What I Know Now About Teaching English in Japan

When I was 25, I made the move to Japan to teach English at the junior high school, elementary and kindergarten levels. Prior to crossing over the Pacific pond, I had very little experience as a teacher. Needless to say, I learned on the fly. Each and every day revealed a new teaching tactic but also taught me a lot about myself. Here are five things I know now about teaching English in Japan.

1. Being Open-Minded and Patient Is Paramount While Teaching English in Japan

It’s your first day of work as an Assistant Language Teacher, ALT, at your base school in Japan. You arrive, introduce yourself to everyone (in whatever broken Japanese you can manage), hand out the gifts you were told you should bring to your co-workers, sit at your desk, and…now what? What does one do when they have no idea of what is actually expected of them? I knew I was there to teach English, but how?  

In this situation, I suggest going with the flow. Observe the Japanese English teachers in the classroom, learn from them, and ask them what they want from you. If you’re asked to prepare an entire lesson about your home country, do it. If they want you to stand in front of the class and act like a human tape recorder, do it (with flair, of course!).  

Be open to their suggestions and patient in regards to the initial simplicity of the tasks that you are asked to perform. With time, you will gain understanding, experience, and the trust of your co-workers. Once you have these (especially the latter), you will pretty much be allowed to add whatever you see fit to any English lesson. 

2. Take the Initiative

At the junior high school where I worked, the two Japanese English teachers offered me insight into two very different teaching styles: the traditional and the flexible. The traditional model labeled me a human tape recorder; the native speaker whose sole purpose was to show the students how a word was perfectly pronounced. It was mind-numbing work. 

Luckily, I also had a more flexible/modern model of teaching. This was a co-worker who wanted to do things differently. They encouraged me to think of ways to motivate the kids to learn English. All I was given was the grammar point to be taught and the rest was up to me.   

So off I went. I created games, speaking and listening activities, worksheets, and skits (to name a few) which made English fun for the students. My advice is that once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, don’t just sit there and wait for instructions. Stretch your creative muscles and think of innovative ways to teach English to your students. This will a) impress your co-workers and leave them with a positive image of the hard-working foreigner, b) keep your brain cells active, and c) hopefully make the kids actually like English rather than just see it as another academic obligation to fulfill.

3. Be Yourself: Put Your Own Personal Spin on Everything You Do

When I first arrived to teach English in Japan, I wanted to be uber respectful and I tried really hard not to offend or commit any cultural faux pas. I tried so hard that I found that I was censoring myself. As I got more comfortable in my surroundings, I started to let my true colours show. At work, besides putting my personality into all of the lessons I created, my empathetic self came out as I decreased the distance I had put between myself and the students (in Japan, at the time I was there, teachers did not invest in the emotional well-being of their students). 

I started to show the kids that I actually cared about how they were doing. Believe it or not, this can be done even with the existence of a huge language barrier. The end result was that they, even the troublemakers, respected me. Not going to lie, this impressed the principal who asked me how I got the “bad” kids to do what I asked. My answer was simple: “I listen to them”.

I did go a little wild (by Japanese standards) with being myself. In my second year there, I incorporated some fire-engine red highlights into my naturally dark brown locks. This did not go over too well in my super-conservative workplace. I was constantly asked why I had done that to my hair. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really care what they thought. It made me feel happier and more authentic. Eventually, they got over it and probably realized that my hair colour had no direct correlation to my work ethic. As I mentioned before, it’s important to be respectful of cultural differences, but don’t lose yourself in order to please everyone else, especially while teaching English in Japan.

4. Many Heads Are Better than One: Ask Fellow ALTs for Tips

One amazing thing about the JET programme is the tight-knit community that exists between the ALTs. You’re never alone. The Gunma JET Association offered annual conferences where seminars were held on effective team teaching, staying happy and healthy in Japan and a variety of other useful topics. These information-filled events also provided networking opportunities: a chance to make friends and professional connections. We shared ideas, resources, experiences, and laughter.  

