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Market, Market, Market - How to Be a Freelance English Teacher in Japan

Welcome to Japan--land of ramen, birthplace of Pikachu, and inventor of panty-selling vending machines. Who needs the American dream when you can be an American living in Japan? All the freedom and no Donald Trump! Well, kind of. Assuming you get the right visa. (That’s a separate article to write.) So, you got here and the magic is still new. You climbed Mt. Fuji, you rolled through Tokyo Disney, and no one was exaggerating that intoxicating scent of the cherry blossoms strolling through Ueno park in the spring. Then one day, you check your bank account, and you are going broke fast. It’s not that you can’t live inexpensively in Japan; it’s just that you don’t know how to do it yet, and you Need. A. Job. Now. Ask anyone that has lived in Asia, not just Japan, and they will tell you the fastest, easiest way to get a job as an English-speaking gaijin (foreigner) that pays decently is...

Teaching English.
I’ve been living between Asia and the US for the past four years ever since I decided to enroll in a study abroad program in China while finishing my bachelor’s degree at Evergreen State College. I enrolled in the program on a whim and fell head-over-heels in love with Asia. That’s saying a lot because I don’t mess around with my heels. I’ve never felt more drawn to a place in my life, and I’m committed. That being said, like the initial attraction of any relationship, once the honeymoon phase starts to wear off, you realize to keep this thing going it’s going to take a lot more than that initial spark. When falling in love with a country, this equates to the monetary means to stay there. Which after checking my bank account meant I Needed. A. Job. Yesterday.

Teaching English it was then.
When it comes to teaching English, I have seen all aspects of the spectrum. Teaching English has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and there have been some experiences that have, um, left a lot to be desired to say the least. Besides teaching for an internship I was doing for school credit towards my bachelor’s degree, I started off working through agencies that put you in touch with jobs when I lived in China. The overall experience was very rewarding and not just financially. The pay was more than adequate, far more, unfortunately, than teachers would receive in the US. The hours were fair, and a lot of times I was paid to travel for work doing seminars for different schools across the country. If you signed on for a year-long contract through some of the agencies for a school, they reimbursed your travel fares, paid for your visa, and also provided you with housing all for being a native English-speaking teacher. I got to choose the curriculum as well as which age level and classes I would be teaching. A lot of the schools would provide free language courses if you were interested in learning Mandarin and you had weekends off. Pretty good gig for making a living while being abroad, right?

Then it dawned on me--if I’m making this much money, how much are these agencies pulling in for their cut? What happens if you decide to take out the middle man and work freelance? I decided to find out.

I moved to Japan almost six months ago assuming it would take me about this long to start finding work if I was going to “go rogue” in the English language business in Asia. (I’ve always wanted to say I went “rogue” doing something in my life!) I had nothing but jet lag, business cards, and a great pair of shoes to my name. (I told you, I don’t mess around with the heels.) I was wrong about it taking long to find work--I had my first job within a week. I thought it was beginner’s luck. It wasn’t. The jobs kept coming in, and now I’m so busy that I’m holding interviews next week for an assistant because I can’t keep up with my emails to schedule everything and I forgot what a pillow looks like. Sleeping is literally one of my top five activities, and it’s not good for anyone when I get slangry. ("Slangry" = "Hangry" for sleep divas.)

Here’s how I did it.

Market, market, market.
You are your walking business image at all times. Keep this in mind whenever you go out and could run into someone that could be a potential client. Some of my friends would tease me because I was always dressed like I was going to a business meeting even if we were just going out to dinner. But it paid off. Remember that first job I talked about that I landed within a week of moving here? That’s how I landed it. Out at lunch. My husband and I were at a restaurant eating and the owner came over to ask how the food was and where we came from. He asked what we did for a living (his oral English was perfect), and when I told him I was an English Language Consultant, he asked me for my business card. I got a call the next day and was hired to help him reword his menu to gear it towards foreigners. Apparently "Rape Soup" doesn’t sound that appealing to most tourists, despite it actually being quite delicious. Just like marketing a menu, you are marketing yourself wherever you go. Invest in at least one nice business outfit and a professional pair of shoes. (Have I mentioned I’m obsessed with shoes?) Your outfit doesn’t have to be expensive, just clean-cut. Always, always, always carry your business cards with you.
On a side note, I had to fight the prankster Ginger in me from not leaving Rape Soup on the menu because, well, that’s just hilarious. Speaking of business cards...

