Being an ALT
Most members of YETI are ALTs. Many people reading this wiki might be current ALTs, or soon-to-be ALTs. But what exactly is an ALT in Japan?
Being an ALT
ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are foreigners that come to Japan to work in the primary and secondary school systems. Traditionally the role is explained as a supplementary role to a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), hence the "A" in ALT. ALTs in many programs are also encouraged to promote interest in foreign people, lands, and cultures. The position is in general well-respected by members of the community.
The ALTs opinion on foreign matters is held as law by some people. It may be wise to get in the habit of using qualifying statements, such as "In my hometown," "The U.S.A. is big but in my state," "I don't know about others but my family..." - as well as giving contrasting examples to help show the multicultural aspects of many of the countries that we come from. Japan is indeed a multicultural country, but this is often downplayed for one reason or another. If you feel it's important, be sure to remind people that celebrating differences is (probably) an important aspect of your culture.
On the other hand, you can tell some people specific details about your home country that they've never visited ("We never had fried chicken in lunch at my school") and some people will turn around act as if you have no idea what you're talking about ("Did you know all Americans eat fried chicken at school every week? It's the national food!"). Don't worry too much: It's them, not you.
Moving on, the first rule is that every ALT position is going to be a little bit different. The largest distinctions are between school levels, so let's break it down like that.
Elementary School ALTs
"Foreign Language Activities" are required in 5th and 6th grade. Most ES ALTs will teach at these grade levels, and many more will also teach lower grade levels with varying frequency (once a week, once a month, intermittently, etc.). ALTs that work exclusively at ES tend to teach lower grade levels more often, but this isn't always true. Some ES ALTs will travel to many schools, putting them at a new school every day of the week.
In a few years, the ES system is scheduled to receive JTEs and begin English education in 5th grade, with foreign language activities being pushed back to younger levels. However, as of now most elementary schools do not have JTEs. Instead they have HRTs - homeroom teachers. Younger homeroom teachers may have received some training in English, while older HRTs most likely received none. Some HRTs even chose to teach at ES in an attempt to avoid English! This means that in ES you will likely need to take more control in the classroom, with HRTs more restricted to things like discipline and management. ES ALTs are often on the hunt for new games and activities to try out in class to help explain and practice new ideas.
Most of the standard ES curriculum focuses on speaking and listening, primarily to a set number of phrases without any breakdown of grammar. There is a limited bit of writing and learning the ABCs, but this (like most of the grammar) is re-introduced more thoroughly in JHS. Some ALTs choose to fit other subjects - such as phonics - into their ES classes.
There are a few ALTs that teach exclusively to ES level students. However, many positions - especially within the JET Program - split their ALTs' workweek between JHS and ES classes.
It is also becoming more common for ALTs to teach at the kindergarten level.
The ES ALT has a difficult job because they have to start from almost zero and they are usually in near-complete control of the class (and therefore things like lesson planning, curriculum management, etc.). They also must work alongside teachers with varying levels of English ability, and sometimes that means needing to tread carefully in awkward territory - in other words, making sure that the students are exposed to correct English and not "over" corrected to some form of Japanese-English. The ES ALT needs to be energetic, creative and good at explaining without words, and able to deal well with co-worker relations.
ES ALTs usually eat with students. They should ask, but be sure to notify the school if you have any dietary restrictions. If you are vegetarian or on a strict diet, you may need to insist that you are unable to eat the school lunch. This may slightly offend some people, but they should get over it.
Junior High School ALTs
Working in Junoir High schools is a challenging position. Depending on your situation you may find yourself without much control and not incorporated into your team teaching classes in an active role. Don’t be discouraged! It takes time and devotion to gain the responsibilities of lesson planning and leading classes.
This is a very important time for students to be learning and grasping English, so try your best to engage and have fun with them when you can. Even if they don’t like English, you can give them a good experience with a foreigner and that can be a rare opportunity depending on your students’ local.
Your placement will really determine how and what you will teach. Many of the more rural areas may have lower level English ability while more urban areas can have better.
Generally, many ALTs will lead the class greeting. After class begins, you will have an opportunity for short conversation or a warm-up. You may have only a little time or maybe half the class. Make sure you are prepared with pictures, games, or other things to grab the students’ attention. In schools that involve ALTs more, you might be in charge of the entire 50 minute lesson and preparation. Advice: PLAN MORE THAN YOU NEED. Many new ALTs will have never lead a full 50 minutes before and it is not easy, hence why many teachers are reluctant to do it. Be patient and practice planning and time management so when you do get up to the whole lesson, you don’t crash and burn.
