For many instructors, education may not have been their first career choice. Perhaps they earned a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts field such as international relations, history or language, went out to explore the world, and ended up in the ubiquitous language school industry to finance their youthful adventures. Those who enjoyed it made it a career.
The problem is that it is quite difficult to raise a family on a conversation school salary, which tends to plateau after a few years. In Japan, 3-4 million yen annually is the norm, and in other developed countries salaries will be similar for teachers without extensive experience and qualifications. The exception is the compensation in some of the wealthy Middle Eastern countries.
One solution is to pursue higher paying jobs, generally in universities. Part-time university hourly wages can vary widely (ranging from ¥4000-¥8000) but are much higher than conversation schools. More attractive are university contract positions, which may pay ¥5-8 million annually and will generally include some research funds. The most lucrative jobs are tenured positions where salaries may exceed 10 million yen annually once bonuses (of up to 6 months additional salary), housing, family, and transportation allowances are included. Universities also reward long-time instructors with substantial retirement amounts, up to 30 million yen, based on the number of years of service.
Competition for university work is intense, so teachers need to improve their marketability and suitability for such jobs. While in the past an M.A. in any area, and a friend’s recommendation was all that was needed, in the last decade standards have risen and specific TESOL-related degrees are the norm. Without such a degree many resumes may be unread, regardless of how experienced the teacher may be.
How can a working teacher get these credentials? Japan has very few local M.A. TESOL programs taught in English (e.g., Sophia University and Temple University). However, earning a master’s degree no longer requires living in a specific country, as there are many paths, such as distance or weekend programs. The drawback to these is that completion takes a number of years and might not be suitable for someone looking to move up the salary ladder quickly.
Another option is attending an M.A. program full-time in another country. Most programs are designed to be completed in 2-4 semesters, and tuition fees range greatly, from USD$20,000-$40,000 or more depending on the requirements of the program, and financial aid eligibility. Full-time students (as well as spouses) are often granted limited working visas that allow for some income. If one has children, then schooling is another financial consideration. Public school fees for non-resident dependents can vary greatly by country (e.g., AUD$100-$7000 per term in Australia depending on the visa type and state).
Aside from earning a degree in a shorter period of time, going back to university full-time has a number of other advantages. By taking a number of courses (3-4) at once, one can draw information from various readings and see how many theories are interconnected. In addition, the benefit of not being employed full-time allows for fewer work-related distractions. Written assignments produced during the program can often be adapted into conference presentations or possibly published. Enrolling full-time allows access to extensive on-campus library resources, which in spite of the amount of online information available nowadays, is still an advantage over distance programs.
The classroom atmosphere is another important factor, as most programs, especially those based in English-speaking countries, attract students with a wide range of experience, knowledge, and backgrounds, which in turn provides a greater diversity of classroom discussion. If the program includes a teaching component, then the classroom will undoubtedly be one of mixed nationalities which would make an interesting change for those who have only experienced teaching in a single country.
Another advantage of studying abroad is it provides a break from full time work which can provide a chance to reset goals and priorities. Allowing children to experience an extended stay abroad may broaden their horizons and allow them to brush up on their language abilities.
Moving overseas to obtain a master’s degree is of course by no means easy. However, the experience can be invaluable personally and professionally.