Bigger is not always better for Japan’s English teachers

Different-sized schools pose varied challenges for foreign employees

While exact figures are unavailable, but it is fair to assume that a large number of foreigners who work in Japan will spend at least some of their time teaching in a language school.

But should you lose yourself in the facelessness of a large company, or take a job in what may be little more than a family-run operation where you are the only teacher?

The average salary for language teachers has dropped substantially in the past 10 years, mirroring the downturn in the Japanese economy. A quick scan of the classified ads in newspapers or on one of the many Internet recruitment sites now operating shows that there isn’t a huge variation in the salaries paid at large and small schools.

Full-time teachers can expect to earn between 240,000 yen and 280,000 yen, while part-timers will be looking at an hourly wage of between 2,000 yen and 4,000 yen yen. So if money isn’t the key, what is?

Louis Carlet, deputy general secretary of the National Union of General Workers, ys his organization receives around 600 complaints annually relating to conversation schools, divided equally between large and small companies.

Very few are about the level of pay. Instead, most of the problems are with job and income security, contracts, harassment and evaluations.

“The bigger conversation schools are generally better places to work in terms of job and income security,” says Carlet. So, although the wage levels might not differ between small and large schools, your chances of getting paid might.

The competition among smaller schools is even fiercer than between the big four, meaning they are more likely to have financial problems which may ultimately lead to them going out of business.

None of the teachers I spoke to for this article had ever not been paid, or had worked for a small company which had gone out of business. However bankruptcy is not the only potential pitfall of working in a small school.

One teacher lost her job when she was told it was no longer financially viable to keep her on. This is very unlikely to happen at one of the large language schools. Individual branches may close due to a lack of profitability, but the teachers will simply be transferred to another school rather than being made redundant.

Contracts are another source of dispute between teachers and employers. In most cases, teachers are given one-year contracts which may be renewed depending on the needs of the company and the teacher’s performance over the course of the year.

By doing this, schools are able to categorize teachers as temporary employees, regardless of how long they actually stay with the company. As a result, teachers don’t receive the benefits that they would be eligible for as permanent employees.

The companies claim that this is done because they can’t offer permanent contracts to employees who may only have one year visas, but both the NUGW and teachers feel that this isn’t the case.

In their view, these contracts make it easier for the company to get rid of people if there is a dispute, or if they simply become too expensive to keep on.

Carlet also suggests that the large schools are particularly adept at writing contracts which protect themselves. None of the four biggest schools operating in Japan — Nova, ECC, GEOS and Aeon — would provide comment for this article.

Despite the titles which some companies adopt — “language/culture school,” “academy,” “institute,” “college” — ultimately they are businesses whose main objective is to make a profit.

This is true regardless of the size of the company, the good intentions outlined in its mission statement or the proclamations of educational excellence on its Web site.

As one experienced TEFL professional wearily said, “most places . . . are run by businessmen not language administrators.” All the teachers interviewed for this article viewed the big schools in a similar light to other major companies in the service industry.

“Faceless” was probably the most commonly used adjective in their comments, and more than one person spoke of being little more than a cog in a machine. Given that a recent Japanese magazine article referred to Nova as “the McDonald’s of English language conversation chains,” this attitude is hardly surprising.

On the other hand, smaller schools were generally categorized as having something akin to a family or community atmosphere. One teacher with experience working in both types of school said: “In a small school you play a bigger role . . . You get more say in things like choosing textbooks, deciding what to teach. There are fewer students so you tend to know all of them.”

It would seem that small schools are more convivial places in which to work — you are appreciated, your opinion carries more weight and you have a much larger degree of control over what and how you teach.

But there is a downside. Teachers who worked in small schools often spoke of feeling under more pressure there than in big schools. If a tiny cog in a huge machine breaks down it’s unlikely the whole thing will come to a shuddering halt. That’s not the case when the teacher is the machine.

Another common sentiment was the difficulty in leaving work behind in a small school. Teachers spoke of receiving e-mails and telephone calls from their bosses at unsociable hours and on days off. This rarely happens at large schools unless you are in a management position.

Finally, the family/community atmosphere is great as long as it lasts, but of course that isn’t guaranteed. Disputes, whether professional or personal, can easily crop up in the language teaching industry and in the experience of the teachers I spoke to, these problems were much easier to deal with in large schools.

As one teacher said when talking about small schools, “It’s much harder when you’re working more closely with the person who’s causing you the problem.”

There are many good places to find English-language teaching work in Japan, but unfortunately they seem to be becoming fewer in number.

Louis Carlet says the best thing for teachers to do is to educate themselves as to the minimum standards a contract ought to offer, the limits on what companies can reasonably expect them to do and the legal recourse they have under Japanese law. This is true regardless of the size of the company.