School · Teaching

Life of an ALT: Your First Days

Since it’s the end of term and the next influx of ALTs will be landing this week, I thought it was a good time to post about my first few days of teaching in my Japanese schools.

So you’ve had four or five days of training, been bombarded with information, lesson plans, activities, schedules and more. You’re jet lagged, running on coffee and conbini food and most likely living out of a hotel room.

But all of a sudden you find yourself in a suit, and reality sets in that it’s time for you to impart your gaijin wisdom and knowledge. Heck.

I can honestly say that the most nerve-wracking time you will have during the whole moving to Japan process is visiting your schools for the first time, and the days and weeks that follow.

All situations are different – some people visit their schools a week or so before classes begin, some due to teaching schedules are thrown into the fray mere hours before their first class is due to begin.
It’s just luck of the draw. So all I can base this on are my personal experiences.

The one thing I would say before I start is although it is ridiculously anxiety-inducing – remember that everyone at the school is expecting you, looking forward to meeting you, and are happy that you’re there.

You won’t be the first ALT they’ve met and you certainly won’t be the last.

The Initial Visit.

The Friday before term I was taken to my two schools for a visit before all the students were there accompanied by a representative from my company’s office.
(FUN FACT: I was actually my representative’s first day on the job and she admitted she was a little nervous too, which helped!)

“Pretty darn good!”
(I could legit quote this film from start to finish)

First thing’s first – dress up!

Before arriving you’ll be told to bring at least one nice black suit, preferably a second in another colour – wear the black one when you visit your schools and at the opening ceremony.

I wore: my black suit, white shirt and black brogues but I carried my pink Kate Spade handbag to give me a pop of colour to match my personality.

(At many schools the dress code is fairly relaxed – especially in elementary schools. Officially you’ll be told to wear a suit all the time, but the reality is this is usually not the case. Your teachers will give you advice, and the old saying goes – when in Rome, do as the Romans do.)

At my junior high school, I was taken to the principal’s office. In training, we learned how to do jikoshoukai (“self introduction”) with simple Japanese and it pretty much went as follows:

はじめまして。Hajimemashite. = Nice to meet you.
わたしのなまえは カーラです Watashi-no namae-wa Carla (SURNAME) desu = My name is Carla (SURNAME)
= I am from England
よろしくおねがいします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu = Pleased to meet you (but literally translates as “Please take care of me.”)
PRINCIPAL: よろしくおねがいします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu = Pleased to meet you/likewise!

If you know, you know.

Then there’s the exchanging of business cards which is an art in itself, especially if you’re clumsy as fuck like me.

Business cards are treated as an extension of the person, and must be treated with the same respect you would give them. My company were kind enough to provide nice quality business cards and a rose gold case at orientation.

In my experience, you don’t especially need these when meeting your fellow teachers, but they’re important to have when meeting the principal and vice-principal.

More information on business card etiquette can be found here – however again, we did go over this also in initial training.

It was at this point the principal asked me to take a seat and someone came in with green tea for us.
I placed his business card on the table in front of us, facing myself and sat down.
You’re also not supposed to take a drink until the principal has taken his first sip. We then had a fairly casual but polite chat with my representative translating.

I was introduced to my three JTEs I would be teaching with in each grade. They told me on my first day it was just the opening ceremony with no classes, and if I could prepare a short speech to introduce myself to the school. Eek.

We then went to my elementary school where we met the vice principal, who is incredibly chatty and funny. (The principal was unavailable and I wouldn’t meet him until my first day of teaching.)
I would miss the opening ceremony due to being at my junior high school so I didn’t need to give any speeches there.

After we were finished I got to go home for the rest of the day.
Try to relax over the weekend, and get plenty of rest because the next week is going to be pretty full-on.

Your First Day / Opening Ceremony

As I mentioned, all I had to do on my first day was attend the opening ceremony and give a short speech.

These school ceremonies tend to be a little dry and super formal, but I was too busy feeling nervous about three hundred little faces staring up at me to pay much attention to what was going on.

When it was my turn, I walked up onto the stage – my legs feeling like jelly – and just said a few words about how their predecessor told me how much she loved he school, and how I was looking forward to teaching them all. Very simple stuff, though I practically ran back down the stairs when I was done.

Other than that, I was showed my desk in the teacher’s lounge, where the supplies are etc. I started in August, and the teachers told me I don’t have to wear my suit and can dress down a little – especially it being in the middle of the sweltering Japanese summer.

We also had a tsunami drill, but it was a long day with nothing really to do!

Self Introduction Lessons

This is the big one. Your first lesson.

Most likely your first few lessons are going to be your self-introduction. I’ve since done this so many times I could recite it in my sleep. Though my first time, I was incredibly nervous and nearly went to pieces.

Keep it fairly simple: Your name, where you’re from, lots of photos of your family and hometown, your hobbies and favourite food will suffice. It’s up to you how much personal information you’d like to give – it’s likely the kids will ask you your age and if you have a partner or spouse, but anything you’re not comfortable answering, just camp it up with “Shhhhh! It’s a secret!”
Afterwards if time allowed we did a Q&A.

I’m eventually going to do a post on my self introduction as it went through some major changes throughout doing it a total of THIRTY times over the following weeks as I met all my classes in both schools.

But quick tip: make it interactive – we ended up turning mine into a quiz that the kids really got into.


Your First Lessons

Talk about throwing me in at the deep end!
At the junior high school it wasn’t too bad because I just assist in those classes most of the time. I got to know my three JTEs, working out our rhythms and pacing.

But I’m not going to lie – I really struggled during my first few weeks at elementary school.

I lead all of my elementary school classes – however I thought during my first few weeks I’d be able to take a slight back seat while I found my feet. Well, I was wrong.

I was sent a lesson plan a few weeks before, but hadn’t actually received my textbooks until the last day of training. And I hadn’t had a chance to look at the digital materials (songs/chants/videos etc.) until I was in front of the kids. Nerve-wracking stuff, and I’ll be completely honestly I spent the first months dreading my elementary classes.

However as time went on, the kids warmed to me and were more eager to participate in lessons (though all ALTs I know have at least one class where it’s like pulling teeth), I got to know the homeroom teachers, I felt more confident making my own activities and games – and before I knew it, I’d found myself also into the swing of things.

Elementary teaching is definitely a steeper learning curve than junior high school in my opinion – but stick with it, you can do it!!

So I’ll wish you the best of luck if you’re an aspiring ALT, or you’re about to start at your school/s and are feeling nervous. It’s natural – nerves are good and show you care.

However please try not not tie yourself in knots about it like I did, and if you have any questions – please just ask, and I’ll help as best I can!

~ Carla

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