We get a lot of questions like “Is it easier working for a large English schools or small ones?" As a group, ESL schools are as different as the teachers who work at them. So anything written or said is at best a generalization.
We’ve heard stories from teachers happy with working at the large chain schools and some not. The same with small schools.
In fact, if you spend a little time reading stories on teaching in Japan in the forums, you'll find glory and horror stories on most every major school in Japan (to include the JET program). Having said this, here are some points to consider in working for big and small schools.
Differences in Accommodations
Large English schools like Nova, Geos, Aeon etc. usually have accommodations for you. Generally they pay the key money and will handle communications with your landlord if anything breaks. Often they will rent several units in 1 apartment house, so you’ll have friendly faces just 2 doors down. It can be very convenient (not to mention make things a whole lot easier), to have colleagues next door to point you in the right direction or help get you connected. Check out our chart that compares benefits, salary and working hours for the big chain schools.
Smaller English schools sometimes don’t offer accommodations because they prefer to hire from within Japan. There is less risk and they simply don’t want to fork out the key money. (So this means you'll have to find your own accommodations in Japan). No easy feat! (This can be several thousand dollars). Check out our blow-by-blow description of renting your own place in Japan. If you don’t want to work for a large school be sure to ask if the school you have your heart set on has accommodations. Smaller schools sometimes have only a foreign staff of 1 - you. So it can be tough to get answers to questions not to mention lonely at times.
How ESL Schools Differ in Curriculum
Large English schools often won’t have any flexibility in their curriculum. You will teach what you’re told to teach. If you don’t have experience in laying out lesson plans and would prefer not to do it, then working for a large ESL school won't be bad. It frees up time for doing other things like studying Japanese and traveling around the country. However, if you're the type that has to express creativity in teaching methods etc., you very well might find working for a big school to be a drag.
Smaller English schools will often be more flexible with their curriculum, (if they even have one). So you'll be planning your own lessons. Some schools will allow you to choose your textbooks also. This can give you the chance to experiment with new ESL games, activities and texts. Ultimately it may make you a better teacher. If you’re chained to 1 text and teaching method, if or when you change schools, you may struggle with new texts and teaching methods.
Differences in Teaching Atmosphere
Large ESL schools tend to see their teachers as expendable. With their massive recruiting budget and connections, they can replace teachers in the blink of a young girl’s eye. This results in a colder atmosphere and causes faster turnover in the staff, which again adds to a colder atmosphere because long-term bonds never get made.
ESL Contracts and Fraternization Clauses
Many large English Schools also discourage contact with students after classes. ("Contact" is a fancy word for "don't date your students." Often large schools will put a non-fraternization clause into their contracts for you to sign. If you’re seen out with students, you may be reprimanded or fired. This constricts life and takes the enjoyment out of living in Japan – provided it’s actually enforced. (This is by no means insignificant).
In truth, it’s tough to prove. For example, in larger cities there is almost always a favorite bar where English teachers congregate. When Japanese keen on sharpening their English skills get wind of it, they go there too. So being out with your students then becomes coincidental.
Smaller English schools tend to treat the teacher as a part of their team and may value your opinions and input on various school functions. They also allow you to hangout with students after class – this helps build relationships and makes the whole experience a lot more fun. It’s nice to be able to attend a party thrown by one of your students. Don't take this to mean that smaller schools aren't without their problems too. Sometimes you'll run into school owners who "police" their teachers mercilessly.
Differences in Money
Of all the differences between large and small English schools, money is the one item that is the most similar.
Large school salaries will all be in the 250,000 yen range. Your large chain schools usually give some kind of bonus - whether it is a free ticket back or a completion bonus. Generally the raises will be very small. New teachers often make the mistake of thinking because they'll re-new their contract they'll get a big raise. Big raises are not the norm. Check our salary and benefits comparison chart for the big schools like Nova etc. Because they can so quickly hire replacement teachers, there isn’t any real incentive to give big raises.
Smaller english schools often give a bit more in the salary category simple because some of them are so far out in the country, that it’s hard to find teachers.
Often it’s easier to get raises (or bigger raises) and other perks from smaller ESL schools than the larger ones. They don’t have such a well-oiled recruitment machine so it’s tough and a big pain for them to replace teachers. If your quality teaching helps build their student base, they’re often quicker to recognize your efforts through larger contract renewal bonuses, raises and other perks.
If you already know what size school you'd like to work for, you're ready to start applying to schools. Check out our Resource page for English schools.