Monday 2 April 2012

Faintly Patronising Advice for New ALTs 1

Episode I – The Tandem Menace

And so it begins. The new school year is upon us, and if you’ll permit me a short break from my usual cavalcade of free-wheeling japes and whimsy, I’m going to do some exclusively didactic posts. A new year means new teachers, and I feel inclined to pass on the benefits of my wisdom. Like Buddha, but with less unsightly fat and more coherent proverbs.

New ALT? Unsure about this whole team-teaching lark? Feel like being talked down to a little by someone who’s been doing it for more time than he ever imagined he would? Good for you. First a bit of background, then some more easily digestible bullet-points. Sit back and stay awake.

ALT, as you’ll know, stands for Assistant Language Teacher. The last word of that is the important one. There is, it’s fair to say, something of a negative image attached to the position amongst the ex-pat community in Japan, and amongst Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) themselves. It’s also fair to say that this image is not wholly undeserved. Try not to contribute to that, please.

The image, if you want it spelled out, is of lazy, feckless coasters who came out here for a working holiday, with the emphasis on the ‘holiday’. In truth I think the way some of the dispatch companies, and the JET programme especially, manage their recruitment and training does rather exacerbate this. Even so, if you’re getting paid money to do a job then it’s just basic professionalism to actually do the job. Chances are that you’re going to have to overcome a few prejudices in addition to the gaijin thing right from the off, simply because some of your predecessors lived down to the stereotype. Don’t make it worse for yourself or those who may follow you.

Or you could just chase the people following you.
Yeah, that'd work.

Because you’ll remember the ‘teacher’ part being the most important. Other foreigners may look down on you because of your job. If you care about their opinions at all it should only be to say, ‘fuck ‘em’. Your colleagues may also be wary of ALTs and you should be more considerate of their opinions, but you need to confound those expectations, not confirm them. Your working conditions will be different from those of your Japanese colleagues. Compared to them, different things may be expected from you, or even more problematically some may expect you to conform exactly. However, your students don’t know about these tensions, and if they did they wouldn’t really care.

Your students think you are a teacher. They think that because as soon as you accept money to stand in front of a class of people and presume to educate them, that’s exactly what you are.

You are a teacher. Act like one.

I'm like Buddha and Jesus.

That’s the pep-talk done. Here’s a bit more detail.

1.    Care
This is the single most important factor, and it alone will dictate whether you are a success or failure. If you obviously care about your lessons, students, and colleagues you will almost certainly succeed, if you don’t you will definitely fail. Because if you don’t care, why the fuck should your students? You chose to take the job. You chose to be in the classroom. You’re also an educated, confident adult (you wouldn’t be here otherwise). Your students are kids who are there because they must be. If you can’t muster up any enthusiasm, how the hell are they meant to? Some of the stuff you will be asked to do will be tedious beyond belief, but it’s part of your job to fix that. If you can’t change the activity itself, then you can influence how it’s done.

So many orientation guides offer tips on how to ingratiate yourself with your Japanese colleagues: little gifts, greeting people, helping clean the school. This is decent enough advice as far as it goes, but is frankly incidental. People everywhere want to work with individuals who are good at their jobs, and your colleagues are people and teachers before they are Japanese. Obviously caring about your students and your lessons is the single best way to gain their trust, far beyond any well intentioned efforts towards cultural sensitivity; because again, if you don’t care, why the fuck should anyone else?

In fairness, that's relatively advanced
use of grammar.

2.    Care About The Right Things
The standard of English language education in Japan is woeful. The level of English displayed by most JTEs ranges from awful all the way up to tolerably competent, and the language as taught in the classroom is useless in the real world. Accept all these facts and move on. These things are obvious to anyone with eyes or, more importantly, ears. The JTEs you work with have both of these things and they’re not stupid, either. They’re not teaching the things they are the way they are because they think it’s the best way for the students to learn English, they’re doing it because they think it’s the best way for the students to pass their exams.

Passing tests for high school and university is infinitely more important for the students’ life chances than whether they can pronounce their R’s correctly or not. It would be grossly unprofessional for Japanese teachers not to focus on what they know works. That this is often directly at odds with teaching communicative English is not necessarily their fault. Most of them are making the best of a bad job within a flawed system.

