Lessons Learned – New Horizon 2 Unit 7 – Anything you can do, I can do better.

Anything you can do, I can do better.

20min – 50min

A team oriented acting game.

About an hour before class one of my 2nd year teachers informed me that this class had English twice that day. She wanted a game to play for the entire 50 minute class. OK. No problem. That worked around the grammar point on page 76 of New Horizon 2. Oh. I sat and thought for about 10 minutes and all I could think of was Annie Oakley.

Andrew, get your pen.

Purpose: A listening exercise using good, better and best.

Secondary Purpose: To add a little levity to the class.

I have only done this activity once and about 90% of the students in that class responded very well. Boys in particular really like this game because they can show off but even some of girls had a good time. However, there was a small cadre of students, 3 or 4, who refused to cooperate. After the class the JTE and I found a solution to this problem if we used the game again the future. Overall this game was awesome. The students were laughing and having fun. Nearly all of them let their “English is hard” shield down. I would definitely do this game again with a few modifications. This is also very similar to the game, “Prove it!” which you can play with the 1st year students using New Horizon 1.

Prep: There is not much needed to prep for this activity depending on how complicated you want to make it. The main preparation is creating a list of actions that are A) easily understood by Japanese students and B) relatively amusing. For “A” asking your students to imitate Barack Obama is going to result in a lot of blank stares and nervous fidgeting. Asking your students to imitate Spiderman will get you further. As far as “B” is concerned the humor will manifest itself if you pick things that are fun, but if you ask them to imitate something that isn’t fun like taking a test or drinking tea, you’ll get more boring versions of those two actions. I have attached my list of actions.

DOC: Anything you can do I can do better

Also bring a deck of cards.

Conan

Execution: To start the class, I told each of the students we would be playing an amazing game, but that it was really important that everyone plays. Once they understood ( I had the Japanese teacher explain it too) I started by giving them the vocabulary for the game. On the board I wrote: Act, Make sound like, and Imitate. Imitate was the only word that they weren’t already familiar with but it is important to review to make sure everyone understands. Probably the most important part of the whole activity is the ALT (you!) doing something in front of the class to help loosen them up. I imitated Anpanman, made a noise like a seagull and acted silly to demonstrate the requirements of the activity. Demonstrate at least one of these with the JTE if possible.

Have the room break up in to roughly even teams, 5 to 6 students each is ideal. I had them play rock paper scissors to see who goes first but you can choose any method for determining a turn order. Have one student from each of the first two teams come up and give them some sort of action. After they each perform the action independently I had the class vote to on, “Who did it better?” Which ever team’s player did the action “better” got to draw a card and that was their points for that round. Eventually you can get into good-better-best and change the way you call students up each round, as long as each student is from a different team.

let your kids really ham it up

I had a brilliant idea after playing this game, of course, so I’m including it here for your future benefit. Instead of having a winner and loser for each round, I could have used the cards and rewarded them both for doing something way outside of their comfort zone. Each student who does an “action” gets to draw a card and earn points for their team.

After going about 4 rounds total we wrapped the game up with about 5 minutes left in class. Long enough for the JTE to say something or to have a quick review and have them move the desks back. At the end of the class have the teacher give out a stamp, extra credit point or even your own stickers, anything really, to every student who made an effort to do the activity. This rewards everyone, even those who didn’t do “it” better.

A final thought: Another key to making this activity work is having way more “actions” than you will need for the class. I had several instances where students passed on the original action because it was too embarrassing for them or they weren’t sure what to do. Be mindful of the fact that some students do better at the front of the class and others are completely petrified. For the more nervous students I had tasks that didn’t involve speaking as well. Regardless there were still two students who just refused on principal to participate. I did find that even some of my badly behaved students stayed engaged in this activity but even so, a few bad apples made a couple moments of this class super awkward.

