Working in Japan

Staying Focused and Motivated During Your Teaching Downtime

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, your settling into your new teaching job. The honeymoon excitement of learning the ropes and consolidating the schedule details is drawing to a close. You are just starting to feel comfortable with

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, your settling into your new teaching job. The honeymoon excitement of learning the ropes and consolidating the schedule details is drawing to a close. You are just starting to feel comfortable with the pace. A class is cancelled. No biggie, “I can get ahead in my preparation, and maybe study a little Japanese,” you think. Next day, a class is rescheduled. “That’s ok. Could always do with a little more Kanji practice.” The week after, three of your classes are cancelled. Again, no biggie. Ah, well … sort of.

The Ebb and Flow of Class Scheduling

Some level of ebb and flow in schedule, is a normal part of ESL teaching in Japan. In a private Eikaiwa, this may be due to factors such as weather, branch location, transport delays, and even the economic calendar. The end of the financial year for example, can be a doozy for declining student numbers and frequent class cancellations. As budgetary concerns come to a head in this period, it may affect the willingness of companies or families to continue to commit their resources to ESL education.

Class scheduling issues may occur in public school ESL settings for many of the same reasons, and others; including culture festivals, test preparation, special assemblies, school clean up days, and public health concerns. Sports festival preparation times in public schools are notorious for their lack of ESL classes. And at such times, you quickly come to the conclusion, that it’s actually more helpful to your already overrun Japanese co-workers, that you quit bugging them for something to do.

Having nothing to do when many of your Japanese co-workers are run off their feet, can take its toll on your self esteem. When you are keen to make a good impression and fit into a new work environment, this can naturally create some feelings of awkwardness. If your new to Japan, and feeling self-concious about your Japanese co-workers impressions of your work ethics, this may leave you feeling those fifth wheel blues even more acutely.   

Keeping Out of the Downtime Rut

A big key to not falling into a rut outside the classroom, is actually by having a more motivated experience inside the classroom to begin with. Zara’s JIJ blog post, Putting the Spark Back in Your English Classroom has some great pointers for when you’ve lost that loving feeling.

The fewer and farther between your classes become, the greater the level of job satisfaction you will want to try and achieve when you do have them. Ironically though, when we feel that we have all the time in the world to prepare, we can develop a nasty tendency to keep putting that preparation off till later, and later, and later. Work hard to remain pro-active in your class preparation, so when you do have those classes, you can still get a solid, daily teaching buzz. This way, even one kick-arse super-prepared class on a seriously class-starved day, might just feel like the best thing you have ever taught, even if nothing could be further from the truth.

Shaking off the Cobwebs

For physical and mental health reasons, its is crucial not to become too desk-bound. Being up and about on a regular basis throughout your workday, makes you look busier in the eyes of your co-workers. It will keep you fitter, more alert, and will also increase your opportunity to create meaningful interactions with fellow staff members and students alike. Its an excellent idea to develop a regular daily stretching and exercise routine.

Broaden Your Perspective of Teaching

Another effective way to beat the fifth wheel blues, is to remember that being a good teacher is not always just about what you do in the classroom. It’s also very much about how you contribute to the overall success of the educational environment. By broadening our perspectives, we can be open to opportunities to teach in other ways. Some of the most rewarding English teaching breakthroughs you can have, need not be in the classroom at all, but in the Eikaiwa lobby, the hallway or elsewhere, where the shift in context can work wonders.

Let go of the Need for Praise

Shifting from a, “what’s in it for me,” to a, “what do I have to offer,” mentality, can make a huge difference to the state of your down-time mojo. To give is to receive. And although it’s always rewarding to get open acknowledgement for an achievement, it’s important to be able to let go of that need, because it can become an obstacle to your motivation. It’s also a valuable life lesson from Japanese culture, on the art of becoming self-contained in your sense of personal responsibility.

Becoming Positive about Cleaning

The cleaning culture in Japan is such a normal part of working life that it is taken as a given. Staff of all shapes and sizes are expected to participate. And as much of a chore as it may seem, it highlights something quite refreshing about Japanese society. Even though the relationship between levels in the leadership pecking order may seem rigid, the boundaries of this order, are frequently dissolved for the benefit of the group. Seeing your captains down on their knees swabbing the decks right beside you is a morale boosting sight, and a tradition worthy of respect. And again, there is that sense of personal satisfaction to be gained from participating in the broader success of the educational environment.

Creating Social Opportunities

It can be especially tricky to develop meaningful social relations with Japanese co-workers, even in private eikawas, where administration staff are employed for their ability to communicate with foreign teachers. Aside from any possible language barriers, there’s the issue of Japanese people’s shyness of foreigners, a reluctance of Japanese staff to openly take social breaks from their duties, or the simple fact that they may be just too busy, tired, or overworked, to make time for social niceties.

