Teaching English in Yobuko, Japan: Alumni Q&A with Michael Gilbertson

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What is your citizenship?
United States

What city and state are you from?
Pomona, California, USA

How old are you?

What is your education level and background?
Bachelor's Degree.

Have you traveled abroad in the past?
I've been to Mexico and Jamaica.

What sparked your interest in going to teach English abroad?
I wanted to experience a culture much different than my own to help me grow as a person.

What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
Missing big events in my family and friends lives. Not being accepted or liked where I ended up living. Being simply lost in culture and resigning to my home instead of putting my self out there in new and scary ways.

What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
My mother was immediately supportive since I had nothing tying me down just yet (kids, spouse, house payments, etc.). My dad was immediately frustrated and confused as to why I wanted too, but we had a talk and he admitted he was afraid of me leaving and quickly decided that this was a great opportunity for me.

Teach English in Japan JET ProgramWhy did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
After researching the different possible TEFL certifications, I found TEFL to be the best choice mostly due to their support structure and course requirements. As well, I liked how helpful the lady was who signed me up. The promise of helping find an English Teaching position at the end of the course was a big selling point, and now that I am an alumni, the help that still exists to me is impressive. If I chose to try teaching English in a different country I know there would be more than enough help from ITA to get me there.

The course requires practicum to pass, something not many other TEFL certifications had. I figured if they had higher expectations of their students, the rest of their course would be more challenging and rewarding as well than a course with bare minimum expectations. I was right, the course was challenging and majorly informative and it made me a much better English teacher for it.

Which TEFL certification course did you take?
I took the Online TEFL class.

How did you like the course?
I enjoyed the course very much, it worked very well in my schedule. I was able to pass and learn from the course despite having two part time jobs (essentially three when I started working on practicum). The way the course was laid out made sense and built on itself in a way that I never felt lost.

How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?
I look back to the materials from my course fairly often. There is a great explanation of how to create goals for lessons, and how to structure activities so they're either building, reinforcing, fluent-izing (that's definitely a word) the learners knowledge of English. It's allowed me to take on greater responsibilities than other English teachers in my area and thrive in these responsibilities.

How long have you been in Japan and how long do you plan to stay?
I have been in Yobuko, Japan (moved here in 2018) for one year now and plan to stay another year.

Why did you decide to teach English in this location?
I joined the JET Program so I didn't get to choose my city, but I did get to choose the country. Japan is as polar opposite of a culture you can get from America, and I figured it would be the best place for me to grow as a person. I have learned so much being here and really feel like a better person for my time.

What school, company, or program are you working for?
I got this job through the JET programme, and now work for the Karatsu board of education, they're the government agency that is in charge of all the education in this county.

During which months does your school typically hire?
Applications are sent around August-September, and the hiring process takes about 6 months. They choose a small percentage of people for interviews, and then an even smaller amount to be sent over to Japan.

Did you secure this position in advance of arriving?
Yes! The JET programme even paid for my airfare and found me an apartment.

How did you interview for this position?
I had an in-person interview.

What kind of Visa did you enter on?
Work visa.

Please explain the visa process that you went through.
The JET Programme took care of all of this for me. They simply asked me to get my FBI background check and a few other documents and they took care of the rest.

What are the qualifications that your school requires for teachers?
Bachelor's Degree

What is the best way to apply?
Online. The JET programme is primarily a cultural exchange. Realistically they are mostly looking for people who aren't going to quit and have a genuine interest in Japan and learning about Japan while sharing their culture with their students and community members. Being able to demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in the country is usually what gets people to the interview stage. There are tons of useful guides and resources online, my favorite being r/JETprogramme on reddit which I post to all the time! It is a very useful community for anyone interested in teaching English in Japan.

Tell us about your English teaching job!
My contractual hours are from 8:30am to 4:30pm, but each of my schools has different expectations of when I arrive, mostly due to them starting earlier or later. I work at 5 different schools as an ALT and the Japanese teachers generally prepare and handle the over all structure of the lessons. One of these schools is a junior high, two are elementary schools, and the last two are small island schools that are both junior and elementary schools. Every situation is different, and some teachers ask me to prepare materials or lessons, and I am always happy to as long as they let me know what chapter or lesson the students will be on that week.

I also am in charge of an adult class that I teach weekly. It's not a requirement of the job, but just something they ask every English teacher here to do. It's such a fun part of my week and I have gotten invited to many local events because of my adult students. This class I don't follow a text book and have free reign to teach them as I see fit.