I was also fortunate enough to be placed in a town with some of the best human beings that I have ever met in my life. (If you all are reading this, I miss and still think of all of you often!)  Each individual was kind, fun, talented, and hard-working. My three-year English stay in Japan was one of the best years of my life so far. If I needed help, whether it was lesson planning, where to buy ingredients for a recipe, or where I could find an English-speaking doctor, my fellow ALTs were there for me. They were even available for random rant sessions (all foreigners know that sometimes venting while abroad is, at times, very necessary). We created an atmosphere of support. I know now that without this human connection, I would not have survived three years, let alone six months, neither professionally nor personally, in Japan.  

5. Accept: Don’t Let Differences Frustrate You

It’s really easy to only focus on what’s better in your home country when you are living abroad. I say, don’t do it! It only breeds negativity and makes your overseas experience less enjoyable. If you look at the experience from a difference, something positive can emerge. Almost always, an opportunity to enjoy or learn something new crops up. 

What do you mean I can’t find a lot of the ingredients to make my favourite foreign dishes? No worries, I’ll try new foods, maybe even learn a few traditional Japanese recipes. So, you’re saying there is no gym that offers Zumba, GAP, or pilates classes in this small town? However will I stay in shape? Perhaps signing up at the local dojo for some martial arts classes is a viable plan B. There was always a bright side if I chose to look for it.

Sure, Canada is way more multicultural than Japan, but does that automatically make it better?  Something I learned from living in a mostly unicultural society for three years was what it was like to stick out like a sore thumb. In Canada I’d always blended in. I was always able to remain anonymous in any crowd. In Japan, not so much.

I was the only foreigner in the neighbourhood of Kiryu, where I lived. Many Monday mornings at work someone would make a comment about how they had seen me shopping at that store buying [insert embarrassing item here] eating at that restaurant, or drinking (sometimes a bit too much…oopps!) at that bar. The lack of privacy was annoying, but it did teach me to be more respectful of others’ space and private lives. Rather than announce to the world that I saw this person buying condoms at their local convenience store, I just kept those little tidbits to myself.  

Wrap Up

Even though I have taught English for the last 14 years, I did not study to be a teacher. So,  when I made the move to Japan, my goal wasn’t to hone my teaching skills. It was, in fact, to live in a foreign land, try new things, and travel. That is exactly what I did.  

What I know now is that that desire for adventure, that surrender into the new and different is what kept me happy, healthy, growing, and learning during my three-year stint in the land of the rising sun. The best advice I could give is to embrace and enjoy all of the trials and tribulations that living abroad throws at you. You’ll develop as a person and have some pretty awesome stories to tell.

Interested in learning more about teaching abroad? Check out this article about one writer’s experience teaching English in Korea and Taiwan.

How I Became a Language Assistant in Japan

In my youth, I had never manifested any interest in Japanese culture. My knowledge was limited to the stereotypical images of ninjas, samurai, and geishas shown in films. My only “real-world” experiences came from my love of eating out at sushi restaurants in my hometown, Toronto. No one close to me would have predicted that I would spend three years of my life as a language assistant in Japan.

I heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme from a student of mine while I was teaching ESL at a language school in Toronto. I hesitated in applying at first. In my first 25 years of life, I had barely traveled and never lived abroad. How would I fare living on my own in a foreign country? Would loneliness consume me and leave me feeling unhappy and unsatisfied? Would I be overwhelmed by not being able to read or fully understand my new surroundings? Should I just buckle down, find a nine to five job, and dive headfirst into the societal definition of adulthood? All of these questions fluttered around in my mind before I decided to apply to become a language assistant in Japan.  

The Decision to Become a Language Assistant in Japan

In the end, three factors propelled me towards my decision. First, a friend of mine spoke highly of his experience as a JET 10 years before. Second, my sister gave me some advice on what she considered failure to be. She said that failure wasn’t having to return from Japan because of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, but instead, that failure would be not trying. In other words, I had to give it a shot no matter what the outcome. Lastly, I had just finished my master’s, and I wasn’t feeling motivated in my first post-university job. So, what did I have to lose? Nothing. If anything, the job would give me the opportunity to live and travel the world, which excited me. So, I decided to try my luck and apply for a position in the programme. 