The Joys of Teaching English

While certainly not always a bed of roses, teaching English as a second language can have sublime moments. These can range from a delightful moment of understanding during a lesson, to seeing your students use English of their own volition. One of my favorite activities is reading students’ original compostitions. Not only does it let me gauge their grasp on grammar concepts, it is an opportunity to see their personalities shine through, and understand a little of how they are feeling. Sometimes errors in syntax are downright hilarious, but I especially enjoy learning about my students’ states of mind.

I was most recently reminded of this after reading my eighth grade classes’ original poems. Among the laugh out loud comedy of some of their work, I was more often struck by the truth of their sentiments. The mixture of their childlike wonder and budding adult mentalities was sweet and moving. My students have asked me why I wanted to be an English teacher. Perhaps some of you are wondering it too, and I know there are days when those of us here dejectedly ponder this very question. So I am writing this now to remind myself on a day such as that, why things like this make everything worthwhile.

The students were given this very basic outline: write a topic and some words about how it makes you feel. The results were wonderful. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

esl poetry

Who hasn’t marveled at the parallelism of “earth as it is in heaven”? Or taken joy  in the brilliance of fireworks:

esl poetry

Or felt the effect of weather on one’s mood:

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

My personal favorite, on the drudgery of daily life:

esl poetry

On a happier food note:

esl poetry

esl poetry

Have you ever had fried chicken so good you wanted to write a poem about it? Heck yes I have!

A practical student, she finds contentment in the act of commerce:

esl poetry

While others have larger monetary aspiriations:

esl poetry

Identity crisis:

esl poetry

A call to self-reflection:

esl poetry

The beauty of space:

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

Hope for tomorrow:

esl poetry

In my imagination, I see these poems alongside poignant illustrations, a la Shel Silverstein books. Unfortunately, I lack the artistic skill to depict what I envision, but I created some meager power point images to bring their writing to life. Perhaps one day I will do them justice…Why don’t you send us your take on these delightful poems and we’ll put up on our tumblr and here!

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

Lessons Learned: New Horizon 1 Unit 10 – “I can ______”

Here’s a really simple, no-prep activity for New Horizons 1, grammar point “can and cannot.” This is part writing, mostly speaking, and lot’s of listening in an interactive setting. I have done this activity five times with my seventh grade students, and it was a lot fun. Time : 25-35 minutes

Purpose: to practice the grammar point “can” through speaking, writing, and listening

Secondary purpose: to help students be creative and think outside the box

Prep: Prepare a list of things you “can do.” If you can, have students use a page of their English notebooks, otherwise a small piece of scratch paper for each student is necessary as well. You can also use this attached worksheet, which has multiple activities for can and can’t.

PPTX: can and can’t

Execution: You can do this activity before teaching the material on pages 94-95 as an introduction, or afterwards as a review. I used it as an introduction. I started by demonstrating a couple things I can and can’t do, really stressing the new words can and cannot/can’t. Things included clasping hands together behind my back, reverse Namaste (making your hands touch in prayer behind your back), curling my tongue, trying to touch my nose to my elbow (can’t, obviously) and others. Any cool or weird physical ability you have works great, even knuckle cracking or whistling. Once the kids understand the meaning of can and can’t, write them on the board with the definition if necessary. Have all the students stand up, while you write “I can _____________.” on the board. Explain that you will make a statement. If they too can do it, they remain standing, if not they sit down. You can draw little figures sitting and standing next to the words can and can’t. They don’t have to sit down permanently, so if they sit and the next statement is something they can do, they stand back up. You can also do the same thing with hand-raising if you want. I thought that all the restless boys would appreciate a little action, but I’ve realized that they simply do the opposite of whatever you’d like them to do, so they just stopped standing after a bit. Fickle little monkeys… Do the first round with just you speaking. Mix in some easy things with some more challenging ones to keep them going up and down. Good actions include:

  • Swim
  • Roll or curl my tongue like a hot-dog bun (this one’s genetic)
  • Wiggle my ears
  • Whistle
  • Cross my eyes
  • Use chopsticks
  • Make origami
  • Touch my tongue to my nose (I can actually do this one)
  • Ski or snowboard

The physical ones are fun because it’s a kick to watch your students try them. Whenever you’re ready for it to be over, just say something you know they can’t do: drive a car, ride a horse, play an instrument, speak a foreign language, drink sake, etc. The next step requires scrap paper or notebooks. Have students write their own achievement, “I can __________” but explain that this time they’re playing against each other. If they are the only one that can, they are a winner. Offer a prize as an incentive, near of the end of the year they definitely need some external motivation. There is no limit to the amount of winners, but they have to write something special, not just “play tennis,” “speak Japanese” if they want to win. Give them 5 minutes to do this, and help students with spelling and inspiration. If it is a specific action they have to demonstrate, have them write “I can do this” instead of trying to explain it in English.

Impress your students with this, or scare them…

Once time’s up, have them all stand (or stay seated if using only their hands) and start at one end of the room. Each student must read their sentence and perform the action if necessary. Help them repeat it louder if students can’t hear. Go through all the students, calling “Next” after each is determined winner or not. Keep the game on pace so it doesn’t drag. When a student is a winner, write their action on the board. You will always get bad students who don’t write anything, so just make them say “speak Japanese, read kanji, walk” or some such blanket statement. If you know what they do for club activities you can use that, but “I can do nothing” is not an acceptable answer. When all the students have gone, review the winning statements and continue on to the writing portion of my attached worksheet, or whatever textbook work you need to get done. Hopefully, connecting an action to a word will make this activity a memorable experience for your students.

A final thought: The “five” minute writing portion of this activity was not very successful in most of my classes, and usually ended up taking fifteen minutes of individually coaxing students or trying to get them to leave their neighbors alone and focus. I’m not sure how much easier it could have been. I wrote multiple examples on the board and all they needed to do was write two words at most: I can swim, whistle, draw, do this. I don’t attribute this to the activity being tough or their lack of ability. They write much longer, whole sentences on a daily basis. I attribute it to my school’s lack of discipline and my lack of authority. Be prepared if you have a naughty or difficult class to extend this activity or simply cut the writing portion out. The JTE for this class is the opposite of strict, so the students know they can get away with disrespecting me and refusing to follow my instructions. If I spoke better Japanese, I might be able to command more authority with them, but the boys in general could not care less about obeying a foreign woman. If you don’t have these problems at your schools, you should be fine, but even so, I was able to make this activity work. If your students are genki, it will be a blast. If you have problem classes like me, simply skip the writing and play a few rounds with only you making the statements. It’s still fun that way, and you can perhaps include a speaking component where they must answer each with “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t.”

Linkskey! 2/7/2014 – 2/22/2014

The internet is grain information and too sour for a discerning palette. Let us distill some of it into a nice glass of linkskey (links + whiskey).

We here at Easy Distance are purveyors of only the finest distilled internet. Cave Twitter aged in Facebook Charred Oak, bottle conditioned with Instagram filters into premium Vimeo bottles and shipped right to your reader, inbox or RSS feed, even Linkedin. We Stumbleupon only the finest ingredients to make Easy Distance Linkskey including: Bloglovin, Google Search,  Wordpress reader and even regular news sites as well. We take our internet seriously at Easy Distance and today we have brought the very best that your time can buy. Easy Distance Linkskey is best served with one ice cube and a splash of fresh spring water served in a crystal Tumblr. Now sit back, bask in the fine distilled internet aroma, and enjoy the easy taste of Easy Distance.

Travel

Japan

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

We definitely brought some Tokyo flavor with Reverse Cinderella – Shoe Shopping in Japan and Tokyo Adventures 2: Tokyo: Past and Present.

It may seem like we are posting a lot about snowboarding because we are. Here is my trip to Niseko and the most complete lists of Tohoku area snow resorts (in English).