I get paid very well, especially for my area. I am easily able to save money every month... which I immediately spend on traveling and enjoying my time here. I only get to live in Japan for two years so I figure I should indulge in it. I get an additional 20 vacation days plus all the national holidays and bonus holidays for helping out on weekends or after school when I'm asked to. Plenty of time to explore the country.

Please explain the cultural aspects, public transportation, nightlife, social activities, food, expat community, dating scene, travel opportunities, etc...  

Cultural Aspects: Many people are incredibly kind and accommodating. Every where I've gone I've had strangers try to talk to me and help me, doubly so when I speak Japanese. There isn't so much a focus on the individual and so most people go out of their way to help out where ever they can.

Japan TEFL JET ProgramPublic Transportation: Everyone loves to talk about the Japanese public transportation system, and it certainly does have some impressive aspects, but the side most people see is the major cities. I have never seen a bus or train more than a few seconds late, but I have been to many cities where there isn't any train near by and the bus only goes in and out of the city maybe half a dozen times a day. In my city, I have to take a thirty minute bus to get to the nearest train, and that train goes to one of the major cities near by about once an hour. Once your in a major city though, the subways are crazy useful. However, to get home, I would have to leave very early because the last bus to my city is about 9pm. I have chosen to get a car and drive here for this reason.

Nightlife: Is practically nonexistent two hours in any direction from my city. Country side shops close at 7pm, and aside from convenience stores and some shops in the much bigger city near me, nothing is open 24 hours. However, there are plenty of really cool clubs and malls and different night experiences in the closest major city. If I want to go out, my best bets are to get a hotel and just hang out in the city for the weekend. Or I can go out all night and wait for the first train back. Both I have done plenty of times and it's generally worth it.

Social Activities: Japan has culture events frankly too often! It feels like every other weekend there is some big festival where they do some thing with boats or fireworks or what have you. As well, the work culture here treats coworkers like family (for better or worse) and so there are many days where coworkers go out together to drink or eat. If you say yes a lot, you will have lots of events to attend.

Expat community: There are expats here but they are few. I am lucky to be near the major city I'm near because it's "the young people" city, meaning lots of 20 something expats. In my town I am the only foreigner, but the city next to me has maybe a dozen. Japan is 98% Japanese, and of that 2% non-Japanese, most foreigners are Chinese. If your willing to travel and search, it isn't hard to find communities to join however!

Dating Scene: Despite the many terrible parts of dating here, I have had my luck. My town, like almost all rural towns here, is majority older people, like 60 years old. Finding single women my age requires going to a major city, then finding a single woman who doesn't have a kid or isn't just interested in me because I'm a foreigner is hard as well. However, it is possible and I have been doing just fine. Results may vary because I know people who have been single here for over 4 years.

Travel opportunities: I travel a lot. More than I should. It's just easy here! Flying anywhere in the country is majorly cheap, and the extensive train system helps make even the harder to get to parts easily accessible. If you come to Japan, the country is at your finger tips.

Teach English in Japan TEFLWhat are your monthly expenses?
Apartment : $200 a month
Water/Electricity/Gas : ~$100
Food: $200 - $800 depending on how fancy I get
Social : $0 - 800 depending on what I do, hiking is free, clubbing is not
Transportation : ~$200 - if I drive everywhere, gas adds up, if I train around, it adds up
Phone : $60 (20 gigs a month, unlimited all the other stuff)
Internet : $35 (But it's absolute garbage. What I get for country living)
Travel : Plane Tickets $50 - $120 | Hotels $20 a night (hostels/capsules) | $300 a night (hotels)
Work parties : $40 - $60 a pop
Convenience Store impulse buys : $100, there's so many different drinks and snacks here I always buy too many.

How did you find somewhere to live?
The JET programme takes care of finding housing for most placements. I was handed a furnished apartment that the English teacher behind me was using, and the English teacher before him was using. I don't have any roommates in my two bed room apartment.

How would you describe your standard of living?
Very comfortable. My area is very cheap and I get paid what's considered comfortable for most of the country.

In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
Maybe, $20,000 - $30,000.

What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad? Would you recommend teaching in your country?
Ironically, the teaching English part is the easiest but most frustrating part. When you teach in a country you have to teach what they want the students to learn, and that generally isn't the best way to teach the language, and not the best information to teach. Japanese English education is frustrating, and you should come in knowing you won't change it. Be ready to smile, nod, and just enjoy the experience with out worrying too much about work. Your greatest value is being able to stick through the home sickness, come to school, help where you can, and provide insight if they want it. It's a big growing experience and you should be ready to be challenged and understand this experience should change you.


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