The Application Process

The key eligibility requirements for JET programme candidates are: they must be a native English speaker; demonstrate an interest in Japanese culture, society, and the educational system; hold a bachelor’s degree; and be a citizen of the English-speaking country where recruitment takes place. The application process took around six to eight months and involved three main steps.  

First, I submitted a paper application. This included my personal details, what region I wanted to be placed in, and a short essay on why I wanted to be a JET.  After they reviewed my application,  they called me in for an in-person interview. Here, they asked me why I wanted to teach in Japan, gauged my ability to deal with potential culture shock, and asked me to give an impromptu lesson on the topic of body parts (I performed my best rendition of “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes”). 

I left the interview feeling a bit iffy. Why? I had mentioned that in the future, I wanted to complete my PhD in History, and one of the interviewers said, “You’d be great teaching adults.”  I automatically thought that they didn’t think I had what it took to teach small children or teenagers (turns out, I was wrong). 

As a final step, all the chosen candidates submit a medical and criminal record check. The latter, in Canada, takes about four to six weeks. Success! I managed to make it through the whole process. 

Pre-Departure Preparation

Before I departed, the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto offered free Japanese language classes to all candidates (on a first-come, first-serve basis). I got a spot in the class, and I was on my way to learning basic Japanese expressions and how to ask basic questions (unfortunately, I did not have time to attain a level where I could understand the answers to these questions, but, you know… baby steps). The best part of these classes were the connections I made. I forged some wonderful and long-lasting friendships with some fellow Torontonians. While only one of the people I met ended up being placed in the same town as me, I was able to visit the others all around Japan during the three years I lived and worked there.

Furthermore, I attended a mandatory pre-departure orientation in Toronto. Here, the instructors gave a basic introduction to the JET programme. They explained the basic duties of a language assistant and gave important pre-departure information (i.e., if you needed to ship personal belongings, bring prescription medication, etc.). Also, they held various seminars led by former JETs on how to adapt to life in Japan. 

Without a Second Thought

What I remember most about the orientation was everything I should bring from home. I needed to bring a small gift for all of the teachers at my main school (it’s customary in Japan) and a bigger gift for the Principal, Vice Principal, my Supervisor, and even my landlord.

Also, there were things that  I wouldn’t have even given a second thought to — from deodorant (the Japanese equivalent just doesn’t cut it), to makeup (not all skin tones available), to curly hair products and shampoo, to toothpaste (no fluoride in Japanese brands), and even tampons (apparently hard to find if you live in the inaka aka rural Japan). What I know now is that you can find almost anything if you look hard enough. It’s probably even easier now with the existence of Amazon Prime.

Tokyo-Bound

Before I boarded my direct flight (paid for by the JET programme) from Toronto to Tokyo, I was scared. The moment had arrived; I was actually going to be a language assistant in Japan. At the airport, my father hugged me goodbye, looked at me, and said, “If you’re not happy, call me, and I’ll buy you a ticket home.”  The support he gave me at that moment helped get me, fear in tow, through customs at Pearson International airport.

A three-day orientation session was offered to all incoming JETs in Tokyo. We were put up in a decent Tokyo hotel, breakfast and lunch included. They bombarded us with information sessions (the jetlag made it a bit harder to process). They further explained our roles as language assistants, describing the effects of culture shock, and even gave us teaching tips from former JETs. 

A statue of three monkeys mimicking the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil phrase in Japan.

I met who would be my supervisor for the next three years and the other teachers (from all over the world) who were placed in my host city. To tell you the truth, what I got most out of my three days in Tokyo was the opportunity to explore (and party in!) the city with the friends that I made both in Toronto and in the very hotel I was staying at. At the end of three days, I boarded a minibus headed to Gunma Prefecture: my home for the next three years.

