First Days as an ALT in Japan

April 5, 2017

This isn’t even an accurate title, as I’m writing this having not yet led a class or even spoken to a student. It’s been all fun and games (so to speak) for someone like me, but I could see how the same experience would be quite stressful to a teacher who doesn’t understand any Japanese or is unfamiliar with the work culture.

Technically, I don’t understand the work culture, and that’s part of the problem. On the one hand, I’ve been invited to participate in meetings in which I understood less than half of what was said, and I appreciate being included. On the other hand, I’ve been left to fend for myself at my desk – giving me time to write this – leading me to believe I’m either just an accessory for this school and should just go where I’m told or trusted enough to conduct my own business like preparing for classes.

I remind myself that I’ve only been in the country less than two weeks, and I already feel somewhat settled. If I had a comfortable couch and a Whole Foods down the street, I’d be all set for years. The truth is, I’d probably be losing my mind if I didn’t have the benefit of having lived in Japan. I can read signs, speak conversationally (though I need to improve fast), and generally know how things work. Though I’m inclined to present myself in a professional manner, I’m not stressing about aspects of working in Japan I can’t control.

For example, as an ALT I have a fairly loose work schedule. I’m leading the English Club once a week in addition to seven classes and a private lesson, but this still leaves plenty of time for me to sit at my desk in the teacher’s lounge. Now, while I’m sure I’m going to use this time to prepare lessons and fill out paperwork, there will be lots of downtime, which I can do with as I please as long as I stay at the school to be available in the event of any problems or questions other teachers might have… maybe an impromptu lesson?

The contrast with private language schools in Japan and Korea couldn’t be starker. I arrived in Korea on Saturday morning, took the bus for four hours to my little mountain town, and had a brief training session late Sunday morning. Even this training is rare, as some foreign teachers in Korea find themselves being thrust into classrooms the instant they arrive at the school, giving them only enough time to change clothes and maybe eat something. AEON was a little different, with a week of paid training in Okayama and a few days observing the departing teacher before taking charge myself. Japan at least tried to prepare me for the classroom, while Korea seemed eager to have any foreign face, trained or not, instructing their children.

As I’m starting to realize, the work environment can be whatever I want it to be. Coming in early every day, preparing thoughtful lessons, and consulting Japanese teachers (in Japanese) may not necessarily establish myself as a working professional, but it definitely won’t hurt my chances. On the other hand, arriving only at the scheduled hours, spending all my time at my desk, and doing the minimum requirements to muddle through a class might still be an acceptable choice, as a foreign teacher, professional or not, is still held to a double standard in Japan.

I’m going to continue my language studies and feel out situations in the weeks to come. I worry that by not establishing my personality and intentions early on at work, I will have to make an extra effort to overcome these first impressions. Nevertheless, it’s just necessary at this point: my Japanese is rusty; I’m coming into a work environment I know next to nothing about, and I don’t know how any of the staff would react even if I were to act as though this were an American office space.

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