Japanese law requires a licensed Japanese teacher to be with you in the class at all times.
I’ve touched on this briefly, but they are HRTs (Homeroom Teachers) in Elementary Schools, and JTEs in Junior High/High Schools (Japanese Teachers of English).
MEXT government guidelines expect all teachers to co-teach with you. After all, you’re here to put the A(Assistant) in ALT, right? Uhm…not necessarily. Most don’t even know what ALT stands for…
As you can expect, not all teachers are created equal. Here’s a bit of a rundown of the sort of characters you can expect to meet.
(NOTE: PLEASE take this with a giant pinch of salt and some good humour! Rolling with the punches comes with the territory.)
The Head Cheerleader. The ideal co-teacher: a supportive figure who always has your back. More often than not they’re a younger person around 25-35 years old who was quite likely to have been taught by an ALT themselves when they were at school. They understand your role well and do everything in their power to make your job easier and keep the kids engaged.
The Disappearing Act. “You say “English class?” I hear “free period!”“ Teachers who seemingly disappear in a puff of smoke as soon as you need them, and use your class as an excuse to take it easy.
The P.A. “Assistant” Language Teacher? Like a Personal Assistant? Hooray! Takes literally any opportunity to fob work off onto you.
The Regina George. Nice to your face, slags you off behind your back. May or may not wear pink on Wednesdays.
The Micro Manager. Very interested and invested in everything you’re doing at school, even if it really shouldn’t concern them. You need construction paper – what for? Do you really need to make all those copies? – 120 copies for 120 students sounds excessive. You want to use the communal computer? OK, but you can’t have the password! You’re in the storage cupboard? Oh, I’m just in here for no reason definitely not checking you’re not stealing anything. Do you know how to use the hole punch? Do you know how to use the copier? Do you know how to turn a laptop on? Gyaaaaaahh…I’m in my 30s, hun.
The Backseat driver. Doesn’t assist in preparing lessons but also has a very specific opinion on how your classes should run. Talks over you, repeats everything you’re saying in Japanese, fucks about with your materials. But run the class myself? Oh no, please. Douzo, gaijin. Douzo.
The Clairvoyant. Doesn’t communicate with what they want you to do. You should just knowwwww. Bring your own crystal ball.
The “I Hate The ALT” one. Finds the ALT’s presence in class annoying and cumbersome yet doesn’t do anything about it. Often sulky and uncooperative.
The “Bestie”. “But that’s not what ___________________ did!” This teacher was BFFs with the previous ALT and wants you to look, talk, walk, prepare activities, perform classes exactly as they did. Usually still in touch with them and gives you updates on what their bestie is up to. No wun currrrrrr.
The Burned One. This teacher previously had a terrible ALT and thinks all foreigners are weird, lazy, unprofessional fuckwits. Sometimes you can win them over, sometimes you can’t. Shouganai!
The USA! USA! USA! one. Doesn’t like ALTs who are not from the USA. Yes, it’s a thing.
The NO WAMMINZ one. Doesn’t like female ALTs. Yes, it’s a thing.
The THAT’S NOT WHAT THE TEXTBOOK SAYS one. ALTs talking in natural, modern English? Nah. Please stick to the jilted, out of date textbook baka gaijin. The textbook never lies. Textbook is love. Textbook is life.
The Dinosaur. Has been teaching English for 30+ years and still using the same old methods. Fuck your interactive activities, ALT-chan. No games. No fun. Stick to drilling and worksheets while the kids die of boredom, please.
Can you think of any more archetypes? Have a funny story about a co-teacher? Leave it in the comments!
I’ve found in my personal experience that there is a wealth of information online about the process of coming to Japan (I wrote about my own experiencehere), but a lot less about what happens when the time comes for you to leave.
As of writing this, this is around the time ALTs are submitting their intentions to stay or leave as it’s coming up to the end of the school year, so I hope this is somewhat helpful.
I remembered to log a lot of what I did with dates, so you can tell from making the decision to actually leaving took six weeks – and this really was a tight schedule. Most people make their decision months in advance. So please heed my warning and take more time than I did to get your life in order.
Nevertheless, this is how it went for me working for a dispatch ALT company. Dates are in day/month order as is standard in the UK.