The First Big Step on My Road to Travel

I often think about what my life would have been like had I not left Canada for Japan almost 14 years ago. I know that the JET programme changed my life. It started what would be my life “on the road,” my life as an expat, my wanderlust. The process of going to Japan was long, and the decision to leave Canada wasn’t easy. In the end, with all the knowledge and experience I have gained, it was worth it. Flying abroad to be a language assistant in Japan undoubtedly changed my life.

by Maria Perez

Six Awesome Places to Teach English Abroad

What are your interests? What do you want to do in the future?  Have you made a five-year plan for your professional goals? People probably ask that a lot, and it’s okay if you don’t know yet. A great way to find out what you want to do is to travel. Traveling while you teach English abroad is both an exciting and terrifying adventure, but it certainly does open up new horizons and opportunities for just about everything.  Even in the pandemic, with all its troubles and uncertainties, the world is still full of possibilities. Most of the destinations that you would love to visit would still love to have you. Education and life will continue! 

Here are six awesome places to teach English abroad

The first three on the list have always been popular destinations for English teachers abroad, and they pay well. Plus, they provide living accommodations and travel reimbursements. In addition, teachers are respected and appreciated. They look for different levels of experience from teachers but don’t worry if you are new to this career.

China

Schools in China require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and some experience in teaching English. If this is you, there are many opportunities for English teachers abroad, and there are a lot of exciting things to learn about. Complete immersion into language and culture makes it even more awesome. English teachers abroad in China are able to work with all age levels (from kindergarten to university) and in public or private institutions. There are many placement cities, too, including Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. On average, the monthly salary is between 6,000-16,000 CNY ($900-$2,400 USD). Since most programs offer furnished, rent-free apartments or an accommodation allowance, English teachers abroad are able to save a lot of money. 

City street lit up at night, Shanghai, China. A potential nighttime view while on an adventure to teach English abroad
City street lit up at night, Shanghai, China.

Japan

Japan has all climates. There are mountains, icefields, beaches, and rainforests here. It’s an exciting destination for English teachers abroad who want to travel and become immersed. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are available for placement, as well as smaller towns like Shiojiri. In Japan, English teachers work alongside the Japanese classroom teacher, and they are immersed in the community. Japan is an awesome location for English teachers abroad because of the adventure. The pay is great, averaging 215,000-280,000 JPY ($2,075-$2,750 USD) per month. Nonetheless, the cost of living here can be high.

South Korea

Here also, teachers can be immersed in a comfortable, exciting culture, and in a well-developed, modern economy. English teachers abroad have the opportunity to work in public schools and private language institutions throughout the entire country. The South Korean government does require, however, that teachers complete a criminal background check. The benefits of teaching in South Korea are fantastic. Teachers receive furnished, rent-free living accommodations, medical coverage, paid holidays, plus bonuses. Paige Miller highlights why South Korea is an amazing country for English teachers abroad in her interview with Dreams Abroad.

South Korea is a great place to teach English abroad, especially for city skyline views.

Thailand

Thailand is a gorgeous location. English teachers abroad love the beaches and the many ocean sports. For most, Thailand is an awesome location because it is so unlike anything else. Teachers can find themselves working in kindergarten all the way up to high school. Compared to other countries, however, the pay is very low. English teachers abroad make about 25,000-40,000 THB per month. That equates to roughly $800-$1,300 USD. With that being said, the cost of living in Thailand is very low. Check out Leesa Truesdell’s interview with Beth Young to get a first-hand look at what life is like for an English teacher abroad in Thailand.

Students holding a bicycle in Thailand

Spain

Spain has a very exciting culture with great food and wine, wonderful weather, and a rich history. English teachers abroad are able to work all over the country; from its beautiful coastal cities to its picturesque towns in the heart of the nation. Spain is a little more strict than others for those wishing to teach English abroad. Teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and be under the age of 36. The average monthly pay is between 350-1,000 EUR ($430-$1,220 USD). However, English teachers abroad in Spain are able to live with a host family. Alex Warhall offers an excellent summary of what life is like as an English teacher abroad in Spain. From here, travel easily around Europe and find everything you are looking for. 

