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Life in Japan

Foreign Teachers Speak Up: COVID-19 and the English Education Industry in Japan





Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of unemployment, particularly among non-permanent workers, has seen a sharp increase. I know this all too well, as I am one of these unemployment statistics. 


My employer was a small mom and pop eikaiwa that was forced to look closely at its bottom line and couldn’t afford to keep its Tokyo branch open or pay my salary. I bear my former company no ill will; it was a sensible business decision and I’ve been able to receive unemployment benefits, a process I’ve been documenting for this publication.




Foreign Teachers and the COVID-19 Teaching Experience


After I got laid off, I assumed that the situation must be bad for teachers nationwide. The education industry was one of the first to be strongly affected during the pandemic, beginning with the school closures back in March. Surely, I thought, other EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers must be feeling the same things that I am. But our field is huge and varied, encompassing diverse employers, from universities to kindergartens to private language schools. 



When I began asking other EFL teachers about their feelings during this time, the wide variation in their experiences surprised me. Here are some of my findings.


In March, all government schools closed for two weeks before the regular spring break. A lot of eikaiwas (English conversation classes) and privately run language schools followed suit. 


But then in April, a national state of emergency was declared, meaning that many schools would not be reopening. This caused a rush to move lessons online and for teachers to work remotely out of their homes. 


Many teachers, particularly those working for eikaiwas, found this to be a huge challenge, as their companies had been analog for so long and this sudden transition created more work and stress for teachers. 




Different Schools, Different Approaches


An eikaiwa employee I spoke to remarked that: “Technology, or rather attitudes toward it, was a big challenge. My company was rather ill-equipped to switch to remote lessons, and while we had the resources for remote work, it was bogged down in bureaucracy.” 


However, teachers who worked as Assistant Language Teachers in public schools found that during this time, they had very little responsibility, as the burden of dealing with the new normal fell largely on their Japanese counterparts.


University teachers seem to have come through the pandemic situation the best in terms of working conditions. Universities were some of the first educational institutions to switch to online learning, and also to make the decision to remain online throughout the rest of the semester. 


One university teacher I spoke to had a lot of confidence in how her school had handled the situation. “They acted very quickly,” she told me. “ I think [my school] was the first to make online teaching plans and carry them out. They planned out different "stages" of emergence to describe what types of activities were allowed on campus, while encouraging everyone to work from home.”


Not everyone was so lucky to be able to work remotely or conduct online lessons though. While public schools and most eikaiwas were closed, within the area of private preschools and kindergartens there was more variation. This could be because working parents need childcare. 



But one kindergarten teacher painted a grimmer picture of her company. At this teacher’s school, the company cut all the part time staff, which meant that full time teachers, such as herself, had to take on extra work while attempting to keep their young students safe. “It was hard to jump into a role I wasn't prepared for and didn't wantーdoing all planning, coordination, prep, cleaning, and taking care of the kids while keeping them safe,” she said. “[The company] only did things for money. They didn't do enough, and I have a very negative response to their inaction and how they ignored what we were saying.”


When I asked teachers about how they felt regarding their schools’ handling of the situation, there was again a wide variety of answers. Some teachers felt their companies had acted swiftly and fairly, while others thought that the response was rather slow and disorganized. One common reaction was that there was a lack of communication from managers to foreign staff, which created a lot of confusion and stress.



Teaching Options After the Emergency


These days, the state of emergency has been long lifted, but we still find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. This has raised a lot of questions about how schools can move forward and conduct lessons safely and responsibly. 


Some, like the universities, are remaining online for the time being. Many eikaiwas are offering mixed online and in-person lessons so their customers can choose what’s most comfortable for them. 



For those getting back to in-person lessons, there are a variety of measures that they are implementing to keep students safe, though the particular methods will vary from school to school. These can include teachers wearing masks and face shields, reduced class sizes, social distancing within the classroom, ventilated rooms, and disinfecting between lessons. 


Although the world is different now, English is still in demand, and students are returning to class. “I worry about the virus,” said one teacher. “But [I] can't afford to stay at home, so just hope our students come back soon.”



Author: Maureen Stone

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