06/11: Booked flights home to the UK and told my family. Start advertising furniture and appliances for free on Facebook expat groups and our ALT group chat on Line. 08/11: Sent letter of resignation to my company giving the minimum 30 days notice. Received a call in the evening from my manager asking if I’ve thought this through, but he was very kind and understanding as he knew that I was recovering from surgery. Company sends through a ‘leavers pack’ with a bunch of forms to complete and return. 15/11: Tell my teachers I am leaving and advise my final day. Arrange leaving parties with my favourites. 26-27/11: Leaving parties with teachers:
06-10/12: People come to pick the items I’ve been advertising up from my apartment. (IMPORTANT: Work around YOUR schedule, not theirs. If they’re too busy or flake, immediately offer to the next person or make other arrangements ie. take to the thrift shop or dispose.) 08/12: Last day at junior high school. I’m shadowed by my replacement. 09/12:Last day at my elementary school. I’m shadowed again by my replacement. 10/12: Representative from the company comes to survey the apartment for damage. The actual landlord will do an inspection after I move out. Go to city hall with representative to do leaving process. This includes notifying the city that you’ll no longer be a resident, and to set up a proxy to receive my pension/partial tax refund when I return home. There are various resources online about this and it’s way more complicated than it needs to be. 10-12/12: Leaving parties with friends.
13/12: Clear the last of my stuff out of my apartment. Finish packing and forward luggage to airport hotel using Yamato. Gas is turned off in the evening. 14/12: Water is turned off in the morning. Move out of my apartment and catch the shinkansen for a farewell weekend in Tokyo. 15/12: Check into airport hotel at Haneda, reunited with my luggage. 16/12: Residence card and visa are voided at the airport. Fly home.
N.b. one of my suitcases arrived at Newcastle International with only one of it’s four wheels but しょうがない British Airways were pretty great at coughing up for a replacement.
BACK IN THE UK: Receive final pay after two months, minus 20% tax and mandatory apartment cleaning fees. Also receive my sickness benefits from when I was recovering from my operation. Applied for pension/partial tax refund and discussed with proxy still in Japan.
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.
The kids. 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!”
FREEEEEEDOMMMMM. 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.)
Time off! 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.
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.
Pay. 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 hehebefore 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.
Repetitive. 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.
I’ve been back in the UK for a few months now and already looking back on my time in Japan. I’ll write a longer retrospective in a little while, but in the meantime I thought you’d like to know about my final days at both of my schools.
Part 1: Goodbye, Junior High School…
For my last lessons at Junior High School, I asked my JTEs if we could keep it casual and was given the go-ahead. I did this quiz for all the grades – so I did the same lesson 12 times (16 including Elementary School, more on that later…) but the kids really got into it.
My JTEs were always pretty strict on sticking to the curriculum, so the rare times I got to stray brought big sighs of relief all around. I think no matter where you are in the world, the phrase “no textbooks today, everyone!” while the TV gets wheeled in gets you a big round of applause.
The class clown in one of the top sets took the opportunity to ask if I liked his new haircut and if I thought he was an ikemen in front of the whole class. I really did dish it back to them, so I pointedly looked him up and down, looked thoughtful, then replied “meh…so-so” while everyone exploded. “No, Miss Carla,” he insisted. “Very sexy hair!”
Every class had written me letters and cards and there was a little presentation at the end of the lesson. They then did a very formal thank you with a deep bow – always a bit jarring when they did this as mere minutes beforehand they were all giving each other noogies and wedgies and the middle finger. But very sweet.
I had one student I’ve taught from 2019 burst into tears. I finally managed to console her, then on a whim I unhooked the Yuri Katsuki gatcha charm from my USB that she admired every day and gave it to her. More tears!
Near the end of the day, the whole school gathered in the gym for a short farewell ceremony and to hand over to the new ALT who had been shadowing me all day. Typical Japan, a lot of pomp and circumstance over nothing at all, but I felt very loved.
I’d also been told 24 hours prior that I had to give a speech, which was really the last thing I needed to sort on top of all the moving stress – but I did my best. “Don’t worry, it just has to be short,” said my co-teacher. “It’s going to have to be!” I replied.
I was incredibly nervous and stumbled a little, but it seemed to get the message across. Here’s what I said in my usual piss-poor broken Japanese.. (I stole most of it from various corners of the internet.)
