Hi, hi – remember me? I hope you’re doing well, friend.
Being back home for well over a year now I’ve more that acclimatised back into life in the UK – surprisingly better than I thought I would.
I’m glad to report that I have a job I love and plan on coming back to Japan to visit in Autumn 2024 – hoorah!
I do enjoy looking back at this little corner of the internet from time to time and I am currently drafting a longer retrospective look back at my time in Japan now I’ve had some distance.
But for now, having a look through my drafts I’ve had some posts that have been sitting there for literal years now, and I figured I might as well post the ones that are still relevant.
So without further ado, here’s what I liked and didn’t like about my years working as an ALT in an elementary and junior high school.
This is what you’ll hear from 99% of ALTs you’ll speak to. Many a time I’d woken upon the wrong side of the bed and arrived at school grumpy and unmotivated. But as soon as I walked into the classroom and saw my bairns, a little voice in my head said: “I can’t let you down.”
Ask a Japanese student what their favourite thing about school is, and the most common answer is “talking with my friends” – so I worked hard to make sure there was at least one activity in every lesson where they can do just that.
While most of their other subjects are predominantly them are sitting at their desks quietly and vigilantly taking notes, they know English with the ALT is the fun class where they can play games, walk around the classroom doing an activity, watch some videos, listen to some music and – of course – talk to their friends. It makes it all seem worthwhile when you walk into the classroom and are greeted with smiles, cheers and “oh, Miss Carla is here today!”
This depends from company to company, branch to branch, but at my school I wasn’t really micromanaged at all. As long as I turned up on time, made dynamic lessons, kept my head down and at least looked busy between classes I could do whatever I want.
You are the gaijin (Part 1.)
As an ALT, you simply aren’t held to the same standards as other teachers – and although it can be hard to always be the ‘outsider’ in school , it does have it’s perks. While most Japanese teachers arrive before 7am and leave at 7pm earliest, you’ll find you can rock up at 8am and leave by 4pm.
As previously mentioned, your lessons are the fun ones focusing on speaking and listening skills while providing some context as a native speaker. If the kids don’t do well in their exams – that’s for the Japanese teachers to deal with.
Free time between lessons (Part 1).
As you become more experienced as an ALT, you’ll find lesson planning takes up less and less of your time. While of course I liked making sure my lessons were fun and interesting as could be, after a few months I found I could pretty much plan a grade’s classes for the week somewhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours at the very most.
As such, you’ll have extra time between lessons and a lot of ALTs spend this time studying Japanese. But as I mentioned before this time is your own. (Just don’t take the piss – “the ALT spends too much time on their phone” is one of the most popular complaints to dispatch companies or BOEs.)
One of the major gripes people seem to have with teaching is you don’t have a lot of holiday allowance. I believe JETs get less time off, but likely if you’re with dispatch they’ll wangle these off for you. Dispatch ALTs are paid less than JETs, but personally, I preferred to tighten my belt from time to time and be able to actually enjoy Japan instead of rotting away in the teacher’s room on a higher salary.
You’ll get 10 annual leave days – 5 of these are usually chosen by your company and you can choose the other 5. It depends from company to company, branch to branch how eager they’ll be to process your holiday requests, but personally I didn’t have any rejected.
Most Japanese teachers don’t use their holiday allowance at all, or save it for sick days. But again, you are held to a different standard being the gaijin, so don’t feel guilty about using them! Just try not to take them around exam time or the beginning or end of term.
If you work in a Japanese school you’ll also get all 16 national holidays off. This is actually more than in the US.
Yes we get 28 days paid leave in the UK – 36 including national holidays (“bank holidays”) which I definitely missed, but personally I felt like I had more time off than I expected to explore Japan.
Better supportive materials.
The textbooks are improving. The funny videos like this one are sadly becoming a thing of the past as in the last few years as there’s been a major overhaul in textbooks in line with new government guidelines. Some of the media can still be a bit awkward, but it’s getting better.
The new songs kinda slap, though – this one was a staple in 6th grade elementary.
One girl even learned the chords on the piano and everyone sang it on my last day.
You’re here for a good time, not a long time.
Except for a very small minority, teaching in Japan is not a viable career path. While it’s great for a few years, eventually most people go on to bigger and better things – usually back in their home country. The sweet spot tends to be between 2 and 5 years.
Teaching in Japan is pretty great for gap year or two, to gain experience after graduating or even for people like myself on a career break. But unless you’re looking to rise up the ranks in your company, it’s simply not really an option long-term.
There’s no beating around the bush, ALT work doesn’t pay well. If you budget, you’ll find you can live fairly comfortably – until your second year when you are clouted around the head with residence taxes and mandatory pension premiums. A lot of ALTs end up getting a side-gig.
Not all co-teachers are created equal.
ALTs are not allowed to discipline kids, and if you have a JTE or HRT who let the kids run riot you’re on your own tbh. While I had mostly great co-teachers, there were also some who were downright lazy, had absolutely no respect for the work I did and saw my classes as the one they don’t have to do fuck all in – and it was tedious.
All eyes are on you not to fuck up.
There is so much pressure to be the perfect, genki gaijin all the time. If you’re having a bad day, you can’t be pissed off and grump at your desk – you have to get up and do your thing with a big smile on your face. One wrong move and your reputation can really take a battering.
Free time between lessons (Part 2)
The deskwarming. Oh, the deskwarming! It sounds good on paper, but trust me the novelty wears off after a while. There’s really only so much you can scroll, books you can read
and blogs you can draft hehe before you feel like you’re losing your marbles. You have to make an effort to push yourself sometimes to be productive on days you are waiting for the clock to tick to 4pm.
While no two days are quite the same, teaching can feel pretty formulaic after a while – especially in elementary school where we seemingly played the same 6 games over and over and over. The kids love it of course, but there were times when I could actually feel myself losing brain cells.