By now, you have surely heard of the dreaded “tape recorder class.” Some days it happens, but you need to realize that there are many different teaching styles and those impart different skills to students. Sometimes that is what students need right before a test, so do not be quick to judge methods and if you have questions, respectfully ask your JTEs. Your role is not limited to speaking and it is your responsibility to find out how to make yourself useful. The teacher does not need to ask you to do something important nor do you need permission to help in the classroom. Even if it is as simple as telling students to write their name on their paper or waking up the sleepers; once you begin to contribute and exhibit the traits of a teacher, you will be treated as one.
Your JTEs have most likely trained as teachers or have been teaching for longer than you. They have a curriculum that they need to complete and, albeit terrible, they need to teach the students things that will come up on their standardized tests. If you have never lead a class before, or only for a short time, take a moment to consider your JTE’s perspective and remember that they can’t afford to sacrifice time for failures, so don’t be discouraged that you are not given much responsibility till they can trust you to lead a successful class. Once you demonstrate that you anticipate and accommodate for your JTE’s needs you can slowly start assuming more responsibility.
After about 6 months to a year, you should be able to be incorporated into a more active roll in your classes. If you are not, remember that even though you might not be trained as a teacher or have the experience, you are an adult as well and you should communicate and make your wishes clear, but also accept the responsibilities that come with being more active in the class.
Outside of the classroom you may find yourself with a few other duties, such as, but not limited to:
- Grading tests and/or papers
- Preparing worksheets and/or copies
- English clubs
- Speech contest practice
- Proofreading teacher’s materials
- Preparing for ceremonies and events
- Preparing for school festivals
- Chaperoning field trips
One final word of advice: Eat kyuushoku (school lunch) with your students if you can! If you want to develop good relationships follow what the other teachers do and eat lunch with the kids. There is always interesting conversation going on at lunch and sure to give you some good stories. If you have food allergies or a strict diet, the school should ask you, but make sure to notify them they you are unable to eat kyuushoku. It may turn into a difficult situation if the meals have already been reserved for you to cancel, but better out a few dollars than in anaphylactic shock! If you have issues contact your PA.
Senior High School ALTs
SHS is a peculiar beast. Students must test into their SHS's of choice, and this causes a stratification of abilities and interests. In general SHS ALTs have much more classroom (and out-of-the-classroom) control than JHS ALTs.
Schools with English Programs
Some schools actually have English-track programs (like Ichikawa). Students tend to be very motivated and willing to work with you in these kinds of courses. They're still teenagers and dealing with other distracting things (SO's, club activities, family issues, other classes) but in general they should be more focused. Some ALTs in a program like this might feel more capable of laid-back lessons and teaching more as an equal than an authority figure. The hard part of this job is probably that it is expected that they will have relatively advanced English by the time they graduate, so you have a responsibility to teach effectively and cover a lot of material.
These schools also tend to have English days for prospective students, and you may be in charge of organizing some of it.
Schools like this have an English program, but many other students that aren't focusing on English. They may not be as enthused or focused, and you may find yourself teaching to more average students along with more advanced students. Try to keep the ability levels of your various classes straight.
Yamanashi has a number of relatively high-level schools for serious and intelligent students. Most of these schools do not have dedicated English programs, but the students still tend to be self-motivated. The curriculum went through a recent change, but in general ALTs tend to handle conversation classes but not as much the grammar and writing classes. ALTs may not be asked to join every class. You'll also probably be grading a lot of papers, even from classes that you didn't participate in.
This is a good position for explaining culture and getting students used to different levels of formality in speech. However, be sure to keep in mind their ability levels, make sure your grammar is in fact correct, and try to remember that there are other cultures outside of Japan (and probably in your country) than your own. Of course, these apply no matter your position, but it is something to be attentive of since ALTs at these schools probably have the most freedom in planning and a strong impact on their students.
There are some non-traditional schools and students in Yamanashi. These would include schools with night classes, remedial schools, some industrial schools that train students in a trade, and so on. The responsibilities at these schools will vary, but in general they are similar to other high schools except often with less motivated students. The JTEs may also choose to take on more of a role in classes.
The difficulty with most of these schools is that - much like in ES and JHS - most of the students probably don't want to be there, and don't see how English will ever be useful for them. You may also have classes with numerous trouble makers. Some people in these positions feel that the best thing they can do is forego being an authority figure, and to try and get along with the students more as equals. This might mean taking an interest in their out-of-class clubs and activities, checking on them in the halls, and giving them lots of opportunities to express themselves in class. However, it's still important not to let your students take advantage of you and your classes. Some amount of order must be maintained for the classroom as a whole, so try to set clear expectations of what is and is not acceptable during lesson time.
A lot of ALTs really enjoy teaching at these schools - so if you're an ALT-to-be and you just got an assignment to one, don't be nervous!