I am sad that I have to say goodbye to you. You have been kind to me for the past two years, thank you very much. Everyone at ○○ Junior High School was so positive and energetic that it was an absolute joy to come to work every morning. Everybody has been kind and has accepted me.
I wish to thank the principal, vice-principal, and everybody else for all of your help during my two years here. I have become really indebted to all of the teachers as well, especially ○○ sensei and ○○ sensei. No matter how busy you all were, you always found the time to answer any question that I had.
Good luck. I will miss you. Take care. Thank you very much.
The message seemed to get through as I got a big ol’ applause afterwards, and my JTE told me she could some students were leaning forward because they were listening so intently. Bless them.
Unfortunately for the school, I had to leave mid-week as I had a whole bunch of stuff to do before I actually flew home and the teachers had their big meeting so there was no formal goodbye.
I managed to hand out my goodbye presents to the principal, vice-principal, and the JTEs and also take a few quick photos before they said goodbye and they went to the meeting. There was nobody actually in the teacher’s room apart from the janitor who I have a big soft spot for (he was so accommodating when I was recovering from my operation and had some new dietary restrictions) so he actually saw me to the door. I took my shoes from the cupboard in the genkan and put them in my backpack, took one last look at the lobby, gave him a final bow and a wave, and left the junior high school for the last time.
Just like Whitney, I get so emotional, baby, and was surprised that I didn’t cry. “Wow, that wasn’t so bad…” I thought to myself, as I walked to my bus stop.
Cue, the next day…
Part 2: Goodbye, Elementary School…
OK, OK. So ending my contract mid-week wasn’t wholly an accident. I maaaaay have also timed it so I would have my final teaching day co-teaching at the elementary school with my best-friend Haruna.
Usually, at elementary school, we followed the textbook to the letter, but because it was my last ever class, I showed Haruna the lesson I had done at the junior high school and she gave the OK to do a simplified version.
(The new ALT was shadowing me again and I think he was a bit put-out because it was his first time teaching elementary school and I think he wanted to see how a regular class was run. But that ain’t my problem, hun lololol.)
At the end of every class, I was presented with a preciously bundled lot of letters; scrawled “I love yous” and “I like English” among coloured pencilled drawings of Splatoon inklings, Animal Crossing villagers, Among Us crewmates and (rather worryingly given their age) Squid Game pink soldiers. Thanks, guys.
I made the mistake of telling Haruna about my speech from the previous day, so she insisted I give the speech again but just to the teacher’s room since it was after school club activities day and the bairns would be busy. (I’d learned in Japan it’s best to keep your gob shut lest you be dragged into stuff like this, but I had a momentary lapse!)
It seemed to go over pretty well again, and my desk-mate who came to my (secret, shh!) goodbye party told me I spoke very clearly and sincerely.
Haruna had unfortunately missed my big moment as she was dealing with a parent (always means business when hops out of her trackies and puts her suit on…) and she suddenly hurled back into the teacher’s room, disappointed that she’d missed it. So I took her outside the teachers’ room and did the speech again for her. Andddd that’s when the tears started. From both of us. And they didn’t stop.
And so as the clock crept past 4pm, the time finally came for me to leave. I felt my heart in my throat as I packed my chopsticks, diary and mug into my kånken with a sense of finality. My usually messy desk (my friend Matt was appalled when he substituted for me) was empty except the textbooks and post it’s I’d left behind for the new guy.
As I stood up to leave, Haruna suddenly barked “Carla is leaving now!” and to my huge surprise, all the teachers stood up and applauded as I walked through the teacher’s room to leave. I think it was then that I started Kim K-level bawling.
For the final time, I turned, bowed and said お先に失礼します (“Sorry to leave before you”) and everyone replied お疲れ様です (“Thank you for your hard work”) and readers know that I was in bits.
Haruna and some of my favourite teachers followed me to the genkan to see me out of the building, waving and applauding as I walked through the gates and headed to my bus stop.
And that was that. A happy chapter of my life had closed. Now the time had come to leave Japan…but that’s for another post.
I’ve seen a few blogs over the years from incoming ALTs who have logged their Interac timeline and I found them really helpful during the initial application process.
Remember that everyone and every situation is different – however, these are my personal experiences as part of the Autumn 2019 intake as an applicant from the UK.
