The Importance of being an ALT

Posted on Oct. 24, 2023

People from all over the globe come to Japan to teach English for many different reasons.

Some have extensive backgrounds in teaching or ELL education. Their primary goal in coming is to teach English in any foreign country. Others see it as a great opportunity to live here in Japan and have a real cultural exchange while teaching. Some people come to Japan with their spouses or other family.

However, there are plenty of people who become ALTs simply because they want to have a fun time living in Japan. The job role is something of secondary (or even tertiary) importance.

 It’s understandable. Japan is a popular country and a “cool” place to be in. People from all over the world flock to be here, even if just on vacation. It’s also a country that doesn’t exactly have open borders. It’s not like an EU member going from France to Germany, it is a country that is notoriously hard to immigrate to.

So yes, plenty of people have the idea that becoming an ALT is some cheat code to get into Japan.

To be considered for an ALT position, you only need a university degree (in any subject). Is it that easy?

In reality–no it is not. Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be. You can get an instructor visa with a four-year degree from the Anglosphere. But consider what the instructor visa means. You are an instructor.

The country of Japan is letting you in to provide a job. Yes, Japan is a fun country! Living here, you can live out all your Japanese pop culture dreams to your heart’s desire! But also try to remember that as a teacher, you have a responsibility to help educate an entire generation of children. You are also a representative of your home country.

ALT roles can be very different

“But I’m only a ‘Human Tape Recorder’!”

Depending on your school and teachers, you may have a very basic role.

Say you have little to do besides read off words in a native accent. Say the Japanese teacher runs everything. That doesn’t mean your job is unimportant.

You are likely to be one of few foreigners these students and teachers know or see (especially in rural areas). You are a cultural representative. If you’re always late, don’t offer to help or have a negative attitude, you may create negative stereotypes of people in your country.

If you feel undervalued or underused, speak to HR to try and fix the situation.

The ‘T1’ teacher

In contrast, if you expect the job will be easy, you may be in for a shock!

Some schools /teachers require the ALT to be the ‘T1’ teacher. It isn’t uncommon for an elementary ALT on their first day to be handed a stack of textbooks and be told to teach six grades of kids for the year.

Ideally, there should be a balance of team-teaching. But you might find yourself in front of a classroom of 40 kids and expected to lead the lesson. You might have to come up with the lesson plans. The materials. Grading papers and tests. Running games. All of it.

Japanese people may not speak English as well as you think

Japan isn’t the best at speaking English, especially for such a major world superpower. This may even include your junior high school English teachers! I’ve heard many anecdotes over the years of JTEs who couldn’t hold a basic conversation in English. It’s not great, but it’s the reality, backed up by statistics. In 2022 it ranked 80th out of 112 countries in the EF English Proficiency Index.

Japan’s English level is something the country wants to change.

In the past, elementary school English was mostly just fun and games. It was more focused on exposing kids to the language rather than actually teaching it. Nowadays, ALTs are expected to help the next generation communicate effectively in English.

In the past decade:

• The number of English lessons a week have been heavily increased

• Textbooks have been introduced in elementary schools from the third grade.

• English has become a full-on subject with tests for fifth and sixth grade.

Be a Cultural Ambassador

No matter what your role is, you can make a huge difference to your students and represent your home country well. If you don’t have many classroom responsibilities, you always have breaks and recess. You have a great opportunity to teach kids about your culture, whether you’re from a big city or come from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.

Japanese students often don’t know much about the world outside of Japan. Things you may take for granted may be incredibly exciting and enriching for them to learn about.

Be a Role Model

You will be assigned an entire school of students who look up to you. Students who will rush to try to speak to and learn from you, and others you will need time to win over. Kids with all sorts of backgrounds and home lives–good and bad. Just like your own teachers growing up might have had a positive, lasting impact on your life, you can do the same. Even if it’s waving and smiling at kids. Even if it’s joining the kids playing basketball at recess. Even if it’s sitting with the lonely little kid who can’t make other friends.

So yes, being an ALT is a good opportunity to come to Japan. You can take the job and go have the time of your life across the country on the weekends. You can do it for a year, or for a lifetime.

But no matter your reasons for coming to Japan or how long you stay, know you have the ability to impact a generation of children. That is far more impactful than a fun afternoon at Shibuya Crossing or Dotonbori ever will be!

Ready to take the first step? Apply for our latest ALT jobs and join our RCS Corporation team!

 Author: A.C. – Fujimino ALT