The reality of being an ALT in Japan

So you’re interested in teaching English abroad? First of all, congratulations on clearly being an awesome person. Even the thought of leaving behind everything you know as home is terrifying for many people, so you’ve already won half the battle. Way to go! The next half is deciding where. Each country has its draws and detractions. If you are considering wonderful Japan, then let me share with you a little of my experience as an ALT. I work in a public junior high school, and while most of this will pertain to any grade level, I can’t personally attest to what goes on in elementary school and high school.funny english

There is plenty of information out there about an ALT’s job description, but slightly less about its effect on you personally. There are a lot of stereotypes about Japanese students and not as many honest depictions. There are glowing reviews and there are horror stories, but little about the broad grey area in between them which you will work through every day. Without mincing words, let’s go over the pros and cons of some concerns you might have about teaching in Japan.

THE JOB:

IMG_0648After ten years of waiting tables, my job as an ALT is a million times easier and less stressful. It’s not physically demanding, and I get the same paycheck at the end of the day regardless of customer satisfaction. If you are used to sitting down most of the day at a desk, you will probably find it a nice change of pace to stand and walk around an average of four hours a day. If you are used to high intensity, fast-paced work environments like me, you might be surprised at how much time you spend in the office doing nothing, being bored. Being an ALT requires a lot of self-motivation, since no one is standing over you, explaining what to do. Sometimes teachers will ask you for things specifically, but most of the time you are on your own to create activities and set daily goals. If you are self-motivated, you will probably enjoy the hands-off management. If not, you could wind up being another lazy foreigner making us all look bad…

One of the up-sides of the job is being left alone. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can spend most of your time in the office without ever talking to anyone. The down-side, no one talks to you. Besides making you a little lonely for workplace camaraderie, no one tells you what’s going on. You may look up to find yourself completely alone for over an hour with no idea as to why, or if you’re allowed to go home. You will generally be the last person to know anything. It’s not on purpose, the staff simply forgets that you can’t understand everything they’re saying. Sometimes they just forget about you altogether.

englishWith all this spare time on your hands, you get to sit around and think about English, and how to make it fun. If you have a natural interest in linguistics, ESL, literature, communication, or you like sitting around thinking about how to make things fun, this job can be really interesting. If not, you might find your job a bit difficult. This holds true in the classroom. If you enjoy kids and can take an interest in their development: PRO. If you don’t like kids: definite CON. The nice thing about being an ALT is getting to figuratively “try on” being a teacher. You don’t have to get your masters, or a teaching degree to get in the classroom and see if it suits you. You get to have the fun experiences of teaching with almost none of the responsibilities. You don’t make tests, assign homework, correct tests, log grades, take attendance, talk to parents, go to meetings, nada. Pretty sweet gig. The downside to bonding with your students? When things go wrong or students behave badly, it personally upsets you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Such is life, but you already knew that.

THE PAY:

karaokeFor the little “work” you do, thinking about fun stuff, hanging out with kids, you’re paid extremely well. The schools in Japan expect almost nothing from you in the skilled labor department, so with that in mind you’ll make more than you feel you might deserve. However, when you start staying at school over forty hours a week, coupled with the high cost of living in Japan, you’ll start to think you’re severely underpaid. You will certainly make enough to get by every month, but depending on your eating, drinking and karaoke-ing habits, you might not save much. Working here is by no means a get-rich-quick scenario, but the salary isn’t terrible. In Japan, you get so much more for your tax dollars: high speed rail, great public transportation, clean everything, helpful international services. Based on your salary you may feel like you are paying a lot in taxes. If you need more specifics here, or on any point, please contact us for details.