My experience does not take into account any restrictions due to the pandemic. (Dates are shown day/month as is standard in the UK.)
17/01 – Completed application on Interac’s website. 24/01 – Invited to interview, received questionnaire to complete. 25/01 – Contacted my references. 28/01 – Emailed completed questionnaire and contact information for my references. 29/01 – Received request for my demo lesson with tips and guidelines. Confirmed interview date. 19/02 – Emailed my demo lesson video to Interac. 24/02 – Posted my full CV, visa photos, copy of passport, degree and TEFL certification to Interac. 26/02 – Attended group interview in York. 06/03 – Interac confirmed my application has been forwarded to the Tokyo office for consideration and I should hear back in two weeks. 21/03 – I followed up with the Interac UK office since it had been over two weeks, and received a reply the same day that they recently conference called with the Tokyo office who are experiencing delays. 11/04 – Placement offer received for the Kansai region from the Tokyo office which I accepted the same day. 12/04 – Email from Kansai office welcoming me to the company and advised I will receive more information shortly. 26/04 – Received contract and application for COE (Certificate of Eligibility) from the Tokyo office to complete and return. 28/04 – Completed and emailed COE application and contract. 29/05 – Chased Interac for training dates as I was eager to book my flight. Received a response the same day with the tentative dates, but that these should be 100% confirmed within the week. 31/05 – Received confirmation of training dates, accommodation, and location of the training centre. Also received information regarding a driving position, and I emailed back advising in my application I specified I would require a non-driving position. Received an email back within an hour apologising for the error and confirmed I would definitely be placed in a non-driving role. 06/06 – Booked flight to Japan. 18/06 – Received notification that my COE application has been lodged with Immigration authorities and will be processed in 3-6 weeks. 12/07 – COE arrived via Fedex. 15/07 – Dropped COE and passport off at embassy. 26/07 – Picked up COE, passport, and visa from embassy. (They’re usually unable to post these.) 07/08 – Received apartment information and phone contract to sign and return digitally. 17/08 – Arrived in Japan. 20-23/08 – Training. 24/08 – Mandatory drugs test and health check at a clinic. A helper from Interac (known as an IC) takes me shopping for essentials and I move into my apartment. Internet, gas, and electric are switched on. 26/08 – City Hall adulting with IC: sorting out national health, pension exemption, received residence card, open bank account, etc. 27/08 –Visit schools. 28/08 –Term begins.
As you can see, the actual process takes longer than you might think. It took four months from my initial application to receiving an offer, and eight months from application to arrival in Japan.
So I’d recommend even if you’re still just thinking about it, get your application in early.
While Interac does hire year-round, their big intakes are for the beginning of Spring (late March) and Autumn (late August) terms. I would aim for these, you’ll be in a larger training environment where you can meet other ALTs. If you arrive outside these times, chances are you’re covering for someone who has done a bunk and you may find it harder to settle in, arriving in the middle of a school year.
My suggestion: For Spring intake apply by September. For Autumn intake, apply by January.
OFF-TOPIC: This was actually my 100th post on TheGeordieGaijin. Thank you to everyone who has read this blog over the years. Keep it 100, guys!
Ahh “Open School.” Two words that send shivers down the spines of Japanese teachers and ALTs alike.
Open School is the one magical day per term where the parents can come and observe classes. Vom.
At my Junior High School I am T2 in most of my classes, so I’m just there to look pretty and beam my big gaijin smile at the mums and dads.
But I lead all classes at my Elementary School – so hello, pressure? I was somewhat overwhelmed that I was going to be observed all day, however parents were only to come in for one class – the last period at the end of the day.
Thankfully, my open school class was scheduled with my tantou (as explained in my daily routine post, “tantou” = the teacher who is responsible for me at school), who suggested we rehearse beforehand. She’s one of my favourite people in Japan, and I was eager for us both to do well so I took some time out of my schedule to meet with her, get comfortable with the digital materials and rehearse our banter. We were like a multinational Mel and Sue.
While all our classes are especially fun (I have no idea where she gets her energy from, she’s the type of person who runs at eleven every single day) we decided to make a special effort to make things as interactive as possible – using a mix of the digital materials, and our own stuff.
By the time Open School rolled around for us – we were on We Can 1 Unit 8: “What do you like?” using food as a grammar point.
