If there is one company that is always on the look-out for high quality teachers, it’s Interac, Japan’s leading provider of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) – and probably Japan’s largest “importer” for foreigners, sponsoring more visas for foreigners than any other company in Japan.
Founded in 1972, Interac has 15 branches in Japan – from Sapporo to Fukuoka – serving more than 7,000 schools, companies and organizations. It has a teaching team of over 2500.
Overseeing the constant flow of teachers into and out of Japan is HR Director E Darrin McNeal. Born in Texas, McNeal worked at the Shanghai Hilton before coming to Japan to teach in 1989. He joined Interac last year as the head of HR.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits McNeal at the Interac head office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward to hear more.
How extensive is Interac’s business in Japan?
Currently, we send ALTs to about 7,000 schools. Besides schools, we send teachers to corporate clients such as Hitachi, Ito-Yokado and government agencies. That accounts for about 10% of our business.
What are your duties?
I manage the human resources and classroom management.
Was there an exodus of teachers after the March 11 disaster last year?
Yes, quite a few teachers did decide to return home. Some took off immediately; some asked to be shifted to another area. Others, with the volunteer spirit, wanted to go to the Tohoku. In some of the hardest hit places, most of the ALTs stayed because they felt it was their community.
Overall, more teachers stayed than left. Fortunately, they were all OK, but it was a hectic time, as you can imagine. We were working round the clock for about 3 weeks
What about the Fukushima nuclear crisis?
The closest school we had someone is 55 kms away from the nuclear power plant. The teacher is still working there.
After March 11, how many teachers did you have to replace?
We had to fill 150-200 positions. It took a few months. About 40% came from overseas. We had a lot of interest from people who wanted to go and help the children and communities affected by the earthquake and tsunami.
Did you offer any incentives for teachers who were willing to go to the Tohoku region?
When we recruited overseas in the aftermath of the disaster, we had a special package for those willing to move to and teach in Tohoku.
Are you still hiring?
We are always hiring. An ALT’s contract is for one year but we do have openings for ALTs during the whole year.
What sort of people are the ALTs?
A lot graduate from university and want to get a year’s experience overseas under their belt. So they finish their year and go home. The average stay is 2-3 years. We do have some long-termers who are happily living in smaller areas and have become part of their communities.
Teachers must have a university degree, near-native level of English and 12 years of English education. Our teachers come from many countries—we have awesome ones from the Philippines, Jamaica. Regardless of where they come from or their accent, their mission is to help students experience the joy of communication and zest for living.
What sort of orientation do new hires get?
The overseas hires for April take part in weeklong events at Narita and Fukuoka. During this time, they get a crash course in Japanese culture and customs and more importantly, learn the basics of how to teach to the MEXT course of study. We encourage all teachers to learn Japanese. First impressions are important, especially when they go to assembly on the first day.
How do you recruit overseas?
For example, in the United States, Interac America uses its network of recruiters and they hold events in cities such as New York, LA, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Nashville and many more. They do a fairly rigorous resume and phone screening followed by an interview. We also have a grammar test.
About 60% of our overseas hires come from the U.S. Interac America does online advertising and they spend a lot of time going to universities that have a big Japanese program.
What about in other countries?
We have recruiters in the UK and also recruit from Australia and New Zealand. Last year, we did a recruiting seminar in Korea. There is a huge market of teachers there because of the EPIK program. We put a lot of resources into on-line advertising via SEO and SEM.
Once an ALT starts work, what is a typical day?
An ALT is typically at school from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. They may have up to five classes a day. Our ALTs tend to teach independently from the Japanese teachers. We also encourage them to take an active part in school life by attending lunchtime with the children and taking part in school clubs and after class activities
In the 23 years you have been in Japan, have you noticed a difference in the way English is taught at schools?
I think that 23 years ago, gaijin teachers were window dressing, and not really seen as a resource. Japanese schools didn’t know how to use that resource. As Japanese teachers get used to working with ALTs, they have finally realized what an ALT can do.
What is a typical day for you?
I get here about 8:30 a.m. and tend to emails and put out the fires I find in my email box. I prefer phone calls to emails when it comes to interacting with people. I go to Osaka and Fukuoka a bit more. Sendai is a new branch and I was up there almost every month for a while.
Do you miss teaching?
I do. I love teaching and try to go to schools when I can, but it is usually to attend an event.