A classroom full of students in Spain. Spain is a popular destination to teach English abroad

Colombia

This country is also a Spanish-speaking location. It offers a relaxed atmosphere and a great history, along with beaches, great coffee, and sunshine. Most positions are available in private schools throughout Colombia’s major cities, although public schools and the vocational SENA National Training Service also have positions. English teachers abroad make about 15,000-30,000 COP ($4.5-$9 USD) an hour for roughly 20-40 hours of instruction a week. Assistance is also available for finding suitable housing, but only if you’ve landed a job with an international high school. In his interview with Leesa Truesdell, Lamon Chapman describes his experience teaching English at a university in Medellin. 

A photo of a school in Colombia

There are many great locations in the world to entice English teachers abroad. Choosing a place to go isn’t easy, and it depends mostly on what the traveler wishes to get from the experience and take away into the future. If you are looking for a great destination and a great living and working experience, you will find all that at any one of these locations and more. Visit We Teach for more information on teaching abroad. 

Please note: exchange rates and program benefits are subject to change.

Written by the Dreams Abroad Team

Source: Oxford Seminars

University Life Studying Abroad

by Zoe Ezechiels

Mio Matsumoto is a college junior from a school in Tokyo known as Waseda University. She is studying hospitality for a year as an exchange student at Florida State University.

Mio has experienced a very different university life abroad and has grown up in a lot of ways, ranging from learning to juggle school work and a social life, to being completely immersed in a different culture. She has felt the difficulty of getting accustomed to life all by herself but because of the support of her many friends, she was able to have the time of her life and pursue her dream of studying hospitality. The Dedman School of Hospitality at Florida State is one of the best in the nation, and Mio is extremely grateful to be studying there.

University Life Studying Abroad FSU

During her time in the United States, Mio has traveled to New York, California, Alabama, Georgia, and cities within Florida with friends. Because the US is such a large country, there were many opportunities for her to travel and spend time exploring with friends. Even when she felt stressed or worried, Mio is grateful to have a close support group to support her while she is away from her family. Here are her responses to our five questions:

What were your expectations before you left? How have they changed?

“I didn’t have that many expectations; I just wanted to have fun, become independent, and meet new people. Many people have influenced me so far. Even if I have to go back to Japan, the connections I have made in the US will continue, which I think is a great part of having friends in different countries.”

What did you not expect?

“When I lived in New Jersey, there were many Asian people around me. I unintentionally expected the same comfortable environment in Tallahassee.  At FSU, this was not the case. The student body is more diverse than the neighborhood I lived in. Oftentimes, I felt lonely and left out because there weren’t that many other Asian people.

Studying Abroad FSU

However, I met so many amazing people from different cultures and got along with them great, which enabled me to get over my initial hump. Local people taught me cool places to go, eat, and have fun. I decided to study abroad because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. In the end, it’s turned out great!

Also, the weather: I thought it was never going to get cold or rain, but both happen…! Have your umbrellas ready! In addition, I didn’t expect the campus to be so huge that I have to use the bus to get to my classes. Lastly, even though Tallahassee is a college town, many things were expensive (food, school supplies, etc.), so I had to plan out a budget and stick to it.”

What’s your next step?

mio and friends

“I have a dream of working abroad at an internationally-known hotel or with an international airline. I am able to speak Japanese and English, and at the moment I am also studying Spanish. Although I am a hospitality major, I still need more experience. To achieve my goals, I think getting an internship will serve as a bridge between Japan and somewhere else. This way I can ultimately achieve my dream of working at an international company.”

What advice would you give to a student with the dream to study abroad?

“The culture, how you study, the language, etc. is different from place to place; you can’t expect a study abroad experience to be easy. Being able to speak English is just one of the many, many tips for fitting into university life studying abroad. However, studying abroad is a totally eye-opening experience because you can experience it all — from the good to the bad.

Try new things, travel to new places, and be with the friends you feel comfortable with. Even if you’re alone, take part in activities so you can make friends there! Be courageous during class and raise your hand to state your opinions. Everyone is accepting and they look forward to your ideas from a different, international perspective.”

Talking with Mio was an immense pleasure! Stay tuned for her VLOG on 5 tips on university life studying abroad.

studying abroad Mio Matsumoto