Adapting to a Difficult School

Working as an English teacher in Japan can be an incredibly rewarding job, but sometimes your Japanese school can be really hard work.

All English teachers have had bad classes. You know, those ones where nothing goes right, the students aren’t listening and it’s basically chaos for what seems like forever. It’s enough for a lot of teachers to pack it up and get a new job. When the school is a big part of the problem, it can be the hardest thing in the world to even get out of bed in the morning, and I’ve met a lot of teachers who gave up living in this beautiful country because they felt stuck at their horrible job.

Of course, when you are in a truly awful situation at work, looking on the jobs board and getting your next gig is the logical thing to do. However, if you are running away from a bad situation, you may find yourself jumping into anything, whether it is a good fit for you or not. If you don’t want to quit in the middle of your contract and leave your employers and students more resentful of foreigners than ever, you can learn a great deal by reframing your difficult school and becoming a more thoughtful and tolerant teacher in the process. Here are some ways to do that.

Disclaimer: this is not easy, and it will change you. I have quit more jobs than I care to count, but I’ve also used my experiences at awful schools to make me a better teacher and get jobs at much better schools. Tolerance and empathy are virtues for a good teacher.

What do you mean by difficult?

No matter how zen you are, it’s inevitable that there will be tough times working in Japan as a foreigner.

Working in a foreign country is always going to be an adjustment that can leave you scratching your head or even getting frustrated and angry. Some examples:

Difficult students:

We all have experiences with students that push us to the brink of sanity. One of my first schools in Yamada-shi in Fukuoka had a crazy class on a Wednesday with twenty or so 3-5 year olds, and half were still in diapers that they would almost always void during class… None of them could understand a word of English and all of them had insane amounts of energy. Every time I taught that lesson they would run around the class, destroying everything. I had to take everything that wasn’t bolted down out of the classroom and put it in the teachers back room because if I didn’t they would find a way to hurt each other with it. Worst class I’ve ever had, and the difficult thing was that I would get calls from the office saying parents complained that their kids were being sent home crying, or got hurt. I was so glad to get out of that situation.

Difficult Office Staff:

Usually the students are the best part of the job, especially if you have been teaching for a while and you’re reasonably competent and can get past the classroom management hurdle. The thing is that then you may have to deal with some very difficult office staff. I’ve worked with office staff who have undermined me in front of my students, have taken students out of my class while I’m teaching, then made them cry and sent them back in (basically ending my chance at teaching anything for the next five minutes while everyone tried to figure out why one kid is crying), or left me threatening notes about how I’m teaching my class and bad mouthed me to other teachers and staff. Actually, all of those examples were from one office worker, and she couldn’t speak English so I never understood why she hated me so much.

Those kinds of people can be a huge challenge to work with.

Difficult Co-workers:

Other foreign teachers can be just as bad or even worse than the office staff, despite cultural barriers that can cause a lot of confusion with the Japanese people who usually work in the office.

I once worked at the same dispatch company with a guy who was the most negative person I’ve ever met. I had been in Japan for less than a year when I met him and was still very excited about all of the new experiences I was having every day. He had been here for ten years and clearly had started to hate it. You know those bitter foreigners who want to take everyone else down with them? He was the king of all of those guys. In my book I referred to these guys as “give-up-gaijin” because they have given up on finding an interesting career and an enjoyable life here, and they just spend all their time complaining. Avoid these people at all costs. They will take you down with them and make you miserable, which I hope is something you don’t want to happen.

Difficult Salary

I’ve met teachers surviving on 170k a month. I don’t know how they do it. If you’re working full time for 170k a month (and often this means more than full-time if you’re preparing classes at home or doing overtime to build your relationships with the students), find another job on the board and quit as soon as you can. That is not enough money unless you really love your job or it is a startup or NPO that you have some equity or stake in.

Think about it from other people’s perspectives

Don’t stay angry. It’s very easy to get stuck in a loop, constantly thinking over and over about frustrating or painful experiences and how you might do them differently, what you would say if you had the guts or the best way to quit that would show your employer just how much you hate them. The thing is, though, that the only person you truly harm when you hold on to anger or grudges is yourself.

Maybe the give-up-gaijin you work with had some real trouble in his time in Japan that s/he hasn’t been able to process properly. Maybe that office staff member saw you doing something that is really not okay in Japanese culture and hasn’t got the international perspective that you have to know that in your country that action was totally ok. Perhaps your students have had three different English teachers this year and they expect you’ll be gone soon too. They have never had a relationship with an English speaking person that has lasted more than 6 months to a year, so why would they invest in the language or you when you’ll be gone in a few months anyway?

This empathy is really important for foreigners in Japan – this can be a tough place to live but it can also be amazing, and making a small mental shift like thinking about others can make all the difference in how you experience your time here, whether you are in it for the long term or if you go back home after a short stay.

Try to work well with difficult people

Easier said than done, I know, but it can be a really great opportunity for you to learn how to work with difficult people. In just about every job you ever have in your life you will find difficult people, and learning how to work with them, their motivations and what drives them, and how to improve your way of working together is a really important skill that will help you in every job you have for the rest of your life.

