New School Year 101
Being an ALT is one of the most important jobs a foreigner can have in Japan. Our presence at school is the kid’s first contact with the outside world. More than ALTs we work as ambassadors of our respective country and culture. As good ambassadors, it is a good idea to behave properly and show the Japanese people our best selves.
I am Cuban and have worked as ALT for almost 10 years. I also graduated from two Japanese Universities and in one of them I studied a Master Degree in Education. In this article I would like to give you some tips and recommendations that could help you if you want to be a great ALT.
First day at school
There is a very famous phrase saying:
“There is not a second chance for a first impression”
The first days at school will be decisive for the image people will have about you for the rest of the year. The most important thing is to be professional, and confident. Wear a nice suit and be polite. Follow instructions and keep yourself busy.
Here, I would like to give you a list of things you can do. Choose the ones you like the most and do your best!
1. Be ready for self-introductions, both in English and Japanese. Make them simple and clear. Try to prepare and rehearse them in advance to give a good impression.
2. Ask about the important places in the school such as the bathrooms, lockers, library, lunch room, print room, gym, kitchen and English room.
3. Ask about the computer, printer, laminator, scanners. Ask for the computer`s password and ask if you are allowed to bring your own laptop or not. This depends on the school.
4. Ask how you can confirm your attendance. In some schools they use a small tag called shukkin fuda.
5. Ask where the school`s office is. This office is in charge of all the school’s paper work. You might ask for stationeries and pay your lunch. This office is called jimushitsu.
6. Ask for the students list. It is a good idea to always print the exact amount of worksheets and show that you save paper and care for the planet.
7. Ask for the teachers` names and seats as well. Normally they have name tags on their desks. I advise you to always address teachers by their names followed by the word `sensei`. But, there are exceptions. Don’t call the principal or vice principal by their names, always address them as Principal (Koucho sensei) and Vice principal (Kyoto sensei)
8. Help during the cleaning time by making sure that the kids do their job. You also clean a bit.
9. We will also be asked to eat lunch with the kids. Now due to Covid-19 this activity has stopped but it surely come back. Be careful of the information you share to kids. Always keep in mind that what you say there will soon be a public information as children will not keep your secrets. Be careful and talk child-related contents. It is a good idea to prepare fun activities also for lunch time.
10. Look for the English materials and if you have time, organize them by type of vocabulary and grammar.
Classes are the most important part of our job as an ALT. In Japan you will be asked to take mainly one of two roles. You will be asked to be either the main teacher or the assistant in which you will be just supporting your JT. There are a lot of things you can do. Here I bring you a list of things you can do to make classes fun and educational.
1. Set a time to meet before class. In Japanese this is called “uchiawase”.
Don’t expect the JT to remember the time because they are always extremely busy. Ask them in a polite way if it is a good time to meet and create an atmosphere of cooperation and trust. In the meeting ask the JT for your role in the class and bring a variety of activities and games to discuss about.
2. Evaluation is also a very important part of the learning process.
JTs are the ones in charge of evaluating, but you can also prepare something to motivate them. In my case I created a game in which they got a point every time they did a good job. By doing this I would always keep them motivated and wanting to advance in the game. I give them points for everything. For answering the daily questions, for winning a game, for answering the textbooks activities and even for good handwriting.
Especially I prized those who were slow learners. When they got to the goal, I gave them small cards with countries and their most famous characteristics. They collected them throughout the school year. It was fun and motivating for them.
3. Link every lesson to your culture and the English speaking countries culture.
You can show them videos, pictures or present it in the English Board. This is motivating and broadens their view about the world.
4. Try to bring a game to every class. This is the most important part for children. If they can associate you with the fun part you have them on your side and that’s very good.
5. From time to time make worksheets related to their school. By doing this you personalize your classes and everyone loves it.
6. Sometime bring books and read them. Kids love books and to hear them with a nice pronunciation. It is always very refreshing. Make sure the book`s topic is linked to the lesson`s topic.
7. If you have any skills like singing, dancing, playing an instrument, drawing, etc it is nice to use it in your classes.
8. Be always on top of your capacity. Be energetic and bright. Some kids have very stressful and hard lives. Your smile and energy can save their day.
Extra curriculum activities
You will participate in many activities such as sport events, cultural days, festivals, etc.
Try to be cooperative all the time and ask the vice principal what you could do to help the school.
