When is an ALT actually an ALT? Basic Differences between ES and JHS/HS Teaching

Here’s the sticking point. The role of an English teacher in Japanese schools is affected by so many factors that there isn’t really a catch-all term for the job (hence my disclaimer on my homepage). But in many cases ‘assistant language teacher’ is a complete mislabel.

At elementary school level, students have only one point of English contact – the ALT (me). I generally have complete control over my lessons: planning, preparing materials and conducting them. In class, the homeroom teacher occasionally helps me out by clarifying more difficult instructions in Japanese, but more often they act primarily as the disciplinarian.

The bulk of my classes are fifth and sixth grade, but when I do have lower years, sometimes the teachers will prepare the lesson and materials for me, but will still leave me to it in class.

Granted, the lessons cover basic English (e.g. the highest level lesson the 6th graders get to is ‘What do you want to be?‘/’I want to be…..‘) but rather than the language being hard, the challenge is more to teach the language while getting the students to have fun. The aim of an elementary school ALT is to get the students to enjoy English; to set the precedent that learning English isn’t awful (a lie), and that the students are capable of doing it (true). The kids really need this belief as they move up in school, because it will impact their motivation to learn, and get the grades they need to get into both high school and university.

[This is something that native English speaking countries take massively for granted, as our futures in education generally do not depend on learning a second language. We are extremely lazy in our second language learning.]

The ALT dynamic completely changes at the junior high level. At this point students begin to have English lessons taught by a Japanese teacher of English (JTE), and the lessons with the ALT act more to reinforce these lessons through conversation practice and the example of a native speaker. Ditto for high school. Increasing numbers of students at this point will be also be taking extra English classes outside school, at English language schools (eikaiwa).

One very important difference, and one that is set to change soon, is that elementary students are not graded on their English. It is seen more, as Nelson puts it, as: ‘Super English activity fun now time! (screaming Japanese accent)’.

In the Japanese education system, school is only compulsory up until age 16. At which point students can leave school and begin working. To get into high school, students must take exams – the better the high school, the harder the exams (go figure). The same goes for high school students hoping to go to university. So ALTs for these levels have that much more pressure to help the students through that, and there are a number of other things they might be responsible for, like marking written work, assessing spoken English tests, and judging speaking competitions.

So, here’s the problem that lies at the root of many bad reviews from ALTs. In some junior high schools and high schools, JTEs are reluctant to give ALTs the opportunity to prove their abilities. Some JTEs simply use their ALTs as ‘human tape-recorders’ while they teach the lesson. If you want this to change, it means working hard to get the JTE to trust your ability to come up with good lesson ideas and teach a high quality lesson. This might mean a building up from a small suggestion every now and then; the more of which are successful, the more input the teacher will afford you. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and yes, it is incredibly frustrating. Being put on a placement like this is a risk all ALTs take because it is completely luck of the draw, and depends on the impression the previous ALT made (which may have been someone from another company as the contract with the Board of Education in each area is renewed or changed frequently).

The number of lessons a day is also quite different between the junior high/high school and elementary levels. Teaching at elementary you can expect between four and six lessons a day, whereas for the others this is much lower, leaving a lot of free time in which you need to occupy yourself usefully. This often has the result of dramatic downward spirals of keitai data.

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Good Days

There are some days when teaching elementary here is a struggle, like most jobs really. It can be hard to be motivated for the day, students can be difficult, lunch can sometimes be superbly unappealing…the list goes on. There are so many factors making the difference between a bad, mediocre or good day.

Today was a good day.

My sixth grade students did great presentations, didn’t act up (much), and asked good questions after class (which isn’t very common); I managed to avoid having to eat what appeared to be a veritable slab of konnyaku at lunch, the rest of which was delicious; and even though I was pulled out of my free period, it was into a first grade class to help with making pop-up Christmas cards and act as a human Christmas jukebox – which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s hard to not have a good time when you’re surrounded by tiny humans that go ape shit over a little paper-cube present and act like you are the best thing since PPAP.
I found myself easily happy, with a lot of things giving me reasons to smile.

Often, small as it sounds, just having a student call out to me is spirit-lifting. There is something about having “Megan-sensei!!” invariably shouted enthusiastically at me that makes me feel kind of glowy (even if I know I’m not quite a real sensei).

This is a fairly self-indulgent post, but it’s not often that I catch myself in the moment when I’m happy amidst busy-ness and consciously stop to appreciate it.

Walking out of school today into winter cold air and bright sunshine, I was able to wrap that happiness around me and enjoy it. To top it off I got out of school bang on time and managed to catch the express home. With extra time in the evening I’m on course for an intensive gyoza-making session. The blog is named this way for a reason!