Taking this chance up will teach you how to talk to people who you may not agree with, and how to be a professional who gets the job done even in stressful situations. A book I can highly recommend that will help you with doing this is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg – this book helped me to learn how to communicate with a difficult Japanese co-teacher, and ended up saving my job. Definitely worth reading.

Focus on building your skills

Every job you take in Japan is a chance for you to prove that you’re a cut above the rest. I believe that very strongly, as I’ve used every job to catapult my career to the next step. After five years in Japan I can make a full time salary on fifteen hours per week because I’ve worked really hard to improve my skills, and struggled through tough times with the most difficult students, co-workers and office staff I could imagine. But when potential employers look at my CV and what my references say about my ability and character, they are more likely to give me an interview or hire me.

Of course this also has a lot to do with how I present myself, and you really should learn how to write a good CV or resume. Just remember that there is never an excuse for doing a crappy job on purpose or through negligence, even if you’re struggling at a difficult school.

Do the best job you can, even if it isn’t appreciated

Remember, the office staff and the other teachers aren’t the reason you do this important job, your students are. You are getting paid to reach them, help them and enrich their lives, and that can be a pretty tough responsibility. You may have all of the above difficult situations and still you much show up and do your best. If you are teaching young children especially, your attitude may represent the whole of the English-speaking world to them!

If you’re in a bad mood or angry and you bring that to your class, it will negatively impact your students.

The office staff may give you a hard time, and you may have a manager or supervisor who talks down to you or even threatens you. But the one thing to take away from this article it is that you must not bring that negativity into the classroom with you. A wise teacher once taught me that if you come into your class expecting them to all misbehave and have an awful class, it will happen. Children are unknowingly very astute and observant, and can feel and understand the atmosphere of a class far better than you expect. If you come in thinking the world of your students, believing in their power and their ability and being happy to see them (even that little kid who always messes with your class), you’ll find that everything will be much better. Go above and beyond to reach your students and understand them, and always give them another chance. Every class is a new chance for them, a blank slate and an opportunity to do better than they did yesterday. On good days this will permanently improve students’ attitudes in your class.

I once taught a boy named Sora, who was basically a nightmare for the first three months of me teaching his class. After hearing the good advice from my teacher friend above, I started to welcome him into the class with a big smile and give him lots of praise when he did good things. Even though half the time he would start wrecking things after 20 minutes, I saw a massive improvement in his attitude almost on a daily basis. By the end of the year he was a great student, spoke English very well and his mother adored me for the change she had seen in her son. He wrote me one of the nicest letters I’ve ever had from a student when I left the school, so it’s really worth it to believe in your students.

If the workplace is abusive, toxic and damaging to your health, get out!

I’ve met people who hated their job so much that their hair was coming out in chunks, they weren’t sleeping and were having panic attacks in the office. This was an extreme case, but I told this lady that she needed to get another job and leave ASAP, as she was really hurting herself by staying, and couldn’t really give her students the support they needed in this state.

Another friend of mine was one of the most engaged and creative teachers I’ve ever met. He previously worked in Thailand and had great students at the international school he worked at there. In his first job in Japan he was shocked by the very low level of the students and how boring and monotonous the curriculum was. He tried his best to do more fun stuff for the students so they could have an opportunity to really enjoy their English class and use English in natural situations. The school directors were livid that he would dare to question their curriculum, and their way of doing things. They rejected every one of his suggestions, even though he had more than a decade of successfully teaching children to be bilingual, and the directors couldn’t speak English, nor could more than about 5% of their students get past “how are you?” in a conversation. He quit halfway through his first year, his passion for teaching in Japan crushed.

That school wasn’t looking for creative teachers and discouraged them because for them consistency in the program was better for keeping students than having an amazing teacher one year, but then having half the class quit when the next teacher isn’t as good. His next job was much more his style, and funnily enough paid better and had more generous holidays as well.

Sometimes these places are just not a good fit for you. I enjoy teaching children of all ages, but I really struggle teaching EFL lessons to adults, it just frustrates me and puts me to sleep. Other people hate teaching kids, but can chat all day with adult students. Pick the kind of job that is right for you and get away from workplaces that offer you little more than a paycheck while wrecking your sanity; nothing is worth that.

Know thyself

No matter how you deal with tough situations, you have to know the kind of person you are, what you can and can’t tolerate (you can tolerate a lot more than you think) and what your goals are. Getting advice from other people is important but nobody can ever know you as well as you know yourself, your limits and dreams, and what drives you to become the best teacher you can be.

Charlie Moritz
Charlie Moritz
Written and Researched by Charlie Moritz, founder of Live Work Play Japan, a website that helps teachers, freelancers and entrepreneurs find success in Japan. He co-authored The Smart Guide to Teaching English in Japan, a book that will help you get the top-paying teaching jobs available in Japan.

1 Comment

  1. Education *
    I am looking for a job in japan
    I am an English teacher in Sri lanka I have 12 year’s experiences as an English teacher

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