The Essentials on What You Need
to Know About Teaching Contracts Before You Sign on the Dotted Line

It goes without saying that you need to carefully look at teaching contracts before signing them. In many areas you can run into trouble signing your name to the dotted line. But if you’re well prepared and know what to expect, you’ll save yourself a ton of headaches.

We’ve outlined the important things to look for on signing a contract to teach English for conversation schools in Japan. Remember every school is different and so are their contracts. Above all, if you feel your contract is unfair keep looking. There are tons of English conversation schools in Japan!

Contact Hours – What They are
Contact hours are actual hours spent teaching or being “in contact” with the student. The industry standard for full-time sponsored ESL instructors is 22-25 per week. They are not the same qualitatively as office hours. You can’t get up and get a glass of water, chat with a friend at the water cooler or check your e-mail during contact hours—though you can during regular office hours at most regular jobs.

The point is -- if you directly compare office hours and teaching contact hours, you’re comparing apples to oranges. 45 contact hours will grind you into the dirt in no time (in addition to being illegal) whereas 45 office hours won’t. Be careful when you look at ads. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. For a comparison of contact hours and perks of the major schools click here.

Teaching Contracts and Office Hours
Another point to consider when you sign a teaching contract is contact hours and stated hours. Often schools will state 22-25 teaching hours in their contract but they don’t mention office hours. These are hours between classes where you perform services for your students. For example, chatting with students and evaluating and grading their work.

If you’re grading reports in between classes instead of preparing them, it makes for a long day. So when you negotiate, make sure you get the “total time” that is involved in the job.

Survival Tip
If a potential employer simply states total hours you need to find out how many hours are actual contact hours.

Teaching Contracts and Extra Duties
Lastly make sure to ask about extra hours or duties. In many teaching contracts, all duties are simply put under a heading like “extra duties” or “office hours.” Some schools will mandate going on camping trips with children, writing them birthday cards etc. Remember to ask if they have extra duties (beyond the usual lesson planning and note taking.) And more importantly, if you’ll be compensated for doing the extras. Most schools lump these activities in under “office hours”.

Teaching Contracts and Salaries
Ah yes…salaries. Expect to be paid 250,000 yen per month for a standard contract. This is the “minimum wage” for full-time sponsored ESL instructors. To get a calculation in your local currency click here.   This is considered an entry-level salary for conversation teachers with little or no experience.

Survival Tip
If you’re in a major city like Tokyo or Osaka, expect more in terms of salary. You can save money on this salary in smaller cities, but you’ll be counting the days to payday in Tokyo.

Things are competitive nowadays. So not all schools will offer you a raise after finishing out your contract. Especially the very large chain schools like Geos etc.  Raises are based on performance reviews received at the end of your contract. Years ago it was more common but now given the shrinking population and competitive nature of the teaching environment it is more of a rarity.

Some small chain schools will offer raises of some type. Smaller schools often offer a bit more in this category. If there isn’t any mention of raises or extra compensation in your teaching contract – beware or at least plan to receive nothing or plan to move on when your contract is up.

Completion Bonuses
Many schools also offer completion bonuses. It’s their way of encouraging their teachers to stay the course. They average from 50,000 to 100,000 yen for completing a 1 year contract. Some schools will state this amount in percentages like 1 - 3% of total salary. Just like with raises, if there isn't any mention of this in your contract, something is fishy or the school doesn't value their employees and doesn't intend to extend a 2nd contract. It also may not be their policy.

Other Perks
Look carefully at vacation days. Ask for a total of weeks off per year. Expect at least 2. Also make sure to ask if the time-off that is quoted to you is in addition to national holidays. Also be sure to ask which national holidays the school observers. Some schools that are generous with paid holidays will give you every one off, others won’t.

Another point to consider is which days are off days. Many schools won’t give you Saturday and Sunday. Often you’ll get a weekday and Sunday. So read for these details or press to get them.

Let’s not forget health insurance. Most employers provide health insurance for free or at least subsidize it. If you’re getting stuck with the whole bill, make sure the deal is sweeter in other areas like salary or vacation days. Note that Interact does not pay for health insurance.  In the first year of employment, insurance is cheap but after that it gets expensive

Transportation Fees
If you’re beyond walking or bicycling range to work. Ask. Transportation fees can really add up. Most companies will pay these fees or reimburse you at months end. Every company is different. 

Survival Tip
Some schools only pay them for certain distances from work.
Typically 20 minutes or greater. For example, Aeon only gives compensation for instructors who live more than 1.5 kilometers from the school. If you’re only 1.3 kilometers, you could be out of luck. So ask how far your apartment is from work and if you'll be reimbursed for travel expenses before you sign the contract .

Teaching Contracts and Accommodations
Living in a nasty apartment will make your stay in Japan… well…nasty. Schools that provide you with a working visa, generally take care of accommodations as well. It’s important to make sure you have a private apartment if you don’t want to share.

Survival Tip
Some schools make you share with another teacher. Some even without regards to gender so make sure to ask your recruiter about this before you sign.

Also expect your sponsor to pay the “key money” or gifts to the landlord. Any employer worth his salt will pay the key money for you. If they don’t, take it as a major warning sign or look elsewhere for a better deal. There are plenty schools that will do this. Heck even the large chain schools pay key money. If you want to see a blow-by-blow description of how this is calculated, click here. Don’t forget to ask about furnishings. Most schools provide basic furnishings. If your apartment is furnished, for the basics you can expect, a bathroom, a futon or bed, A/C and heat, refrigerator, 1 or 2 burner gas table, basic cooking and eating utensils, washer, study table and chair. For a more detailed run-down on a typical apartment click here.

Teaching Contracts and Your Rights
Many teachers are easily intimidated by contracts or believe them to be the final word. The reality is that any contract is subservient to established labor laws. Labor laws are the final word. So even if you wind up signing yourself to a 46 hour 6 day a week contract it’s unenforceable because it is illegal.

It’s important to know your rights as a worker under Japanese labor laws. If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, you can contact General Union for representation (by joining the union) or contact the Labor Standards Office for help in your disputes. General Union has answers to many questions like: withholding pay, termination, maximum hours, notice for quitting, contract renewal or other matters involved in teaching contracts. For General Union's site click here.

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