((P.S. Look at this, a post about a day on the day itself *gasp*! Watch this space, I’m improving! ))

Thrown to the (Little) Lions

So, several months later and about to start my second term, I’m finally getting round to telling you about the start of my first term at school.

With so many schools I had three days of ‘first days’ in one week (with two of my mountain schools on the second). For these days my trainer (C-san) co-attended to help me settle in.

The relationship between my schools and the last ALT wasn’t brilliant and she’d had to leave in the middle of term, so it helped to have C-san there to smooth over any issues. From then on it would be up to me to repair and strengthen the relationship with the schools. It’s lucky that years of experience in the service industry plus patriarchal expectations of women has me set on default smile.

Having C-san co-attending was a great way to get me used to things through example (as I’m a visual learner), despite being slightly intimidating as he is a very good teacher. However, it’s important when first starting…anything, really…to remember that there are always going to be people better and worse at it than you, which I tried to keep in mind for those few days.

It’s a very different dynamic teaching as a duo, but it definitely helped to get me used to the classroom environment! It was also great fun, and not something you get to do most of the time as an ALT (at least, not with another ALT).
C-san uses a comedy style to teach, so the kids have fun and relax enough that they feel comfortable trying to use the language. He uses the Manzai comedy style, which generally has two performers – a tsukkomi (the serious one) and the boke (the funny one) which has a long history in Japan but is now largely associated with the Kansai region and Kansai-ben – the Kansai dialect.
Sometimes C-san leads the kids to say something in the style of the boke so he can react as the tsukkomi, but more often he plays the boke (this also happens a lot unintentionally because he is quite accident prone) and the kids are generally on point about laying into him as the tsukkomi. I enjoyed working together with him using Manzai because I got to play the tsukkomi!

It’s interesting to find out just how many factors influence teaching style: your own personality, the way the society views you, your perceived gender, the way you look…it goes on. My trainer is male and an American Asian, he has a great understanding of Japanese culture and comedy, and is able to use it very effectively in the classroom. For him this works brilliantly, but for me it’s not always an option. As a foreign woman, they expect me to act cute (*throws up in mouth*). In the time I’ve had teaching so far, I have found I can be silly with them, partly because I am a massive klutz and therefore often accidentally comedic (I managed to get my trousers hooked on the chalk drawer once and got loose chalk all over my bum) – but it still has to have that element of cuteness to go across well.

Luckily I am British and have perfected the ability to smother my self-loathing in layers of sarcasm.

Meeting the Rabble

I was back in the office the day after the move (Saturday), leaving my apartment in the barely-moved-in shambles you might expect (or just expect anyway if you know me).

All the Seto ALTs had been called in for a refresher training day, as we were mid-way through term, which gave me the perfect chance to get to know a few people in my area right off the bat.

The training was focused on getting an experience of each other’s teaching styles and bouncing around ideas for activities. The main focus was geared towards helping us experience how it feels to be the student in an immersive language context, and to learn to put aside awkwardness in front of the students: learning to ‘stay in character’.

Seeing the others in character was excellent – especially the way Macky (Jamaica) switched between her very blunt (and wonderful) natural delivery, to the hyper-enthusiastic fun-generator needed for class. It was magical, not to mention funny, to watch.

A lot of the others were pretty annoyed at having to go into the office on a weekend, especially as many of them live way out in the Seto ward, so it’s a bit of a trek (it takes me 2 trains and just over 30 mins and I live mid-way!). Once we were finished, spirits were much improved by the decision to go for sushi afterwards.

There are some really good kaitenzushi (conveyor-belt sushi) places here, good quality and much more reasonably priced than the sushi-ya (sushi restaurants).

This one was unfortunately not one of the better ones.

The staff, no doubt mightily alarmed by the huge group of gaijins that traipsed in, decided it was for the best that we were seated in two groups on opposite sides of the restaurant…can’t blame them all that much to be honest.

Despite the so-so sushi and the division of the group, it was nice to get to know the others, and to be surrounded by such a variety of people: American, Egyptian-Canadian, Australian, Jamaican, Filipino, Irish – quite the mix!

After sushi we split up, and I headed into Sakae accompanied by Nelson (America) and Mai (Canada/Egypt). Phone was once more spectacularly not sorted. But we did do some wandering in Osu and found a fantastic okonomiyaki place!

IMG_0812The road we generally take into Osu from Sakae.

IMG_0821Okonomiyaki arrives!

IMG_0826After six years of okonomiyaki deprivation, this was the perfect reunion!

IMG_0828The staff here were incredibly nice and gave us little booklets about the area (weirdly narrated by the local idol group). 

