials and asked to teach something like numbers or hobbies as if to kids. In either case they’ll give you a few minutes to prepare or they may have asked you to prepare in advance. 

Don’t overthink it - it’ll increase the risk of fumbling about and getting lost.

Don’t stray far from what they asked you to do - they’re not looking for revolutionary innovation here. They just want to see that you can flow smoothly and articulately from one lesson point to another.

Strike a balance between creativity and willingness to follow teaching style

Seasoned educators, well, are probably not applying for an ALT or eikaiwa English teaching job in Japan. Anyway, as was mentioned earlier, a lot of English schools or teaching setups in Japan want a blank canvass to work with when it comes to their teachers.

This could be that they have a teaching method that they really believe in and want to see practiced within their schools. It could be that English teachers will get swapped around and in the face of this they want to keep as much consistency as possible. It could be that they have some gimmicky approach to lesson structure and that they want teachers to submit to it. Or it could be a combination of all of these things. 

The point is, showing classroom creativity and innovation may not be as appreciated as much as you might have thought. In fact, it may even be frowned upon when it comes to a job teaching English in Japan.

If you must express your creativity, save it for later after you’ve settled into the school. For the time being, and most importantly during the interview, show willing, nay enthusiasm, for the school's methods. 

Bad news for some, then, but it may also give those with little or no teaching experience the confidence needed to go into their interview for a job teaching English in Japan and give it a good crack. 

Show an interest in the growth of the school

There’s life outside of the classroom and the brutal truth here is that outside of the public school system or maybe the universities, most English teaching jobs in Japan will see teachers as just one part of a greater whole that is all about making money.  

Not that this should be brought up during the interview but making noises about “contributing to the growth of the school” will be music to the ears of the interviewers.

In less cynical terms, schools often organize events and parties as opportunities for students, teachers, parents, etc, to get together. These typically seasonal affairs are typically met by staff and teachers with all the enthusiasm of a cold, wet Monday morning. While you may be similarly enthused, showing willing during the interview to get involved and maybe even dress up as Santa will be one step towards acing your English teaching job interview. 

Similarly, it’s a good tactic to give a nod to the school’s fellow teachers during an interview with noises about supporting and learning from each other, if only to show that you are going to be able to get on with them rather than create conflict that the Japanese school manager will have to sort out. The Japanese hate conflict perhaps more than they do foreign floating objects in an onsen. 

Interact with the students

This might be hard if your interview for an English teaching job in Japan is taking place outside of Japan.  

Certainly in Japan’s eikaiwa industry it’s highly likely that you’ll be teaching children at some point, if not for the majority of your classes. Should the interview take place at the school in question (not always the case, the interview may be held at school HQ, just a regular office with no students around) this could provide an opportunity to score some early points.

While waiting in the school lobby there may be students coming to and fro between classes. Don’t be afraid to say hello, ask them simple questions, make them laugh, or just show some gentle interest in what they are up to. And make sure a member of staff sees you! Even better, try to time it so that the interviewer enters the lobby just at that point when students are laughing and showing interest in you.

Hand on heart, the job will be as good as yours. 

Adult students might present a different prospect. Getting all up in their face could make you seem desperate or just plain weird. Better to let them approach you. 

Understand the importance of relationships with students’ parents

When teaching English to kids in Japan one should expect to have moms (occasionally dads) waiting in the school lobby or outside the entrance to pick them up after class. Some may even plant their faces against classroom windows to see what’s going on inside, should such a possibility be presented. It’s rare that schools will allow parents inside the classroom to observe, other than on special open days or if the student is particularly young and a little nervous during the first lesson or two. 

In the case of young students, having a good 

open relationship with a student’s mom about what they’ve been learning and how they are in class is one of the keys to a smooth working life for the teacher of English to kids in Japan. 

In most cases, Japanese support staff / teachers will take the lead on this but it’s almost always appreciated if you, the foreigner, get involved too. It may be that you’ll rattle through the contents of the day’s lesson to them in English and that they barely understand a word. That’s not really the point. The point is that they want to feel comfortable leaving their child in your charge, if only for less than an hour a week. 

At some point during your interview for an English teaching job in Japan if children are among the students, try to crowbar in your understanding of the importance of establishing good communication or relations with the students’ parents. Even if the prospect of backing this up terrifies you. It did me. 

Keep it light and breezy during the interview

Don’t get heavy during the interview. Chances are your job teaching English in Japan will be quite far removed from serious academia. In fact, perhaps even more important than the learning part is that students want to enjoy their time during their English class. They want a teacher that they can look forward to spending some time with, who they can feel comfortable to talk to before and after class. Be that person during your interview.

Smile, try to laugh at your own shortcomings. Hell, even try to look like you want to be at the interview.  

This applies even more so when it comes to teaching jobs involving young learners. Kids don’t do heavy and brooding. They do light and breezy and during your job interview you should show that you can do likewise. In fact, don’t show it (You should still be suited and booted for your job interview.) but be it.  

Compliment the building, the classrooms, the terrible pictures on the walls that the students may have made. Show interest - What have the students been learning recently? How many classrooms? Is that (those photos of an event) a school event you put on recently? How was it? 

Wear a suit during the interview

Teaching a most eikaiwa English schools in Japan will involve a suit. Teaching as an ALT at a public school in Japan will likely involve a wardrobe of bland smart-casual almost exclusively from Uniqlo or GU. Teaching kids will likely involve either a suit (if you’re unlucky) or more of the same Uniqlo / GU smart-casuals. Teaching at an elementary school in Japan may even see you follow the form of the Japanese staff to dress up in the kind of hideous tracksuit you thought had died with the 1980s.  

Attending an interview for an English teaching job in Japan (of any kind) should always involve a suit, no display of tattoos or experimental facial hair (the less facial hair the better, really) and a sensible haircut.

You’re not applying for a job as a groovy engineer at Google!

Don’t be weird

Oh my word, the English teaching industry in Japan is littered with weird rejects from the English-speaking world.

Sounds harsh? Well, just wait until you have to share a teacher’s room with one of them.  

There’s no doubt that the relative ease of entry into large swathes of Japan’s English teaching industry paves the way for an odd bunch. Don’t get me wrong -- there are some great and serious people here, but there is also the odd one or two who are just plain … odd. And they don’t last long, and it never ends well.  

In fact it usually ends with them hitting up the TEFL forums to launch into a diatribe of abuse about how … the school didn’t like it when they called in sick for the umpteenth time because they were hungover. How the school wouldn’t let them take leave to go home when their grandmother’s cat died. How the school didn’t like it when they chose screaming in a student’s face as a form of exacting discipline. How the school didn’t like it when they tried to get a cute student’s phone number. The list goes on. 

Leave your personal baggage, your penchant for booze, your weird little ticks and peccadillos at the door before you enter the room for an English teaching in Japan job interview.

Actually, no. Bring them in with you and turn them up!

On a serious point, Japanese society remains very group-orientated, even in the face of increasing internationalization. The oddball here tends to get ostracized. Not out of malice (not always) but mostly because the majority just doesn’t know how to deal with them. They can’t seem to accommodate the difference, even if they want to.  

Your being a foreigner will likely be difference enough for most Japanese staff and students that you work with as an English teacher in Japan. Save the rest of your quirks for outside of class.   

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