The passage of spring 2020 has not been kind to English teachers in Tokyo. The state of emergency, declared this past spring to prevent the spread of new coronavirus infections, meant one-on-one and classroom lessons were put on hold. Whether or not you would work – or get paid – became a daily guessing game.
English teachers went online to voice frustrations about what they perceived to be English teaching companies – known as eikaiwas – sacrificing the mental and physical health of their employees. With the state of emergency now over, companies are juggling the ability to provide lessons, while also providing the necessary accommodations to allow for proper social distancing protocol.
The continuing pandemic means foreigners are not moving to Japan, shrinking the pool of English teachers available. Everything combined has created new problems that companies must overcome – but what do these new problems mean for the English teachers in Japan?
Online Teaching Under Lockdown
Some eikaiwas required teachers to travel to the office in order to continue teaching lessons, even for lessons taught remotely.
Perhaps most notably, the Nova chain of English conversation schools found itself making headlines in Japanese press during the pandemic with their public battles with the General Union. The General Union accused Nova of, among other things, informing freelance contractors that missing a lesson to prioritize health would result in a fine.
In an online statement released on April 26, Nova responded to the General Union’s claims saying that, “In acknowledgment of the current conditions, upon each instructorʼs own evaluation of the risks of commuting and working, the instructor may elect to move their lessons to the following month or take time off. No penalty is applied. (Under usual conditions, penalties may be applied, in accordance with the terms of each instructor contract.)”
Anonymous online commenters also claimed their employers misunderstood the basic principles of working from home. For some teachers, it seemed that as long as they were at home, then they better be working.
One anonymous reddit user commented that since the classes went online teachers have been made to create “PowerPoint, quizzes, online games and tests which amount to over 10 hours a day of work.”
“We were given no breaks between each class”
In Japanese, there is a word for this, sabisu zangyo, or complimentary overtime. However, there is nothing complimentary about overtime forced upon workers by an employer, a sentiment echoed by an anonymous Ibaraki eikaiwa teacher – “We were given no breaks between each class because my boss thought students might quit if we changed the time of the class by ten to fifteen minutes.” Another anonymous teacher said the students were also being short-changed, commenting that “the quality of online lessons were honestly sh*t but we still charged them – the students – full price.”
Teachers also took it upon themselves to create their own games, online activities and worksheets for their students without the financial backing of their eikaiwa. As anyone who has held a work meeting via Zoom can attest, the online version isn’t the same as the real thing.
“Most adult students are very low level, so it was difficult for them to understand me through the online lesson,” commented an anonymous eikaiwa teacher in Tokyo. They added that by June, “the kids were already tired of it.”
A Ray of Hope
One of Japan’s biggest dispatch companies, Interac, took a different approach to the lockdown. Unlike eikaiwas, Interac has direct contracts with various boards of education around Japan. The company then sends English teachers directly to elementary, junior high and high schools – high-risk areas for infection – to teach classes.
During the state of emergency, teachers working for Interac were told to stay home, avoid gatherings and keep healthy. While speaking to Interac’s Instructor Engagement Unit Manager Andrew Cheng, Tokyo Weekender learned that “many instructors were affected by school closures” and that to combat this “some [teachers] worked from home while others were placed on company leave.”
However, working directly with the boards of education means dealing with Japanese bureaucracy, and the work from home order “depended on whether a Board of Education was willing to approve working from home.”
“It was crazy, the world was falling apart all around us and we had job security. No one was worried.”
Knowing the importance of social distancing, Interac’s sales team “worked tirelessly to negotiate with clients to get approval for many instructors to work from home,” as the safety of their teachers and stopping the further spread of this virus took precedence. Understanding that teachers under their employment were now facing the confusion of living through a global pandemic in a foreign country, Interac wanted to lessen the burden on their teachers, and thus supported their teachers “with 100% pay.”
Said one anonymous Interac teacher, “It was crazy, the world was falling apart all around us and we had job security. No one was worried.”
Of course a few teachers commented to the company that the daily activities they were given to perform at home were “tedious and unnecessary,” but Interac did their best to accommodate teachers working from home by providing online updates on this easy to access page while the “instructor management team worked hard to get the needed information and updates out to the ALTs.”
When asked about the lockdown procedures, Andy Cheng said they were only successful because of the “great team effort.”
Teaching After Lockdown
Teaching after Covid-19 is a different world. With social distancing measures still taking place, some of the staple English teaching activities and lessons have been removed. Cleaning councils have been established in public schools with extra cleaning shifts, and safeguards are being taken in eikaiwas across the country to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.
At some schools class sizes have been cut in half, and classes have been divided into morning and afternoon blocks to keep up with social distancing regulations. Teachers must wear face masks and in some cases splash guards have been installed.
Teachers working under Interac have their own MEXT regulations to follow, with teachers required to check their temperatures each working day. Along with masks, thermometers were all but nonexistent at Tokyo stores during the lockdown, so Interac purchased and distributed a thermometer to each teacher.
It’s no surprise that schools and eikaiwas are taking life after lockdown seriously as the transition to online teaching and the recovery from school closures are still fresh. It appears that Japan may be a ways away from exchanging the brick and mortar classroom for an online one, but with Covid-19 still a global issue and cases once again on the rise in and around Tokyo, how long will it be before teaching in Japan returns to the virtual world for good?