Love it or hate it. Please read this before applying for a kindergarten job in Japan.
Between monitoring stats, comments and emails, one of the most popular topics it seems for people who stumble across this site is information on how to become a kindergarten teacher in Japan and what it entails. So I thought I’d write a bunch of stuff here to give people an idea of what my life’s like on a daily basis.
I really like my job, largely due to the great relationship I have with my school. But I also feel the job itself fits well with my personality. I’m creative, like to have a laugh and hate sitting about. This job keeps me on my feet all day, and while it’s tiring, I believe if you do it well it’s the most rewarding teaching experience you can have.
It’s not for everyone. I know people who shudder at the thought of having to teach kids this young. This isn’t the type of job you can do just to pay the bills. You have to be into it or you’ll hate it. I’ve worked with teachers before who don’t like kids and don’t even like Japan. They’re just here to make money. I don’t quite understand it. I guess I’m just saying if you really don’t think you’ll like the job, please don’t apply. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. If you think you’d have a blast though, then read on and see if it’s for you.
I teach at a Japanese kindergarten, not an international school. All the kids and teachers are Japanese, bar me and any other English teachers who work there. I teach English to all the kids: I don’t have my own class, but go round the school teaching to every one. There are 600 kids.
Grades are split as follows: Nen Sho (three years old) Nen Chu (four years old) Nen Cho (five years old). I also teach special classes for two year olds who are accompanied by their parents. Generally speaking, I’ll teach all the Nen Shos one day, then all the Nen Chus the next etc.
Unlike ALT jobs whose hours and schedule are pretty much set in stone, every day for me is different. Some days I teach, some days I do special lessons in the pool, some days I go on field trips. I teach inside and outside. My schedule changes with zero notice. If you have the flexibility to adapt it’s no problem, but I’ve known teachers who freak out when they are told in the morning they have to teach 100 kids as a group in the hall as opposed to their regular lessons in the classroom.
Bottom line is that English is part of the school curriculum in Japan, but not the main focus. So we have to fit in to whatever the schools want. Have a think about whether you are OK with this.
Seika & Kagai
Simply speaking there are two main components to my job: seika and kagai. Seika is the morning classes for all the students. Kagai is extra curricula stuff – parents who pay extra for their kids to learn extra English in the afternoon.
Seika lessons range from 20-30 minutes and you’ll teach between 4-6 lessons in the morning. For some eikaiwa teachers that may seem like a small about of actual ‘teaching time’. But believe me, teach a full three hours of seika and then come back to me. It’s hardcore: singing, jumping about all morning, often without air-con. Energy conservation is key, knowing when to turn it up and also knowing when to tone it down – all the while keeping it exciting for the kids. It’s a fine art. Each month we have a new topic to learn about: animals, sports, family, clothing etc. Seika classes have about 30 kids.
Kagai lessons run after lunch. With my company they last 50 minutes and you can have between 1-3 of these lessons. They are less intense. Unlike seika where the tables and chairs are cleared away, kagai students sit at tables, have textbooks and there’s writing practice etc. You get to know these kids way more personally, interacting with their parents and so on. Kagai classes range from 1-12 students.
Some days you may have only 4 seika and 1 kagai. That equates to 2hrs 50 minutes of teaching. But you have to remember you are with the kids for the whole day even if you are not teaching. You greet them in the morning, may have to ride the kindergarten bus and always eat lunch with them. You do not get a break. You do not get to leave the KG for downtime. If you want personal space, forget it.
A typical day for me in Tokyo
So what does a typical day for me look like? Well I live in Central Tokyo but my current school placement is 90 mins away. Far, eh? Some get lucky with minimal commutes but the majority of people I know average out at about an hour. Keep this in mind if you want to live and work in Tokyo. I actually don’t mind my commute though: I always get a seat and it’s one train the whole way, no transfers. I sleep, read, listen to music.
I’m up at 6.15am and on a train at 7am. At 8am I chill out for a bit at the station on the other end and eat breakfast, have a coffee. I arrive at the kindergarten at 9am, dump my bag upstairs, come back down and ride the kindergarten bus at 9.10, picking up some of the kids. Seika lessons start at 10:20 and I’ll teach til 12:00 or so, then eat lunch with the kids in the classroom. After lunch I may or may not have another few seika, or play outside for a bit in the sun before the kagai lessons in the afternoon. The day flies by, it really does. Finishing time varies from school to school and depending on your schedule. Some days you may be lucky and get out at 2.30pm, others 5pm etc.
What is a kindergarten teacher anyway?
“I feel like a clown.” “I feel like I’m a babysitter.” “I feel like I’m looking after kids at summer camp.” These are often complaints I hear from other teachers. Hell, I say and think it myself sometimes. But the truth is we are all of these things, so deal with it. These kids are toddlers so what do you expect? For them to be reciting Shakespeare? The very fact that a three year old comes into your class at the start of the year and ends it by being able to say his name, how he’s feeling, and follow simple conversation structure in a foreign language should be rewarding enough. Three years ago he wasn’t even alive! Remember that.
Yes my job is to teach English. But it’s also to help with life learning and promote internationalisation. For the majority of these kids, I will have been the first foreigner they have ever had any interaction with. I’m a foreign concept. So while language teaching at this age is important, it almost plays a secondary role. It’s all about being a good, fun, positive role model the kids. (You can read some more about the cultural benefits of being a kindergarten teacher in a previous post I wrote here.)
Like 99% of teaching jobs, you must have a university degree (in any subject) to qualify for a visa to work as a kindergarten teacher in Japan. You don’t, however, need to be teacher qualified. I myself have a Psychology degree which I essentially have never used. But without it I would not be living and working in Japan. So the degree I once thought was useless is an invaluable tool, and one which work-wise I literally could not do without.
Gaijinpot and Ohayo Sensei will be your best bet for job listings online. Many require you to be currently living in Japan and have a valid visa, but some do not. I myself interviewed via Skype, then flew over once I was offered a position.
University lecturing is where the money’s at in Japan with regards to teaching jobs. Kindergarten gigs, not so much. But I still live a pretty comfortable life and travel/party a fair bit. (Taiwan twice, Thailand, Myanmar, Bali, Sumatra, Java in the last two years.) Travel expenses are paid and I get two weeks summer / two weeks winter vacation. Kindergarten salaries are on par with those of ALTs: 260,000 starting range and eventually rising to 320,000+ with X years of experience. If you land a job that requires you to teach your own class, you can increase this to 350,000 and beyond. Do not accept a job under 250,000, though many companies are chancing their arms and offering 200,000. Ridiculous.
So what do you think?
Do you want to be a kindergarten teacher in Japan? I’m still here and I’m still doing it because I enjoy it. I’ve worked in jobs before that I have disliked and vowed never to do it again. This is my third year as a kindergarten teacher and I feel only now am I preforming at 100% in terms of creativity and classroom management. It takes time to perfect.
Not to blow my own trumpet (OK I will) but I’m bloody good at my job. But I think the reason is because I enjoy it. Sometimes when you have a job you like it doesn’t really feel like working at all. (Remind me to read this last line next time I have a heavy cold and have to teach six seika back-to-back with no sleep.)