Important events like Halloween, Christmas or Valentine’s Day will require our active participation. They expect us to surprise them with interesting and motivating activities. I personally dressed up in Halloween as Minnie Mouse and made a big Santa Claus for Christmas. If you can link the activities with English it’s even better.
Also participate in the schools events for teachers. Try to integrate. Sometimes we don’t understand Japanese, but talk to the vice principal and tell them you are willing to participate in every activity if possible. This year I won a prize in a poem competition and among all the teachers I won the first place. Try! Even if you don’t think you are going to win it is worth a try and Japanese people acknowledge it.
Also participate in our company`s activities. This year there was a self-introduction competition. I was not very sure if I should participate because there are many native and good teachers in our company, but at the nd I did and I won the third place. It was very rewarding for me to be able to win even if it was just the third prize and honestly I felt that my hard work was being appreciated.
At the same time, keep on studying and educating yourself. In my particular case, I keep studying passed JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) N3. It is a good idea to show your kids that you are also doing your best to improve and you can even become an example for them.
Study also topics related to education. I have a Master’s in Education but I would like to keep on studying and become a PhD. If you don’t want to go that far, you can try teaching programs like TESOL and CELTA. Give it a try!
Relationship with teachers
Your immediate boss is the vice principal and JT (Japanese Teacher). It is very important to have a good relationship with them since you will interact with them more. The most important quality you can have is to be supportive and flexible. Before you do something it is advisable to check with the teachers.
In the morning say “Good morning” loudly enough to let everyone know you are at school already. When you finish the day you can say “Osaki ni shitsureishimasu”, which means literally: “I am sorry for leaving school earlier than you”. I advise to use some phrases in English as well because they like it.
How we address mistakes in class is also an important part of our job as an ALT. Sometimes JTs make pronunciation or spelling mistakes and in some cases we could also make them. What would you do in such case? In my experience after this happens it is a good idea to talk openly with the JT and ask how to address this issues. For example, some teachers prefer to
be warned immediately, while others prefer to be told afterwards in private. Get into an agreement and you will be safe.
In Japan teachers normally organize once or twice a year drinking parties in which they get to know each other in a more relaxed and friendly environment. Now due to the Covid-19 these parties are being cancelled, but they will surely start again in the future. This is a very good opportunity to strengthen relationships with teachers and be friendly and funny. However, be aware that Japanese colleagues will take this opportunity to know more in details about your personal life. Be prepared to share the information you want to share and keep the one you don’t, but always be friendly, polite and politically correct. If there is something you don’t want to share, don’t. However, try to share some parts of your life since this is a good way to build trust and become more reliable. If you can prepare something funny or interesting about your country that would be amazing.
At the beginning of the school year, have a meeting to know the teachers’ vision and the school`s vision. In those meeting you can also share your own vision as an ALT.
Be aware of the fact that it is not very good to impose your vision from the beginning because kids and teachers are used to the previous ALT and they need time to get used to you. Observe, ask how things were done before and introduce your vision little by little. If there is something you want to do from the beginning, be humble and ask in a polite way if it is OK to do it. In Japanese you can use the phrase “yattemo ii desu ka” by doing this you show your teachers that you are a respectful person and knows that a good timing is crucial.
Always support the teachers by making new flash cards, or writing the sentences on the board. In some schools there are some writing strips where you can write the sentences in advance and in this way help the JT. Being supportive and helpful is the key for a good relationship with JTs. It takes time to get to know teachers and their ways of doing things, but observe carefully what they like or dislike and create a good atmosphere. Remember always that we are kid`s teachers but teachers’ clients. Keep that in mind and while being professional, have fun!
Being an Assistant Language Teacher is a beautiful job. We are part of Japan`s growth and development. Watching kids learn is very enjoyable and knowing that they will experience their first interaction with the world in part thanks to us is very rewarding.
You also will have the opportunity to be in contact with one of the most prestigious part of Japanese society which is teachers. In Japan doctors, teachers and lawyers are considered to be much respected people. They need to do a lot of efforts to get to those positions, so honor your job and be an example for the community.
But don’t forget that we are not Japanese. It is our role to bring balance with respect and common sense. So, educate, but also be funny, sometimes silly and entertain. We are here to make Japanese children happy.
Be proud of being an ALT and welcome to Japan!