Tohoku is really getting some great articles on japantravel.com. There are snowball fights in Miyagi, a paper balloon festival in Akita, a write up of Zuigan-ji in Matsushima, a visit to the Matsuo Basho Memorial Hall in Yamadera and a cuteness’plosion in Zao at the Zao Fox Village.

Not Japan

General: Some how we were not recognized as top bloggers for 2014, but the year is young, there is still time…

India: A fellow ALT posted this experience recently about some time she spent in the Indian countryside.

America: Seneca Rocks, Monongahela National Forest from Wandering Westy. Some awesome views and pics from a gem in West Virginia.

America:  @BeyondMyDoor on twitter and from his blog a cool view of Shenandoah Valley which is near and dear to my heart.

Canada: Also in North America Hecktic Travels are exploring some of the finer elements of winter in Alberta. @HeckticTravels. That’s ok with me. SNOW ON!

Spain: A peek at Costa Brava from Go See Write.

ESL teaching

I came across this cool little website packed with free English teaching tests that you can adapt for ESL. As always double check free content for accuracy before you put it in front of students.

Cooking in the shower

Yakisoba Deluxe is the recipe of the week here at Easy Distance. Give it a shot and let us know what you think.

Humor and Cool Stuff

liebsterWe were given a Liebster Award this month by Introvert Japan. You can check out our answers to his questions here, and his Liebster award post here.

Here is an awesome compilation of Okinawan music from Elisa at Audiographer whom I awarded the aforementioned Liebster award to as well.

Why you should date a girl who travels. Sorry fellas, but this one is off the market.

Uncovering Japan wants you to experience wearing a kimono.

Lines of Control Episode 2 is out! Check it out on Epic TV or on the SoulRyders page.

Lastly, in case you are unaware, this little guy is the worlds cutest pomeranian.

JET vs ALT Dispatch: The battle continues

ALT Dispatch vs JET-ALT

There are some but not many differences between being an ALT and a JET-ALT. The job description is identical in nearly every case because an ALT of any kind always works for a local school board (B.O.E.). However there are some key things that are important to understand between JET-ALT and ALT Dispatch

Salary & Hours: ALT’s from dispatch companies will have lower salaries but will generally be more able to get away with less overall participation at the school. Less “volunteer” time, leaving early if there is a school wide meeting. JET-ALTs are typically required to be at the school if there are teachers there. A JET-ALT’s schedule is less flexible but that isn’t set in stone. In most cases the schedules will be vary similar between JETs and non-JET-ALTs. The magical 29.5 hour limit is not a government practice so JETs do typically work longer hours. Some ALT dispatch companies will manage an ALT that works directly for the school board; in this case the ALT has similar restrictions to that of a JET when it comes to vacation and working hours.

from our summer vacation

from our summer vacation

Vacation: Vacation is a major difference between JETs and ALT dispatches. ALT dispatchers typically will pay half of the normal salary for either August or September. JETs have the same salary every month but have far fewer total vacation days. JETs are given eighteen to twenty vacation days to start with and are encouraged to use them when school is out of session. During summer, the JET program also offers a two week “study holiday” that can be taken without affecting your vacation time.  On top of that JET ALT’s are allowed to roll their vacation over if they don’t use it all in the previous year. The dispatch companies will be more flexible with vacation in general but not fully paid. JETs generally have more restrictions but a more consistent salary. Also, if you work at a junior high school you may be asked to spend some of your summer vacation at helping prepare the students for their big English speech contest. However, a dispatch ALT at an elementary school could have up to five weeks off in summer alone.