Food is the great connector (Japanese people in my experience are especially big foodies) so I was glad it was a topic that could especially pique the students’ interests. (The previous unit was directions, and frankly I was knackered after that.)
To get them prepared for the vocabulary, I gave my tantou my stash of food flashcards which she went over a few times with her homeroom prior to our lesson. Her students are especially eager and genki, so they picked it up fairly quickly.
Our Open School lesson ran a bit like this:
✍ Greeting I greet all my classes the same way every time: I pretend to be a sergeant major and shout “OK EVERYONE STAAAAAAND…UP!” (The boys especially love trying to beat their pals on who can stand up first.)
I then flex my muscles and shout “Oooh, I have the power!” Gets a laugh every time. (My physics teacher Mr Obee* used to do this and it’s always stuck with me.)
ME: Let’s begin, so good morning/afternoon everyone! STUDENTS: Good morning/good afternoon Miss Carla and Miss _________. ME: How are you? STUDENTS: I’m ___________________. ME: Oh good, how are you Miss _____________? TANTOU: Oh I’m great, thank you. How are you? ME: I’m fine, thank you very much! *sergeant major voice* Ok everyone, you can siiiiiiiiit…DOWN!
✍ Small talk. I’d prepared a short presentation about my favourite foods from the UK. A lot of them tend to recognise fish and chips** but I also included sausage and mash. For desserts, I showed sticky toffee pudding and a jam roly poly. I also featured some of my favourite Japanese foods (takoyaki, ramen, gyoza and matcha ice cream) and had a little vote on the best. It worked pretty well and got them hyped up.
✍ Vocabulary Although they were pretty familiar with the vocab by this point, we drilled it again a few times – especially to get their pronunciation down. Plus it helped to show the parents what they’d been learning.
✍ Keyword Game. Man, the Keyword Game is the world’s easiest game to prepare and for some reason my kids LOVE it. Basically, we put all the flashcards on the blackboard (Japanese blackboards are magnetic, so I attach magnets to all my flashcards so they can be visable at all times), choose one of them as a keyword. The students make pairs and put one eraser between them on the desk. They put their hands on their heads and when they hear the keyword, the first one to grab the eraser wins a point. I always demonstrate the first round, then ask someone to come to the front. (I always camp this up, calling the student Mr/Miss _______ and making sure everyone listens to their new teacher.) Eager to impress mum and dad, we had a bunch of volunteers so had about five rounds – keep it an odd number so there’s always a winner.
✍ Listening activity. We used MEXT’s digital materials from We Can 1 to demostrate to the parents how we use these, and how the students complete their workbooks.
✍ MRI Quiz. As a fun cool-down, I presented a shorterned version of this MRI quiz from ALTopedia. It’s actually an activity I’d used for my third graders, and it had KILLED. But thought it was a fun, easy activity – and would get any bairns who were starting to lose interest back in focus.
✍ Chant We ended with a chant/song that came with the MEXT digital materials. Some of the songs can be a little strange, but the one in this unit isn’t too bad. They were quite familiar with it, so I played it twice at normal speed, then got them all to stand up and sing it faster. We emphasised to use nice big voices, gestures and big smiles.
✍Wrap up I wrap up the class the same every lesson – I get the kids to stand up (sergeant major act again – “STAAAAAND….UP!”), and I compliment them with what they have specifically done well in the class. So I told them their pronunciation was good, and thanked them for volunteering with activities. ME: That’s all for today, so for now I’ll say *dramatic pause* GOODBYE EVERYONEEEEE! THEM: Goodbye Miss Carla, and Miss Haruna! ME: See youuuuuuuu! *Big wave* THEM: See youuuuuuuu!! *Big wave back*
And that’s it. I then left while my teacher had a thirty minute meeting with the parents to discuss the students and they gave feedback on the lesson.
Usually in my classes, I’ll try and make sure there’s a free discussion section with plenty of time for the students to practice amongst themselves, with me and the homeroom teacher observing and helping. This is usually in the form of an interview or survey game.
However we’d discussed how this would be logistically difficult with parents taking up space in an already crowded classroom, plus they tend to take around 15-20 minutes out of a 50 minute lesson by the time we have demonstrated the target language and how to complete the worksheets. So on this occasion we decided to omit this and focus on quick, dynamic activities.
