ALT vs eikaiwa: EPIC LIFE DECISION BATTLE

When we were looking at teaching overseas we had done research into several Asian countries because the pay is the best for teachers in Asia and the Middle East. Since we passed on the idea of working in Saudi Arabia or UAE we narrowed our list down to 5 countries.

  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam

If you go back read my “How to teach English in Korea” post you will know that as an American there are a lot of hoops to jump through but they may be worth it if you have the time. Thailand, while many enjoy the life style, doesn’t pay as much. Vietnam is still a communist country rife with corruption, and the money you save there may not be worth anything when you leave. Look at the exchange rate for the Vietnamese Dong to the Euro or US dollar, it’s insane. Also… Dong. hehe.

Since I was denied entry in to South Korea on a teaching visa because of my “criminal” record, our decision came down to Japan and Taiwan. The pay was better in Japan and we could leave sooner, so Japan it was. We signed up to be ALT’s with an ALT dispatch company. Here is a detailed post of a “day in the life” of an ALT (COMING SOON!!) and a separate post about what to expect as an ALT. However, don’t put the cart before the horse. The first question you should ask is:

What kind of teaching job do I want?

Like any good teacher, I’m going to introduce some vocabulary before we get to the meat of the lesson:

Junior High School in Isobe

Eikaiwa school: Privately owned English schools in Japan. Examples of large eikaiwa schools are Gaba, AEON, ECC, COCO Juku, and Berlitz. They can range from small local shops to national chains. GaijinPot and Dave’s ESL Cafe are probably the best resources for smaller eikaiwa school jobs. Classes are taught in supplement to public school English. Students may be anywhere from preschool age to working adults trying to improve their English.

ALT: Assistant Language Teacher. Works in a public school and assists JTEs in class with activities, pronunciation and test prep. There are some ALT’s at private schools, but those jobs are few and far between and usually require Japanese language skills.

JTE: Japanese teacher of English. Your partner for all classes in junior high school and high school. In elementary school you maybe running the class yourself but there will be a JTE present. Also some contracts with public schools allow for the ALT to run the class on their own in junior high or high school.

JET: Japanese Exchange and Teaching program. People who work in the JET program are called, JET-ALTs. Creative, no? JET is the only government sponsored English teaching program in Japan.

ALT Dispatch: These are a group of companies (Interac, Joytalk, RCS, Heart, Altia and some other smaller regional ones) that basically offer an alternative to the government run JET program.

ALT vs. EIKAIWA

We chose to be ALT’s but not because we actually made an informed decision. It was mostly by accident. Many of the larger eikawa schools like AEON, Gaba and Berlitz have long application processes (so does the JET program but I’ll get to that later). We were on a tight timeline since we had already left our jobs and were living in the pool house like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (You can pause here to rap the Fresh Prince song). Most of the public school hiring takes place in March/April for Japan so we signed on with a company that was hiring for that time. All that aside, we feel like we made the best decision possible for us.

Round 1 – SCHEDULE: The biggest difference between eikaiwa and public school ALT is the schedule. Most of the eikaiwa contracts will grant you seven to ten days of paid vacation a year, although there are smaller eikaiwa schools that may offer better benefits. The work schedule for full time will be roughly 8 to 9 hour days, five days a week. Eikaiwa school clientele are generally available outside of normal school or working hours. To meet their customers needs, classes are typically held from 1PM to 10PM. They may also split the eight hour workday with 3 to 4 hours in the morning and then 3 to 4 hours at night. A good example would be working in a preschool setting in the morning and then teaching adults at night. The schedule at an eikaiwa school may also require travel, over night stays and significant commutes if you are in a rural area. A teacher who works for an eikaiwa in our area spends an average of 2 hours on a train everyday.

My schedule for August

My schedule for August

ALT schedules are very regular and follow the public school schedule, outside of a few days where you will have to travel for training held at a central location. You will have all public holidays off as well as be able to travel during the summer, winter and school year-end breaks. If you work at a junior high you might be asked to spend some of your summer helping with the English speech contest. Beyond the increase in available vacation time, the hours are always Monday to Friday between 7:30AM to 5:00PM with the occasional Saturday event thrown in. The specific hours will vary by school board and contract offer. Mine is 8:00AM to 4:15PM.

As far as schedule goes, the long breaks and consistent schedule give the nod to ALT.
WINNER: ALT

Round 2 – PAY: Based on contract offers I have seen from eikaiwa and ALT dispatch companies, the pay can be incredibly confusing and difficult to sort through.  On the surface it usually appears that eikaiwa schools offer larger salaries than ALT positions, the exception being the JET program. Like Transformers, there is more than meets the eye.

ALT salaries are lower for a couple reasons. The first is that ALT Dispatch companies provide ALT’s to local school districts at a discount compared to the cost of funding a JET ALT. ALT dispatches do this in a number of ways that are ethically ambivalent. One example is that a dispatch ALT can only work 29.5 hours a week. Typically, you will be at the school for more than 40 hours a week, the hours over the 29.5 are counted as “volunteer time” or “free time.” The all important 29.5 allows the ALT dispatch company to avoid paying into the national pension plan. It also saves you from having to pay into it. A quick Google search will turn up “ALT dispatch scams” and other non-sense. It’s not a scam. It’s just business, dubious maybe, but business. Read everything you find with a grain of salt because, as our experiences will attest, every situation is different. Another element of cutting costs in dispatch companies comes from prorated salaries during vacation months. Due to the long vacations in August and December, a paycheck is likely to be non-existent or halved, depending on the contract.