Getting Hired: The JET program is very competitive but also has the most spots of any ALT position in Japan. Interac is the second largest and the only private nation-wide private provider of ALT’s. The JET program also offers the most consistent contracts. JETs have a five year term limit placed on their visas but JET jobs are pretty much a guarantee. ALT jobs from dispatch companies may be there one year and then be undercut the next year by a different company forcing you to look elsewhere if you want to stay in Japan.

screen shot from a video I had to make for an interview

screen shot from a video I had to make for an interview

Support Network: Because JET has the most ALTs, the support network is the best among the teachers (I linked a few examples of the teacher networks). Also, even though the government can be trying to work with here in Japan, the JET program isn’t concerned about a bottom line, just making sure the school board is happy. With this, the JET program is also more likely to offer benefits that wouldn’t likely be available with an ALT dispatch company. Nothing is the same throughout Japan. Some JETs have their housing subsidized, some don’t. Some get free parking, some don’t. It really depends on the contract and the area. ALT dispatch companies are less likely to offer those benefits because it cuts into their profit but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

ready to go

ready to go

Timeline: While getting signed on with an ALT dispatch, particularly a smaller one is quick, the JET program can take six months to a year and you also have to be in your home country in order to do the interview. ALT dispatch interviews are typically done via Skype or Facetime and are also a benefit since they’ll hire those already in Japan. If you are coming from outside of Japan, getting here before your visa is ready might cost you round trip airfare that you will not be able to redeem. JET interviews must be conducted in your home country (I have no idea why this is the case, but it is, and its stupid). A US citizen already in Japan that wants to apply for the JET program can do the interview in Guam since it is a US protectorate. Either way you’re spending money on a flight for a job that you might not get.

Ultimately we ended up with an ALT dispatch company but aside from a few minor complaints it was probably the best fit for us. Given our timeline JET just wouldn’t have worked for us but if I did it over again I would go for the JET program. Given that you have the time and are not in Japan already, the JET program is probably the safest and most assured way to give you an excellent experience teaching English in Japan. As shown in our previous post about ALT vs eikaiwa, we feel that being an ALT of any stripe is a better general choice, but choosing between JET and ALT dispatch is less obvious. Make 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 our Lessons Learned page for everything we’ve published about teaching.

I am not the all seeing eye of Sauron so if something “isn’t right” in this blog post, feel free to email me or leave a comment. The fact is, we keep learning as we go and the environment for ALT’s in Japan is a complex one. It generated four separate posts for just one issue. That being said, the most consistent thing I have heard about teaching positions in Japan is that they are inconsistent. It seems that no two contracts are a like. If you have a different experience or information to add, please do so.

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to email us, we’ll be happy to answer as best we can.

ALT vs eikaiwa: EPIC LIFE DECISION BATTLE

When we were looking at teaching overseas we had done research into several Asian countries because the pay is the best for teachers in Asia and the Middle East. Since we passed on the idea of working in Saudi Arabia or UAE we narrowed our list down to 5 countries.

  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam

If you go back read my “How to teach English in Korea” post you will know that as an American there are a lot of hoops to jump through but they may be worth it if you have the time. Thailand, while many enjoy the life style, doesn’t pay as much. Vietnam is still a communist country rife with corruption, and the money you save there may not be worth anything when you leave. Look at the exchange rate for the Vietnamese Dong to the Euro or US dollar, it’s insane. Also… Dong. hehe.

Since I was denied entry in to South Korea on a teaching visa because of my “criminal” record, our decision came down to Japan and Taiwan. The pay was better in Japan and we could leave sooner, so Japan it was. We signed up to be ALT’s with an ALT dispatch company. Here is a detailed 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 is:

What kind of teaching job do I want?

Like any good teacher, I’m going to introduce some vocabulary before we get to the meat of the lesson:

Junior High School in Isobe

Eikaiwa school: Privately owned English schools in Japan. Examples of large eikaiwa schools are Gaba, AEON, ECC, COCO Juku, and Berlitz. They can range from small local shops to national chains. GaijinPot and Dave’s ESL Cafe are probably the best resources for smaller eikaiwa school jobs. Classes are taught in supplement to public school English. Students may be anywhere from preschool age to working adults trying to improve their English.