You will not change The System by railing against it. You will not change it whatever you choose to do. Japan has been employing ALTs for decades now. None of them have managed to affect meaningful systemic change. What makes you think you’re so special that you have the magic key that tens of thousands of equally frustrated ALTs apparently lacked? You think you're Neo or something?

Eventually you'll meet The Architect, and he's bound
to give you a lucid and satisfactory explanation.

You can’t change the system, but you can change individuals within it. That’s your goal. 

3.    Barney ‘The Fucking’ Dinosaur
You are not Barney the fucking Dinosaur. You are a teacher, not a clown or a glorified babysitter, however much it might feel like the latter at times. You do not necessarily have to prance and flail about like you’re auditioning for a role on Teletubbies and have forgotten to take your medication (though the younger the students, the more energy you have to put in).

It pisses me off when I’m asked about games I use in the classroom. They’re not games, they’re activities. The point is to teach the students something, not just to have fun. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and (very) occasionally the point of an activity will be no more than ‘to use English in a relaxed manner’. But being ‘fun’ is a means to an end, not the goal itself.

Don’t lose sight of that aspect, however easy other people may make it. After a lesson I’ll usually ask the JTE how they think it went. Often they’ll say something like, ‘The students really enjoyed it!’ Given the grim atmosphere of most lessons that’s not to be sneezed at, but my follow up question is always, ‘Yes, but do you think they learned anything?’

Well, they certainly learned 'something'.

Bonus Hint 1 – There’s a good deal of value in staying focused and not overloading people with too much information at any one time. In the interests of practicing what I preach, I’ll take a break there. Part Two to follow on Wednesday.


  1. Nice writeup!!
    Allow me to add this as an addendum aimed at folks working for Eikaiwas :)

    1. Cheers, two more to go. Feel free to chip in as we go along, though I'm saving you something special for the last one...

  2. JET, AlTs and CIRs. I do so remember the I'm-too-good-for-this attitude from a fair few number of International Relations C--ts who really seemed to be unable to understand that the boots on the ground kind of people were the ALTs, often the very first contact of foreign kind in this land of harmony for many impressionable young minds.

    The ALT role taught me a lot about how people view humility and humiliation. I also learned about self-respect and boundaries.

    By the way, did the fellow in the top photo ever find his way to the cricket match?

    Looking forward to Wednesday's read.

    1. Once they fished him out of the Imperial Palace moat and dried him off he was fine. The alternative caption was 'keeping the British end up'.

      "International Relations C--ts"
      Sweet that you self censored. Don't stand on ceremony on my behalf. At the risk of spoilering (?) my own work, it's always amazed me how people trained and paid to communicate can be so fucking abysmal at it. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

  3. Great advice. I've never worked as an ALT and don't think I could handle it. Too old to face a room of kids or teens now. I was reading yet another forum post the other day about 'I didn't go to university for 4 years to clean blackboards...' It amazes me what these kids think a degree actually means.

    1. That degree certificate. It look nice in a frame.

      That's a overly cynical view. Hopefully it means you've demonstrated a capacity to learn. It's just a shame that so many people seem to think they can stop once they get it.

  4. that was should be a speaker at the JET conference in Tokyo...maybe you are???

  5. On a deeper note, a lot of this advice very familiar to me. I went in thinking I could change the system as well. Such is my upbringing, I suppose - an education that taught me (as many other ALTs I'm sure) to think critically and affect change.

    But I've come to see that more than teach the kids English, we are trying to prepare them (at the middle school level anyway) for the horribly difficult entrance exams into high school and next university. The English that we are to equip them with is not the English of our home countries, but the English of Japan - which of course is different. English between Britain and America is also different - but neither are considered wrong. Language is constantly evolving, but I digress... Really what the kids need from us is not help with English, but rather help passing tests.

    1. Nope, not JET, not any more. Though if they wanted to pay my travel expenses again I'd happily head up there.

      It really is all about the exams. It is possible to prepare for them and teach communicative English at the same time, but it's difficult. It's a shame so many JTEs go for the safe option, but it's hard to blame them completely.