Opportunities to just walk up to Japanese co-workers, and strike up a conversation may seem limited, or in some cases near impossible. One way around this however, is through the universally understood act of tea or coffee making, and snack giving. Offering to rustle up a hot drink and, or, dropping some snacks (Okashi) on your co-workers desks from time to time, can really help to build rapport. Putting aside pretensions about casting yourself in the office tea lady role, remember that in Western culture, the act of tea making can be considered gender-less. This is also a neat cross-cultural point to make to your Japanese work colleagues.

Japan is a culture where actions really do speak a thousand words. So part of the beauty of this offering, is that the hardwired reciprocity of Japanese culture, makes it likely that the recipient will engage with you socially, or that at least they may become more accommodating in your presence. You may even find, that it results in you getting a drink or snacks given to you when you least expect it. It’s not unheard of, that that a regular period of interpersonal staff exchange, develops around this humble act.  


Making Use of your Talents and Skills

Wherever possible, it’s a great idea to find ways to use your skills and talents to contribute to your school. This is especially helpful for the creatives amongst us. Keeping that imagination meaningfully engaged is crucial to keeping your spirits up and maintaining a sense of fulfillment during teaching down times.

It’s beneficial to find an activity that creates opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. This might include displaying aspects of the traditional culture of your homeland, such as costumes, masks, festivals, foods, songs, dances, literature or art. And consider doing not just static poster displays. It’s great to get your fellow staff and students directly involved in a living, breathing cross-cultural activity. If you can somehow tie it into your lesson plans, sensational!

If you feel that you have no skills or themes you want to share from your home country, then you might consider learning something from traditional Japanese culture. Handicrafts such as Origami, Shodo (Calligraphy), or games such as Shogi, Hanafuda, or Kendama, are cool on a number of levels. These kinds of activities will impress your students and fellow Japanese staff members, and create some memorable opportunities for exchanges.

Working in a public school ESL setting, has the added possibility of being able to introduce English and English speaking culture into other subjects such as music, sport or science. If you can get permission to join such classes occasionally, it can also be a fantastic way to stay involved and motivated during your spare time.     

Doing Your Own Thing

In a private eikaiwa, there may be a little more freedom to do your own thing during gratuitous periods of teaching down time. But before you start making dioramas of famous World War 2 Pacific battles, or doing Yoga headstands in the corner, it’s important to get a clear understanding what your co-workers and company policies would consider appropriate in that regard. Err on the side of caution. If you have doubt, it’s better to leave it out.

In a public school setting, where you are highly visible, and are seen more as a public servant or a company representative with a public image to uphold, doing your own thing is more tricky. As in a private eikaiwa setting, it’s highly-advisable to channel your additional skills into creating cross-cultural teaching opportunities, wherever possible. In any ESL teaching context however, always be very careful to avoid misunderstandings, and to cover your hiney, by ensuring that your supervisors are fully aware of your intentions.

Whatever you choose to do, it’s advisable to make sure that it’s productive and not just randomly killing time. Make yourself lists of things to do. Consult other mojo boosting JIJ blog posts, such ALT Insider’s podcast on Using Free Time Effectively.  Set yourself goals and deadlines for achievement, and at all costs, (and I cannot emphasise this enough) avoid getting sucked down into the bottomless social media rabbit-hole. Mutating into a shuffling, bleary-eyed down-time-zombie, does not bode well for your mental and physical health, or future employment prospects.


So there are truckloads of stuff you can do to keep that mojo working during your teaching down-times. Apathy and teeth-grinding boredom need not be an option. What’s mentioned here, is only the tip of the iceberg. Going out of your way to make meaningful contributions to your teaching environment, will enable you to find more chances to do so in the future. It will characterize you as a person of initiative and may inspire your co-workers to consider more ways in which your time and energies can be more effectively used in service of your ESL teaching environment. When looked at from this perspective, excessive spare-time becomes more opportunity than liability. Staying out of the down-time rut, does require persistence and ingenuity, but the possible benefits to your physical, mental and financial well-being will be very much worth it in the long run. 

So on that note, I hand it to you dear readers. How on Earth, have you guys managed to keep that mojo running strong, and avoid the down-time frown-time. Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas!

Images: public domain courtesy of

Peter Lackner is the Managing Partner at and has had management-level positions at major job boards in Japan including:, GaijinPot, CareerEngine and currently the managing partner at

Running a job board gives Peter the opportunity to speak with employers and job seekers every day and find out why some are successful and others are not. Speaking to both employers and job seekers has given Peter the ability to be able to see both sides of the hiring process. This is why exists - to help job seekers find the jobs they want and employers to find the candidates they need.

Peter is active in the ETJ (English Teachers in Japan organization), a member of JALT’s School Owners SIG and currently on the Executive Board of the Tokyo Association of International Preschools.

You can often find Peter speaking to groups on how to get a new or better job, and to employers on how to avoid making a bad hire.

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