ALT: Assistant Language Teacher. Works in a public school and assists JTEs in class with activities, pronunciation and test prep. There are some ALT’s at private schools, but those jobs are few and far between and usually require Japanese language skills.

JTE: Japanese teacher of English. Your partner for all classes in junior high school and high school. In elementary school you maybe running the class yourself but there will be a JTE present. Also some contracts with public schools allow for the ALT to run the class on their own in junior high or high school.

JET: Japanese Exchange and Teaching program. People who work in the JET program are called, JET-ALTs. Creative, no? JET is the only government sponsored English teaching program in Japan.

ALT Dispatch: These are a group of companies (Interac, Joytalk, RCS, Heart, Altia and some other smaller regional ones) that basically offer an alternative to the government run JET program.

ALT vs. EIKAIWA

We chose to be ALT’s but not because we actually made an informed decision. It was mostly by accident. Many of the larger eikawa schools like AEON, Gaba and Berlitz have long application processes (so does the JET program but I’ll get to that later). We were on a tight timeline since we had already left our jobs and were living in the pool house like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (You can pause here to rap the Fresh Prince song). Most of the public school hiring takes place in March/April for Japan so we signed on with a company that was hiring for that time. All that aside, we feel like we made the best decision possible for us.

Round 1 – SCHEDULE: The biggest difference between eikaiwa and public school ALT is the schedule. Most of the eikaiwa contracts will grant you seven to ten days of paid vacation a year, although there are smaller eikaiwa schools that may offer better benefits. The work schedule for full time will be roughly 8 to 9 hour days, five days a week. Eikaiwa school clientele are generally available outside of normal school or working hours. To meet their customers needs, classes are typically held from 1PM to 10PM. They may also split the eight hour workday with 3 to 4 hours in the morning and then 3 to 4 hours at night. A good example would be working in a preschool setting in the morning and then teaching adults at night. The schedule at an eikaiwa school may also require travel, over night stays and significant commutes if you are in a rural area. A teacher who works for an eikaiwa in our area spends an average of 2 hours on a train everyday.

My schedule for August

My schedule for August

ALT schedules are very regular and follow the public school schedule, outside of a few days where you will have to travel for training held at a central location. You will have all public holidays off as well as be able to travel during the summer, winter and school year-end breaks. If you work at a junior high you might be asked to spend some of your summer helping with the English speech contest. Beyond the increase in available vacation time, the hours are always Monday to Friday between 7:30AM to 5:00PM with the occasional Saturday event thrown in. The specific hours will vary by school board and contract offer. Mine is 8:00AM to 4:15PM.

As far as schedule goes, the long breaks and consistent schedule give the nod to ALT.
WINNER: ALT

Round 2 – PAY: Based on contract offers I have seen from eikaiwa and ALT dispatch companies, the pay can be incredibly confusing and difficult to sort through.  On the surface it usually appears that eikaiwa schools offer larger salaries than ALT positions, the exception being the JET program. Like Transformers, there is more than meets the eye.

ALT salaries are lower for a couple reasons. The first is that ALT Dispatch companies provide ALT’s to local school districts at a discount compared to the cost of funding a JET ALT. ALT dispatches do this in a number of ways that are ethically ambivalent. One example is that a dispatch ALT can only work 29.5 hours a week. Typically, you will be at the school for more than 40 hours a week, the hours over the 29.5 are counted as “volunteer time” or “free time.” The all important 29.5 allows the ALT dispatch company to avoid paying into the national pension plan. It also saves you from having to pay into it. A quick Google search will turn up “ALT dispatch scams” and other non-sense. It’s not a scam. It’s just business, dubious maybe, but business. Read everything you find with a grain of salt because, as our experiences will attest, every situation is different. Another element of cutting costs in dispatch companies comes from prorated salaries during vacation months. Due to the long vacations in August and December, a paycheck is likely to be non-existent or halved, depending on the contract.