In short although I wasn’t there for the discussion with my tantou, it seemed to go down well with the students – they all wrote me thank you letters at the end of term, and a lot of them referenced the games and activities we specifically did in Open School.
It was definitely a stressful planning period and day – but still, ever a new learning experience!
**I’m actually not a huuuuge fan of fish and chips – it’s a little too heavy for me and I’m more of a chips and scraps kinda girl. But it’s an easily recognisable British food to many Japanese people. Plus I always make the connection explaining the batter is crispy and similar to tempura which they all know – comparing your life to theirs always keeps them interested.
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!)
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:
ME: 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!
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.
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!
One thing I found really interesting before I arrived – and something that wasn’t really covered in training – was the average daily routine of an ALT.
Being in Japan is of course wonderful and at first everything is exciting and new – but not everyday involves eating at crazy cafes, visiting shrines and shopping for otaku goods. What about the actual day-to-day life of living and working here?
Of course this varies for everyone. One of my fellow ALTs has at least five classes every day, sometimes six. Another has one day every week where she has no classes at all.
But for me personally: I always have four classes a day at my elementary school, and around 3-4 at my junior high school.
✩ Some key phrases: ✩
♡ ALT – Assistant Language Teacher. My role in the school as a native English speaker to assist with and teach English lessons.
♡ JTE – Japanese teachers of English. English teachers at junior high/high schools with a high level of English, who also teach classes when I’m not there. They mostly focus on grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing when teaching by themselves, and speaking and listening activities with the ALT. For liability reasons, a JTE must stay in the class with the ALT at all times.
♡ Homeroom teacher – A Japanese teacher in elementary school who is responsible for one class and teaches every subject. (Similar to primary school teachers in the UK). They tend to have a low level of English and expect me to lead the class and prepare all activities. They tend to not have English classes until I’m available, however this is changing with new government guidelines. For liability reasons, a homeroom teacher must stay in the class with the ALT at all times.
♡ T1 – The teacher who leads the class.
♡ T2 – The teacher who assists the class. Changes in government guidelines mean this should always be the ALT’s role, however this tends not to be the case.
♡ Tantou – A Japanese teacher who is responsible for me at the school. They have a high level of English and so they prepare my schedule and lessons and work closely with my company. They tend to prefer leading the class. (I have a Tantou at my elementary school and another at my junior high school. They are both very sweet and approachable. If I have any ideas for activities outside the classroom, they are my first point of contact and usually very enthusiastic.)
So again, this is just an example:
✩ Elementary School: ✩
♥ 06:00 Wake up. (I’m terrible and skip breakfast in lieu of an extra half an hour in bed), drink a cup of tea, get ready. (Bag is packed from the night before) ♥ 06:55 Stop at konbini for coffee, walk to the bus stop and catch the bus to school.
♥ 07:45 Arrive at school, go to my desk in the teacher’s lounge, chat to my Tantou if she’s around, unpack my bag, plug in my laptop, drink my coffee. ♥ 08:10 Shift begins. Go over my lesson plans and materials. I teach the entire grade over one day, so technically I only have to plan one class then repeat it three times! ♥ 08:25-09:10 First period. I tend to have this free so just continue reviewing the upcoming lessons for the day. ♥ 09:20-10:0 Second period – teaching time. ♥ 10:25-11:10 Third period – teaching time. ♥ 11:20-12:05 Fourth period – teaching time. ♥ 12:10-12:45 Lunchtime. Collect my lunch from the teacher’s lounge and take it to a classroom to eat with the students and homeroom teacher. ♥ 12:50-13:40 Recess. ♥ 13:40-14:25 Fifth period – teaching time. ♥ 14:35-15:10 Sixth period. 99% of the time I have this free. I tend to use this time making materials and lesson plans for my junior high school. ♥ 15:10-15:50 Students leave for the day or have after-school club. The staffroom atmosphere gets more relaxed. ♥ 15:50-16:10 Tantou comes to chat. She’s young and really friendly (we frequently hang out outside work now!) so we break open some snacks and plan the next day’s lessons. She checks I have all the materials, adjust the lessons if needed and I go over what I’d like the homeroom teachers to contribute. (NOTE: She’ll then go over this with them at a staff meeting after I go home. When all is done, she’ll send the lesson plans to my company to approve and translate, who will then forward it back to me.) ♥ 16:10 End of shift. I say お先に 失礼します (“Excuse me for leaving before you”) to the teachers, bow at the door and leave. ♥ 16:20 Catch the bus home.