Eikaiwa schools typically offer higher salaries at the outset but your personal bills, like pension payments and private health insurance, may eat into that extra money. A common strategy to encourage the teachers to work very hard is to pay based on classes taught or offer bonuses. Gaba is most notable for doing this. Basically your pay is commissioned on the number of classes and students  you teach in a given month. At AEON they have their own software and textbooks that they “encourage” you to sell in the classes. Some eikaiwa teachers have noted that the advertised salary is not possible unless you are a career teacher in Japan and have spent years building up your customer base.

the rare 2000 yen note

the rare 2000 yen note

Another drain on salary is transportation costs. This varies so widely it must be considered on an individual basis. However, eikaiwa schools that require multi-branch service and ALT companies that require long commutes to schools will often help with these costs.

From the Japan Times, here is a collection of reader responses that address a wide range of issues to this article published about the ever shrinking eikaiwa school salary. As you can see, it is a fluid and inexact world. Pay is typically lower at ALT dispatches but more hours and more bills are required to teach at eikaiwa schools. This one is a tie.
WINNER – TIE

Round 3 – SUPPORT (English teacher: human or a commodity?): Eikaiwa schools in Japan have been embroiled in a very public controversy for several reasons. One of them is their fight against collective bargaining. This in-depth opinion article from the Japan Times covers the main points regarding pay vs work at “Big Eikaiwa.” The basic premise is that the eikaiwa schools are only looking out for their bottom line and spend a lot of time glossing over some of the more negative aspects of the job (like the schedule) to lure native English speakers to Japan. The most glaring example of this comes from multiple stories of eikaiwa management siding with customers over their employees. The customer is always right…ALWAYS.

its a support – get it?

Working as an ALT you might have better luck since the customer is the school board and not paying individuals. But don’t imagine for a second that if the school board has a major problem with you that the ALT dispatch company will come down on your side. Working for a school board simply means there are less chances for someone to complain about you. Also working as an ALT, you will have to become very Japanese in how you handle your daily interactions at school. All of your coworkers, and your partners in class will be… Japanese. Openly complaining about something in the school office will likely result in a reprimand from your company. The teachers at the school file a monthly behavior/performance reports on the ALTs as well. Occasionally someone from the dispatch office will come to the school to “watch” a lesson and offer minimal feedback afterwards.

ALT's having a get together.

ALT’s having a get together.

Support networks on the other hand are almost always created by other ALT’s or eikaiwa teachers in the area and not sponsored by the companies themselves. The largest support network of fellow teachers is JET-ALTs which are many and nationwide. That’s not to say that there isn’t any support from the companies themselves. Eikaiwa schools don’t want you to fail as a teacher because that will affect the bottom line. The dispatch companies don’t want you to fail for the same reason. The Japanese government is notoriously indifferent despite the amount of money it spends on the JET program. The JET program or an ALT dispatch company could put you in a smaller town (like they did to us) and you’ll have to fend for yourself (like we did).

The social network isn’t just a Sorkin-ism
WINNER: ALT

!!!WINNER: ALT!!!

The internet is filled with hate on all sides. There are loads of vitriol directed at eikaiwa schools, ALT dispatch companies and even the JET program but to me it really isn’t a contest. If you want to come to Japan, experience Japanese life and have a little time to travel, being an ALT is the right choice. ALT’s have a much better and more flexible schedule, the pay will be adequate and the social support network for JETs is likely the strongest in Japan. Being an ALT isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Check out this post on the reality of working as ALT mentioned at the beginning of the post as well. Everything we’ve published about teaching is on the Lessons Learned home page.

If you have any questions or major disagreements, don’t hesitate to email us or post in the comments, we’ll be happy to answer as best we can.

Your next question should be: Do I go for the JET program? The next battle post: JET vs ALT dispatch.

4 comments on “ALT vs eikaiwa: EPIC LIFE DECISION BATTLE

  1. Ryan says:

    Yeah, most Eikaiwa schools won’t give you a salary either … you’re left to work for question mark amount of dollars a month, so its hard to plan and live off of it. ALT is much steadier, therefore the winner in my book (if you have a choice)

  2. […] the safest and most assured way to give you an excellent experience teaching English in Japan. As shown in our previous post about ALT vs eikaiwa, we feel that being an ALT of any stripe is a better general choice, but choosing between JET and […]

  3. […] ALT vs eikaiwa: EPIC LIFE DECISION BATTLE […]

  4. […] and realities of being a teacher in Japan. You can read through the series here. Part 1 – ALT vs Eikaiwa: Epic Life Decision Battle Part 2 – The Reality of being an ALT Part 3 – ALT vs JET-ALT: The Battle Continues Part […]

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