I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but I will find out and update here when I do!

Choosing my Home for a Year(ish)

Having not had much info about apartments, it turned out the process was a simple one. I sat down with one of the Interac OL’s (office ladies) who showed me several options to choose from on a map.

One of my options was a shared accommodation arrangement in a Freebell apartment. I went to check it out and met the girl I would potentially be sharing with, but in the end I decided I would much rather have my own space.

This was before the 110th change to my placement, after which the Freebell option wouldn’t have worked anyway. *sigh*

I ended up going with a well-known company for individual apartments across Japan: Leo Palace. From my experience and what I’ve heard from others, the Leo Palace is 100% worth the little bit extra you pay to be living alone. Judging by the other place I saw, the quality is definitely better than the Freebell apartments.

Rather than get a place close to my schools but far from the city, or vice versa, I chose an in-between area. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was a good choice regarding the trains, as it’s the last stop for the express train into Sakae (the main entertainment district).

The express/semi-express (or rapid in some cities) stations, as well as the distance from your apartment to the station, are big things to bear in mind when choosing your apartment. It takes me around 10 mins to walk to the station, which would normally be fine, but in the summer heat it has been killer – especially when I’ve had to rush to catch the train (often).

The upside of living a little bit further from the station is that I’m surrounded by allotments and rice paddies (and the frog chorus!), with a balcony to enjoy it from.

IMG_0942

Make the Next One Happy

I’ve been told by my friend and fellow ALT, Nelson, that my titles are too depressing and I should ‘make the next one happy’. Well, there you go.

So, my placement. The whole painful process went something like this:

A couple of weeks before the flight – Placement: Tokai, Nagoya;
A week before the flight – Tokai contract fell through, possibly Osaka (over-excitement because Osaka);
A few days before the flight – Not Osaka. Told “Don’t worry” (?????);
First two days of training – Placement: Ogaki, junior high school and elementary school;
Third day of training…

When we came in for the third day we were taken individually to speak with the manager. At this point we were told that the area Tom was assigned to had decided that they wanted a female teacher.

Change number gazillion: Placed in Seto Ward, teaching elementary school.

So yeah, all pretty stressful, but being a very cool, calm and collected Brit I definitely didn’t get completely fed-up and try to quit so I could go and work at an eikaiwa (language school) instead… Definitely not… The big changes I posted about a while ago were in relation to this. (I was very pissed off, but it was all sorted out in the end!)

I’m working in five elementary schools, and start at a sixth (special needs) school come September. I can’t name the schools for confidentiality reasons, but will nickname them (with a mixture of numbers and letters because I want to watch the world burn):

School A
School B
These two are the biggest schools I work at and the ones I am at most frequently.

Mountain School 1
Mountain School 2
I have these two on the same day and have to get a taxi from the station, between them, and back to the station. (this was originally a driving position, but as I don’t have a license… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Mountain School 3
I have to get a taxi to this one too, but I only have it once a fortnight.

So now you all know what I’m teaching/where I’m teaching! And it took me less than two months! Not bad.

Turning Back the Time

Going back, I’m going to work from my post about moving to purin heaven! (Goodness I miss being so close to the purin!)

I didn’t meet the other trainee until the next morning (Monday 6th June). He only arrived late that night, after a horrendous travel experience. His first flight had been delayed, meaning a 6 hour stopover in China turned into a 5 minute sprint to the gate to catch his connecting flight to Tokyo.
Can you guess what couldn’t run as fast as he could to the connecting flight? You got it: his luggage.
This human being has possibly the worst luck I have ever heard of (sorry Tom if you’re reading, but at least it means your ability to sarcasm is now on point!)

Future Interac-er’s (and all travellers really), take from this these two important lessons:
1) Always arrive earlier than needed (e.g. for training/a job) in a country when you’re going to be jetlagged af!
2) Always bring the essentials in a carry on!

As he wasn’t around in the evening, I popped a note under his door (it wasn’t creepy guys, okay!) to let him know what time I’d be leaving in the morning so we could head to the office together – and it worked! A victory for pens and paper.

I had assumed that there would be other trainees staying at a different hotel, but as it turned out it was just the two of us. This made for a very intensive and overwhelming four days of training, mixed with a drug screening (at the office) and a chest X-ray (to make sure we didn’t have TB – we were taken to a clinic by an Interac staff member).

Little did we know what a stress rollercoaster that week would turn out to be…!

[Aside: Apologies if I go into seemingly unnecessary detail about some things, generally they will be about the company/work, targeting any future Interac employees wondering about this process. I struggled to get info from Interac about what the situation would be once I got here, so I’m hoping to fill some of the gaps!]