♥ 16:45 Stop at grocery store, drugstore, Daiso etc. if necessary. ♥ 17:30 Home and relax for the evening. ♥ 22:30 Bedtime.
✩ Junior High School: ✩
My routine begins and ends the same as my elementary school.
♥ 06:00 Wake up. (Again, I’m terrible and skip breakfast in lieu of an extra half an hour in bed), drink tea, get ready. (Bag is packed from the night before) ♥ 06:55 Stop at konbini for coffee, walk to the bus stop and catch the bus to school. ♥ 07:45 Arrive at school, go to my desk in the teacher’s lounge, briefly chat to my JTE deskmate, unpack my bag, turn on my school laptop, drink my coffee. ♥ 08:10 Shift begins. The students go to their homerooms where they listen to any announcements, changes to their schedules etc. I go over my lesson plans and materials. I have a class straight away, and it’s second grade where my JTE likes me to lead so I must be prepared. ♥ 08:35-09:25 First period teaching second grade. ♥ 09:35-10:25 Second period with the second graders, teaching the same lesson as at first period. ♥ 10:35-11:25 Free period. ♥ 11:35-12:25 Fourth period with third graders. This JTE also likes me to lead, so must be prepared and organised. ♥ 12:25-13:15 Lunchtime. I eat in the teachers’ lounge. ♥ 13:20-14:10 Fifth period with first graders and my Tanto JTE who likes to lead the class. However usually I will have helped create warmers, activities and/or worksheets, so I make sure these are ready. Otherwise, I make sure I’m present in the lesson and assisting when asked. ♥ 14:20-15:10 Sixth period, 99% of the time I have this free. I tend to plan materials and lessons for my elementary school during this time. ♥ 15:10-16:10 Students leave for the day or have after-school club. I use this time to visit the school clubs, work on materials or my English board. I try to catch my JTEs to go over lessons, but usually they are very busy and it’s difficult to make time but we try our best. Again, the teacher’s lounge is a lot more relaxed – the vice-principal and head teacher at this school are particularly funny and nice, and have everyone laughing. ♥16:10 End of shift. Say お先に 失礼します (“Excuse me for leaving before you”) to the teachers, bow at the door and leave. ♥ 16:20 Catch the bus home. ♥ 16:45 Stop at grocery store, drugstore, Daiso etc. if necessary.
♥ 17:30 Home and relax for the evening. ♥ 22:30 Bedtime.
And that’s pretty much it for a weekday. Sometimes I’ll meet a friend after work but we do tend to get together at weekends.
You’ll also notice I don’t really plan any lessons or materials at home.
Down time at home relaxing is especially important to me with a chronic illness, so I make sure to use my free time at the schools wisely. Of course this won’t always be possible, but it’s something I really do recommend whenever you can.
Personally, I’m a lot more tired after a day at my elementary school as I have more classes (which I always lead) plus your energy has to be up to eleven every single class to keep the kids engaged.
At my junior high school I have more chance of free periods, and although you are of course still expected to be a nice genki gaijin, you don’t need to bounce off the walls quite so much.
If you are an aspiring ALT and have any more questions, please just leave them below!
I’d been at my Junior High School for three weeks before the sports festival rolled around. I knew this because it had been talked about around the clock ever since I arrived.
At first I wondered why there were so many PE teachers in the school, until the penny dropped and I realised it was just a case of everyone being really, really into the event.
Sports Day in the UK is a fairly tame affair – a few ordinary track and field events, then British traditions such as a beanbag race, egg and spoon race, mums and dad’s race etc.
(My school even had a thing called “Hoy The Welly” where you had to throw a wellington boot as far as you could. A bit like the shotput, but incredibly working class.) Afterwards you got a juice and could usually go home early.
In Japan, this is not the case.
The bairns and teachers alike have been rehearsing for weeks. It sounded halfway between a military operation, and a rock concert – a fairly legit sound system was installed a few days prior and I had to shout my lesson over the feedback.
