Upside Down Work Life in Japan

My Upside Down World


2013 has ended up being a year more interesting than I had even planned. That’s both good and bad. I finished a contract at the only school I had known during my first five years in Japan. I was leaving on good terms. My contract had come to an end and I had decided not to renew because I wanted to face new challenges, work in a new system and teach older students.

I found a new job, doing what I had been doing, teaching at a small international school.  My students would be older. I would be an elementary school homeroom teacher. I met several new coworkers who seemed very friendly and easy to get along with. The man who had hired me seemed charming and offered me a good salary and to pay ALL of my travel expenses.

Once I received my first pay, a month into my new job, I realized things weren’t going well. My pay was smaller than what my contract promised me. My transportation payment only covered some of the expenses I had. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t what I had signed on the dotted line for. Once I questioned this discrepancy; aggressive “fast talk” was sent my way from management saying that this was how it would be. Take it or leave it, my pay would be lower than what my contract said.

I quickly came to learn that I wasn’t the only staff member in this situation. Other staff members were getting paid less then they had been promised. This is of course completely illegal in Japan, but many private language schools operate in this fashion. They know that most foreign teachers won’t cause them trouble for a variety of reasons. They know that many foreigners in Japan are unaware of their rights. They know that many aren’t good at saving money and live from paycheck to paycheck, which doesn’t allow them to suddenly walk out of a job. They also bully workers into shutting up and just taking it.

Once I realized the deal I just kept my mouth shut, put my head down and found a new job. I secretly went for interviews and when I was offered a solid position, I quit. Suddenly quitting was a nice little piece of revenge for me. Management had lied to me and made my life and that of my family more difficult and once I quit (I was a popular teacher amongst students and parents), they had to deal with a shit-storm of angry parents.


The Next New Job

I have been at my new job for more than a month now and in the classroom teaching for a few weeks. My new world is completely different in every way, shape and form from the work world I had experienced to this point in Japan.  I am now teaching in public schools. I am now teaching students in Japanese elementary and middle schools. I am no longer the captain of my own ship (a homeroom) teacher, but I am also happy to not have the responsibility I have had for years. I am an assistant teacher. I help the Japanese teachers teach English to their students. Often I find myself doing 100% of the teaching, but I like it. I no longer have to directly deal with parents who have problems with their child, problems with their child’s relationship with classmates or petty differences with other parents. I no longer have to deal with long-range lesson planning, curriculum deliverables, slack coworkers, extra tutoring and parents expecting too much from their kids and me (monster parents). Now, I show up, teach, smile and say “Goodbye.”

I get home earlier every day. I have less stress in my life. I have a lot more time to dedicate to writing and video blogging. I have more time to see my wife. I have more time to play with my kids. Things are good.

I have come to quickly realize a few things during my short time teaching in public schools. I can’t help, but draw parallels and make comparisons between schools and students in both Japan and my country of Canada.

First of all, I love teaching in elementary schools. Kids are kids no matter where you go. They love learning and have fun in school. Japanese elementary school students are no different. The kids I have taught so far have fun in my classes, participate, smile and give me great feedback. They are excited when I come to their school and send me positive vibes.

Junior High School has proven to be a harder nut to crack. During actually lesson time, the students don’t speak or react to almost anything I throw at them. I’m told that teenagers don’t want to speak up and possibly make a mistake, embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates. That makes sense. Teenagers are self-conscience everywhere, but in Japan it seems that this feeling is multiplied a hundred times.

The students who do enjoy studying English will at least make eye contact, but will cower their heads and only mouth answers to your questions. They are still too scared to speak out.

The sleeping student factor has boggled my mind as well. It’s something you just don’t really see back home. If you do, at least the teacher gets upset about it. The other day I counted eleven students sleeping in my class and the Japanese teacher with me didn’t seem to care. Kids sleep when disinterested and that’s just the reality.


Another confusing reality is bored students just getting up and walking out of your class. They just walk into the hallway and wander around checking out the scene in other classes. Again, many teachers I have met do nothing to stop it and if they try, the male students (the ones who think they are tough) will push the teacher away, yell at the teacher, tell them to “Shut up!”

The other day while teaching a class, one of my students got up, walked to the back of the room and got inside the metal locker used to house cleaning supplies. He closed the door and stayed inside, quietly for the remaining twenty-five minutes of class. When the bell rang, he came out of the locker! You might as, “Kevin, why don’t you do something about that?” I can’t. More precisely, I’m not allowed to. I have been clearly told by my employer that my role is not to discipline students. I have been told that if kids misbehave in class or walk out I am to just ignore them. That’s the role of the Japanese teacher with me. I’m still confused that there simply seems to be no discipline.

Yesterday some boys were running around the hallway throwing paint at each other. When a female teacher tried to stop them they all screamed at her and intimidated her. She later asked me if students in Canada do this and I said that I had never seen anything like it. I’m sure it happens, there are crude and uncultured punks and parents everywhere in the world, but whoah….

Teaching primary school kids is a pleasure. They are happy to see me and look forward to my English classes. Junior High School…hmmm…I still have a lot to learn. In time I will get more used to it and my shock at student behavior will either wear off or I will become numbed. Also, I will work hard to develop a more effective ways to get through to them. Well, at least get through to some of them. I have a feeling that by the end of the year, the kid in the