Lately, we’ve gotten a few enquiries asking about what duties are involved with various positions, and it usually varies by grade level.
Working in the Japanese school system, you will probably end up primarily teaching in one division - elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, or a mix of junior and senior high school.
Today we’ll look at some of the differences in these groups and help you see where you might fit best. Some of you may already know your preference, but if you’re new to teaching in Japan it can be helpful to know the system, and to understand how it may be different from your home country.
In Japan elementary school is from grades 1-6 (小1~6), so there’s quite an age range. In principle, English is taught from 3rd to 6th graders, so if you’re an elementary school teacher most of your time will be spent with 9-12 year olds. Depending on the school size and schedule though, there may be classes with 1st and 2nd grade every once in a while.
Classes are almost entirely listening and speaking focused, and the aim is to build students’ confidence and vocabulary, and present English as fun and attainable. Elementary school teachers are most likely to have to teach at multiple schools, even if directly hired by a board of education.
Elementary schools are more plentiful than high schools and have more classes scheduled. This can make for busy days as the schools will try to get the most out of the native teacher the few times a month they get him or her, and the energy level needs to stay high.
On the other hand, there is less planning required because the same lesson is often taught at multiple schools, and lessons are far less complex and involve more games and songs than in high schools.
Junior High School:
Junior high school is three years, grades 7-9 (中1~3, AKA J1-3). This is when students are expected to get serious about English. Usually they will have weekly grammar lessons taught by the Japanese English teacher, supplemented by speaking class generally taught by you, the native teacher.
The class sizes will be 20-40 students. The amount of control you will have over the lessons and materials will vary by school. The approaching high school entrance examinations are a major focus for the 3rd graders.
For the kids who are interested in English, this is where they start learning more complex sentences and how to have real conversations. Junior high school kids can be a lot of fun to talk with!
Junior high school teachers will probably have outside class duties as well. Students participate in speech contests and take various exams, so you’ll probably be helping with those. You may also end up in being charge of the English Club, which can be a great chance to get to know your students, and teach things that they cannot experience in regular classes.
Senior High School:
Senior high school is also three years, grades 10-12 (高1~3, AKA S-13). As with all levels, the senior high school teaching experience also varies widely. Most high schools are standard schools but there are also agricultural, technical, sports, and arts focused schools where the curriculum is vastly different (as well as the motivation of the students).
Academic high schools will most likely be focused on getting the students ready for university exams, but may also have opportunities for study abroad and international exchange.
Lower level schools might have more flexibility in the curriculum, but less resources.
You may also find yourself teaching at a night school for kids who have to work during the day, or have trouble socialising in the normal school environment.
Some high schools go beyond just having the grammar and oral communications classes - you may have the opportunity to teach special topics in English, current events in English, or have language lab classes, so you have opportunities to use “real” English with students who have a particular interest in it.
One of the downsides of teaching senior high school however, is that after three years of English in junior high many students have decided whether they like English or not. If they’ve decided they don’t like language class it can be hard to bring them back around.
As with junior high schools, speech contests, English club, and exams are part of a senior high teacher’s duties. You may even have students applying to universities abroad - a stressful process, but very rewarding when a student you’ve helped gets accepted to a foreign school!
If you happen to be placed in a private school (私立学校), the majority of EduCareer's clientele, there's a possibility that you might be assigned to both junior and senior high classes. Obviously, these positions require more flexibility, knowledge, teaching skill and experience.
In recent years, in addition to 'standard courses', it is trending for schools to offer an international or global course. These courses are aimed at higher English level proficient students and/or returnee students (those who have spent time abroad). Most of the subjects will be taught in English, and generally use textbooks and resources aimed at native level or high level ESL learners.
Hopefully this gives you a bit of information on the school system here in Japan, and the duties associated with each level. Each level has its own challenges and rewards, so you have to discover the place that’s right for you. Good luck!