On the morning of, it was due to kick off at 09:30am and when I rocked up at 8am as per usual everyone was running around like blue-arsed flies. I was invited to go outside and watch everything being set up – and honestly it looked more like a village fete with huge gazebos and decorations.
The house colours – red, green, yellow and blue reminded me of Hogwarts and I instinctively rooted for the yellow team (I’m a Hufflepuff after all).
There was a grand opening ceremony, the school band came on and played the 20th Century Fox theme music. The principal and vice principals went on stage for some speeches, then the head of houses (I think) came and did some sort of ceremony, saluting him.
The national anthem was played as the Hinomaru and school flags were raised. As a British person I do have a soft spot for a bit of pomp and circumstance so was in my element. (By this point in a UK school the kids would have been bored and fidgeting – and in my school a fight would have probably broken out already.)
The first half was mostly traditional track-and-field events – 100m, 500m, relay etc. There was a jump-rope event where about 20 students had to keep going for the longest.
There were others I recognised such as a three-legged race, and others that were incredibly random such as pushing huge rubber balls down the track, turning and running back. I think that would be super popular in the UK and frankly needs to be an Olympic sport.
Special Chinese-themed obentos had been ordered for the occasion. It was pretty good and a little more expensive than a regular school lunch at around ¥850.
Karaage, gyoza, egg fu yong, chop suey, squid.
White rice, pickled radish and orange chicken.
After lunch was the dance competition, which I was especially looking forward to – I love anything to do with performance!
To my surprise, my elementary school kids came to watch (it’s across the road from the junior high school), and my JTE explained this is an annual tradition.
Another surprise – I was invited to sit in the front row and judge the competition alongside the principal, elementary school principal and my deskmate JTE (she doesn’t have a homeroom class so can’t be biased). I was given a clipboard and told to judge from 1 to 5 for things such as ‘timings’ ‘flow of movement’ etc.
I did however manage to cause a commotion – it only took one elementary kid to clock me (“AHHH! CARLA-SENSEI!!”) and their eyes practically popped out of their heads to see me somewhere other than their classrooms.
It took a lot of shushing from the poor homeroom teachers to get them to pipe down. And even so, they kept turning around to wave.
The girls serving some AKB48 realness.
Judging was really, really difficult as all the bairns were amazing! Michelle Visage makes it look easy.
First the girls performed – all of who danced almost exclusively to a mash up of pop songs and anime opening numbers. (I bumped the green team up a full mark for dancing to Kimi Ni 100% by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and a Japanese cover of Mickey by Toni Basil.)
I’m biased but I gave the yellow team full marks – their timing was impeccable and could give AKB48 a run for their money.
Then it was the boy’s turn – they all performed the same number, which made it much harder to judge.
It was a traditional Japanese dance called Sōran Bushi, the music of which was stuck in my head for the rest of the day. It’s apparently an old sea shanty, and the dance mimics ocean waves, dragging nets, pulling ropes and hoisting luggage over their shoulders.
I thought that would be the end of it – but there were still a few events to go.
The first was tug of war, and I really don’t know where they go their energy from. (If this was me at my sports day I’d have bunked off by this point, on the hunt for a tuck shop.)
Then there was another random relay, but it seemed to be with four students from individual sports team – i.e.: four from the basketball, baseball, and soccer etc. teams. And instead of a baton they had to pass an item from their teams: i.e.: a basketball, baseball, soccer ball etc. It was very strange to see students in full baseball gear sprinting around a field.
Before long there was a closing ceremony, the flags were lowered and awards were handed out. The scores were tallied up, and were announced by hanging numbers from a top floor window in the school building.
It was very dramatic – the blue team all cheered and cried and hugged as they were declared the champions. All the other teams were very supportive, and clapped their friends on the back. (Again at my school sportsmanship wasn’t really encouraged – another fight would have probably broken out.)
Sports Day here really isn’t about who wins and who loses, more so encouraging teamwork and camaraderie. I think if it was more wholesome like this in the UK I wouldn’t have played the wag quite so much. Perhaps.
Anyways by 4pm, it was time for my shift to end and after a nice loud should of “OSAKI NI SHITSUREISHIMASUUU” I ran home to get ready for the most more hotly anticipated event – the post-Sports Day enkai – aka: the teachers’ booze-up partywhich you can read all about here.
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