Eikaiwa schools typically offer higher salaries at the outset but your personal bills, like pension payments and private health insurance, may eat into that extra money. A common strategy to encourage the teachers to work very hard is to pay based on classes taught or offer bonuses. Gaba is most notable for doing this. Basically your pay is commissioned on the number of classes and students  you teach in a given month. At AEON they have their own software and textbooks that they “encourage” you to sell in the classes. Some eikaiwa teachers have noted that the advertised salary is not possible unless you are a career teacher in Japan and have spent years building up your customer base.

the rare 2000 yen note

the rare 2000 yen note

Another drain on salary is transportation costs. This varies so widely it must be considered on an individual basis. However, eikaiwa schools that require multi-branch service and ALT companies that require long commutes to schools will often help with these costs.

From the Japan Times, here is a collection of reader responses that address a wide range of issues to this article published about the ever shrinking eikaiwa school salary. As you can see, it is a fluid and inexact world. Pay is typically lower at ALT dispatches but more hours and more bills are required to teach at eikaiwa schools. This one is a tie.
WINNER – TIE

Round 3 – SUPPORT (English teacher: human or a commodity?): Eikaiwa schools in Japan have been embroiled in a very public controversy for several reasons. One of them is their fight against collective bargaining. This in-depth opinion article from the Japan Times covers the main points regarding pay vs work at “Big Eikaiwa.” The basic premise is that the eikaiwa schools are only looking out for their bottom line and spend a lot of time glossing over some of the more negative aspects of the job (like the schedule) to lure native English speakers to Japan. The most glaring example of this comes from multiple stories of eikaiwa management siding with customers over their employees. The customer is always right…ALWAYS.

its a support – get it?

Working as an ALT you might have better luck since the customer is the school board and not paying individuals. But don’t imagine for a second that if the school board has a major problem with you that the ALT dispatch company will come down on your side. Working for a school board simply means there are less chances for someone to complain about you. Also working as an ALT, you will have to become very Japanese in how you handle your daily interactions at school. All of your coworkers, and your partners in class will be… Japanese. Openly complaining about something in the school office will likely result in a reprimand from your company. The teachers at the school file a monthly behavior/performance reports on the ALTs as well. Occasionally someone from the dispatch office will come to the school to “watch” a lesson and offer minimal feedback afterwards.

ALT's having a get together.

ALT’s having a get together.

Support networks on the other hand are almost always created by other ALT’s or eikaiwa teachers in the area and not sponsored by the companies themselves. The largest support network of fellow teachers is JET-ALTs which are many and nationwide. That’s not to say that there isn’t any support from the companies themselves. Eikaiwa schools don’t want you to fail as a teacher because that will affect the bottom line. The dispatch companies don’t want you to fail for the same reason. The Japanese government is notoriously indifferent despite the amount of money it spends on the JET program. The JET program or an ALT dispatch company could put you in a smaller town (like they did to us) and you’ll have to fend for yourself (like we did).

The social network isn’t just a Sorkin-ism
WINNER: ALT

!!!WINNER: ALT!!!

The internet is filled with hate on all sides. There are loads of vitriol directed at eikaiwa schools, ALT dispatch companies and even the JET program but to me it really isn’t a contest. If you want to come to Japan, experience Japanese life and have a little time to travel, being an ALT is the right choice. ALT’s have a much better and more flexible schedule, the pay will be adequate and the social support network for JETs is likely the strongest in Japan. Being an ALT isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Check out this post on the reality of working as ALT mentioned at the beginning of the post as well. Everything we’ve published about teaching is on the Lessons Learned home page.

If you have any questions or major disagreements, don’t hesitate to email us or post in the comments, we’ll be happy to answer as best we can.

Your next question should be: Do I go for the JET program? The next battle post: JET vs ALT dispatch.

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.