Get. Nice. Business. Cards.
If you are going to put money into anything, put it into your business cards. This is the one thing I can’t stress enough not to half-ass, especially working in Japan. Make sure you have a clean, professional headshot to use on your business card, and that it includes an email address that is only used for business purposes, your business Skype name (I recommend having an account for personal and business use), phone number that you use for work calls, as well as a QR code for your website if you have one. If you don’t, think about investing in one. I prefer moo.com for business cards. I have used this website for products multiple times, and while it is pricier, there is a noticeable difference in the quality. I have never been disappointed with anything I’ve ordered from this site. Also, make sure that you have all your information in Japanese on the back of your card. There are a lot of resources to make sure that it is translated correctly. I had a friend help me with mine but research online to double-check the translation if you don’t know someone that is fluent in the language. First, people remember your initial impression. Then they check your business card. It’s worth investing in. And get a lot of them. Business cards are like candy on Halloween in Japan--you give them out to everyone.

Keep marketing.
Use your advertising resources and figure out where the market for you is. I’m still learning everyday. One client I recently signed on that is located in Shibuya told me that before she had heard about me through another client referral, she had driven to one of the military bases to pick up the latest edition of the "Stars and Stripes" newspaper to see if there were any advertisements for English teachers/consultants because she had heard that was a good resource to look for someone that would fit her language needs. The ironic part? My husband is in the Navy and we have a housing unit in Ikego. It didn’t even occur to me to place an ad in the military newspaper. Needless to say, I will be looking into it. Advertise everywhere! See if local businesses would be willing to hand out your business cards in exchange for you handing out theirs. Get fliers and ask about putting them up. Use social media--it’s free!

What To Charge
This gets tricky because it really is up to you and what you think your services are worth. My rates vary depending on the project and the time I will be putting forth prepping for each consult. My first consultation is always free because it is mostly covering what I will be doing to help the client and us getting to know each other to make sure it’s a good fit for us both. If you are strictly doing English lessons in the sense that you will meet up weekly and cover a subject that you will be working on continuously, then I would recommend charging per hour as you would if you were working through a company or agency, depending on what you think would be fair. I would recommend charging a discounted rate for the first lesson or offering a discounted rate if your client brings you referrals. I consider myself a consultant because while I still do private English lessons, I also work with clients in regards to advertising or marketing for their businesses. I charge per project or per hour depending on what both the client and I agree to after our first consult, and after I understand the full time commitment involved in our time together and what the client’s goals are. Also, I always, always recommend drawing up a contract to protect both yourself and your client. It can be a simple Work For Hire agreement that states the payment agreed upon, the work, when it will be delivered, etc. It may be awkward to bring up, but my experience has been that it’s worth doing so nothing is lost in translation.

Did I mention the marketing?
Market yourself through networking. Hand out business cards to everyone and take the time to get to know everyone you meet. People notice when you care enough to remember small details from your previous conversation together. Follow through if you say you are going to contact someone. You never know where it will lead. Even if it doesn’t lead to a client, you might have just found your new favorite person to grab a beer with after work. Most importantly, be genuine, know what you’re worth, and have fun. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Working freelance isn’t for everyone. I love my work, and it’s a great fit for me because I can choose my schedule and which jobs I want to take on; but there are certain things to take into consideration. It’s all about what you put into it and there is a lot more job risk. You are solely responsible for your income and the responsibility of each project/lesson, which is why a lot of people prefer going through programs like JET and AEON. Keep in mind, if you decide to go that route, most of these companies require you to have a bachelor’s degree as well as being TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certified. The acceptance process is quite intensive. You can make a lot more money working freelance, but a lot of the time these programs will provide you with housing, health insurance, and travel expenses. It takes time to figure out what is a better fit for you and your goals.

Well, friends, it’s that time. Netflix and a glass of wine have my signature all over it, and the cats are calling for their dinner.
Cheers!
Cait

Cait MeyerWhen Cait isn’t busy “going rogue” with her English Language Consulting business, she works as a model and actress in Tokyo. Being a natural Ginger, people tend to shy away from her for fear of their soul being devoured, so her ideal night is a horror movie marathon on the couch with her cats and a framed picture of John Cusack.

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  • Guest - Melinda Beckett

    I enjoyed reading your blog. It is read to read and gives practical ideas for marketing yourself as a English speaking educator outside the U.S. Bravo