BEING A MINORITY:

You will be completely outnumbered, all the time. At your school, you will be the only non-Japanese person working there. This can make you feel special, unique, like a celebrity, and this can also be very isolating. For more in-depth analysis of this potential identity crisis, read about my experiences here and here. By bringing a foreigner into the classroom, Japan hopes to create enthusiasm for communication, and foster international awareness. Since you usually come to class to do fun activities, the kids can be excited by your presence and more eager to please.funny english

Alternately, you are viewed as a sort of “fake” teacher, devoid of the real authority the Japanese teachers carry. In theory, you should garner the same respect as the rest of the teachers, but this is usually not the case and can be quite frustrating. If students decide they don’t feel like following your instructions, there’s virtually nothing you can do about it. Japanese schools surprisingly lack the discipline we attribute as a given in Asian countries, at least when it comes to English class. What little discipline you are allowed to exercise amounts to the “Be quiet” gesture and making angry eyes or sad faces when students act up. Anything besides that is out of your purview, and without backup from the Japanese teachers it’s sometimes impossible to get things done.

CLASSROOM TIME:

Commit this phrase to memory: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. This Japanese proverb can explain almost every difficulty you will encounter as a foreigner teaching in Japan. Did you have a really good idea about a new way to teach this grammar point? Yeah, we’re not going to use that…hammered down. Want to do something that’s not in the textbook? Maybe at the end of the year, when we’re finished…bam bam bam. While Japan can seem like the land of creativity and innovation, it’s hard to bring these values into the classroom. Hopefully you will have teachers that see the necessity of growth and change, but inevitably some teachers will not. Even when you get the go-ahead to try a fun activity in class, some teachers will still find ways to suck out all the fun and turn it into a writing assignment.

When you do get the JTEs on board, it’s no guarantee of success. No matter how simple or fun you think your activity is, you will always have students that are capable of completely ruining it. As an ALT, I have learned to be on the defensive, constantly thinking about every worst-case scenario before doing something in class. Often, I have to build  in redundancies for students who try to sabotage things, and back-up plans in case of ultimate failure. You wouldn’t think that an activity involving writing only two words on a piece of paper could go so horribly wrong, but you would be quite mistaken, as I have unfortunately been more than once. A masterful ALT must learn to adapt and evolve.

IS THIS JOB FOR YOU?

Does this sound down-right disheartening? You betcha. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either an extremely rare exception or a liar. Even in the ideal situation, where you can speak Japanese, work with teachers who understand and care about English, and have students who aren’t totally burned out yet, you will still have terrible days that make you denounce teaching and disparage a future filled with grown up versions of such little monsters.

Does that mean it’s not worth doing? Absolutely not. The rewards still outweigh the drawbacks, even when it can’t possibly feel true. The real “work” you’re being asked to do is not always tangible. It’s burrowing yourself, the idea of a smart, caring person from another country, into the minds and subconscious of the student. It’s trying to keep that image and the experience you create lodged there for the future, when they stop being little monsters and start becoming people. It’s the goal of trying to permanently impress upon them the reality of life outside Japan that we’re here to work towards. Can it always succeed? Unfortunately, no, but any ambassador knows that this isn’t an excuse. Will it be hard for you? Yes, but are you stronger, wiser, and more mature than your students? Of course. Be the person that you want them to become, and you will understand the meaning of your job as an ALT.

9 comments on “The reality of being an ALT in Japan

  1. Jemma Jones says:

    Many thanks for sharing your reality of being a ALT…it has made me more excited about working abroad!

    • Shana says:

      Thanks! When and where do you want to teach?

      • Jemma Jones says:

        China…well Asia really! I am interested in the I-to-I China internship

      • Shana says:

        Wow, then you are definitely braver than I! Have you studied Chinese?

      • Jemma Jones says:

        Nope; but I am currently trying to learn Mandarin

      • Shana says:

        Best of luck! I can say that when I started studying Japanese, I thought I would ignore kanji and just focus on speaking. But when I began to study the characters, the word structures and vocabulary made much more sense. So it seems overwhelming, but kanji is really helpful!

  2. […] post of a “day in the life” of an ALT (COMING SOON!!) and a separate post about what to expect as an ALT. However, don’t put the cart before the horse. The first question you should ask […]

  3. […] a list of your priorities and see which job lines up better. You can look at our posts about “The reality of being and ALT,” and “A day in the life – ALT.” (COMING SOON!) As always, you can check […]

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