Thousands of teachers work abroad and start their teaching careers in Japan as ALTs which stands for Assistant Language Teacher. ALTs are native speakers of English who generally assist the Japanese teacher in teaching English to elementary and Junior high schools throughout Japan.
To find work abroad as an ALT, you need to be a native English speaker and need to be an university graduate. (Unfortunately associate degrees won't cut it.) Although some public schools or BOEs (board of education) only hire ALTs with teaching certification the bulk of BOEs don't require them.
Direct Hire Fairly Rare - The Rise of the Dispatch Company
Most ALTs get hired through either the Jet Programme or through private language teaching companies. Recruitment can be either from within Japan or overseas.Years back, being hired directly by a BOE was common but with the rise of dispatch companies, being hired directly is considerably harder to come by.
You pretty much must be in the know to snag a direct hire position as often these jobs aren't advertised. Dispatch companies, of which there are quite a few, are similar to a western temp agency in the sense that they are paid for providing a school or BOE with an ALT. (If you guessed that the dispatch companies profit comes from your paycheck you're spot on.)
This is one reason why you need to be careful when signing with some dispatch companies. If during negotiations you find that you're being offered only 200,000 yen per month you best hold out for better work. (Unless you enjoy handing 50,000 to 70,000 yen a month to them. Salaries Average around 250,000 yen per month.) By far the largest of these companies is Interac. They are similar to the prior 500 pound guerrilla Nova in terms of size. Interac places over 1500 ALTs throughout Japan and do their recruiting from outside of Japan.
Work Abroad - A "Typical" Day on the Job as an ALT
By far, most ALTs are dispatched to Junior High Schools. An instructor is generally rotated between 2 or 3 schools. Hours are the quite the opposite of "eikaiwa" or English conversation schools, which have quite a few evening classes and generally start in the early afternoon and run until 8 or 9 at night. In general ALTs work between 8:00 and 5:00 p.m. with weekends and Japanese national holidays off. We've collected some videos of ALTs and life as a teacher in Japan on our Japanese Video page.
Work Abroad - ALT Experiences
Personal experiences are about as diverse as the ALTs themselves. Some ALTs are looked upon as human tape recorders and aren't entrusted with any responsibility whatsoever. While others have full control of the class with the Japanese teacher absent or as non-intrusive as possible. These types have a hand in curriculum and game development and often stay happily for years in their positions. The situation you may find yourself in, upon being hired, will be entirely relative (and we mean entirely) to the school you work for.
Work Abroad -"Eikaiwa" vs. ALT positions
One of the biggest things about being an ALT is that just like ALTs placed in the JET program, every situation really is quite different. While some ALTs are busy and complain of doing extra curricular activities, and office work for the Japanese staff, many others often describe their jobs as "cushy" and spend time surfing the net and studying Japanese or just about anything else you can do at your desk.
If you nose around in forums, you'll often read rants from ALTs who quit and bolt from "eikaiwas" in favor of the less demanding atmosphere of a typical ALT position.
In general and again, every situation is different because every BOE is different, but the Jet Programme is considered the most cushy in terms of working hours, apartment subsidies and salaries. ALT work from dispatch companies comes in second and the hectic and long work that characterizes the eikaiwa industry puts these jobs in distant third place in terms of desirability.