Steve Tainton

Bye bye teaching

Getting out of the game


With any luck May will see me starting a new job in a field completely unrelated to teaching. It will be the first time in over 8 years that I'm not earning my keep by flapping my jaw. Naturally there is some trepidation on my behalf about starting something new, but the excitement of the opportunity looms much larger. Now, this career change is a very proactive, positive move on my part. I am not simply trying to escape the teaching scene as a friend of mine did several years ago only to find himself a job in hotel working as a bilingual waiter. Thanks, I'd rather keep my seated job. Nonetheless, this change has given my some objectivity on my current career. In the past I spent a lot of time persuading myself how much I enjoyed teaching in order to fuel my extended work weeks. I wasn't lying to myself as much as putting on a good game face. Heading toward the sidelines, it's a good chance to look back at the game.

Teaching English has done worlds for me. It's literally shown the world to me. After graduating from University I was hungry for some overseas experience, but my skill set (none) wouldn't have taken me anywhere. Luckily enough I was born a native-speaker of English. Have tongue, will travel. I've lived in Japan and Thailand. I've met the woman of my life. I've been fortunate to make the acquaintance of a lot of interesting people from a lot of interesting places. It's been a great adventure...

But (I knew he was winding up for a rant),... the game is fixed. Teaching English overseas is a tough racket. I knew a guy with an ESL Master's Degree working in the Japanese University system. I would say that such a job is the pinnacle of English teaching jobs in Japan. It came with decent pay, study stipends (i.e. free travel) and plenty of planning time, not to mention vacation time. The rub, every three years he had to find a new job because the University system in Japan would be forced to grant him a sort of tenure, which very few foreigners ever get. Given the number of job openings in Universities at any given time, he moved around Japan a lot. Great if you're single, good luck if you have a family. I mentioned the pay was good, but only relative to other teachers. A mediocre salaryman would be on the same amount in his early thirties with much more job security. And that is the best teaching job in Japan, arguably one of the better countries to work in as a teacher from a visa and salary perspective. That's to say that the most you can ever hope for from teaching English in Asia is a job that might just support a family who was willing to uproot every three years.

It's a young man's game. If it were a Coen brothers film it might be called No Job for Old Men. In fact, it's a great job for retirees, particularly in a place like Thailand. As a second career for someone with a bit of a nest egg stored away, teaching makes perfect sense. It's generally low stress, engaging, physically easy work. I think Thai employers should be more keen to hire older candidates who are probably less transient, hence more reliable than younger globe-trotters. Unfortunately, I've witnessed several older career teacher types crushed by the game. Nova's demise revealed just how many married men (often fathers) were living month to month, financially vulnerable, and not otherwise employable. You can't teach through your prime earning years and expect to make it out smoothly. It's not just the salary, but also the benefits. At the very least, if you were teaching chez vous you would be on some sort of retirement scheme. Several career teachers I know are only a decade or so away from retirement without any means of retiring. Evidently you can boil a live frog if you do it slowly enough; the frog never realizes the water is too hot until it's already cooked.

The game is cruel. It's getting harder and harder to find full-time work as a teacher in Japan. Like vultures to a kill, employers skillfully savaged the remains of the Nova workforce by offering up part-time work to the desperate. The most egregious case was that of a local school district (private enterprise can be more easily forgiven for seeking profit over people) that decided instead of offering up a couple of full-time slots, they would slice and dice the work, save themselves some money and forgo the headaches of helping a teacher procure or renew a visa. This short-term thinking is rampant. The public school systems are trying to get more native-speaker teachers into the classrooms all the while engaging in the above and hiring teaching agencies whose abuses are notorious (who wants to work for two bosses anyway?)

The game is over. For me anyway. At least till I get that nest egg that will allow my to be an old man teacher someday. The game may be drawing to a close in Japan. I referred to industry troubles last month. The website Let's Japan also did a piece on the decline of private language schools in Japan. Nova's bankruptcy is working like a double-edged blade - putting off consumers and eliminating the single biggest teacher importer in one fell swoop. On the other hand, we continue to hear government rhetoric about bolstering teacher numbers. There is also a program underway in Korea. The game may become more public, less private in the future. In our great consumer world, selling education might not be a game that anyone can win.




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