Working as an English Teacher and Making Money in JapanALT Work Cycles
August is the time when Japanese students have their summer. The Obon holiday in August Japanese people use this time to travel back to their hometowns.
The other major working holidays for teachers include New Years, Golden Week (end of April to early May) and the Spring Break between school years (usually mid-February to late April). However, most ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are paid hourly wages and can expect lighter incomes for subsequent paychecks.
Obviously, this is a particular challenge during the long period between school years when your income will be zero. During this time the school boards will be negotiating contracts with dispatch companies (similar to temp agencies that buffer schools from having to deal with foreigners). Because of the changes in dispatch contracts, ALTs can expect contracts that are only one year long making them eligible for only one year visas (as opposed to year visas with private companies, rural schools and the JET Program).
The end of the spring marks the time of year when teachers compete in large cities to be rehired into a rotating pool of rival dispatch companies. The dispatch companies compete to underbid each other as school boards cut budgets.
Rural ALT jobs often require a car (and driver's license), limit your side job options and limit the types of activities you can enjoy after work. Because of these drawbacks, ALTs usually earn higher wages in these areas and have greater job security. Rural/poorer school districts receive financial support from the national government for hiring foreign language teachers.
Recruits for the JET program will usually be serving in these remote areas.
Tokyo is huge market for English teachers but it is also a magnet for young foreigners who eventually start their own private English schools which have saturated the English market; for this reason many companies (notably some large kids' eikaiwa) avoid competing in Tokyo.
Other ALT risk living in a "gaijin bubble" as they seek out other English speakers to fraternize with. Rural ALTs face a sink or swim situation; where they either improve their Japanese abilities rapidly or they fall into isolation. The rural ALT job, in this regard, is a trying test of a person's emotional constitution. Even more of a test than a young person trying to make a new life for themselves in a foreign environment (Japan is a safer and lower stakes environment than other English teacher markets).
You will often hear references to the monthly 250,000 yen as the standard English teaching wage.
Even though this amount is often advertised by the dispatch companies that hire foreigners, the reality is not that generous. Companies often advertise the maximum monthly income rate, the rate that you would earn working 5 days a week in a month with no holidays (or days when the school does not need you, such as during scheduled testing).
Monthly wages are often around 180,000 yen. To live in the cities, teachers will need to find after-hours employment but there are plenty of part-times jobs in the big cities.
This video by the Fukuoka General Union points out the problems with typical ALT in comes and how they translate to quality of life after some typical expenses.
The companies which hire recruits from over-seas often ask that you bring at least two thousand dollars of savings with you to support yourself for as much as two months until you get your first paycheck. It is not uncommon to hear of newcomers who run out of money and desperately coasting to that first paycheck while living alone, setting up a new home and adjusting to a new job in a foreign country.
Try to avoid wasting money and getting bogged down with furnishings in your first two months.
That first paycheck delay does not only affect newcomers to Japan, it will affect you each time you change jobs; which is an annual process for ALTs. Also, most companies will have a type of probationary term at the beginning of employment during which you can not claim your paid vacation days before you have worked there for six months (which is a majority of the typical nine month employment contract even if you have worked for the same company in previous years).
The Side Jobs
Some companies/programs will forbid employees from working side jobs. Lower paying jobs will count on their employees working side jobs in order to keep their around to fulfill the one year contracts for the schools. These side jobs often focus on teaching English; to children, businessmen, retirees (who like to use English classes as a way to get together and chat), juku (private cram schools that teach subjects after school hours), "eikaiwa" (English conversation courses), tutoring/"man-to-man" lessons and Saturday schools (sometimes offered by private schools).
The First 5 Years; A Case Sample of ALT Income
Using data contributed by an English teacher in the Kansai area, we can look at the chart below showing month by month income for an ALT's first five years. Each month's bar represents income received directly from employers. Note that each color represents a different employer.
At first the English teacher has a single employer and the income is quite low; in that case the teacher was working for an eikawa company which provided housing and deducted a housing fee from pay.
Later jobs may look equal to the initial eikawa job but these jobs do not cover housing, so the teacher must arrange their own housing and pay out of pocket, translating to a lower quality of life.
Later in the chart you can see that the bars consist of different colors; this means that the teacher is working a number of jobs simultaneously which add up to a greatly improved income.
Looking at the chart you can notice the cyclical periods in between school years when income drops to nearly nothing. Later in an ALT career these zero income months were mitigated by a varied employment portfolio that fills empty time with part-time work. Keep in mind the paycheck delay; February, March, April and August have little to no public school work for ALTs but it will be the March, April, May and September paychecks that get diminished.
You can see in the chart that the main source of income varies from year to year as different dispatch companies are awarded the ALT contracts. Some of the side jobs stay consistent, such as the nursery school job (purple) which runs consistently over years but only accounts for an hour or two per week so it is not large portion of monthly income but it was the only source of income during some long breaks.
You can also see that there are times when two ALT companies account for monthly income, this is because ALT companies are often contracted by schools for only certain days of the week leaving gaps that can be filled by other dispatch companies which were awarded different contracts by different schools; for example, the ALT may work at one school Monday, Tuesday and Friday while working at a different school that only wants a native English teacher for classes on Wednesday and Thursday.
This chart depicts total monthly income, not hours worked. In the chart you can see that ALT income is consistently the highest source of income as it represents the majority of working hours in a day (usually, 8:30a-3:30pm). However the other segments of the bar graph represent jobs that are worked far fewer hours per month but with a higher rate of [per hour] pay. In some cases the teacher may be travelling long distances work a 50 minute class; in that case a teacher needs to balance travel time and travel expenses to decide if the gig is worthwhile. Other jobs pay a high rate per hour and therefor a represent a disproportionately large share of a bar (if you are equating the bars with actual hours worked).
Note that the monthly incomes in the chart range from zero to about 400,000 yen with a huge degree of variation in between.
The different colors of the diversified bars represent times when the ALT was working many jobs, mixing weekdays, nights and weekends; please understand that when looking at month with higher incomes - those numbers are from working long hours, seven days a week at various locations (different cities and prefectures) with significant travel time/expenses.
Going forward with this information, new English teachers coming to Japan should be aware that their ability to make money is dependent on keeping their schedule open to new opportunities and to be wary of employers who want to monopolize your time and prevent you from taking profitable side jobs, growing your in experiences and developing new skills and networks as a teacher.
Paying off your debts back home
Most of the young people coming to Japan will have significant student loan debt back home (as a university degree is usually a prerequisite to a teaching job).
I recommend checking the exchange rate periodically and sending large sums home when you have money to spare and the exchange rate is favorable.
The current exchange is not great and seems to going through small peak and decline cycles ever other month this year.
Have a great summer break!
I have noticed that it is fairly uncommon for English teachers to talk about work details when they are gathered together. People are young, single and looking for fun; talking about schedules, work and pay details will not make you the life of the party. There is information out there but much of is contaminated with vitriol.
Make the most of you life in Japan. Work with purpose, pride, confidence, creativity and joy.