Friday, November 24, 2006

Caveat Magister

College Grads - Teach English, Travel and Save Money!

TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is a fantastic opportunity for young and old and for those with and without teaching experience. If you are in or recently graduated from college, then this is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Teaching experience helpful, but not necessary.

Our goal of creating a friendly and intimate learning environment...

The result is that our instructors often learn as much from their students as they teach them...

So you're suddenly drawn to Japan by the various advertisements on Craigslist, newspapers, or company websites. Looks like a really good deal, right? Housing provided, a small but decent salary, and a chance to travel all across the land of the rising sun. To experience a new culture, to live a different life, to meet other souls like you in a different world... all this is absolutely true. You do get to enjoy something few people will ever experience in their lives.

However, when you're researching different English teaching companies in Japan, take a close look at the fine print. There's a reason that these companies take extra measures to "sell" you onto Japan. Interestingly enough, most of the companies in Japan, especially the large eikaiwa schools, don't want you to be a teacher.

No teaching experience necessary...
Teaching experience helpful, but not necessary...

More important than your teaching skills in Japan is your appearance. In every sense of the word. I'm not speaking of whether you're attractive or not, rather that you look foreign, and you speak English. Your appearance is your selling point, and your schools will exploit it to no end. Japanese people see a native English-speaking foreigner in a school, and it's a high selling point, knowing they'll get to listen to him.

But who are you? You're not a teacher. You're a foreigner who happens to speak English. Who are you? You're a salesman. Getting the green (or beige over here). Bling bling. Dollar dollar bill ya'll. Your job, despite individual experiences with different management, exists for one purpose only, and it isn't for English education; it's to put money into these companies.

Now, one can argue that this is necessary. Well, of course it is. If you didn't have students, the company would have no money, and you wouldn't have a salary. Of course; it's so simple. But it's far beyond this. You were brought into this country as a teacher. The titles of these ads proclaim: "Teach English in Japan." Nowhere do you see: "Become a professional salesman in Japan and teach English on the side." This is closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.

You're expected to sell your students materials they don't need just to bring in money. And do you get a commission for these sales? Of course not; you're a "teacher", not a salesman. Or some would have you believe.

A spokesman for one of the large eikaiwa, who chose to remain anonymous, commented on these extra materials: "Of course, even if [the students] are perfect, we must tell them they need to improve, so we can get money... that's not the pretty side of it, but it's true."

Wisdom21, an American-owned English teaching company in Japan, really lets the eikaiwa have it on their homepage:

In the foreign community in Japan, it is common knowledge that the four or five big chain schools are a rip off. To begin with, young and inexperienced foreigners are brought to Japan to "teach" from textbooks. Like instant 'ramen', this do-it-yourself, ready-made teaching brigade hardly receives much worthwhile training. And many of them are not very interested in teaching at all.

Moreover, in order to qualify for a company sponsored working visa, Japanese immigration law requires that westerners restrict their employment activities to English teaching - in spite of any others skills (accounting, computer, etc) they might have.

Meanwhile, the big chain schools, loaded with these new, low cost, under-trained foreigners, attempt to lure their customers into signing long term contracts (usually through a finance company) which generally requires a financial commitment of two or three years. Thus, the student signs the contract and the chain school receives the cash in full (minus a collector's fee, of course) from the finance company. Regardless of whether the lessons are completed or not, the students are stuck with the payments to the finance company.

After receiving the money in full, the chain school no longer has incentive to provide quality service (or lessons!) to the student. Their new incentive is to hope the student quits the school so that another, unsuspecting and naive customer can take their place.

As tragic as this story may sound, this scenario is all too common in the 'Eikaiwa' industry in Japan.

Part of this is simply the Japanese experience - you're expected to go above and beyond stated work criteria: from working overtime, to skipping lunch, to doing things you know your job doesn't "require". It's very deceptive, and I really believe it's intended as such; would you come to Japan if you were told your "teaching" would be limited to a set plan with 1% flexibility, and your "off time" would be filled with selling points and other company necessities? Overall, it's just easier to paint this picture:

Why not spend the next year (or more!) teaching in Japan, skiing the Japanese Alps, exploring Japan (not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and China), and eating amazing food all while gaining valuable professional and life experience?

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